For many, it is not surprising that Nicole Antoinette Maldonado, a 2007 Burbank High School graduate and two-time Miss San Antonio contestant, routinely gets a lot of attention.

But lately, it is for a different reason that this petite 21-year-old beauty is turning heads.

“People don’t believe me when I tell them I am an aircraft mechanic,” she confessed. “They either roll their eyes or say ‘no way.’ I think many still have this stereotype in their minds that you have to be some old, tough guy to be a mechanic, let alone work on airplanes.”

Maldonado said she is doing what she can to change public perception and in 2009, made company history when she became the first female to complete Lockheed Martin’s Kelly Aviation Center‘s (KAC) intensive apprenticeship program.

“I want to show to show other women that if they want to do this, they can because now the industry has become so ergonomic that with the right training, anybody can do this job,” she added.

According to Cheryl Kahn, Communications Manager for KAC, the company implemented the 18-month apprenticeship program in 2004, by partnering with the Alamo Academies, an innovative education platform and work placement program that provides high school students with a seamless transition from high school into technical career fields.

Kahn said the program has been significant to her company because it provides a “pipeline of young, local talent” to an aging demographic and primarily male-dominated career field.

“Since [KAC] began at Port San Antonio in 1999, we noticed that the demographic of our workforce was maturing,” she said. “So in order to ensure our commitments and keep our company growing strong, we have to establish a workforce pipeline that will give us younger people who are skilled and can add value to our company.”

Kahn said the Alamo Academy and her company’s apprenticeship program is the “perfect marriage” because it has produced high caliber students, such as Maldonado, who are educated and versatile in their career platforms as well as privy to the knowledge gained by the company’s more seasoned veterans who mentor most of the students during their apprenticeship.

“Not only do they have the training and the education necessary for their work but they also get the benefit of working side-by-side with the folks who now have years of practical experience and application,” she said.

Maldonado said that although she had never initially considered a career within the industry, she decided to listen to a school counselor who convinced her to enroll in the Aerospace Academyduring her junior and senior years of high school.

“At the time, I was taking advanced placement courses and she suggested that instead of taking a bunch of electives, I should look into doing something that would not only better my future but provide me with job stability,” she explained.

“She told me about the [Alamo] Academy and that it was a dual-credit program so you receive both school and college credit at the same time.”

During the two years she attended the academy, Maldonado split her days between attending regular high school classes and learning hands-on skills in aircraft engine maintenance and repair at the academy’s facilities on the St. Philip’s College southwest campus at Port San Antonio.

“In the beginning, I didn’t think I would make it past the first week,” she confessed. “It was a real challenge but I kept up with it and studied every night. I just took it day by day and week by week.”

During a summer internship in 2007, Maldonado was accepted into the KAC apprenticeship program, which she claims gave her real-world experience in many of the company’s various departments while continuing her curriculum with the academy.

“That was a great experience because although we learn a lot at school, you get a lot of hands on work here so you can see firsthand how the process works,” she said. “What I really liked about the program was that they would cross-train or certify you in just about every area or department you would [rotate] through making you really versatile as an employee.”

Today, Maldonado works in the KAC accessories shop, rebuilding fuel controls, pumps and actuators on TF-39 engines that power the C-5 Galaxy, one of the largest aircrafts in the world.

Currently, she is among 26 women who have graduated from Aerospace Academy and one of the 95 females who have graduated from the other Alamo Academies, including Information Technology and Security academy, Advanced Technology and Manufacturing academy andHealth Professions academy.

Joe Wilson, Community and Government Relations Representative and Apprenticeship Program Coordinator for Kelly Aviation Center, said Maldonado’s tenacity and quest for excellence is what set her apart from her male counterparts.

“Nicole is very goal-oriented,” he said. “She knows what she wants and goes for it. She has provided a great example of what we all expect out of all our apprentices, both male and female.”

Wilson also said that Maldonado represents a new wave of talent that is infusing a once-stereotypically male career field.

“There are more females now in this industry than there used to be,” he explained. “In fact, we at Kelly [Aviation Center] have found that females are just as good if not better at working in some of our departments than the males.

“For example, in our accessory shop Nicole works with small components that can take more hand dexterity and finesse than some male workers have.

“Basically, you don’t have to have a lot of brawn to be successful here, you just need the aptitude and desire,” he added.

With almost two associates degrees finished, multiple technical certifications and a fulfilling full-time job as an aircraft mechanic, Maldonado said she hopes her successful transition will inspire more young high school students to follow her lead.

“I was the first in my family to graduate and now I have a career that I am really proud of,” she said. “As women, we can be intimidated especially if we are in any male dominated environment but you just have to have faith and believe in yourself.”

With her sunny nature and zest for challenge, Maldonado said she hopes to one day move into a company management position where she can find ways to market and promote the aerospace academy and apprenticeship program.

She is optimistic that in time, more women will be able to fill the shoes left behind by male counterparts in her career field.

Or in her case, replace them with fashionable pink working boots.