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All systems go: Aircraft maintenance mentor named Instructor of the Year

November 20, 2018

A Red River College instructor is flying high after being honoured for his efforts by Apprenticeship Manitoba.

Gary van der Zweep is the academic coordinator of the Apprentice Aircraft Maintenance Journeyperson (AMJ) program at RRC’s Stevenson Campus in Southport, just south of Portage la Prairie.

Earlier this month, he was named Instructor of the Year at Apprenticeship Manitoba’s Awards of Distinction gala, held at RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg.

“It’s nice to get kudos here and there,” says van der Zweep. “I’ve been told by other teachers that you take it when you can get it, because it doesn’t come around all that much.

“It’s a great honour and it’s a nice recognition for both myself and the school, for all that we do.”

The AMJ program provides students who are already employed in the aviation and aerospace industries with the training they need to acquire their Transport Canada aircraft maintenance engineer (AME) license. It’s the only Transport Canada-approved AME apprenticeship program in Canada.

Though van der Zweep has taught at Stevenson for almost 18 years, his time there actually predates RRC’s involvement with the training centre. In 2002, Stevenson Aviation merged with RRC to form the Stevenson Campus.

“I’m working with some of the students that I taught,” van der Zweep says. “It just shows how old I am. I’ve been around so long they’re already teachers themselves.

“It’s a lifestyle. It’s fulfilling when you can see the lights going on in a student’s eyes, when they’re finally getting certain theory they were struggling with. It’s just like getting an airplane ready to fly. You’re doing the same thing with the students. You’re getting them fixed up and ready to go.”

Having grown up on a dairy farm in Balmoral, Man., van der Zweep attended high school in nearby Selkirk, where he took automotive mechanics courses. In the 1980s, he was working as a truck driver when a girlfriend’s father suggested his current career.

“He was an aircraft maintenance engineer and a pilot and said, ‘This might be something you’re interested in,’” van der Zweep recalls.

“At the time there were no schools in Manitoba that offered [that kind of training], so I ended up going to Confederation College in Thunder Bay. I was lucky enough to be hired up with a local airline in Winnipeg, worked there until I got my license, and eventually ended up in Southport when the military training went private with Bombardier.”

“It was at the same time that the Manitoba government wanted to decentralize a lot of their training so they actually moved Stevenson training out of Winnipeg and put it into Southport. It was 1993 when they opened up the Stevenson building here. I was working about three hangars down the road from Stevenson for about nine years. One day they were looking for people, I applied and I got the job.”

“I had to push my tool box about three hangars over,” he says with a laugh.

Though he admits he kind of fell into it, van der Zweep wouldn’t change a thing about his career path.

“You have to love it — it’s not the highest-paying job, but it’s a good career,” he says. “I enjoy working with things and I enjoy airplanes. It’s a challenge and it’s something different too. A lot of people are mechanics, but we’re working on airplanes. It’s a bit of a sexier trade.”

Profile by Jared Story (Creative Communications, 2005)