Passenger jetliners, interplanetary satellites and traffic helicopters differ in purpose and manufacture, but they all have one thing in common. Their designs spring from the creative minds of aeronautical or aerospace engineers. Although their devices may fly through the air, these professionals spend much of their job in offices using computers to develop and simulate their creations.
Aerospace projects begin with planning. Engineers meet with clients, managers, scientists and production staff to assess the scope of a proposal, determine if it is feasible, and calculate its requirements of money, time and staff. They then develop specifications and standards for approval by all concerned. Once the go-ahead is given, they design the product and test it extensively, which may demand modifications to the original plan. Once a device meets all safety and quality standards, engineers can oversee its manufacture and actual use by visiting factory floors and traveling to airfields and launch sites.
Because the aerospace field is complex and wide-ranging, aeronautical engineers often specialize. They may focus on particular products, such as combat jets, attack helicopters or cruise missiles. They may concentrate on particular systems such as engines, navigation and control, or propulsion. Or, they may focus on related subjects such as aerodynamics, structural design or celestial mechanics. Some engineers research aeronautical principles and improve manufacturing processes, while others turn their energies to academia, so they can teach the next generation of professionals.
At the very least, aeronautical engineers need a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering or a related field. Such educational programs take four years to complete at colleges and universities. Prospective engineers learn subjects such as aerodynamics, propulsion systems, mechanics and computers in classrooms and laboratories. Many schools also offer internships and cooperative programs so students gain hands-on experience. Master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s are also available, allowing graduates to teach or devote their time to research. Because work on defense projects is common for the profession, engineers may also need U.S. citizenship and security clearances for certain positions and projects.
Engineers who wish to lead complex projects or move into management positions may need licenses, which require an accredited education, work experience and passing two exams. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the profession should see job increases of 5 percent from 2010 to 2020, which compares to 11 percent growth predicted for all engineers and 14 percent predicted for all occupations in all U.S. industries. Demand will come from both defense-related projects and civilian aircraft manufacturing. However, because many of these jobs are located in declining manufacturing industries, opportunities may be limited. As of May 2011, aerospace engineers averaged $103,870 per year, with an annual range of below $65,310 to above $147,810.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Work Environment for Aerospace Engineers
- California State University – Long Beach: BS in Aerospace Engineering
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: How to Become an Aerospace Engineer
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Job Outlook for Aerospace Engineers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Wages for Aerospace Engineers
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