I do love a success story and when I was organising the blogs for National Apprenticeship Week, I knew Lee Burgess was a natural fit. Starting off as an apprentice with Monarch Engineering back in the 80s, Lee worked his way up through various roles within the company, until his recent appointment as Head of Engineering.
I caught up with Lee to find out more about his journey, where the passion for aircraft started and how his hard work as an apprentice led him to a ‘flying’ career!
Hi Lee! Firstly, tell us a little about you!
I was born and grew up in Hitchin, just down the road from Luton Airport. My dad used to bring me to the airport as a young boy, I recall a place in the surrounding countryside where you could wait and watch the aircraft pass over your head on the approach to the airport. I remember being in awe of but also a little scared of these incredible machines, two emotions which have put me in good stead throughout my career in aviation. I am an Arsenal fan for my sins, and enjoy running in the countryside surrounding my home.
It sounds like your interest in aviation started early! How did you nurture this passion growing up?
As a child I had a collection of aviation books (which unfortunately got lost during a house move). I also used to make Airfix models and had a collection in my bedroom.
Now, about the apprenticeship at Monarch – when did you first hear about it?
I became a Monarch Aircraft Engineering apprentice more by luck than judgement. An old family friend who still works for Monarch to this day took me for a tour of the hangars and I decided to apply for apprenticeships at the airport. I was successful in gaining an apprenticeship at a business jet MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) called McAlpines, but they went into receivership shortly after I started (through no fault of mine I hasten to add!). My fellow apprentices and I were walking down Percival Way (where Monarch’s Headquarters are based in Luton – Ed.) after being made redundant when we were approached by Julie Bonner, the then Monarch HR Manager, who asked if we would like to continue our apprenticeships with Monarch. The rest is history.
What were some of the tasks you had to carry out during your apprenticeship, and what were some of the challenges?
I did a four-year apprenticeship, with the first year based in a workshop learning the basic hand skills needed to work on aircraft. We learnt how to work with metal including shaping, forming, bending, and welding. We spent weeks filing a metal block to create a three-dimensional shape as per a drawing we had been given, with a tolerance of a few thousandths of an inch! We also learnt how to repair holes in aircraft skin and we made a lot of useful tools that I still have in my garage at home. During this time we also did a lot of theory training on engineering processes and standards, aviation regulation, and theory of flight to name a few. On top of this we did a day release to Bedford College to gain an engineering qualification. I really enjoyed my apprenticeship and made a lot of good friends, many of whom still work in aviation and I have remained in contact with. I have ex-apprentice friends who now work in Scotland, Toulouse, Seattle, San Diego, Abu Dhabi, and of course Luton.
How did you find the environment at the engineering division?
Year two of the apprenticeship was spent completing my college studies and touring the various departments that make up Monarch Aircraft Engineering. I spent time in Planning, Logistics, Component Maintenance Centre, Powerplant Bay, Technical Services, Design, and others. I really enjoyed this time as it gave me a good understanding of what each department did and how they supported the maintenance activity. I have always found the people at Monarch to be warm and welcoming, even as a young lad I knew this was a place I would spend many years to come.
Which roles did you take on after you completed the apprenticeship, and when were you appointed Head of Engineering?
I finished my apprenticeship in 1991 and still remember my weekly pay rising from £70 to over £200 per week! MAEL (Monarch Aircraft Engineering Limited) had three hangars at Luton back then, and the volume of activity and number of different aircraft types and customers created a great environment to learn my trade. I spent 14 years as an aircraft engineer gaining the position of Leading Hand looking after a team of ten mechanics. Although based at Luton, I was lucky enough to travel a lot during this time; some of my most memorable trips were spending six weeks in Munich working for Monarch with LTE, carrying out a remote engine change in the searing heat to rescue a Monarch A300 in Larnaca, and working on the apron in Florida to rescue an Airtours 767 which had a collapsed main landing gear. These were great times spent with great people; for those that are reading this now, you know who you are. In 2005 I was selected to be a Business Expert User for a two year project that saw us select and implement AMOS as our MRO software solution. This helped launch my management career and since then I have held a number of management positions across the engineering business, culminating in my promotion in July 2015 to Head of Engineering.
What are your responsibilities now?
As Head of Engineering I am responsible for a number of departments within MAEL. I have a large team that provide Continuing Airworthiness Management services for the Monarch Airlines and other operators’ fleets. This basically means keeping an aircraft airworthy by ensuring a number of activities are carried out and by complying with the regulation set out by the body for the country in which the aircraft operator is based. These activities include the development of the maintenance program, monitoring the aircraft flight hours and cycles to ensure all required maintenance is performed when due, and the monitoring of the reliability of the aircraft/fleet to ensure a safe aircraft. MAEL provides these services for customers in the UK, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia. I also manage the Design Services team who generate modifications for the Monarch fleet and for other operators; the Technical Library who manage and store all the technical documentation needed to maintain aircraft; and the Maintenance Planning and Control team in Birmingham who maintain an oversight on all the planned maintenance activity across our Base and Line stations.
Looking back at your career – what are some of your proudest achievements?
I was really proud to be selected for a team of engineers that worked alongside Boeing to complete the first series of pylon improvement modifications on the Boeing 757 aircraft. The pylons form the structure between the wing and the engine which basically holds the engine. Boeing selected Monarch Aircraft Engineering to complete the first modification, which involved removing the pylons, disassembling them and beefing up the structure to prevent cracking on older aircraft. We completed a series of aircraft with the Boeing team on site developing the modification instructions as we went. I still have a certificate from Boeing and the VHS video (!) that they produced to show other MROs how to perform the modification. I am also proud of my involvement in the selection and implementation of AMOS. This was a significant project that brought together experts from all over the business. We spent two years selecting the product, changing procedures, training staff, and then supporting the staff once it was implemented. That was in 2007 and the members of the team are still seen as expert users today.
Clearly, I am also proud of my promotion into my current role. Having started out as an apprentice 28 years ago to become one of the four people responsible for the running of the business is a great achievement. However it is also an indication of what can be achieved within Monarch. I was talking to the son of a family friend back in February who is leaving school and wants a career in engineering. My advice to him was that aviation is a great industry to work in and, as long as you are committed and work hard, you can end up in working in any role, for any company, anywhere in the world. I also really enjoyed the Lead to Succeed leadership training that I completed a few years ago and culminated in us all meeting rower and Olympic Gold Medallist Katherine Grainger.
Why would you recommend the engineering apprenticeship scheme?
The Monarch Engineering apprenticeship scheme provides an excellent foundation for a career in aviation. Monarch Aircraft Engineering has hangars across the UK and line stations across the UK and Europe. Once you have completed an apprenticeship and learnt your trade, the sky really is the limit!
Do you have any advice for those thinking of pursuing a career similar to yours?
Definitely; you need good school grades, so study hard. Sadly apprenticeship places are limited, so apply to more than one company. If you are lucky enough to get in: work hard, ask questions, and enjoy it.
Thank you so much for your time, Lee! I have one last question for you: on Monarch’s scheduled network, which is your favourite destination and why?
That’s a tough one, but as I have young children I would have to say Menorca or Majorca. They both have great weather, great beaches, and are very family friendly.
Are you interested in a career with Monarch Engineering? Our Apprenticeship Scheme is now open! Apply here.