BlogCareersWhat Does an Aerospace Engineer Do?

What Does an Aerospace Engineer Do?

So you want to be an Aerospace Engineer, but would like to know more about what it actually involves?

We will provide an overview of this career, with an interview from a professional with over a decade of experience in the field. We’ll take a look at the main roles and responsibilities, career trajectories, study paths, positives and negatives of being an Aerospace Engineer — and so much more. 

So let’s jump in!

Meet Troy
What is an Aerospace Engineer?
Steps to Becoming an Aerospace Engineer
Future Outlook
Best Thing & Worst Thing
Advice for Aspiring Aerospace Engineers

Meet Troy

Troy is the current Director of Aviation Systems at NSW Ambulance, prior to which he worked as an aerospace engineer for the Australian Defence Force for over a decade. Troy has worked extensively in design, testing, and management roles, holding a wealth of knowledge and experience for those considering this career. 

How did you end up in this role?

Prior to his current role, Troy designed and managed aircraft for the Australian Air Force for over a decade. 

For two years he supervised and serviced technical aircraft including fighter jets, adjudicating flight safety and performing weapons testing procedures. Following this, Troy spent around three years as a structural aerospace engineer designing aircraft parts at a desk, working alongside others including engineers from Boeing (American Aerospace company).

Finally, Troy worked on larger projects with the Australian Air Force for around five years, contracting out the servicing of aircraft systems and acting as Senior Engineer at the force’s Williamtown base in a workshop pulling apart the components of tons of old fighter aircraft.

Explaining his trajectory to his current position, Troy says, “A lot of aerospace engineers don’t stay in aerospace engineering, you tend to go into more general aviation work.” He says he tends to prefer the managerial side of aerospace engineering, explaining his progression into his current role, however such is not the case for many in his field. 

Studies and Experience

Troy became an Aerospace Engineer after studying and gaining experience at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. Another (potentially more common) study path is studying a Bachelor’s degree with honours at university.

Troy worked in a fighter squadron of around 80 staff following his tertiary study at the Defence Force Academy, whose responsibility was to prepare fighter aircraft for flight every day. 

What made you want to work in this industry?

I was really good at maths and physics, and [people] said, ‘Well you should be an engineer’,” says Troy. “I grew up in a small country town and there was no internet back in those days. You didn’t really know what professions were out there.” 

Initially, Troy said he wanted to become a chemical engineer but the military did not have them. The promise of paid-for tertiary education was a convenient prospect in his circumstances at the time.

What Does an Aerospace Engineer Do - Quote

What is an Aerospace Engineer?

Aerospace Engineers perform and supervise engineering work on aircraft, spacecraft, satellites and missiles. These professionals are involved in the design, development, manufacture, maintenance and modification stages of such technology, often designing components for larger machines including engines, airframes, wings and landing gear.

As this profession developed over the last century, two main specialities emerged in it; aeronautical engineering, which involves aircraft and technology within the Earth’s atmosphere like fighter jets and helicopters, and astronautical engineering, which comprises the design and development of spacecraft. 

Roles and Responsibilities

The diversity of career options for aerospace engineers means there is no uniform set of tasks, or typical ‘work day’, across the industry. Troy differentiates the responsibilities of the various positions he has worked in (i.e. servicing fighter aircraft vs. designing at a desk). 

“You’re pretty much using off-the-shelf packages that assist you in that work [on a daily basis],” says Troy of the latter. “You’re sitting at a computer designing something, whether it’s from scratch like a new wing design, or something robotics or AI related… You’re often working with interdisciplinary teams.” 

He cites his work with the fighter squadron as the more ‘exciting’ of the two, in terms of day-to-day responsibilities. 

You get in at 6:30,” he says. “There’s an A-shift and a B-shift [for the pilots].” The A-shift and B-shift refer to morning and evening practice sessions. 

I’ve worked the A-shift and have to come in in the morning… I have to brief all the pilots on what aircraft are available, which ones are broken, how long they have been broken for. I’ve got around 20 minutes to work out from 17 aircraft which ones are going to fly and which ones aren’t.” 

Then they will start walking at 8:30 to go flying… They come back and you’ve got to turn them around… The pilots will write up everything that was wrong with it on the flight, and the whole process goes again, and you’ve got to run around at lunch time so they can go flying again at 1 o’clock.” 

It’s a very Methodical and reason [based]… kind of job,” says Troy. Mathematics and physics-based problem solving skills are central to aerospace engineering. Troy also says it’s important to be able to write and meet requirements for aircraft safety and regulations.

Aerospace engineers must also effectively articulate and understand risk in writing, and be able to write in a deductive style (presenting the most important information or overall argument first, and explaining with evidence later). 

Which industries can this career be found in?

