Older jets usually require a flight crew of three, consisting of the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer.
Today’s aircraft are much more sophisticated and onboard computers are increasingly taking over the flight tasks traditionally performed by the flight engineer, otherwise known as the second officer. For aircraft still requiring a flight engineer, who may or may not be a licensed commercial pilot building up flight time, the duties include monitoring the aircraft’s fuel system, engines, air conditioning and cabin pressurization levels. During flight, the engineer may perform systems checks, modifications, repairs, or even shutdowns. He or she works closely with the pilot and copilot to ensure a smooth and safe flight. When problems or emergencies arise, the flight engineer works with the pilot to affect a solution and keep the passengers, crew, and aircraft as safe as possible. One of the primary tasks of the flight engineer, particularly on long distance flights, is to monitor the fuel consumption rate and that entails computing head or tail winds, engine RPM, and other factors. The flight engineer also makes sure that the cargo or baggage is loaded correctly and its total weight is within the safe operating envelope for that aircraft. A flight engineer may also help the pilot to start up and shut down the aircraft engines.
As with pilots and copilots, a flight engineer must have a high degree of knowledge when it comes to the operation of the many instruments in any aircraft’s cockpit. In the event of an emergency, it may be their job to help the pilot take the necessary actions to land the plane safely. Another challenging aspect of working as a flight engineer is the schedule. As with the rest of the flight crew, flight engineers must spend extended periods away from home.
Candidates for the position of flight engineer must be knowledgeable of aircraft systems, radio communications, navigation, flight theory, aircraft emergency procedures, electronics, aircraft limitations and performance, and in many other areas.
Flight engineers should have a high school diploma or the equivalent, but companies prefer that candidates have college math or mechanical engineering degrees. A basic flight engineer course must be completed and passed and the must flight engineer must receive certification from the FAA or Transport Canada. Some companies require a flight engineer to also have an airframe and powerplant mechanic license and/or a commercial pilot’s license.
Work schedules can change from month to month, but typically, a flight engineer will work for several days in a row and then have several consecutive days off. Flight crews spend many nights away from home because most flights require an overnight layover. Airlines compensate crew for the cost of meals, hotel, and transportation when working away from home. As with other crewmembers, flight engineers with the most seniority get the choice flight assignments. The more years one has in any given job, the more seniority they achieve.
Salary and Benefits
Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers: Mean annual wage: $129,600 (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes532011.htm)
Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers: Median wages (2013) $115,190 annual (http://online.onetcenter.org/link/summary/53-2011.00)
Benefits usually include paid vacation, dental and life insurance, sick leave, retirement plan, free or reduced airfare for employees and immediate family members.