Andargachew Haileselassie already had a big job. “Andy,” as he’s known, trains maintenance technicians servicing thousands of GE engines powering passenger jets around the world. Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, airlines would send their techs and engineers to Doha, Qatar — home to one of six global training facilities run by GE Aviation and its partner Safran Aircraft Engines — where Haileselassie would teach them everything from inspecting combustion chambers to mending compressor blades.

Now, with students grounded by the pandemic and unable to attend class in person, Haileselassie and his fellow trainers really have their work cut out. Like many people, they switched to a virtual mode to help customers ensure that some 37,700 engines* — the world’s largest commercial aircraft engine fleet — can keep flying with minimal disruptions.

Last year, Haileselassie held remote classes for technicians from 26 airlines, reaching about 577 virtual students. But, in some respects, he’s learning right along with them. That’s because teaching someone how to service a complex piece of equipment when they can lay their hands on it is one thing, but doing it from thousands of miles away over a video screen is quite another. Creating “an immersive experience remotely” is not easy, he says.

Jet engine maintenance training is a detail-rich process that requires substantial time and effort on the part of both trainers and trainees in normal times. It is one of several steps workers take before they qualify to work on an engine. “Our courses complement the training any propulsion mechanic receives,” explains Shannon Korson, customer training manager at GE Aviation’s Customer Technical Education Center (CTEC) in Cincinnati, Ohio.

So figuring out how to conduct it virtually in the middle of a worldwide pandemic is yet another conundrum the airline industry needs to crack. With 2020 passenger air traffic demand down by 61% compared to the previous year, according to the International Air Transport Association, airlines are aiming to maintain current capacity while controlling expenses — and skilled technicians play a crucial role. The best technicians, for example, can quickly determine whether an engine can be serviced “on wing,” reducing both costs and the time the aircraft is not flying, or whether it needs to be pulled off and sent to the shop. “Airlines want to maintain their engines correctly,” says Korson, but also “keep them installed as long as possible.”

Top image: Andargachew “Andy” Haileselassie pivoted his in-person jet engine maintenance classes in 2020 to teach remote classes to technicians from 26 airlines, reaching about 577 virtual students, including this Kenya Airways team (above), who is seen validating what they learned about borescope inspection from outside the engine. Top image credit: GE Aviation. Above image credit: Kenya Airways.

Haileselassie, who grew up in Ethiopia, holds class five days a week in English for students stationed anywhere from Kenya to Madrid. Engaging an audience that’s naturally partial to hands-on instructions demands skill, creativity and more than a little patience, not to mention a strong internet connection. Andy, as his customers attest, is a natural talent. “I did not imagine a virtual class, in a language not my own, with the added difficulties of connection problems, would be so entertaining and useful,” says Jose Luis Diaz Arranz, an Iberia Airlines technician certified to work on multiple GE Aviation engines. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

A former propulsion engineer, field service engineer and customer support manager turned engine maintenance trainer, Haileselassie uses an actual engine for most of his in-person classes, if only to get his students’ blood pumping. (He currently uses models and images for his virtual classes.) “That connection is real for them,” he says. “It excites them, so their learning becomes faster and easier.” Warm encouragement helps, too: Lob Andy a query and he’ll often preface his methodical response with, “That’s a good question.”

Haileselassie and his colleagues didn’t have to start entirely from scratch. Five years ago, GE Aviation launched a series of “Maintenance Minute” videos offering on-demand tips covering various issues. These bite-sized tutorials work in a pinch, but they are a far cry from CTEC’s comprehensive hands-on training programs in Cincinnati, Doha, Qatar and other GE and Safran global training locations.

For example, the on-site general maintenance course — spanning five full days and accommodating up to 12 technicians — combines traditional lectures in the morning with shop-floor practice in the afternoon. While much of that material has translated well enough online, the team had to experiment with striking the right student-to-trainer ratio balance. “The right number is more like 20,” Korson says.

Virtual borescope training, where technicians use serpentine, bendable probes with a small camera on one end and a video display on the other to examine hard-to-reach areas inside an engine without having to pull it apart, has been a harder nut to crack. “It’s a very difficult exercise to teach remotely,” especially for less experienced trainees, Haileselassie concedes. “You lose people quickly.

In the spring, he ran GE’s first virtual borescope-inspection classes for Kenya Airways. While the technicians could analyze the images remotely from their own computers, rather than huddle around the borescope’s diminutive display as they would on-site, learning to manipulate the probe still takes plenty of hands-on practice. “Virtual training shouldn’t completely replace physical training,” says Eric Gituma, senior technician at Kenya Airways. “But it comes in handy to bridge the gap.”

José Luis Díaz Arranz, who also spent time in the remote learning classes, works on one of Iberia’s Airbus A330 jets powered by GE engines. Image credit: Iberia Airlines.

But even a few modest tweaks can enhance the virtual experience. “If the on-site borescope training normally takes a full day, it would be better to break it into two days to avoid video fatigue,” suggests Yiheyis Abera Kereyou, a senior engineer at Oman Air who took Haileselassie’s course. “It would also be good to have a chat-room monitor to facilitate discussion.

”While the GE team continues to process customer feedback, Korson plans to fit out a new CTEC classroom in Cincinnati with new cameras and lighting. Higher-tech solutions, such as augmented-reality tools, are further down the road.

As for Haileselassie, with 30 years of experience, he is a master of his craft. His deep institutional knowledge, combined with the ability to connect with global students, is unique. But by scaling his skills virtually and teaching them to customers, he is helping the airline industry work toward a safer return to flight.

* GE Aviation and its partners have an installed base of approximately 37,700 commercial aircraft engines worldwide.

The story originally appeared on GE Reports