Southwest Airlines is a legendary air carrier within the commercial industry. It’s humble beginnings, drawn out on a cocktail napkin over lunch by attorney Herbert Kelleher and his client Rollin King in 1967, has grown into a major airline. An airline that is known for it’s outrageous customer service, on-time performance, baggage handling, and their unflappable dedication to employees. But it’s also important to note that the airline has shown a tremendous amount of support to Lewis University, specifically the aviation maintenance department. The majority of the Aviation Maintenance Technicians that work at Southwest Airline’s Midway Airport maintenance base, graduated from Lewis University.
Furthermore, many of our flight department graduates are currently flying commercial routes for Southwest. Lewis University is a major supplier of aviation professionals to the commercial, business, and aerospace industry nationally and globally. It is a core competency of the University and one that Lewis has been successfully doing since 1932. Regrettably, an educational institution cannot just rely on it’s own resources to produce professionals that are steeped in advanced technological systems and practices. Universities often depend on corporate partnerships to help the next generation of employees to gain the necessary tools to succeed. Southwest Airlines has been a tremendous resource for Lewis University and the relationship continues to grow.
Lewis University’s aviation maintenance curriculum requires students to build a series of projects. These projects are designed to acclimate the students to the tactile and mathematical computations required in aviation structural repairs and fabrication. Southwest Airlines was in need of strong oil totes to transport oil cans from alcoves to the aircraft for servicing. The past model of totes they were using were too weak to handle the demands of a heavy operational commitment. Therefore, Lewis University voluntarily fabricated some aircraft grade aluminum totes to help SWA maintainers to perform the task. It provided the students a valuable training paradigm and helped Southwest to facilitate safer, and more efficient maintenance.
After a few years, Lewis University’s Boeing 737 suffered a landing gear strut failure. The strut required a complete overhaul. This is a major job even at the commercial aviation level. Southwest Airlines and Lewis alumni, students, technicians, faculty and administrators performed the entire job. Aircraft jacks were gathered, parts were ordered, maintenance manuals compiled and a truck donated to bring the whole crew to Lewis’ campus to perform the job. This maintenance evolution requires the jacking of the entire Boeing 737, removing the internal components of the landing gear, including the wheels and landing gear truck, seals, O-rings and fluid. The crew then had to clean, reassemble, and re-service the landing gear. The plane was subsequently lowered back down to stand on it’s newly overhauled leg. Southwest Airlines help was integral to the successful completion of the project.
Recently Lewis University’s Doherty Center for Aviation and Health Research Center approved a study to examine the effects of laser pointers on cockpit windows. The three part study titled: The Hazardous Effects of Flight Deck Laser Illumination Events, was conducted by Lewis University Aviation Professors, Dr. Randy DeMik, Dr. Ryan Phillips, and Dr. Stanley Harriman. The University’s Chemistry and Physics Departments were also instrumental in the collaboration, Chemistry Chair, Dr. Jason Keleher and Physics Professor Dr. Chuck Crowder were critical to the research. The study was incredibly comprehensive and gleaned significant results in the field. However, airline cockpit windows for testing and evaluation were needed. A call was placed to VP of Maintenance and Engineering Jim Sokol at Southwest Airlines. He immediately sent out e-mails to help acquire the costly parts required to complete the study. Director of Maintenance Scott Colling called several days later asking for the address where Lewis wanted the windows sent. It’s important to note these are not just any windows, for instance, a car window. These are complex heated layers of acrylic, vinyl, and glass that are able to withstand intense blunt force trauma and extreme weather environments.
Even when a microburst event, which is a very localized column of sinking air caused by a small and intense downdraft, at Lewis University airport, pushed our 737 off its moorings, SWA came through. Lewis University Alumni and current SWA Supervisors Mike Cavanaugh and Phil Burzack let Lewis borrow a special tow-bar to reposition the aircraft back to it’s normal position. However, this brought to light a more glaring problem. The tow tractor used to reposition the 737 was incredibly underpowered and too light to do the job without significant risk to students and personnel. Lewis faculty members were able to get the 737 back to it’s original position, but it was clear, the University needed a new and improved tractor. Another SWA phone call to Larry Laney, the Director of Southwest Airlines Ground Support Equipment, was made and at great expense, time and effort, a replacement was found. Only this time they did not just ship the unit off to Lewis immediately. The TUG was brought to Dallas ground support equipment for a complete overhaul.
New Southwest paint, logos, lights, seats, seat belts, wheels, and a complete engine overhaul was performed. The results were stunning. SWA then had the TUG shipped to Lewis, at their own expense, on an eighteen wheeler designed to deliver aircraft engines to outstations in 24 hours. No longer will the students have to battle with 1950’s technology tow-tractors that often did not start and had no power steering.
Finally, Jim Sokol and his colleagues in Dallas were asked if there were any 737 structural parts we could utilize to upgrade the sheet metal skills of our student body. Once again an e-mail was immediately received that asked if we would be interested in several forward entry doors to utilize for advanced sheet metal repairs. The Aviation Faculty jumped at the chance to garner these for our student body to practice on. The faculty welded up a “jig” to hold the door upright and safely in place, then let the students get to work.
The students were then asked to fix any damage on the doors. However, they were required to perform the operation as if it was a, “real world scenario.” That is, an aircraft door gets damaged, the students have to document the damage, verify the acceptable limits, and if the damage falls outside the structural repair manual limits, fix the door per the manual, and sign it off per Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. This is a daunting task for novice technicians, but the Lewis University students utilized their skill and expertise to repair all anomalies.
The relationship between Southwest Airlines and the student body continues to grow with many of our alumni becoming the newest members of the Southwest family. The job market for aviation maintenance technicians is reaching generational hiring levels. Most University’s are reporting 100% job placement for graduating AMT students. Some of these students are making their way to one of the highest paying, most rewarding, and employee-centric, airlines on the planet. It’s clear that the relationship between Southwest Airlines and Lewis University has a strong heritage and will only continue to grow in the future. Thanks for all you do Southwest!