Aeronautical engineering degrees represent the branch of engineering that deals with the research, design, development, construction, testing, science and technology of aircraft. The field also covers investigation into aerodynamic characteristics of aircraft, including behaviors and related factors such as airfoil, control surfaces, lift and drag. In recent years, aeronautical engineering has become one of two major and overlapping branches of aerospace engineering, with astronautical engineering being the second.
If you’re fascinated by the history and methodology behind flying machines – from Leonardo Da Vinci’s early conceptual sketches and the Wright brothers’ famous flight of 1903 through to the sophistication and progress of modern jets – aeronautical engineering could be the degree for you.
Common skills gained from an aeronautical engineering degree include:
You’ll usually find aeronautical engineering degrees referred to as a BEng (Bachelor of Engineering) and MEng (Masters in Engineering). Aeronautical engineering degrees at the undergraduate level usually last three or four years, but many institutions allow students to progress directly into a Masters in Aeronautical Engineering, extending the course length by an additional year or two.
In such cases, BEng and MEng students take the same courses for the first two or three years, and suitably well-performing students then continue with the BEng for one more year or progress to the more advanced MEng for two years. Some institutions may also allow for this transfer in the first or second year of the BEng degree program while others allow post-secondary candidates to enroll in a MEng straight away. A few institutions also offer associate degree programs, but these usually are reserved for practicing engineering professionals who have already graduated in a related field, and want to change careers into aeronautical engineering.
Teaching is primarily lecture-based, with students also completing coursework and laboratory exercises, attending tutorials and participating in field trips. Group work and group design work may be an element, with independent study expected in all degree programs, and assessment divided between examinations and coursework projects. Depending on your chosen institution’s facilities, you may be able to attend lectures given by experts in the aerospace industry, and even experience rides in a flight simulator.
You’ll need to be highly competent in mathematics and physics in order to apply – expect your competency in these two subjects to be rigorously tested. And, if your degree is taught in English and you are an international student, you may need to prove your proficiency through a standardized exam such as the IELTS or take an English language course prior to commencing your degree in order to obtain a student visa or entry into the program.
Technically, your aeronautical engineering degree will be specialized from day one, as you will be concentrating on a specific field within engineering. Nonetheless, you will be incorporating many common engineering concepts into the subject of aeronautical engineering. As with any engineering course, therefore, you will likely start with a grounding in mathematics, physics, mechanics and electronics – all essential topics for the designing, building and testing of aircraft.
More specific aeronautical engineering topics you may cover in the first and second years include: introduction to aerodynamics, introduction to structural analysis and courses in dynamics and control, structures and materials, aircraft design, aircraft performance, computing, electronics, fluid mechanics, statics, systems engineering, telecommunications and thermodynamics.
As you’d expect, the further along you get in your degree, the more scope there is for pursuing your own interests, expanding on your foundation learning and personalizing your degree. When it comes time to choose your specialization, some options include:
This field of engineering is concerned with the interaction between bodies and the atmosphere, and the study of the resulting forces and motion of objects through the atmosphere. Studying aerodynamics includes subjects such as aerodynamic design, compressible flow, flow control, flow measurement, power control, structural design and fluid dynamics.
You’ll learn how to use wind tunnels and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) for aerodynamic modelling, build scale models and carry out flight testing. You’ll also learn about flow control and assessment, engine and experimental aerodynamics, transonic flow, hypersonic and high temperature gas dynamics and launch and re-entry aerodynamics.
As the search for aerodynamic refinement and performance optimization for the next generation of aircraft is likely continue, the need for engineers with specialist knowledge of fluid flow behavior will always be prevalent. Also, increasing environmental awareness means there is an even greater emphasis on aerodynamic refinement in elements such as flight control and flight dynamic aspects.
The field of aeroelasticity is the study of the interaction of inertial, structural/elastic and aerodynamic forces on aircraft, buildings and surface vehicles, and the influence of this study on design. Drawing upon aspects of previous introductory courses such as dynamics, structures, mathematics and aerodynamics, you’ll be introduced to aeroelastic concepts such as ‘the flexible aircraft’ and control reversal, divergence, flutter, limit cycle oscillations and vortex shedding.