Aerospace engineering can be found in a range of industries. These predominantly include Public Administration and Safety, Manufacturing, and Transport, Postal & Warehousing (according to JobOutlook).

Aerospace engineers often work in the areas of aviation, defence and space exploration, however often find design positions in sports-manufacturing. 

What jobs do people sometimes confuse this with?

Mechanic

Becoming an ‘engineer’ means one has a university degree, while mechanics are qualified through an apprenticeship.

Troy notes that in the civilian world (e.g. airlines), mechanics are called engineers for short, from the acronym Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (LAME) given to them.

“Because they don’t have a use for many tertiary qualified engineers at an airline… day to day they just use their mechanics,” explains Troy. 

Characteristics and Qualities 

What Does an Aerospace Engineer Do - Characteristics

Aerospace engineering requires a high level of skill compared to most other careers. In particular, mathematics and physics knowledge taught throughout your degree and work experience is crucial to repairing and designing aircraft, and troubleshooting computer algorithms programmed to solve complex equations.

Deductive reasoning, reading and writing skills are important in completing risk assessments and crafting reports for pilots and managers, while technical design and computer skills are required to complete practical design objectives.

Finally, oral expression is important for teamwork, which is a common part of everyday aerospace engineering work. 

CharacteristicsTypes Required
KnowledgeEngineering and technology, mathematics, technical design, physics, computers and electronics
SkillsScience, operations analysis, reading comprehension, mathematics, critical thinking
AbilitiesWritten comprehension, oral comprehension, deductive reasoning, mathematics, oral expression

Steps to Becoming an Aerospace Engineer

What should you study?

In general, to become an aerospace engineer, you must complete a tertiary education degree in engineering, majoring in either aerospace or aeronautical engineering, with an honours year (fourth year). Like Troy, you may do so through a military academy with the Australian Defence Force.

University options for high school graduates considering this career are the Bachelor of Engineering (Aerospace) (Honours) at RMIT University in Melbourne and UNSW in Sydney.

For those who follow the university path, you must apply for a job as a Graduate Engineer before becoming a Professional Engineer; this period takes 2-3 years.  

There are also additional engineer certifications available in Australia depending on your specialisation, including Chartered Professional Engineer (CPEng) or Registered Professional Engineer (RPEng) from Engineers Australia.

How long does it take to become an Aerospace Engineer?

The length of a degree in engineering is typically four years, followed by 2-3 years as a Graduate engineer. However, you will also gain valuable skills and experience in the industry in your first few years in the workforce. 

Industry Knowledge

Troy recommends a base level of coding skills is highly useful in aerospace engineering, but not essential (i.e. may be learnt on the job).

In addition, a high level of maths and physics is necessary, an essential component of all tertiary engineering degrees. Troy emphasises that applying this way of thinking is important — using it as a problem-solving framework.

He says computer programs are increasingly used to solve complex equations, but a strong foundation of maths and physics means aerospace engineers can pick out when the input into the program is incorrect, which happens often. 

What will this career look like in the future?

How in-demand is this career?

There is a high demand for aerospace engineers in today’s technological and scientific landscapes. STEM professionals may fulfil a wide range of positions that are growing as technology plays a larger role in everyday life.

Global airlines expect to add some 41,000 new aircraft to their fleets by 2030; during the same period, approximately two trillion Australian dollars will be invested in airport infrastructure, according to recruitment specialists, GradAustralia.

Similarly, in the US the aerospace engineer job market is expected to grow by 6.0% between 2016 and 2026. 

Are there opportunities to grow or specialise?

Specialisation 

Aerospace engineers may specialise in one of many fields such as aerodynamic fluid flow, structural design, navigation, robotics, propulsion and combustion. They may also choose to specialise in an aerospace product, such as helicopters, jets, or rockets.

Troy says that after tertiary study, graduates will often do similar work to that which they completed in their degree, working on an area of specialisation for 4-5 years to get experience and even starting their own businesses afterward. “But like any profession most people do not stick to this,” he says. 

Growth 

Troy says that there is much room for growth and exploration in this evolving field of work. Oftentimes, Aerospace engineers will work with airlines.

Troy says, “A lot of people get involved in the introduction of new aircraft in Australia, where aerospace engineers are employed to go through certification records from its builders, and convince regulating bodies it is safe.” 

Another option is becoming a flight test engineer in the military, completing flight trials for new armed aircraft. 

He highlights, “You write the test program, and the pilot will go and fly that test [with you in the back]… You get to go flying a lot and that’s appealing to a lot of guys, who want to fly but don’t want to become a pilot.” 

For aviation in Australia, it’s quite a small industry. We don’t make our own aircraft. If you don’t join the military, that’s where you get the most experience and exposure to all the best stuff. 

