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Aeronautical and aerospace technicians design, construct, test, operate, and maintain the basic structures of aircraft and spacecraft, as well as propulsion and control systems. They work with scientists and engineers. Many aeronautical and aerospace technicians assist engineers in preparing equipment drawings, diagrams, blueprints, and scale models. They collect information, make computations, and perform laboratory tests. Their duties may include working on various projects involving aerodynamics, structural design, flight- test evaluation, or propulsion problems. Other technicians estimate the cost of materials and labor required to manufacture the product, serve as manufacturers’ field service technicians, and write technical materials.
Both aeronautical engineering and the aerospace industry had their births in the early 20th century. The very earliest machine-powered and heavier-than-air aircraft, such as the first one flown by Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903, were crudely constructed and often the result of costly and dangerous trial- and -error experimentation.
As government and industry took an interest in the possible applications of this new invention, however, our knowledge of aircraft and the entire industry became more sophisticated. By 1908, for instance, the Wright brothers had received their first government military contract, and by 1909, the industry had expanded to include additional airplane producers, such as Glenn Curtiss in the United States and several others in France.
Aeronautical engineering and the aerospace industry have been radically transformed since those early days, mostly because of the demands of two world wars and the tremendous increases in scientific knowledge that have taken place during this century. Aviation and aerospace developments continued after the end of World War II. The factories and workers that built planes to support the war were in place and the industry took off, with the jet engine, rocket propulsion, supersonic flight, and manned voyages outside the earth’s atmosphere among the major developments. As the industry evolved, aeronautical and aerospace engineers found themselves taking on increasingly larger projects and were more in need of trained and knowledgeable assistants to help them. Throughout the years, these assistants have been known as engineering aides, as engineering associates, and , most recently, as aerospace technicians and technologists. Their main task today is to take on assignments that require technical skills but don't necessarily require the scientist’s or engineer’s special training and education.
There are no clear-cut definitions of aeronautical technology and aerospace technology; in fact, many employers use the terms inter changeably. This lack of a clear distinction also occurs in education, where many schools and institutes offer similar courses under a variety of titles: aeronautical, aviation, or aerospace technology. In general, however, the aerospace industry includes manufacturers of all kinds of flying vehicles: from piston- and jet-powered aircraft that fly inside the earth’s atmosphere, to rockets, missiles, satellites, probes, and all kinds of manned and unmanned spacecraft that operate outside the earth’s atmosphere. The term aeronautics is often used within the aerospace industry to refer specifically to mechanical flight inside the earth’s atmosphere, especially to the design and manufacture of commercial passenger and freight air craft, private planes, and helicopters.
The difference between technicians and technologists generally refers to their level of education. Technicians generally hold associate’s degrees, while technologists hold bachelor’s degrees in aero nautical technology.
Whether they work for a private company working on commercial aircraft or for the federal government, aerospace technicians work side by side with engineers and scientists in all major phases of the design, production, and operation of aircraft and spacecraft technology. The aerospace technician position includes collecting and recording data; operating test equipment such as wind tunnels and flight simulators; devising tests to ensure quality control; modifying mathematical procedures to fit specific problems; laying out experimental circuits to test scientific theories; and evaluating experimental data for practical applications.
The following paragraphs describe jobs held by aerospace technicians; some may be used in other industries as well. Fuller descriptions of the work of some of these titles are provided in the following paragraphs.
Aerospace physiological technicians operate devices used to train pilots and astronauts. These devices include pressure suits, pressure chambers, and ejection seats that simulate flying conditions. These technicians also operate other kinds of flight-training equipment such as tow reels, radio equipment, and meteorological devices. They interview trainees about their medical histories, which helps detect evidence of conditions that would disqualify pilots or astronauts from further training.
Aircraft launch and recovery technicians work on aircraft carriers to operate, adjust, and repair launching and recovery equipment such as catapults, barricades, and arresting nets. They disassemble the launch and recovery equipment, replace defective parts, and keep track of all maintenance activities. Avionics technicians repair, test, install, and maintain radar and radio equipment aboard aircraft and spacecraft.
Computer technicians assist mathematicians and subject specialists in checking and refining computations and systems, such as those required for predicting and determining orbits of spacecraft.
Drafting and design technicians convert the aeronautical engineer’s specifications and rough sketches of aeronautical and aerospace equipment, such as electrical and mechanical devices, into accurate drawings that are used by skilled craft workers to make parts for aircraft and spacecraft.
Electronics technicians assist engineers in the design, development, and modification of electronic and electromechanical systems. They assist in the calibration and operation of radar and photo graphic equipment and also operate, install, troubleshoot, and repair electronic testing equipment.
Engineering technicians assist with review and analysis of post-flight data, structural failure, and other factors that cause failure in flight vehicles.
