What does a Flight Engineer do?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A flight engineer is a member of an airplane crew who is responsible for overseeing the systems on an airplane during flight to confirm that they are working and to enact repairs or corrections if necessary. These employees are increasingly being replaced by computerized systems which serve the same functions, but they are still necessary on some aircraft. The military is a major employer of flight engineers, and many people in this position enjoy military work because they get to explore cutting edge aircraft and to work in very diverse conditions.

A flight engineer keeps systems running on an aircraft.
A flight engineer keeps systems running on an aircraft.

Before an aircraft takes off, a flight engineer inspects it to confirm that it is safe to fly and to run down the preflight checklist. Once a plane is in flight, he or she monitors all of the plane's systems for signs of problems, and controls engine power, the electrical systems, fuel usage, pressurization, air conditioning, and air in the cabin of the aircraft. Throughout the flight, he or she works with the pilot to address the pilot's needs, and they are also prepared to address unexpected events while in flight. After the flight, the plane is inspected again.

A flight engineer is often responsible for ensuring aircraft are safe for takeoff.
A flight engineer is often responsible for ensuring aircraft are safe for takeoff.

Flight engineers have training in airplane mechanics and the various tasks they will need to perform. They must also usually be licensed by a regulatory agency, usually the same agency which licenses pilots. They have to demonstrate time spent in the classroom and time spent gathering practical skills working on aircraft to be certified, and they also usually need to pass an exam to become certified. In addition, they may need to pass a medical exam to confirm that they are safe to fly.

Some engineers are also pilots. Historically, the flight engineer could potentially step in to pilot the plane if a problem developed, and modern flight engineer-pilots tend to keep up their licenses to confirm that they are capable of flying a plane if necessary. On some airlines, the flight engineer is known as the second officer, and working as a second officer is the first step in climbing the career ladder to become an airline pilot.

In addition to working on operational aircraft, flight engineers can also be involved in aviation research and development. Their practical skills can be applied to troubleshooting experimental aircraft, developing new systems for aircraft, and testing aircraft as they move through the various design phases. To obtain this kind of work, a person generally needs to have extensive education and experience, and a pilot's license is often strongly recommended.

Flight engineers at commercial airlines must pass a certification test before earning their license.
Flight engineers at commercial airlines must pass a certification test before earning their license.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

smartypantz

@Vegemite – I just got into a college for flight engineering. You can take some of the courses online, but any courses that require hands on time with actual plane parts cannot be taken online (and even if they could, I wouldn’t recommend it).

You’ll need to take courses in flight dynamics and control, embedded control systems, and analysis of dynamic systems, just to name a few.

I suggest looking into aviation schools around the country. Most of them offer a flight engineering program.

By the way, in order to become a flight engineer, you have to have a high school diploma, two years of college education (a Bachelor’s degree is better), a commercial pilot’s license, and a certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Vegemite

Which subjects do I need to study in order to have a flight engineer career? Or, if there’s a school with online courses I can take for flight engineering, that would be great. Does anyone have any suggestions?

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