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Zen and the Art of Aviation Maintenance: Motorcycle Mechanics Make for Great Jet Engine Techs

May 29, 2019 | by Yari Bovalino
The road to aeronautical innovation has been paved, in many respects, by motorcycle mechanics. Or at least devotees of two-wheel vehicular propulsion.

Think about it: The Wright brothers had their bike shop. Well before morphing into GE Aviation’s European headquarters for turboprop engines, the Czech company Walter Engines started out making motorcycles. And in Italy, the DNA of numerous aviation enterprises is lovingly smeared with two-stroke oil—Piaggio Aerospace (namesake of one of the world's most famous scooters), Leonardo Helicopters (formerly Augusta Westland, of which MV Agusta motorcycle manufacturers was an early offshoot), and Aermacchi (an aircraft maker that got into motorcycles and struck a joint venture with Harley-Davidson in the 1960s and ’70s).

When Fabio Zoppo joined Avio Aero to work on aircraft engines in Pomigliano in 2016, he may not have been aware of the historical connection between motorcycles and aviation, but his mechanical experience mimicked that evolution perfectly.

Fabio Zoppo is a Service Tech Specialist for the TP400 engine’s Power Gearbox in Avio Aero Pomigliano D’Arco.

Zoppo exhibited an unbridled passion for engines and motorcycling early. “As a young boy, while I was studying for my diploma as an electronics expert, I tried to devote myself to racing and motorcycle workshops as soon as I could,” he says. “At the age of 19, thanks to Raffaele De Rosa, a friend and motorcycle Grand Prix, Moto2 rider, and a Superstock 1000 champion, I started working in the Superbike World Championship, in the Supersport category where you race with engines from 600 to 1000 cc.”

Zoppo spent three years in this sector, joining the Suzuki team as the chief mechanic, working on motorcycles that compete in the Italian Speed Championship. Then, in 2015, he got his first experience with aeronautics. “I joined a company in the Campania region that designed ultra-light helicopters,” he says. “I worked on an experimental project that included the installation of a Moto Guzzi 1200 engine on a helicopter.”

A little less than a year later, with his first encounter with flying machines under his belt, he had the opportunity to apply for a position as a mechanical specialist doing repair and overhaul of aircraft components and engines at Avio Aero in Pomigliano. “I thought I’d try it immediately,” says Zoppo, “because in addition to my love for motorcycles I have always had the desire to work on an airplane engine.”

A picture from Fabio’s album during his Motorcycle championship experience, here at the Misano circuit in Italy.

Shifting to the aviation sector is a sort of technological upgrade for a mechanical professional—taking it to the next level, you might say. “Surely our technicians and operators who come from workshops or factories where they work on engines for wheel transportation, generally share the same technical vocabulary. They have an experience base that is significant for the aeronautics industry,” explains Sabatino Covone, head of the Component Repair and Overhaul (CRO) shop in Pomigliano.

“Very often, those who have worked in the traditional engine mechanics sector are more familiar, and more confident, than those who may have come from the aeronautical sector but who have dealt with aerodynamic structures, airplanes, or fuselages,” adds Covone. For the area manager, moreover, “a predisposition to team work—fundamental in service—a commitment to continuous learning, and a significant technical passion combined with flexibility” are essential for working in a “service shop” like the one at Avio Aero.

It turns out that the CRO area in Pomigliano is a proving ground for the continuing techno-mechanical link between motorcycling and aviation. In addition to Zoppo, the Neapolitan plant is full of other professionals from motorcycling who aspire to what is considered “the apex of mechanics.” For these technicians, the transition from traditional transportation sectors to that of flight brings with it a great sense of responsibility.

Fabio together with all his team at the Avio Aero Component Repair& Overhaul shop in Pomigliano D’Arco.

These days, Zoppo is a Service Operator for the TP400 power transmissions on the enormous Airbus A400m. He’s received intensive training since joining Avio Aero, to the point that he can disassemble and mechanically analyze every single part of a transmission system.

“With traditional means of transportation, and their engines that travel by land, you get used to it quite quickly, you gain a lot of confidence,” Zoppo says. “And the mechanical approach does not change radically when switching to the aircraft engine—although the complexity of the parts is greater and the final applications are quite different. What changes is that we are operating on the engine of the safest means of transportation in the world.”

The attention to detail, and the care for every single operation, is even greater in the aeronautical field. It’s not something that Zoppo or his fellow technicians take lightly. Indeed, from the very beginning of his experience, he has felt the supreme importance of safety and quality in his work. “In case of an emergency or a problem with an engine in flight, you can't slow down and stop by the road side!” he says.

And therein lies the biggest difference between motorcycles and airplanes.

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