Colette Kelly – Aircraft Mechanic & Sheet Metal Worker
Colette repairs aircraft. Over time and through use, all aircraft have failures and corrosion problems and Colette’s job is to manufacture parts and create sheet metal patches to replace worn out or corroded items as part of an aircraft’s maintenance. Her particular skill and passion lies in sheet metal work. “It’s like ART,” she enthused “it is truly creative. Every aircraft is different – you have a drawing of how it should look but you rarely find that what is on the aircraft represents the drawing exactly so you have to design your own parts and painstakingly make and fit them. Sometimes, the drawing is in reverse so you not only have to understand the drawing but be able to spin it around in your mind and see it from the other side. It’s a real skill.”
Why and how did Colette get into this particular skilled engineering job? She said: “I loved art at school. I’m good at hairdressing and creating things; I loved dance, theatre and the creative arts……..and I also loved physics. But when it came to choose my work experience at 16, I didn’t have a clue! I didn’t have an interest in the types of careers my friends were choosing; all I knew is that I wanted to do something that I could do all around the world and that made a difference.”
Colette considered the army at one point but it wasn’t until her career advisor suggested she look into being a mechanic, that she even considered engineering. She found this idea very exciting, recalling: “ I marched around all the local garages in my school uniform saying ‘I’d like to work here’ ”The response she received was generally: “OK – do you want a job in the office?” to which she replied: “NO! “I want to be in there – working on the cars.” One garage took her on and she fell in love with the work. When she returned to her career advisor, convinced she now wanted to be a car mechanic, her advisor suggested she look into apprenticeships to be an aircraft mechanic instead. Growing up in Ireland, Shannon Airlines was an obvious choice to approach, which is exactly what she did.
She applied to a programme called New Opportunities for Women in engineering (NOW) and succeeded in getting a place which eventually led to an apprenticeship with the airline. It was during that course that she came across sheet metal work and found she had a natural talent for it.
“I have spent time at lots of companies doing what I do – I spent 10 years contracting all around Europe doing sheet metal work on aircraft, including being selected as one of a team to rescue an aircraft from Portugal….and I’ve always been the only woman on the job”, she said with some pride. Colette has worked for some well-known names: Monarch, Air Berlin, Easyjet and Flybe before joining Cranfield Aerospace in 2019 in our Maintenance & Repair Operations business.
THE IMPORTANCE OF NON-TECHNICAL SKILLS
What non-technical skills does someone need to do what she does?
“Patience”, she said immediately. “You have to have an attention for detail – check it twice; cut it once. Don’t doubt yourself but ALWAYS double-check. Don’t be afraid to try something new and if you make a mistake, that’s OK but you have to own up to it or otherwise it could be dangerous.”
Relationships and personal interactions are also high up there on the list of essential skills. She advised: “Value people and their safety, as well as your own. You must have a sense of humour and good communication skills. Everyone is different and you have to work as a team. You need to be reliable and trustworthy, especially in such a safety-critical environment. Even small things like timekeeping are important. Ask questions – it shows people that you care.”
GET EXPERIENCE AND ADVICE
Given her experience, Colette’s strongest piece of advice for anyone considering engineering as a career is: “Get some work experience as early as you can – if nothing else it’ll help you figure out what you don’t like as well as giving you the opportunity to find something that you love.”
“And, be open to receiving advice from people around you, because often you can get inspiration for work that you either knew nothing about or had never even considered. My careers advisor helped me find my passion and thanks to their guidance, I have enjoyed a career that I truly love.”