Possible Aerospace Engineering plus Flying Career?

mndecker21

Well-Known Member
#1
Hi all,

I am about to start my junior year in an aerospace engineering program. I earned my private pilot's cert and my instrument rating a few years back. I am really torn between flying and engineering. I was curious about careers out there that combine both. If anyone had any input on possible careers, companies that combine these sort of things, etc... I'd love to hear it. Also first time posting here, so let me know if I posted this in the wrong place.

Thanks in advance.
 

srn121

Well-Known Member
#5
Like Gliderboy suggested perhaps working for a company designing small GA planes and seeing if you can build time on the side testing them out or going on occasional flights. That would be one way to build time and see what career you'd like best. I figure with all the innovation going on in electric aircraft you could probably do some important work and if you'd rather get into flying you'd be much closer to a decent paying flying job. I also think it'd be much easier to go from working in engineering and then to flying, rather then getting burned out in flying and going back into engineering as I've heard a lot of engineering can be a bit use it or lose it.
 

dustoff17

Well-Known Member
#7
I got my degree in Aerospace Engineering and did full time regular airline flying. Combining your engineer job with flying would probably mean a Production Test Pilot job for Boeing, Cessna/Textron, Garmin, or the likes.
THIS!!

I was flying for a manufacturer when the layoffs hit. The guys in my department that were engineer/pilots were shifted back to engineering, while those of us without that degree were shifted out the door. Not stating that's a good reason to suffer through all that math but it sure is a feather in your cap!!!
 

Ecl!pse

Well-Known Member
#9
Thanks for the shout-out, @jtrain609 .

Hi all,

I am about to start my junior year in an aerospace engineering program. I earned my private pilot's cert and my instrument rating a few years back. I am really torn between flying and engineering. I was curious about careers out there that combine both. If anyone had any input on possible careers, companies that combine these sort of things, etc... I'd love to hear it. Also first time posting here, so let me know if I posted this in the wrong place.

Thanks in advance.
Welcome to the Aero club! Which university are you attending? My college application essay years back was about the exact career path you describe - wanting to combine flying and engineering. Won't happen for me, but that's a story for another time.

Before going into the opportunities that combine both flying and engineering, I'll offer up a few tips from my (limited) work experience thus far:
- Don't undervalue your engineering degree. With few exceptions, almost any field is open to you. You don't need to have the "engineering" blinders on.
- To that end, take the next 2 years to really think about what you like, and equally important (if not more) what you don't like. Make sure you will enjoy whatever field you settle into. You don't need to have all of the answers now (I sure don't), but it's exponentially easier to be in a field you enjoy vs. feeling trapped in a field you can't stand. I've found most engineers don't learn this before hitting the working world, and quickly burn out / fade out when they can't stand the gizmo/gadget they spend most of their waking hours working on.
- Lastly, and most importantly, to wrap up / tie up the two above: once you determine what you want to do, don't be afraid to ask people for help/guidance in getting there. I can't emphasize this enough - if you don't ask for something, you won't get it. For some weird reason, it's a taboo thing to be open about what you want to do in life, but to date I've found people to be way more receptive and open to helping out than not. Of course, you should be fully invested/committed to whatever your task is at hand, but if you're generally a good employee and a good person, people will be more than willing to help you get to where you want to go.

Onto the flying / engineering combo:
A few posters have already touched on the biggest option / possible opportunity - being a test pilot & engineer for a manufacturer (OEM). At a big OEM (Boeing, Airbus, Gulfstream, etc.), this is probably easier said than done - they will likely want test pilots who have experience flying "heavy" metal, requiring either an airline or military stint, which then might put the recency of your engineering degree at risk. Kind of a chicken-and-egg type thing. As noted above, I would definitely try to target internships/work in the large OEMs' flight test engineering departments - this will get you exposure to being on the flights, while doing engineering work. From there you can get to know ("network" with) test pilots and pick their brain on the feasibility of not only doing both, but on getting into flying without prior airline/military experience. You could always start as an engineer at a company like Boeing, build time to reach mins, and take a brief detour at a regional to build time in the interim. I would only encourage that if you had a solid commitment to get back to the OEM on the back-side, but it's a potential creative solution to help you get there. Same goes for Air National Guard while working as an engineer

If you're not dead-set on flying heavy metal, it's probably more realistic and worth checking out the smaller manufacturers (Cessna, Cirrus, etc.). Candidly I know very little about how the organizations are laid out, but I have to imagine that it's more feasible to obtain a flying position here than at the large OEM's, given that they are largely making trainers / small GA aircraft.

