What is Aeronautical Engineering?

An aeronautical engineer working on a computer in a lab and the text Aeronautical Engineering Jobs.

If you’ve ever dreamed of designing the next generation, supersonic airplane or watching the biggest jet engine soar, you may have considered a career in aeronautical engineering. Here are some fundamental questions to help you decide if the field is right for you.

What is Aeronautical Engineering?

As David Guo, department chair for Southern New Hampshire University's College of Engineering, Technology, and Aeronautics (CETA) programs, put it, aeronautical engineering is “the branch of engineering that deals with the design, development, testing and production of aircraft and related systems.”

Aeronautical engineers are the talent behind these systems. They apply mathematics, theory, knowledge and problem-solving skills to transform flight-related concepts into functioning aeronautical designs that are then built and operated.

In practice, that means aeronautical engineers design, build and test the planes, drones and helicopters you see flying overhead. With an eye on the sky, these workers also remain at the forefront of some of the field’s most exciting innovations – from autonomous airship-fixing robots, to high-flying hoverboards and solar-powered Internet drones.

Aeronautical vs. Aerospace Engineering: Are They the Same?

While this is a common misconception, aerospace engineering is actually a broader field that represents two distinct branches of engineering:

  • Aeronautical Engineering
  • Astronautical Engineering

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), aeronautical engineers explore systems like helicopters, planes and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) – any aircraft that operates within Earth’s atmosphere. Astronautical engineers, meanwhile, are more concerned with objects in space: this includes objects and vehicles like satellites, shuttles and rocket ships.

What Do Aeronautical Engineers Do?

“Aeronautical engineers develop, research, manufacture and test proven and new technology in military or civilian aviation,” Guo said. “Common work areas include aircraft design and development, manufacturing and flight experimentation, jet engine production and experimentation, and drone (unmanned aerial system) development.”

According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), as the industry evolves, so does the need for coding. With advanced system software playing a major role in aircraft communication and data collection, a background in computer programming is an increasingly valuable skill for aeronautical engineers.

BLS also cites several specialized career tracks within the field – including structural design, navigation, propulsion, instrumentation, communication and robotics.

What Kind of Employers Offer Aeronautical Engineering Jobs?

“Major aerospace manufacturers like Boeing, Pratt-Whitney and Sikorsky are just a few companies that hire qualified aeronautical engineers,” Guo said.

Reports from the BLS found that nearly 40% of aerospace and aeronautical engineers worked for a product and parts manufacturer in 2016. Other top employers included:

  • Engineering Services
  • Government Agencies
  • Navigational and control instrument manufacturing
  • Research and development companies

BLS also estimated steady job growth through 2026, due to the field’s growing focus on reduced noise pollution, as well as improved fuel efficiency and safety.

What is a Typical Aeronautical Engineering Salary?

Given the demands of the field you’re probably wondering how much do aeronautical engineers make? In March 2017, BLS reported that aerospace and aeronautical engineers earned a median $113,030 per year, with the lowest 10% earning an annual wage of less than $70,840.

By comparison, the annual median wage for all U.S. workers was $37,690. With that kind of projected earning potential, along with job growth on par with the national average, the future's looking bright for aeronautical engineers.

How Do I Become an Aeronautical Engineer?

So how do you get your aeronautical engineering career off the ground? In many cases, you must complete a BS in Aeronautical Engineering program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). There are additional licensure requirements that vary by state. If you want to work on projects related to national defense, you may also need a security clearance.

“Historically, engineering education involves theory and application, with core topics supported by experimental labs to aid in physical understanding,” Guo said.

In some cases, these experimental labs are supplemented with experiential learning – from software simulations to navigating drones and even real flight testing. These hands-on experiences offer you the opportunity to experiment and gain a better understanding of flight theory, all the while having some fun, according to Guo.

Spencer Hensel is a copywriter in higher education. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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