Industrial engineering technicians assist engineers in preparing lay outs of machinery and equipment, workflow plans, time-and-motion studies, and statistical studies and analyses of production costs to produce the most efficient use of personnel, materials, and machines. Instrumentation technicians test, install, and maintain electronic, hydraulic, pneumatic, and optical instruments. These are used in aircraft systems and components in manufacturing as well as research and development. One important responsibility is to maintain their assigned research instruments. As a part of this maintenance, they test the instruments, take readings and calibration curves, and calculate correction factors for the instruments.
Liaison technicians check on the production of aircraft and spacecraft as they are being built for conformance to specifications, keeping engineers informed as the manufacturing progresses, and they investigate any engineering production problems that arise. Mathematical technicians assist mathematicians, engineers, and scientists by performing computations involving the use of advanced mathematics.
Mechanical technicians use metalworking machines to assist in the manufacture of one-of-a-kind parts. They also assist in rocket fin alignment, payload mating, weight and center-of-gravity measurements, and launch-tower erection.
Target aircraft technicians repair and maintain pilotless target aircraft. They assemble, repair, or replace aircraft parts such as cowlings, wings, and propeller assemblies and test aircraft engine operation.
A strong science and mathematics background is essential for entry into this field. High school courses that will be useful in preparing you for college-level study include algebra, trigonometry, physics, and chemistry. In addition to math and science, courses in social studies, economics, history, blueprint reading, drafting, and industrial and machine shop practice will provide a valuable background for a career in aerospace technology. Computer experience is also important. English, speech, and courses in the preparation of test reports and technical writing are extremely helpful to develop communication ability.
There are a variety of training possibilities for potential aerospace technicians: two-, three-, or four-year programs at colleges or universities, junior or community colleges, technical institutes, or vocational-technical schools; industry on-the-job training; or work-study programs in the military. Graduates from a two- or three-year program usually earn an associate’s degree in engineering or science. Graduates from a four-year program earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering or science; in addition, several colleges offer four-year degree programs in aeronautical technology. There are also many technical training schools, particularly in areas where the aerospace industry is most active, that offer training in aeronautical technology. Aircraft mechanics, for instance, usually attend one of the country’s roughly 200 training schools. However, many employers require graduates of such programs to complete a period of on-the-job training before they are granted full technician status. When selecting a school to attend, check the listings of such agencies as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology and the regional accrediting associations for engineering colleges. Most employers prefer graduates of an accredited school.
In general, postsecondary programs strengthen the student’s background in science and mathematics, including pre-technical training. Beyond that, an interdisciplinary curriculum is more help ful than one that specializes in a narrow field. Other courses, which are basic to the work of the aeronautical scientist and engineer, should be part of a balanced program. These include basic physics, nuclear theory, chemistry, mechanics, and computers, including data-processing equipment and procedures.
Certification or Licensing
Only a few aerospace technician positions require licensing or certification; however, certificates issued by professional organizations do enhance the status of qualified engineering technicians. Certification is usually required of those working with nuclear-powered engines or testing radioactive sources, for those working on aircraft in some test programs, and in some safety-related positions. Technicians and technologists working in areas related to national defense, and especially those employed by government agencies, are usually required to carry security clearances.
Aeronautical and aerospace technicians must be able to learn basic engineering skills. They should enjoy and be proficient in mathematics and the physical sciences, able to visualize size, form, and function. The Aerospace Industries Association of America advises that today’s aerospace production worker must be strong in the basics of manufacturing, have a knowledge of statistics, and have the ability to work with computers.
Visiting an aerospace research or manufacturing facility is one of the best ways to learn more about this field. Because there are so many such facilities connected with the aerospace industry throughout the United States, there is sure to be one in nearly every area. The reference department of a local library can help students locate the nearest facility.
Finding part-time or summer employment at such a facility is, of course, one of the best ways to gain experience or learn more about the field. Such jobs aren’t available for all students interested in the field, but you can still find part-time work that will give you practical experience, such as in a local machine shop or factory.
Students should not overlook the educational benefits of visiting local museums of science and technology or aircraft museums or displays. The National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is one of the most comprehensive museums dedicated to aerospace. Some Air Force bases or naval air stations also offer tours to groups of interested students. The tours may be arranged by teachers or career guidance counselors.
The Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) provides students a chance to explore career opportunities in engineering and technology, enter academic competitions, and design model structures. JETS administers a competition that allows students to use their technology skills. The Tests of Engineering, Aptitude, Mathematics, and Science is an open-book, open-discussion engineering problem competition. If your school doesn’t have a JETS chapter, check with other schools in your area; sometimes smaller schools can form cooperatives to offer such programs.
Aeronautical and aerospace technicians and technologists are principally employed by government agencies, commercial airlines, educational institutions, and aerospace manufacturing companies. Most technicians employed by manufacturing companies engage in research, development, and design; the remainder work in production, sales, engineering, installation and maintenance, and other related fields. Those employed by government and educational institutions are normally assigned to do research and specific problem- solving tasks. Airlines employ technicians to supervise maintenance operations and the development of procedures for new equipment; there are roughly 142,000 aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service technicians.
