His easy demeanor—there always seems to be a laugh just waiting to escape his bearded face—flies (no pun intended) against the gravity of his work. He directs the smallest aviation mechanic school in the United States.
“But once my students finish their two-year program,” he says, “they can go anywhere in the world and find a job.”
Pilots fly planes; his graduates make sure the planes are ready to fly.
Carolan got into the business of aircraft maintenance because he didn’t want to be a farmer.
He was born in San Antonio in 1961. “But I grew up in Pipe Creek, about nine miles from Bandera,” he says. “And I found out early that farming wasn’t for me,” he adds, chuckling. “But by the time I was a teenager, I was fixing all the farm equipment.”
His talent with tools would, in the next years, take him to airfields worldwide, mostly repairing and maintaining military helicopters.
It was not a future expected from a youngster who left high school in his junior year. “I was so far ahead of them,” he says.
He earned his GED in 1977.
But he had—and has—a proclivity for science and math. When he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1978, he so aced the aptitude tests the recruiters flatly told them they had no place for him—soldiers were returning from Vietnam—and suggested he contract out his services to companies who specialize in aircraft maintenance. So he traveled to Korea, Africa, Europe and the Pacific Theater.
In 1987, he was graduated from an aviation school in San Antonio with the highest grade point average in the class and with the sixth-highest in the school’s history.
He walked away with his FAA air frame and power plant license.
He worked at Hooks Field in Houston where he earned his associates degree in aviation maintenance technology from nearby Tomball College.
“One of the best parts was that at Hooks, I worked with old-timers who knew how to work on radial engines, from World War II airplanes. Many people have only had experience on turbines or jets.”
He had no interest in learning to fly. “I’ve been a mechanic all my life.”
In the early 1990s, his future and the Federal Aviation Agency crossed paths; his life would never be the same.
“It’s called Part 147,” Carolan says. “It covers everything an aviation school has to do to be certified.”
The problem was, the manual, written in 1958, was way out of date. Eager to get colleges to start aviation programs, the FAA took three years to revise it.
“By that time, I had bought a computer, took it apart, rebuilt it and learned how to program it. I started teaching part-time at an aviation school because I was the only one who could type.”
He revised the school’s manual—it is in excess of 1,000 pages—and, wisely, he kept a copy.
That was 1995. St. Philips College in San Antonio had not yet revised the curriculum for its aviation program. Carolan showed the college his book and was hired on the spot.
It was a pattern that occurred repeatedly in the coming years.
“I taught there for five or six years,” he remembers. “I didn’t just want to teach piston engine repair; I wanted to teach everything.”
In 2000, Del Mar College in Corpus Christi wanted to open an aviation school but didn’t have a curriculum.
“Guess what?” he asks. “I just happened to have my book. They’re still using it.”
Three years later, CBC wanted to open an aviation school in Kingsville.
“Guess what? I just happened to have my book.”
Because of a series of complex reasons, the aviation program only lasted a year. Carolan went back home to the farm.
“I soon realized, once again, I didn’t want to work on the farm,” he says.
He went to work for the Mooney Aircraft Company in Kerrville, building airplanes and, on the side, repairing piston engines for private pilots. “Not many people know how to repair piston engines anymore. I made a lot of money.”
In 2007, CBC wanted to start an aviation department in Beeville.
“I showed them my book and got hired on the spot.”
By 2010, the college had received a grant to buy all the necessary equipment to teach powerplant repair: mock-up stands, simulators, piston and turbine engines. The courses were certified by the FAA.
This fall, the program will expand to include airframe repair operations.
“What I really like about Coastal Bend College is that it is small. I have a dozen students, and they are with me for a year. I built this so that it doesn’t take a lot of expense; we have plenty of equipment for a number of years, and there are people who are going to hire my students as mechanics, not trainees.”
Back in his office, his official collegiate robe hangs on the inside of the door, in dark and starched contrast to Carolan’s CBC cap unsuccessfully containing a ponytail of long hair—a fashion statement that gave then CBC President Thomas Baynum pause.
“In 1997, my brother died of cancer,” he explained. “I donate the hair to cancer kids.”
Carolan’s talent for fixing things extends beyond airplanes.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.