Aeronautical engineers design, develop, build and test all types of manned and unmanned aircraft and related systems, including aeroplanes, helicopters, drones, and airships. They apply mathematics, materials knowledge, research, and problem solving skills to turn concepts into functioning designs that can be built and used in the real world.
These engineers are responsible for researching, developing and implementing new technologies to improve aircraft performance and efficiency of aircraft, including aircraft design and development for both manned and unmanned civilian and military aviation.
There are a number of specialisations that can be followed in aeronautical engineering, including communications, instrumentation, navigation, propulsion systems, structural design and robotics.
Example duties of an aeronautical engineer include:
- Designing new aeronautical machines or parts
- Researching new technological developments for aircraft
- Developing offensive and defensive systems for military aircraft
- Ensuring machines meet environmental and safety requirements
- Maintaining budgets, timelines and specifications
- Analysing failures and designing solutions to any problems
- Using data to inform machine function improvements
- Testing and modifying vehicles, machinery and parts
- Developing processes and writing protocols and manuals for products and technologies
- Consulting to the aerospace industry
As the aeronautical industry has developed, advanced software systems have become integral to communication and data collection / analysis, making a knowledge of computer programming an increasingly important part of the role.
Aeronautical engineers work in a range of locations, both on site at facilities where they can check aerospace assets and in office environments where they can create plans for future developments or improvements.
The exact location depends upon the nature of the work you are doing and which organisation or company you are working for.
Of course, many aeronautical engineers are employed by major aerospace manufacturers. A report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in the United States in 2021 found that 33% of aerospace and aeronautical engineers worked for parts and product manufacturers. Other larger-scale employers of aeronautical engineers included engineering services, government agencies, navigational and control instrument manufacturers, and research and development companies.
Although the aerospace industry has contracted in recent years, there is an expectation that aeronautical engineering will actually experience a job growth between now and 2030. The BLS estimated an 8% increase in demand for licensed engineers as the aerospace industry programme managers seek to solve the challenges of reduced noise pollution and improved fuel efficiency and safety.
Aeronautical engineering has its roots in the findings of other branches of engineering although it came of age with the aviation pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These pioneers built on the work of Sir George Cayley who was the first person to separate the forces of lift and drag that are integral to flight.
In December 1903, the Wright Brothers managed the first sustained, controlled flight in a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft (the flight lasted 12 seconds). The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to advances in aeronautical engineering that continued to be built upon between 1918 and 1939. Again, the outbreak of war in 1939 pushed even greater advances in aeronautical engineering, with the creation of the first operational jet engine-powered aeroplane in 1944 – the Messerschmitt Me 262.
The term aerospace engineering came into use in February 1958 to cover both craft that operate in the Earth’s atmosphere (Aeronautical) and those that operate in space (Astronautical). This split followed the launch of the first satellites into space in October 1957 (Sputnik) and January 1958 (Explorer I).
Over the ensuing decades there were many more advances in aeronautical technologies and achievement including the first commercial transatlantic flight from New York to London (Boeing 747 in January 1970), the development of the Concorde (the first supersonic passenger aircraft) in 1976, and the October 2007 maiden commercial flight of the Airbus A380 – which became the largest capacity passenger plane, able to transport 853 passengers.
Aeronautical engineers can work at a variety of different places, including companies that make commercial or military aircraft, those that manufacture equipment or software for aerospace applications, government aviation bodies, the military, university research facilities, consultancy firms, airline companies and weapons manufacturers.
Within these businesses, companies, and organisations there are a range of different roles available for aeronautical engineers. Common roles for aeronautical engineers include:
- Aerospace engineer
- Aerospace stress engineer
- Aerospace technician
- Aircraft designer
- Avionics engineer
- Compliance officer
- Data processing manager
- Flight systems test engineer
- Flight test engineer
- Mechanical engineer
- Mission specialist
- Payload specialist
- Systems engineer
- Testing engineer
Aeronautical engineers will need to use a range of both soft and hard skills in order to be successful, these include:
1. Analytical Skills
Problem solving is often a part of aeronautical engineering, whether to determine the cause of a failure or problem, or to devise innovative new solutions
2. Attention to Detail
Aeronautical engineers need to pay close attention to detail in their work as even the smallest of details can make a big difference. This is particularly important considering the potentially catastrophic consequences of an aircraft failure
As well as being able to work with other experts, engineers will often have to communicate ideas or solutions to people without their level of technical knowledge. It is important to engineers of all types to be able to communicate with colleagues and clients
Although engineers are required to work in alignment with the parameters set down by codes and standards, there is still plenty of scope for innovation, with creativity being key to delivering new technologies and solutions
Working at the cutting edge of technology requires engineers to keep learning and improving themselves, which also leads to better prospects and pay
6. Technical and Scientific Skills
In order to pull everything together, aeronautical engineers require a strong understanding of the scientific principles of flight mechanics, as well as specialised areas such as computational fluid dynamics, combustion and propulsion, aerospace structures and materials, and more. Engineers also need a deep understanding of mathematics and physics in order to calculate and create designs.
To become an aeronautical engineer you need to first gain an aerospace engineering degree. Some institutions offer specific courses for aeronautical and astronautical engineering while other universities will have mechanical engineering departments. Some engineering roles will also require additional security clearances, such as those working in United States national defence.
