How to Become a Flight Engineer (Duties, Salary and Steps)

Are you interested in a career as a flight engineer? Here’s how you can pursue this exciting career path!

Illustration of a commercial aircraft and six people carrying out maintenance work on different parts of it

Flight engineers have stood the test of time. Commonly thought to be a declining profession, as aircraft become more technologically sophisticated, flight engineers are still highly regarded members of the aircrew with incredible knowledge of how these complex machines operate.

Today, flight engineers are still in demand by both civilian and military aviation companies. Are you interested in this exciting career path? Our guide will walk you through what a flight engineer does, what the job is like, salary information, and ultimately how to become a flight engineer.

What flight engineers do

Flight engineers are usually based aboard aircraft, taking care of the complex systems and machinery.  Typically regarded as the ‘third pilot’, alongside the captain and first officer on larger or older jet airplanes, the role of flight engineer has become a little less important with the advent of computers and fly-by-wire.

Nevertheless, flight engineers are still required by certain airlines or aircraft, as well as in cargo or military aviation. 

Typically, the role of flight engineer encompasses the following:

  • Performing ground inspections of planes, according to operator and manufacturer requirements
  • Creating pre-flight and in-flight checklists for the flight crew
  • Assisting with certain aircraft operations such as throttle levels when taking off
  • Setting and monitoring aircraft systems and variables, such as fuel and hydraulics
  • Diagnosing and solving any in-flight problems that might arise
  • Compiling reports of any abnormalities and sending them to aircraft manufacturers
  • Being qualified and flight ready to pilot the airplane where needed
  • Keeping up to date on high level aircraft mechanical operation of all types and models
  • Keeping calm in emergencies and knowing what to do in any situation
  • Communicating with the captain and first officer on any pertinent matters, as well as with ground crews.

What the job is like

As members of the operational flight crew, flight engineers are subject to the same environmental factors as pilots. The role is very demanding and pressured but can also be highly rewarding. Take a look below to get a better image of what being a flight engineer involves.

Work environment

Being a flight engineer is full of deadlines and short-lead priorities. This is balanced by being an incredibly organized and structured individual. Everything must have a plan and a process as not having these in place can lead to disaster.

Airlines are often subject to heavy fines if their plane departs the airport late. Fight engineers are responsible for them being well-maintained and flight-ready, to be able to leave on time. 

In the air, flight engineers will be constantly monitoring the aircraft’s complicated systems. This takes a lot of concentration with very little downtime, in a cramped and noisy environment.

The role is very safe – as you would imagine most civilian flight jobs to be – but if the flight engineer is working for the military, there might be risk to life involved during wartime operations.

When there is an issue or fault, all eyes are on the flight engineer; they are expected to keep calm and figure out quickly and accurately what is wrong. If the fault is leading to a potential risk or hazard, or there is a danger to life, the flight engineer must keep a level head and do as much as they can to solve the problem.

Flight engineers need to be caught up with new developments in their field and train on flight simulators on a rotational basis. Budding flight engineers must also be aware that training costs can be high, starting at around $54,000 for part time training.

Work hours

Flight engineers are rostered mainly according to flight schedules. If they are flying short haul, flight engineers might spend a working week flying from airport to airport, sometimes two or three times in a day.  There follow a couple of days off, and so on.

Long haul flight engineers will usually fly out and have two days off before flying back again, with another short break before the next flight.

In between flight schedules, flight engineers will spend some working days on the ground, inspecting aircraft and training in flight simulators. Because of the demanding nature of the role, rotas are usually set months ahead of time and requesting holiday is a lot less straightforward than it is in a more regular office job. Expect to plan your downtime months in advance!

Job satisfaction

Because the job is so technical and demanding, job satisfaction levels amongst flight engineers are not the highest. Glassdoor rates the job 3/5 for work-life balance and 3.7/5 stars for career opportunities. 

Work-life balance seems to be a chief concern for flight engineers, as the role requires large amounts of time away from home, as well as long hours. Career uncertainty due to the diminishing demand for flight engineers is a concern, although some operating aircrafts (such as the Boeing 747 family) still require a flight engineer, and military organizations certainly demand the specialized knowledge of flight engineers.  The role has migrated to mostly ground-based operations, too.

Job market

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted declining job prospects for flight engineers, due to the aforementioned advances in technology that are making the role obsolete. Nevertheless, there are some encouraging signs.

The sheer wealth of technical knowledge that existing and newly qualified flight engineers have is unparalleled, even for pilots. Many flight engineers find themselves working in ground-based roles for aircraft manufacturers, or in supervisory engineering roles for aviation organizations.  Some flight engineers eventually cross train so they work in the more technical industries of aerospace and defense contracting.

The inherent knowledge flight engineers possess, as well as the need for them to be qualified and trained in flying aircrafts, means that the role is far from a dead-end job. Many flight engineers go on to become first officers and pilots as they progress in their career. 

Salary

In all measures, flight engineers are paid an above-average salary and is one of the best-paying engineering jobs out there.  The role requires specialized skills, carries a great deal of risk, and aims to reward the tricky work-life balance. 

This section takes you through the salary prospects for flight engineers, in terms of mean wage in the US, and in comparison to seniority levels and other countries.

Mean wage

With the average US salary coming in at $56,310, the mean annual wage for flight engineers is more than three times as high.

Mean annual wage

Mean hourly wage

$186,870

N/A

Median wage by experience

The salary range for flight engineers offers strong growth prospects as seniority increases.  Flight engineers can expect to earn 41% more when they are most experienced, compared to when they started working.