For the guys who don’t, you usually have to go overseas and work for a manufacturer like Boeing… it’s a good opportunity to travel, and when you learn from the manufacturers you become really valuable when you get to come home.” 

Salary

Annual SalaryFuture GrowthSkill Level Rating
$112,000+Strong over the next 5 yearsVery high skill

Influential Trends

The automation of transport is a highly influential trend in aerospace engineering, and indeed broader engineering and science fields. For example, US startup Reliable Robotics has been working on pilotless planes for four years, which have been test-flown this year. 

In addition, many aerospace engineers won’t actually work in a job directly-applicable to their university degree. Aerospace engineering knowledge and technical skills are increasingly being applied in unconventional settings

For example, aerospace engineers who specialise in aerodynamics may work for Formula One teams, design roller coasters, or develop technologically advanced sports gear such as the bikes designed by Richard McAinish for the British cycling team at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. 

The Future of this Industry

The future of aerospace engineering holds many technology-rich opportunities for those aspiring to work in the field. According to QS Top Universities, Aerospace Engineering is one of five top in-demand engineering jobs of the future; there is an estimated global demand for 27,000 new passenger planes and 40,000 commercial helicopters between 2013 and 2031. 

As global warming demands solutions to fossil-fuelled transport, aerospace engineers will play a key role in making aircraft ‘greener’. In fact, in early 2021 Boeing committed that its new commercial aircraft will be able to burn 100% “sustainable” fuel by 2030, achieved through biofuels; “bio-based feedstock” like agricultural and forestry residues, chicken tallow and cooking oils.

There is also continued study of carbon-reducing technologies, such as hybrid-electric and hydrogen propulsion systems.

The increase of women in the sector is a key to the future of aerospace engineering.

“There’s also a lot more women doing aerospace engineering,” says Troy. “When I began it was rare to see more than one or two girls in a class.” However there is still a fair way to go, with 18% of aerospace engineering graduates being female. 

Best Thing & Worst Thing

What do you enjoy most about this job?

I like problem solving; that’s probably a big part of engineering,” says Troy.

Often, you have something that’s broken on an aircraft, and it’s pretty rewarding to solve an issue… You get the usual feedback that you make people happy, and they want to go flying or whatever else. But just the satisfaction that you’re the person, [amongst] a lot of smart people, that solves it.” 

What do you feel is the worst part of this job?

“Probably the worst part for people to consider is that, like some professions, it’s quite pigeon holed,” Troy says the stereotype of being an engineer means you may be excluded from certain jobs.

“Then you’ve really got to go do something like what I did — go do an MBA (Masters of Business Administration — if you really want to change professions.” 

Advice for Aspiring Aerospace Engineers

What do you wish you had known before you started working in this career?

I wish I’d known a little more about what other jobs were out there. This probably doesn’t apply so much since all the information is out there… and [wish] I had a better understanding of what it is I actually enjoy,” he shares.

Particularly, Troy says he prefers management positions requiring interpersonal skills to number-crunching, though a knowledge of the latter is an important baseline for anyone in aerospace engineering. 

Why should people consider taking on this career?

The speed of technological development is exciting, and those considering this career should take it on to work on new unmanned systems and AI, says Troy. 

“The speed of change wasn’t so great [when I did it] but now everything is with driverless cars and unmanned aircraft,” explains Troy. 

In addition, many individuals undertake aerospace engineering to work in space. If you want to become an astronaut and/or work for NASA (or Elon Musk, with his SpaceX program that employed nearly 10,000), aerospace engineering is the career path for you!

Job Flexibility

Aerospace engineering can be done remotely once an individual has worked in the field for about five years, says Troy.

Prior to this, engineers are learning on the job from experienced engineers, a process called ‘grandfathering’. “You learn more from them than you do in your degree,” he says. 

After a few years of experience, you can work for a big aircraft manufacturer overseas from Australia and they just give you design packages, which is pretty much like a problem to solve, and you have a month to do all this work and then send it back.” 

What is the workplace culture like?

Troy praises the like-mindedness of individuals in aerospace engineering. “It’s a bunch of problem solvers working together,” he says. 

He adds that, unlike other professions, “You don’t tend to have the sort of soft people skills.”

He says that there is a diversity of personalities, including very introverted and more outgoing individuals.

What you find is that everyone is very task focussed… I’ve come out of that environment in the military to an environment [NSW Ambulance] where everyone is more sensitive.”


Zara Zadro is a Content Writer for Art of Smart and a current undergraduate student at the University of Sydney. She studies a Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies majoring in Media & Communications and English. In her free time, she enjoys reading, listening to music and discovering new parts of Sydney. She has also written for the student publications Honi Soit and Vertigo. After she graduates, Zara hopes to do a Masters in creative writing and live overseas, which she cannot wait for!

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