How to Become a Flight Controls Engineer

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A flight controls engineer works at a desk.Control engineering is the driving force behind some of the world’s most innovative equipment and processes, including those used to guide aircraft.

This type of engineering optimizes how automated processes and machines work by using control theory. That concept establishes the conditions needed for systems to produce consistent outcomes, even when they’re processing different types of input like altitude or direction. It’s an important component of work in the aerospace industry, which focuses on aircraft and spacecraft.

In the aerospace field, engineers incorporate knowledge of moving parts, aerodynamics, and combustion to design, test, and manage the manufacture of aircraft and other machinery. They also test the efficiency of prototypes. In fact, it’s through this research and development that the aerospace industry is working to make changes to aircraft that could lead to less noise pollution and greater fuel efficiency.

Anyone interested in an aerospace career that incorporates control engineering might consider exploring the role of a flight controls engineer. An education that includes training from those with firsthand experience working in control engineering for aerospace, like that of an online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering program, can set the stage for advancement as a flight controls engineer.

What Does a Flight Controls Engineer Do?

Flight controls engineering, a type of aerospace engineering, focuses on designing and building the control systems of various types of aircraft that fly within the earth’s atmosphere. The work helps ensure those control systems meet standards for safety and performance.

Work with conventional flight systems involves components such as flight control surfaces, cockpit controls, and mechanisms dictating a flight’s direction. Basic flight control systems may use mechanical, electrical, or hydraulic power.

Control Theory in Flight Controls Engineering

Flight controls engineers enlist control theory to adapt to various system inputs that occur during flight, ensuring a consistent outcome regardless of changing conditions. Aircraft use sensors to measure outputs and provide feedback that triggers process adjustments to produce the desired result.

This process can facilitate automation, or a system that doesn’t require human input. Autopilot systems in aircraft can independently control factors such as altitude and movement, for example, or they can follow programmed navigation. Autopilot sends messages to the aircraft’s computer and systems when it senses movement and then mimics the appropriate reaction of a pilot. When autopilot senses that a plane’s wing is dipping, for example, it responds by directing parts on the body of the plane to resist the turn until it receives the message that the wings are level again.

Job Tasks of Flight Controls Engineers

The role of the flight controls engineer calls for work with evolving technologies and controls. Flight controls engineers use algorithms, models, and simulations to design processes and assess risk for aircraft and construction materials.

They often partner with other types of engineers and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to implement plans and changes. For example, they might work with design engineers to make updates that enhance performance and meet federal standards. Typical flight controls engineer job tasks include:

  • Assessing projects’ technical and financial feasibility
  • Directing the design, production, and testing of aircraft systems
  • Ensuring quality control
  • Establishing acceptance criteria for design methods, quality standards, maintenance standards, and deadlines
  • Evaluating the safety of proposed processes
  • Inspecting malfunctions and damages to inform solutions
  • Reviewing products’ adherence to engineering principles, customer requirements, and environmental regulations

Steps to Become a Flight Controls Engineer

Flight controls engineering can be a good career choice for those interested in mechanical processes and hands-on work. As with most jobs in the broader aerospace field, jobs in flight controls engineering typically require at least a bachelor’s degree in a branch of engineering such as electrical engineering. With their requirements for high-level skills and knowledge, however, flight controls engineer roles often call for a master’s degree.

Education and Certification for Flight Controls Engineers

Students who plan to pursue a career in flight controls engineering should take courses that prepare them for the profession. That means they should focus on topics such as:

  • Advanced math
  • Computer programming
  • Chemistry
  • Computer languages
  • Physics

Flight controls engineers often hold at least a bachelor’s degree in aerospace, mechanical, or electrical engineering. Their studies should include engineering principles and topics like aerodynamics, propulsion, and stability and control. Professionals who also earn a master’s degree can qualify for additional opportunities in research and development, leadership roles, and university teaching positions.

While they’re not always a requirement, licensing and certification for some roles are available through the FAA. Additionally, flight controls engineers seeking higher-level jobs can pursue a professional engineering (PE) license through the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) by:

  • Completing a four-year degree
  • Working for a professional engineer for four years
  • Passing two competency exams
  • Earning a license through the state licensing board

PEs must engage in professional development to maintain their licensing.

Skills Needed to Be a Flight Controls Engineer

Flight controls engineers often are experts in areas such as software programming, data analysis, and aircraft construction. The job requires strong abilities in the following areas:

  • Technical skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Math
  • Active listening
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving

Flight Controls Engineer Salary and Job Outlook

While salaries can vary according to factors such as education, experience, and location, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates the May 2020 median annual salary of those in all aerospace engineering roles was $118,610.

That figure is more than double the median annual salary of all professions the BLS tracks, which was $41,950 in May 2020. For flight controls engineers in particular, PayScale lists a May 2021 median annual salary of around $80,900.

For aerospace engineer roles overall, the BLS expects an additional 66,400 jobs in the field from 2019 to 2029, for a 3% increase in jobs. The BLS credits the positive job outlook to a growing demand for research and development that advances environmentally sound engineering, as well as interest in unmanned aircraft.

Opportunities in this field will be strongest for those with training in software such as C++ or a background in stress and structural engineering.

Gain Technical Expertise from Those with Firsthand Experience

If you’re ready to enlist the concepts of control theory as a flight controls engineer, explore Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering program. Through the program, you’ll gain expertise from industry experts — including Dr. Jim Zhu, a professor whose control theory-focused research has been a force behind advanced flight control systems projects by NASA, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the National Science Foundation.

Through Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering, you’ll learn from leaders in the field while enjoying the convenience and flexibility of online education. Discover how the program can help you advance your career.

Recommended Readings

7 Popular Electrical Engineering Careers

Electrical Engineering vs. Computer Science: Which Career Is Best for You?

Women in Electrical Engineering: Opportunities and Resources for Pursuing an Engineering Career

Sources:

Advanced Technology Environmental Education Center, Aerospace Engineers

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, “Autopilot Basics”

Edison Tech Center, Systems and Control Engineering

Federal Aviation Administration, “Advanced Avionics Handbook: Automated Flight Control”

Government of Canada, Careers in Aviation

Indeed, Aeronautics vs. Aerospace Engineering: Definitions and Differences

Indeed, What Does a Controls Engineer Do?

Mechead, “Principles of Aircraft Control System”

National Society of Professional Engineers, What Is a PE?

Nature, Control Theory

PayScale, Average Flight Controls Engineer Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Aerospace Engineers

Zippia, Flight Controls Engineer