Aerospace engineers design, build, and test airframes ranging from personal aircraft to jet fighters, military missiles to Space Shuttles. They also supervise the ongoing production aerial vehicles, identify and mitigate structural defects, and develop maintenance procedures to make sure designed systems function reliably for as long as possible. There are two customarily recognized sub-disciplines associated with aerospace engineering; aeronautical engineers work on aircraft that are meant to fly within Earth’s atmosphere, and astronautical engineers deal specifically with spacecraft used to travel into orbit and throughout the solar system. Aerospace engineering was negatively affected by cuts in military expenditures at the end of the Cold War, but recent years have seen an increase in demand for aerospace engineers.
Aerospace Engineer Job Responsibilities
Aerospace engineers in the United States tend to work for large aerospace focused companies in the vein of Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Northrop-Grumman. In addition, they are often found working for government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the North American Space Administration (NASA). Such government engineers are responsible for developing and maintaining safety procedures that affect aircraft across the United States, as well as performing research and development on new technologies related to aerospace. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California is one research focused organization dedicated to developing new aerospace technology. Aerospace engineers are also in demand in foreign locales, and are employed by companies ranging from European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) in Europe, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the famous Mikoyan Gurevich (MiG) and Sukhoi design bureaus in Russia.
Aerospace engineers work as specialized mechanical engineers, operating in design teams to research and construct airframes optimized to function according to certain customer demanded specifications. For example, an aerospace engineer working for Boeing may be responsible for analyzing the aerodynamic properties of the wing on a modified jet fighter airframe being prepped for export. This aerospace engineer will conduct mathematical modeling of the airflow over the wing using a computer engineering program, and utilize highly sensitive lasers to cut a wooden mock-up of the wing according to the optimum configuration predicted by the program. The aerospace engineer will then take the mock-up into a wind tunnel to test the properties of the airflow around the wing, then analyze the results to determine its suitability for the project.
Aerospace engineers will work on every part of an aircraft or space vehicle, operating in teams to come up with the best overall design that meets the needs of the customer. Once a design is determined to be optimal, a prototype will be constructed under the instruction of the aerospace engineers responsible for the design. The prototype will be tested and analyzed, and its design refined to optimize performance. The aerospace engineers will continue to work on the aircraft even when it is in production, designing performance upgrades and remedying design defects that occur in production models.
Aerospace engineers following engineering methods and the general model of research, design, then test for any aerospace component in a new aircraft or spacecraft, including navigation, cargo, and engine systems.
Aerospace Engineer Training and Education Requirements
Virtually every entry level aerospace engineering position requires an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredited four year undergraduate degree in engineering, and usually specifically in aerospace engineering. This course of study will involve four years of heavy course loads in mathematics, physics, and engineering. Because aerospace engineering is effectively a subset of mechanical engineering, the nature of air means that aerospace engineers will focus heavily on the properties of fluid dynamics and thermodynamics.
Graduate level work in aerospace engineering is not required in order to obtain entry level positions in the field, however higher level research and professorial positions at universities will generally require a graduate degree in aerospace engineering.
In addition, aerospace engineers are expected to keep abreast of new technologies and methods applicable to aerospace engineering. Continuing education is an important part of an aerospace engineer’s career development.
Aerospace Engineer Salary and Wages
As a specialized sub discipline under mechanical engineering, aerospace engineers are some of the most highly paid engineers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) aerospace engineers in 2009 could expect starting salaries of roughly $56,000. The rate of pay increases quickly from there – The median aerospace engineering salary in 2009 was nearly $95,000 and the top ten percent of aerospace engineers in the same year made over $137,000 per year – one of the highest rates of pay in any engineering discipline.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Aerospace Engineer Certifications
Aerospace engineers, like other engineers, generally earn a certificate after passing the Fundamentals of Engineering exam generally taken soon before or after graduation from a bachelors degree program. The Professional Engineer (PE) certification is required before an aerospace engineer may offer services to the general public, and requires passing a state examination after gaining four years of work experience.
Aerospace Engineer Professional Associations
There are several professional associations that serve aerospace engineers, with the most prominent being the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) which represents aerospace engineers in all fifty states.