You’ll use models of aircraft wing, fuselage and rotor systems along with a wide range of tools to model the complex structural dynamics of aircraft and helicopters, and explore its interaction with aerodynamics and stability. You’ll also learn how to do wind tunnel testing, ground vibration testing and flight flutter testing to evaluate aircrafts’ aeroelasticity issues. Knowledge of aeroelasticity can also be applied to a wide range of fields such as energy harvesting and even understanding snoring!
The study of advanced composite materials (ACMs), composites analysis involves analyzing these high-performance composite materials for their capabilities in new aircraft, aerospace structural parts and other challenging engineering applications. You’ll gain an insight into composite systems (polymer, metal, ceramic) and learn analytical techniques such as fractography, mechanical testing, stress analysis, finite element analysis and laminate analysis. You’ll also cover design, joining, detection of defects, non-destructive evaluation, fatigue, impact, environment, fibre/matrix interfaces, stiffness/strength and manufacturing science. Composites analysis is important in the quest to make lighter yet stronger materials for aircraft.
The term avionics refers to the electronic systems used on aircraft, artificial satellites and spacecraft. A portmanteau of ‘aviation’ and ‘electronics’, avionics includes flight instrumentation, cockpit displays, computers, navigation equipment, autopilot systems, radar systems, data acquisition systems, diagnostic systems, communication and air traffic control systems, satellite global positioning systems, black boxes, weather systems, weapons aiming and delivery, and height and speed sensors.
Starting with an introduction to avionics, you’ll cover topics such as avionic systems and design, electromagnetic compatibility, flight dynamics and control, motion control and servo drive systems, radar and navigation, reliability and failure and advanced instrumentation.
This field involves studying flow mechanics, thermo-dynamics, gas dynamics and strength of materials. Looking at the choice of appropriate vehicle engines, propulsion is about the design, development, production, assembly and testing of aircraft engines that must meet certain power and performance requirements.
You’ll be focusing on basic propulsion considerations, turbomachinery, combustion chambers, afterburners, rocket nozzle designs, subsonic and supersonic intake designs and gas turbine configurations. You’ll learn theory for propeller-based propulsion, investigate the propulsive efficiency of various aircraft propulsion types, consider the environmental impact of aircraft propulsion and high-speed aircraft flight, and come away with an awareness of the thermodynamics and aerodynamics of the flow in gas turbines. You may also learn about different forms of propulsion including electric and ion propulsion.
If you enjoyed foundational courses in structures and materials, you can choose to specialize in this field later on in your degree. You’ll learn the typical terminology associated with aircraft structures and how to assess structural behavior through combinations of analytical, experimental and numerical techniques such as finite-element analysis. You’ll also learn how to predict, and validate through experimentation, the behavior of structural members under load, how to design and size aircraft structural configuration with various load combinations in mind and learn about (and perhaps invent) novel materials, hybrid material combinations and explore new structural concepts – all with the aim of keeping structures and materials as lightweight as possible.
While many of the primary aeronautical engineering topics are listed above, other specialization options include but are not limited to:
You can also choose to specialize in a particular aeronautical engineering product such as commercial transports, military fighter jets, helicopters, spacecraft, or missiles and rockets.
Every topic of aeronautical engineering you will have covered during your degree will likely have its corresponding role within aeronautical engineering careers. Whether you’re interested in designing, testing or consulting, in the commercial, scientific or military sectors, it’s likely that you’ll need to gain at least a master’s degree in order to gain the high level of specialization required to be accepted into lucrative positions in the aeronautical engineering industry. You will need to make sure you keep up with developments in the field throughout your career, and may also benefit from studying a professionally accredited course, either straight after your degree or part-time while working.
Some popular aeronautical engineering careers include:
As an aeronautical engineer you’ll apply scientific, technological and mathematical principles to research, design, develop, maintain and test the performance of civil and military aircraft, including weapons, satellites and even space vehicles. You may also work on designing (using computer-aided design (CAD) software) manufacturing and modifying the different components that make up these aircraft and systems.
This role involves improving flight safety, fuel efficiency, speed and weight, reducing system costs, using advancing technologies to meet client and customer needs, researching and developing design specifications, addressing the environmental impact of air travel and the materials/systems you will be designing. You’ll need to be able to resolve any issues that arise during the design, development and testing process, including investigating any aircraft accidents and project management.