The best way for students to obtain an aeronautical or aerospace technician’s job is through their college or university’s career ser vices office. Many manufacturers maintain recruiting relationships with schools in their area. Jobs may also be obtained through state employment offices, newspaper advertisements, applications for government employment, and industry work-study programs offered by many aircraft companies.
Aeronautical and aerospace technicians continue to learn on the job. As they gain experience in the specialized areas, employers turn to them as experts who can solve problems, create new techniques, devise new designs, or develop practice from theory.
Most advancement involves taking on additional responsibilities. For example, with experience, a technician may take on supervisory responsibilities, overseeing several trainees, assistant technicians, or others. Such a technician may also be assigned independent responsibility especially on some tasks usually assigned to an engineer. Technicians with a good working knowledge of the company’s equipment and who have good personalities may become company sales or technical representatives. Technicians seeking further advancement are advised to continue their education. With additional formal education, a technician may become an aeronautical or aerospace engineer.
Aerospace technology is a broad field, so earnings vary depending on a technician’s specialty, educational preparation, and work experience. In 2006, the median annual earnings for aerospace technicians were $53,300. Salaries ranged from less than $34,570 to more than $74,860 per year. Avionics technicians earned salaries that ranged from $32,540 to $63,090 or more in 2006. Benefits depend on employers but usually include paid vacations and holidays, sick pay, health insurance, and a retirement plan. Salary increases will likely be held to a minimum over the next few years as the industry struggles to achieve a new balance after years of cutbacks and difficult markets. Nearly all companies offer some form of tuition reimbursement for further education. Some offer cooperative programs with local schools, combining classroom training with practical paid experience.
The aerospace industry, with its strong emphasis on quality and safety, is a very safe place to work. Special procedures and equipment make otherwise hazardous jobs extremely safe. The range of work covered means that the technicians can work in small teams in specialized research laboratories or in test areas that are large and hospital-clean.
Aerospace technicians are at the launch pad, involved in fueling and checkout procedures, and back in the blockhouse sitting at an electronic console. They work in large test facilities or in specialized shops, designing and fabricating equipment. They travel to test sites or tracking stations to construct facilities or troubleshoot systems. Working conditions vary with the assignment, but the work climate is always challenging, and coworkers are well-trained, competent people.
Aeronautical technicians may perform inside activities involving confined detail work, they may work outside, or they may combine both situations. Aeronautical and aerospace technicians work in many situations: alone, in small teams, or in large groups. Commonly, technicians participate in team projects, which are coordinated efforts of scientists, engineers, and technicians working on specific assignments. They concentrate on the practical aspects of the project and must get along well with and interact cooperatively with the scientists responsible for the theoretical aspects of the project.
Aerospace technicians must be able to perform under deadline pressure, meet strict requirements and rigid specifications, and deal with potentially hazardous situations. They must be willing and flexible enough to acquire new knowledge and techniques to adjust to the rapidly changing technology. In addition, technicians need persistence and tenacity, especially when engaged in experimental and research tasks. They must be responsible, reliable, and willing to accept greater responsibility. Aerospace technology is never far from the public’s attention, and aeronautical technicians have the additional satisfaction of knowing that they are viewed as being engaged in vital and fascinating work.
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment of aircraft and avionics mechanics and service technicians will grow about as fast as the average for all occupations. Although the aerospace industry is predicted to grow more slowly than the average for all industries through 2014, an increase in air traffic and the improving finances of national airlines in the years since the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 will translate to modest employment growth. Increased military spending on defense aircraft and aero space equipment represents additional growth. Job openings will occur as technicians retire or seek employment in other industries. The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) predicts aerospace companies will be looking for qualified technicians in fields such as laser optics, mission operations, hazardous materials procedures, production planning, materials testing, computer-aided design, and robotic operations and programming.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For a list of accredited technology programs, contact:
Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc.
111 Market Place, Suite 1050
Baltimore, MD 21202-4012
Contact the AIA for publications with information on aerospace technologies, careers, and space.
Aerospace Industries Association (AIA)
1000 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1700
Arlington, VA 22209-3928
For career information and information on student branches of this organization, contact the AIAA.
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)
1801 Alexander Bell Drive, Suite 500
Reston, VA 20191-4344
For career and scholarship information, contact:
General Aviation Manufacturers Association
1400 K Street, NW, Suite 801
Washington, DC 20005-2402
JETS has career information and offers high school students the opportunity to “try on” engineering through a number of programs and competitions. For more information, contact:
Junior Engineering Technical Society
1420 King Street, Suite 405
Alexandria, VA 22314-2750
SEDS is an international organization of high school and college students dedicated to promoting interest in space. The United States national headquarters are located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Contact
Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS)
MIT Room W20-401
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
For more information on career choices and schools in Canada, contact:
Aerospace Industries Association of Canada
60 Queen Street, Suite 1200
Ottawa, ON K1P 5Y7 Canada