On the airline-side, there are a few avenues I could foresee that would combine some of your engineering work with flying:
(1) Start as a pilot, and work your way into management as a management pilot. These types usually end up in operational roles - so while it may not be be direct "engineering" work, you will certainly be applying the critical thinking / problem solving skills from your degree.
(2) Work as a pilot, and volunteer / work on your airline's Accident Investigation team. Obviously nobody wishes to get this phone call, but I have to imagine the combination of flying professionally and having a technical background here can be immensely helpful. I always thought this would be a neat combination, as morbid as it may be.
(3) Some airlines, like JetBlue, have programs that help employees become a pilot at the airline. You could start at the airline as an engineer, and use their program to catapult into a flying career. Since you would have already built credibility/track record on the "management" side before flying, you could surely always go back or work with management while flying.


That's what I can think of off the top of my head. I'll keep thinking a bit more about other combination roles. Feel free to PM me with any other questions you may have.
 
#10
I would think that one would/could have a longer more satisfying career as a pilot, than an aerospace engineer. That career segment is pretty volatile. I always see/meet a lot of out of work Aerospace engineers. I think that they're always the first to get the pink slips in comparison to other types of engineers.
 

///AMG

Well-Known Member
#11
I think historically, the same argument could be made about 121 pilots as well, which is really what most people think of as a "career" pilot. Super volatile in at least 2 decades of my life, 1980's and 2000's. It's pretty rosy right now, but my bet is that things will recess in another 5-7 years. I feel like aero or any other engineering field is probably less volatile. If you go to work for a good company, i.e. not some rando Silicon Valley startup as a software E, you can probably stay. Everyone on the junior end of the scale is going to have some level of replaceability in their position, but I don't really think aero E is that much worse than other disciplines......at least not from what I have observed from my friends in the industry. Granted they are all relatively senior now (at least compared to entry level college boys/girls without a PE), and maybe just got lucky and weathered any storms that came their way 10-15 years ago when they were newer folks.
 
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#12
I think historically, the same argument could be made about 121 pilots as well, which is really what most people think of as a "career" pilot. Super volatile in at least 2 decades of my life, 1980's and 2000's. It's pretty rosy right now, but my bet is that things will recess in another 5-7 years. I feel like aero or any other engineering field is probably less volatile. If you go to work for a good company, i.e. not some rando Silicon Valley startup as a software E, you can probably stay. Everyone on the junior end of the scale is going to have some level of replaceability in their position, but I don't really think aero E is that much worse than other disciplines......at least not from what I have observed from my friends in the industry. Granted they are all relatively senior now (at least compared to entry level college boys/girls without a PE), and maybe just got lucky and weathered any storms that came their way 10-15 years ago when they were newer folks.
I've always heard that an AE job at Boeing isn't always a career job, with frequent layoffs and job offshoring. I've also heard that they're one the first jobs usually cut at Boeing when the economy craps itself.
 

inigo88

Composite-lover
#13
Aerospace engineer here. I moved to work in experimental aircraft structural engineering and flight test in the southern CA desert, and have enjoyed my time here and learned an incredible amount. It's a full time position and doesn't lend itself well to flying part time, but I still tow gliders on some weekends and have time to work on new ratings. I owned a vintage Cessna in a partnership with a friend and flew it from southern CA to Oshkosh, and more recently bought an RV-6 kit I'm working up the courage to jump into building full steam.

I've also been very interested in ultimately landing an experimental test pilot job, but coming from the civilian side without Air Force TPS or a million dollar degree from national test pilot school this is extremely difficult. Another thing to consider is flight test engineering, which gets you involved in the flight test process in the control room or even sometimes riding on (but not flying) the aircraft. And also production flight test pilot jobs, which have already been mentioned.

@Derg gave some good advice here a while back which I'm going to repeat. He basically said "If you want to fly, fly. If you want to engineer, engineer." Ask yourself that question and then prioritize your career accordingly. Life is short.

Lastly, I know at least one aerospace engineer who works primarily as an airline pilot, and works as a contract aerospace engineer the rest of the time. If you have enough days off to be able to swing it, it seems like a pretty good deal.