The term aeronautical engineer is in fact a very broad term covering a wide range of positions. These positions can be categorized by type of role and by particular area of engineering. There is also plenty of scope to venture out beyond the aeronautical industry due to your immense amount of technical knowledge. Some of the positions/specialties available are listed below.
An aeronautical researcher is in charge of researching new technologies, materials, systems and equipment in the aeronautical engineering field. You’ll be involved in analyzing and testing discoveries, comparing findings with existing knowledge, challenging discrepancies, writing reports outlining conclusions and ensuring you use specific, accurate techniques for each study. You can specialize in a wide range of engineering disciplines, for example researching a new process for increased propulsion, a lighter material for improved aerodynamic design, a more versatile propeller, a more efficient wing layout or solutions to tackle in-flight icing. Research may take months or even years to complete, culminating in your findings published in industry journals.
As a senior aeronautical researcher, you will be in charge of the entire research process including ordering, gathering and verifying supplies, putting together and supervising a team and ensuring adherence to safety, accuracy, timelines and budgets.
An aeronautical designer is usually involved in providing design and detailing expertise for companies who develop aeronautical components, products and systems. You’ll need to ensure technical excellence while maintaining fidelity to any specifications and design requirements put forth by your client. From design, build, experimentation and installation to testing, validation and analysis of the new product, you’ll need to make sure the product complies with the requirements set out by regulatory authorizes on the national and international level.
You’ll need to provide drawings and schemes using specialist software (this will vary depending on the company you work for and what you are designing). You’ll then summarize your findings and communicate these to other members of your team and/or to your client. You’ll need a good understanding of assembly methods, manufacturing methods (machining, injection mold, composite) and cost-effective designing and will need to keep up with the latest material technologies and advances in production processes. Products you could be working on include airframe design, engine design and design of airliner cabin comfort systems.
As an aeronautical maintenance technician (AMT), you’ll hold a mechanic certificate issued by an accredited organization, such as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that confirms you are fully qualified to handle aeronautical maintenance checks. You will be responsible for the complete range of mechanical components and structure of aircraft, including engines, gearboxes, flying controls, landing gear, hydraulics, air conditioning, anti-icing and fuel systems.
This job involves examining, testing, diagnosing, replacing and repairing both mechanical and avionic components of an aircraft as necessary, ensuring compliance with safety and operational standards. Some AMTs may specialize in one section of a particular type of aircraft such as the airframe, engine, hydraulic or electrical system. You may also be responsible for supervising a larger team of AMTs and aircraft maintenance mechanics.
An aeronautical consultant, also known as an aviation consultant, uses their years of experience to provide business and technical solutions across a wide range of sectors in the aviation industry. While aeronautical consultancy is itself a niche sector, you may choose to provide consultancy for an even more limited section of clients, or for a wider range of clients from airports and airlines to air traffic managers, manufacturers, maintenance crews, service vendors and even hotels and tourism agencies. You’ll perform analysis of your client’s existing practices, perform asset (aircraft and engine) valuations, perform safety audits, recommend alternatives and/or improvements and help them carry out these improvements in order to maximize profitability, safety and efficiency.
Most aeronautical consultants must be registered with an accredited consultancy firm such as the British Association of Aviation Consultants. Consultancy often requires a good knowledge of market trends and business practices.
Another option is aeronautical testing, which involves executing reliability tests on new and existing products, developing new test procedures, using empirical testing methods and carrying out failure analysis resulting from these tests and aeronautical manufacture which involves the designing, building, testing, selling, and maintaining of aircraft, aircraft parts, missiles, rockets, and/or spacecraft. You can also teach aeronautical engineering to inspire the next generation of aeronautical engineering graduates.
Within aeronautical engineering careers of various types, you can also choose a specific area of aeronautical engineering. You could be a specialist in propulsion, avionics, composite aircraft structures, systems integration, aerodynamics and materials and structures, or a developer of fixed wing, rotary-wing, aircraft engineering, missiles, software and rocket engines. You can also go on to roles in engineering management, perhaps as an executive of a passenger or cargo airline operator.