Experience

Median annual wage

Entry level

$61,000

Mid level

$79,500

Senior level

$77,949

Top level

$90,000

Mean wage by state

This table shows the five US states with the highest mean salaries for flight engineers. These states typically have large aviation sectors.

State

Mean annual wage

Michigan

$248,770

Nevada

$236,260

Florida

$229,730

California

$229,110

Washington

$221,570

Median wage around the world

This table shows how flight engineer salaries compare in five English-speaking countries. The salary for flight engineers around the world, is quite similar to the US, with the UK paying the most on average.

Country

Median annual wage

Australia

AU$111,473 ($79,569)

Canada

C$108,688 ($77,591)

Ireland

€58,190 ($65,834)

New Zealand

NZ$76,302 ($50,698)

UK

£68,569 ($93,001)

Steps to become a flight engineer

A lot of career planning and training goes into becoming a fully trained flight engineer. This begins with advanced career planning, focusing on the right educational subjects, considering military avenues, and training and becoming licensed as a pilot. Below, we discuss these steps in more detail.

1. Determine if it’s the right job for you

Deciding whether this is right role for you starts with understanding the skills and attributes needed for success in this profession. Flight engineers are expected to have the following skills and traits:

  • Exceptional time management
  • Communication skills
  • Analytical and critical thinking skills
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • Level headedness and stress management capabilities
  • Mechanical skills and technical ability
  • Attention to detail
  • Risk management expertise
  • Logical reasoning skills

Take some time to assess your own soft and hard skills and make a list of the ones you are best at, and you enjoy the most. If these correlate to the skills above, you might be on to a great career match.

If you’re still not sure if being a flight engineer is the career for you, then consider taking a career test, such as CareerHunter. Our test will help you determine the best career matches for you and provide you with a list of courses and professions which match your skills, personality and interests.

2. Focus on the right subjects at school

The best time to focus on becoming a flight engineer is at school as this will set you on the right path for what comes next. The most appropriate subjects for aspiring flight engineers are mathematics, engineering, and physics, which covers many areas of mathematics and other relevant sciences. 

Given that more and more flight systems are moving to computer-based operation, studying information technology could also be a good move. 

Meanwhile, you should also consider undertaking work experience opportunities in engineering companies or, if possible, aviation organizations.  This will help you determine from an early stage if the industry is right for you.

3. Consider joining the military

There are two good reasons budding flight engineers might want to join the military. The first one is that the nature of military aviation means that more systems need engineering specialism than in commercial aviation. There might also be a wider variety of career avenues, for example working overseas versus domestic roles, as well as diverse equipment and needs.

The second reason concerns the military job market. There might be more roles in flight engineering in the military because it can be regarded as a lower-paying, less attractive industry. Nevertheless, consider earning your stripes and joining the military, as this could be a great way into the role and an easy way to gain experience and flight hours.

4. Obtain a bachelor’s degree

Most flight engineering roles will require higher education certificates. The best bachelor’s degrees for flight engineering revolve around STEM subjects. Physics is a great fit, and combines mathematics, logic and some engineering methodology which ticks many boxes required of flight engineers. Engineering would be an excellent fit too.  Meanwhile, you could also consider chemistry, statistics, mathematics, or computing. 

Of course, many universities run aviation-related courses such as aerospace studies, which would allow you to develop your skills and expertise specifically around aviation.

5. Get a commercial pilot’s license

Because flight engineer responsibilities can involve piloting aircrafts, becoming one requires obtaining a commercial pilot’s license (CPL) first.

In the US, this process starts with enrolling in a flight school (an important first step, so research reviews and their reputation carefully). You next need to apply for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) third class medical exam with an Aeromedical Examiner. You will then be able to apply for your FAA student pilot certificate.

Training begins with Ground School, where you learn practical and theoretical knowledge. You then commence Flight School, learning in simulators and in aircraft with a flight instructor. Once you pass the FAA written and practical examinations, you will attain your Private Pilot’s License (PPL). 

To attain your CPL, you will need to pass further exams (Instrument Rating and a second-class medical exam) and log 250 hours of flight time. The whole process takes at least nine months. 

Progressing your career as a pilot (graduating to larger airlines and larger aircraft, as well as moving from first officer to captain) requires experience, competence, and amassing flying hours. You’ll also need to take a multi-engine examination.

6. Earn your flight engineer license

A Flight Engineer License (FEL) is only attainable once you get your PPL and CPL. To be eligible for this license, applicants need to be 21 years of age and have a good grasp of the English language.

There are several courses you’ll need to complete to attain this license, including further medical examinations, a practical engineering test, and a two-year course in aviation maintenance or three years’ experience in the aviation industry.

Final thoughts

Despite all that is changing in the world of aviation, becoming a flight engineer is still a relevant, exciting, and rewarding role with excellent career progression opportunities. However, budding flight engineers need to be aware of the extensive job responsibilities, the skills needed for success, the cost and time constraints of training, and the expectation placed upon them. 

If this is a career you want to pursue, then you will be rewarded with a lucrative job that comes with opportunity to travel the world. By following the steps listed in our guide, you will be able to get started and get your foot through the door of this industry.

Start a conversation! Are you considering becoming a flight engineer? What are some of your other career options? Let us know in the comments section below.

 

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published in July 2014. Salary information contained in this article is based on data compiled and published by BLS and PayScale. Currency conversions are based on rates supplied by XE.com on 11 February 2022.