Aerospace Engineering 4

  1. What does an aerospace engineer do in a typical day on the job?
    - question from name withheld
    Aerospace engineers may end up in a wide variety of different kinds of jobs, so it is a little tricky to describe "an average day in the life of...." Even so, it is safe to say that most of us work in an office environment where we sit at our desks much of the day performing our jobs. In addition, we all use computers in one way or another. A typical engineer will usually be working on tasks such as the following:
    • creating a computer model of a vehicle or portion of a vehicle
    • analyzing a computer model to determine its aerodynamic, structural, or thermal performance, or perhaps studying how well a component of the design integrates with another component or how easy it will be to assemble or maintain
    • testing a design using a computer simulation, a wind tunnel, or flight test to see how well it performs its intended purpose
    • designing software that controls how a vehicle flies or simulates its flight characteristics
    • performing trade studies to optimize a design and make it work better
    • attending meetings with engineers or managers to discuss progress reports, problems, or future plans
    • writing reports or making presentations on the status of your work
    • drinking coffee and catching up on your email :-)
    This is a pretty limited set of tasks an aerospace engineer might do, but I think you'll find in any engineering career that most people are doing completely different things from each other.
  2. How much time is spent daily working on projects as an Aerospace Engineer? And just to be more specific, vehicle design?
    - question from Marty
    For most engineers, I'd say about 80% to 90% of the average work day is spent completing technical projects, which could include various design and analysis tasks like those discussed above. The remaining 10% to 20% I'd chalk up to meetings, writing reports, or other administrative and managerial tasks.

    However, not all of us are engaged in what you might be thinking of as "vehicle design." When I hear that term, I think of conducting conceptual design studies to figure out how big a vehicle needs to be, how its internal and external components should be arranged, what kinds of technologies should go into its construction, and so on. Only a few aerospace engineers actually work on these kinds of tasks, and the amount of time they spend doing so could vary greatly depending on where they work and what their position is.

    Another aspect of vehicle design is the more detailed work of figuring out how to build the conceptual design. This effort includes tasks such as determining where all the beams and bulkheads should go to bear the loads acting on the vehicle in flight, figuring out how all the parts of the fuel system interconnect to get fuel from the tanks to the engines, creating the flight control systems and computers, figuring out how the pieces will be built and assembled, etc. Many, many more engineers work on these kinds of detailed nuts-and-bolts design issues that take the concept and turn it into an actual design that can be manufactured.

  3. Do you get short assignments, or assignments that drag on for long time? Does your job mainly deal with people, data, or things?
    - question from Norma Flores
    Both long-term and short-term projects. The long-term projects are usually better because they are more stable, have more money, and are better defined in terms of what kind of product they want in the end. The short-term projects don't usually have enough time or money to do a really thorough job, but they do provide some variety and the chance to work on something new and different.

    Probably data, since I work a lot on computers generating numbers. I also have to interact with people at government and industry sites quite a bit to get access to information I need to do my work. I take "things" to mean actual aircraft or other vehicles, and I don't spend that much time around those.

  4. What are the responsiblities (ie: health and safety issues, legal, and ethical implications) of an aeronautical engineer?
    - question from Eric
    I can't think of any such responsibilities particular to aeronautical or aerospace engineering that aren't true of all other branches of engineering. All engineers have certain legal and moral obligations to consider the safety and health impacts of their designs, and they can be held accountable if something goes wrong. Other general responsibilities engineers and scientists have are to report their findings truthfully and accurately and to make sure that decisions are properly documented and defensible. One major area of responsibility that has become of greater importance in recent years is to consider the long-term environmental impacts of an engineer's design. These could include toxic by-products of the manufacturing process, exposing the end-user to dangerous substances, and any health or safety issues associated with disposing of the product at the end of its useful life.
  5. What bonuses does this profession provide, such as medical and dental insurance, vacation, and holidays? What is your company's policy on being late and how to dress?
    - question from name withheld
    Again, specifics may vary greatly depending on your specific job and employer, but I think the benefits are pretty similar for most places whether they are in the aerospace industry or not. You typically get a choice of medical and dental plans in which you and the employer both pay a roughly equal share of the expenses. The more services you want, the more expensive your monthly premium will be. Vacation time is also pretty standard at about 2 weeks paid leave a year, and most or all major holidays are usually paid days off. There really isn't any policy on being late where any of us work. We're pretty free to set our own hours so long as our work gets done and we are available when people need to talk to us. The dress code is also pretty open. Most engineers I know wear jeans and a polo shirt or maybe dress pants and a dress shirt when something important is going on.
  6. Is aeronautical engineering a good profession to enter right now with a slowed economy and hurting airlines? Is a masters degree necessary to be successful?
    - question from Greg B.
    Whenever someone asks this question, I think back to what the industry was like back when I was getting ready to start college. It was shortly after the end of the Cold War when the military slashed its budgets, many defense projects were cancelled, commercial airliner sales had plummeted, companies were leaving the aerospace industry in droves, and the economy was "the worst in 50 years," according to a certain political candidate known for hyperbole. Everyone was warning me to stay out of aerospace, it was a dying industry. I stuck with it anyway, and by the time I graduated college, quite the opposite was true. The resurgent defense industry was hiring like mad to replace all the people who had retired or been laid off during the poor economy of the early 90s, airlines were making money hand over fist and placing enormous orders for new aircraft, and even the automotive and racing industries had a big demand for aerospace engineers. The moral of this story is that aerospace is a very cyclical industry, and it's probably better to start your schooling when it's in a depressed state because it will likely be nearing the peak of demand again once you graduate. In fact, the demand for aerospace engineers has been pretty stable during the economic slowdown of 1999-2002. The primary reasons for this are increased defense spending in general, the awarding of the Joint Strike Fighter contract, and increased demand from the auto racing industry.

    As for a masters degree, it depends primarily on the employer. Some only want new hires with BS degrees because they want to train you to do things their way. Others only want candidates with MS degrees because they require someone with more specialized experience. On balance, I'd say that your prospects probably are a little better with a masters, but it is by no means "necessary to be successful."

  7. Will I be able to work for Pakistan International Airlines after getting a degree in aerospace engineering? Will I be eligible for a job in the US after getting a degree in aerospace engineering from a school in Pakistan?
    - question from Asad Ali
    In general, airlines do not hire aerospace engineers, or at least not many of them. Aerospace engineers are designers, so the companies that hire them are usually designing and building aircraft. Airlines are operators of the planes and do not typically need the kinds of skills aerospace engineers have to offer.

    What I've said is true for American airline companies at least, but that may not be true of airlines in other nations. I tried visiting PIA to find any information on their employees or job openings, but I couldn't locate anything. One possibility is to contact the airline's headquarters and ask about their need for aerospace engineers or other career fields that might interest you.

    As for a job in the US, most employers require a degree from an accredited school. As discussed previously, accredidation means that the school's aerospace engineering program has met certain requirements. US schools are accredited by a group called ABET, but I do not know how foreign universities are certified. It might be a good idea to contact the unveristy you plan to attend and ask about that. In addition, most US employers require American citizenship or permanent resident status before most they will consider hiring a foreign national.

  8. What advice will you give to a high school student who wants to be an engineer?
    - question from Rick
    It's difficult to think up a good answer to such a broad question, but I guess the best advice I can think of is to remember that there's a light at the end of the tunnel! The classes an engineer has to take in college are far more difficult and time-consuming than some other majors, but if you stick it out, a very exciting and well-paying career is waiting for you.

- answer by Joe Yoon
- answer by Jeff Scott, 29 September 2002

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