I've always heard that an AE job at Boeing isn't always a career job, with frequent layoffs and job offshoring. I've also heard that they're one the first jobs usually cut at Boeing when the economy craps itself.
It may not seem like it from the outside, but aerospace engineering curriculums are extremely similar to mechanical engineering - in fact at my university they were two majors in the same department with shared faculty and labs. Large defense contractors like Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop do lay off when the economy gets bad, but everyone I've known who has been through it have landed on their feet. Keep in mind that because this career isn't seniority based, you can negotiate your starting salary at a new place based on your experience (but there's no free lunch, you'll usually top out lower than a wide body international captain at a major). Aerospace engineering is definitely more geographically limited, because large aerospace plants are expensive to build and/or they prefer to flight test experimental aircraft in the middle of nowhere away from people - so you have to be willing to live where the work is. But if the economy gets bad and you broaden your scope to mechanical for a while, the jobs are about as common as psychology. ;)
 

///AMG

Well-Known Member
#14
Yeah I feel like you could get an aero job (or a mech job conversely) pretty much interchangeably with a college background in either discipline. Maybe less so the more experienced you get, but initially, its close to 90% the same, save some specific courses done towards the end. By that I mean undergrad/BS. I'm sure there is a world of difference on the graduate/MS/PHD side.
 

CIVE_pilot

Well-Known Member
#15
I would think that one would/could have a longer more satisfying career as a pilot, than an aerospace engineer. That career segment is pretty volatile. I always see/meet a lot of out of work Aerospace engineers. I think that they're always the first to get the pink slips in comparison to other types of engineers.
The two are inextricably linked. If the airlines are not hiring pilots they probably are not buying airplanes. You can make more as pilot but engineering will have a much more stable career path. I could be wrong here but unless you get into engineering management and even then you are not likely to see major captain pay. Engineering pay starts high (among college majors) and plateaus after that. FWIW, I've heard some rare stories of engineers getting massive bonuses (around $100k).

Yeah I feel like you could get an aero job (or a mech job conversely) pretty much interchangeably with a college background in either discipline. Maybe less so the more experienced you get, but initially, its close to 90% the same, save some specific courses done towards the end. By that I mean undergrad/BS. I'm sure there is a world of difference on the graduate/MS/PHD side.
You are correct, at my university AE is not a major but rather a "focus" of ME. Aerospace is considered a subdiscipline of mechanical engineering.
 

///AMG

Well-Known Member
#16
You are correct, at my university AE is not a major but rather a "focus" of ME. Aerospace is considered a subdiscipline of mechanical engineering.
Yeah I was an ME as an undergrad at a school that didn't specifically have an aero undergrad program. Half my profs were previous aero industry folks, and we had some pretty aero specific electives available. I signed up for CFD (not 100% aero but whatever) the last term of my 5th year, and I very quickly dropped the course. No Fing way.......took some 100 level English class (to meet required credit hours for graduation) instead with a bunch of hot freshman girls. Mo betta
 

CFI A&P

Exploring the world one toilet at a time.
#17
I owned a vintage Cessna in a partnership with a friend and flew it from southern CA to Oshkosh
True story. I was there.

Not an engineer, and barely a pilot but here’s what I’ve observed: I have flown with engineers and they also experience ups and downs but always seems to land on their feet. The two industries are related but tough to do both.
 

BigZ

Well-Known Member
#18
All great advise
But more importantly, figure out what it is that you want to do.
Know a guy at SJI, was an engineer. Told his wife he wants to be a pilot, she said fine, sign the divorce papers and go be a pilot.
Took him 12 years to go back to the engineering pay he had, but seems to be happy as a clam now. Widebody FO, loves his life and plays the best guitar I've ever heard in person
 

mndecker21

Well-Known Member
#20
Thanks for all the advice everyone! I think my next step is to try and secure an internship for the next summer. Ideally, it would be in the flight test department; however, no matter what the internship is, it could turn out to be something I like (or really don't). At this point I am strongly trying to incorporate both choices into my career. Both production test pilot and flight test engineering both seem like valid options, which I have great interest in. I'm not dead set on what I fly, just that I am in the air (even if I was just in the backseat). As @srn121 and @Ecl!pse suggested, GA sounds promising and also accident investigation.

@Ecl!pse I'm at Wichita State University.
 
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