Here is some good news if you are an aerospace engineering college student currently struggling with fluid dynamics or stability and control courses: a recent list of 200 jobs ranked by CareerCast.com shows Aerospace Engineering coming in at number 18. The web site rankings, from best to worst jobs, were based on a score compiled using five major categories: work environment, stress, physical demands, income and hiring outlook. After compiling the scores, CareerCast listed Aerospace Engineering as the second highest engineering field, only two notches behind Industrial Engineering. The good news is that even though the hiring outlook for industrial engineering was higher than Aerospace (very good vs. moderate), the average salary for aerospace engineers was almost $20,000 more per year than industrial. Even though the airline industry (and thus orders for new aircraft) has taken a big hit with the recent economic downturn, I would surmise that the job market for aero engineers is still relatively good due to the strong defense budgets in the U.S. This is a big turn around from when I went to college in the late 70s, with friends trying to talk me out of aerospace engineering due to the dismal job market. (The aerospace industry was still reeling from the end of the Viet Nam war, the Apollo space program and the cancellation of the Boeing SST. Thousands of aero engineers lost their jobs, especially in the Seattle area, leading to this infamous billboard near Seattle’s airport.) They suggested I switch to a more broad major such as mechanical engineering, but my interest in aviation and space was so strong I didn’t want to compromise my dreams so early in my career. I stuck it out with aerospace engineering, managed to get a co-op job with the DOD while still at Purdue University, and then a full-time offer at graduation. Since then I have been working steadily in aerospace for over 28 years, and haven’t regretted my career choice. It’s been challenging, interesting, and most of all, rewarding. So for you aerospace engineering students still slogging your way through one of the toughest undergraduate programs you can take, hang in there. The hard work will be worth it, just as the CareerCast list indicates.
The web was awash with stories today on an intriguing concept for a personal Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft being studied by NASA. Called the Puffin, the one-person VTOL would have twin rotors/propellers and be powered by small electric motors. Several web sites, including Scientific American, had stories providing details on the Puffin. Conceptual pictures show the Puffin taking off and landing on it’s tail, similar to the experimental Convair XFY Pogo that flew successfully way back in the 1950s. A NASA video shows how the Puffin would take off, transition to horizontal flight, and then back to vertical flight for landing. It appears that unlike tilt-wing or tilt-rotor aircraft such as the Bell-Boeing V-22, the Puffin rotors are fixed, and transitional flight is accomplished by deflection of aerodynamic tail surfaces under the influence of the rotor down-wash. Also unique is the fact that the pilot would be in the standing position for take off and landing, but in the prone position during horizontal flight. Not explained in any of the info I read about the Puffin is what would happen if you had a failure of one of the electric motors driving each rotor, resulting in a very dangerous asymmetrical thrust situation. In the twin-engine V-22, both rotors are can be powered by a single engine driving an interconnected shaft if one engine fails.
While the Puffin concept is intriguing, it is currently just some pretty computer-generated pictures and video. Though it has a healthy pedigree with engineers from NASA, MIT and Georgia Tech behind it, I’m always somewhat skeptical of these ideas for radical flying machines, especially VTOL types. While I applaud any new aerospace concept based on sound engineering principles, the Puffin researchers will have to get a prototype or scale model flying to begin to win me over.