Homer ‘girly girl’ takes path few women follow as licensed airplane mechanic

Pink tools

If the mechanic fueling the plane or working on its engine has pink-handled tools, is wearing lip gloss, has hair pulled back in a ponytail and has a flashing smile, chances are it's Toni Breese.


"A lot of people are caught off guard by the girl in overalls with lip gloss and a pink Snap-on screwdriver in her pocket heading out on the ramp to fuel their plane," said Breese, 34, who has heard others describe her as a "girly girl."

Last month, after completing 30 months of documented training and two and a half years of experience under her belt, Breese passed her test to become a licensed A&P -- airframe and power plant mechanic.

She is one of a small percentage of women in this country to follow that career path. According to statistics from the 2011 Administrator's Fact Book, the FAA's source of data and statistics, there were 329,000 airplane mechanics nationwide and less than 7,000, about 2 percent, were women.

Ask Jim Duncan, lead mechanic and Breese's supervisor at Bald Mountain Air Service, what he thinks of having Breese on his crew and Duncan is full of praise.

"She's patient," he said, starting with what he considers the most important characteristic for airplane mechanics. Breese's long arms and skinny fingers come in handy when working in tight quarters, he added.

"Also, she pays attention to detail and that's as good as it gets," he said.

Breese had a 94 percent cumulative score on the three written exams, each one consisting of 100 questions, that were the FAA-required first step of testing to get her license. Those were followed by an oral exam of more than 150 questions and an eight-hour practical exam of about a dozen small projects conducted by a DME, designated mechanic examiner, in Atlanta, Ga.

Afterward, having successfully passed and realizing her dream of becoming a licensed A&P mechanic was a reality, Breese and the DME were saying their good-bye before she returned to Alaska.

"I threw my arms around him and thanked him," she said.

"He was definitely startled, letting me know that was his first hug from a mechanic and we laughed."

The license means Breese can work on any aircraft, fixed or rotary wing. Her experience to date has been specifically working on fixed wing, de Havilland Single and Twin Otters and Beechcraft King Air.

"Although I have my license, it just allows me to keep learning," she said. "I'm going to learn every day for the rest of my career."

Born in Oklahoma, Breese grew up in Eagle River. In 2003, she moved to Texas to pursue training to become a medical aesthetician and do medical skin care. Even though she completed her studies at the head of the class, a career as an A&P mechanic was in the back of her mind.

"Off and on over the years, from my late teens until becoming a mechanic, I had thought and researched the A&P career," said Breese. "I went so far as to even look into the military briefly in my late 20s, but knew very well that it was not a path I would like. I'm just not military material."

In 2009, Breese returned to Alaska, intent on making her dream a reality. She explored on-the-job training opportunities and applied for Bald Mountain's apprenticeship. She also completed the application for a program available through the University of Alaska.

"I did everything ... except turn in the application fee," she said.

"It must have been fate because that week I received a call from Bald Mountain to see if I was still interested in their apprenticeship."

Accepting the offer put Breese under Duncan's wing.

"He's been a fantastic teacher and we make a great team," said Breese.

"He started out almost 11 years ago as an apprentice with Bald Mountain and now he's doing the teaching. He's taught me so much and I'll be forever grateful for his patience, generosity and encouragement."

Breese enjoys sharing her story and can be seen in Jim Oltersdorf's documentary, "Alaska's Bush Pilots ... The Real Deal," that aired on PBS and is available on DVD.

She also is amused by others' reactions to a woman mechanic.

"Tourists have asked to take my picture when I'm down on the dock working on a plane during the summer," she said. "A vendor will call the office and ask to speak with Toni and when I say, 'This is Toni,' their response is, 'No, the mechanic Toni.' I can't help but laugh."

Through membership in Women in Aviation International, Breese finds camaraderie. She also plans to apply for 2013 scholarships offered by the organization for advancing her knowledge and employment opportunities in the United States and for American-owned companies overseas.

"As a woman in the industry, I tend to see things different than the guys, which can be a great advantage. As a woman, I will see a completely different way to do something, repair or approach a situation. It's worked for me so far and I'm excited to see where this road leads," she said.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.


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