International students studying overseas, for example in the United Kingdom, will need to meet english language requirements as part of the entry requirements for the course, whether part or full time.
Aerospace engineering can be studied at advanced diploma, bachelor’s, master’s and PhD levels, although all will require a good background knowledge of physics, mathematics, chemistry and computer science. These courses may offer opportunities for experiential learning, whether navigating drones, flying in simulators, or even real-life test flights.
Here are some steps to gain and progress through a career in aeronautical engineering:
1. Get a Degree
You will need to have taken mathematics and science classes in school and college to get onto an aeronautical or aerospace engineering degree course. Depending on your course, you may need to take general engineering studies in your first two years before specialising in aerospace engineering later.
2. Study More?
Although a bachelor’s degree may be enough to gain an entry level position, you may decide to continue your studies to a higher level to give you an edge in landing a more prestigious or competitive position.
3. Get Certified
While certification is not a requirement for all aeronautical engineering positions, it will certainly help you gain promotions, specialise your skills and work for certain agencies and organisations – such as NASA.
4. Get a Licence?
You may be required to gain a licence to work as a professional engineer. In the United States, The National Society of Professional Engineers offers a Professional Engineering (PE).
5. Get Some Experience
While most degree programmes will provide some practical experience, it worth trying to gain some additional work experience. This will provide some genuine practical experience and on-the-job training along with a chance to network in the field.
The salaries for aeronautical engineers differ depending upon location, experience, duties and employer.
However, in the UK, surveys suggest that graduate level engineers can earn upwards of £27,000. Of course, these wages increase with qualifications and experience.
As of May 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in the United States estimated the mean annual wage for aerospace engineers as $122,970, compared to an annual national average wage of $45,760 for the same year in the United States.
Salaries for engineers are also expected to grow at least in line with those of other professions, if not more!
You have probably heard the ironic phrase, ‘It’s not rocket science’ to refer to something that isn’t difficult. However, while the term rocket science is used interchangeably with ‘aerospace engineering,’ it is actually inaccurate.
Science is the understanding of the origins, nature and behaviour of the universe, while engineering is about using scientific principles to develop new technologies and solve problems. Despite science and engineering being used as synonyms, the correct term should be ‘rocket engineer.’
So, what about ‘aeronautics?’
Aeronautical engineering was the original name for the field before flight technology advanced to include vehicles that could operate outside the Earth’s atmosphere. At this point, aerospace engineering became the overall term to include both the original aeronautical and the new astronautical engineering disciplines.
Aeronautics comes from the French word aéronautique, a composite of ‘aero’ (meaning ‘air’ from the Greek ‘aeros’) and ‘nautique’ (meaning ‘of ships’ from the Latin ‘nauticus’ and the Greek ‘nautrikos’).
Originally referring to ‘airships’ or hot air balloons, the term dates back to 1784, as does ‘aeronaut,’ which means a ‘balloonist.’
The ‘nau’ in aeronautics (meaning ‘boat’) can also be found in words like astronaut, cosmonaut, nautical and nausea, with etymological roots in languages spanning old Norse, Welsh, Irish, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Armenian.
Aeronautical engineering is concerned with the development of all types of aircraft and associated parts and components.
It is concerned with vehicles and objects that operate within the bounds of the Earth’s atmosphere and comes under the umbrella of aerospace engineering that also includes astronautical (space) engineering.
Aeronautics involves the application of science and mathematics as well as other technological and engineering knowledge including aerodynamics, propulsion, materials science, manufacturing, and structural analysis.
Due to the complexity associated with aeronautical engineering, many project use a range of engineering experts with their own specialised areas of expertise.
Is Aeronautical Engineering Hard?
Aeronautical engineering is a complex discipline that requires specialised knowledge, however it can also provide a rewarding and well-paid career in an interesting field that helps push innovation in aerospace engineering.
Is Aeronautical Engineering a Good Career?
Aeronautical engineering is a good career – offering a range of different roles across different sectors – from government to manufacturing. Aeronautical engineers are in demand, making it a well-paid career – especially as you progress and improve your experience and skills.
What do Aeronautical Engineers Make?
Aeronautical engineers create innovative designs and plans for a range of aerospace components, vehicles and objects. They are also responsible for testing these designs and improving on existing technologies as well as investigating the causes of failures.
How much does an Aeronautical Engineer Earn?
As noted above, the wages for aeronautical engineers differ depending on your location, employer, area of work, and your skills and experience. However, being an in-demand role, aeronautical engineers tend to earn above the national average – especially as you grow your knowledge, expertise and experience.
How long does it take to become an Aeronautical Engineer?
To become an aeronautical engineer you need to complete (at least) a four-year bachelor’s degree. Some institutions offer a five year course that includes both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, while other people will also opt to take a PhD following their final year. Even with your academic qualifications, there is plenty of room to keep learning and training in your career as well as gaining certifications to support your experience.
Where can an Aeronautical Engineer Work?
Aeronautical engineers can work in a range of different organisations, including for:
- Aircraft structures and component manufacturers
- Airline operators
- Defence organisations – including the military
- Engineering consultancies
- Government departments, agencies and organisations
- Research and development organisations
- Space agencies
- Universities and colleges