Aeronautical engineering classes equip students with the necessary skills and knowledge to dream big and conquer the sky. Almost all of the best engineering colleges in the world feature an aeronautical or aerospace engineering degree program, which are the educational hubs for training and certifying the next generation of aeronautical engineers.
To join this illustrious profession, a high school education just isn’t going to cut it. But figuring out what the learning process actually entails is half the battle. In this starter kit, we break down the field of aeronautical engineering and offer tips and strategies for gaining access to what the keepers of the vocational wisdom already know.
What Is Aeronautical Engineering?
Aeronautical engineering is one of two branches of engineering under the aerospace umbrella, the other being astronautical engineering. Often confused or conflated, the two branches deal with different aspects of the science of flight and the construction of flying machines. Whereas aeronautics limits itself to Earth, astronautics handles outer space.
Two branches of aerospace engineering are necessary because the Earth’s atmosphere makes such different demands on aircraft than the molecular composition of outer space makes on spacecraft.
To do their jobs, aeronautical engineers and astronautical engineers must each master a unique set of physical and chemical principles and mathematical equations.
Aeronautical engineers, then, are aerospace specialists who undertake the design, development, operation, and maintenance of aircraft, as distinct from spacecraft. Astronautical engineers may reach for the stars, but for aeronautical engineers, the sky’s the limit.
What Is Aeronautical Engineering Used For?
All punning aside, aeronautical engineers have their fingerprints all over society’s most significant advances, and their influence spans both the private and public sectors. Let’s dig a little deeper into the field’s many contributions to our changing world.
- Aircraft design and manufacture. First and foremost, aeronautical engineers design different types of aircraft, including commercial airplanes, high-speed jets, helicopters, and balloons. With each improvement, the world gets a little smaller and a little safer.
- Aircraft maintenance. Human flight is a modern marvel, but the aviation industry would have shut down years ago were it not for all the aeronautical engineers working tirelessly to perform diagnostics and keep these machines up and running.
- Sustainable aviation. Born out of necessity, sustainable aviation is rising to meet the challenges of finite resources and a warming planet. It seeks to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by improving fuel efficiency and looking for alternative sources of fuel.
- Military applications. If you’ve ever flown or watched a drone, heard of Lockheed Martin, or studied the history of World War II and the Cold War, then you know how crucial aeronautical engineers are to the United States Armed Forces.
Types of Aeronautical Engineering: A Breakdown of Specializations
For reasons of safety and efficiency, it’s always better to have a team of aeronautical engineers working on a project than a single engineer. The division of labor encourages delegation, with each engineer focusing on a different aspect of the aircraft.
This pattern starts early in the education process. While every aeronautical engineer studies the same core topics, each engineer chooses just one topic to specialize in. The four major areas of aeronautics knowledge are materials and structures, structural dynamics, flight dynamics, and propulsion.
Materials and Structures
The performance of an aircraft relies on the selection of metals, ceramics, and other materials optimized for their properties of weight and strength. The selection of materials also helps determine which types of wings and internal supports are viable.
If materials and structures experts put the aircraft together, then structural dynamics specialists apply principles of aerodynamics and aeroelasticity, along with the corresponding mathematical operations, to the question of how well and how efficiently it can fly.
Propulsion engineers apply their knowledge of thermodynamics and heat transfer to the unique problems of aeronautics. Newton’s third law of motion, the idea that every action has an equal but opposite reaction, plays a crucial role in propelling aircraft up and through the air.
Not to be confused with structural dynamics, flight dynamics focuses not on physical properties, but rather on how best to facilitate the aviator’s manual and computer-aided control of the aircraft. They work on things like sensors and autonomous systems.
Learning Aeronautical Engineering
Membership in the exclusive club of aeronautical engineers is largely determined by universities that offer ABET-accredited engineering degree programs. Employers rely on a consistent set of standards when making new hires, and they expect every candidate they interview to have certain knowledge and experiences. Otherwise, chaos would ensue.
One way to start mapping out a study plan for yourself is to read up on ABET’s accreditation criteria. But that will only get you so far, and some of their guidelines are next to impossible to execute on one’s own. In this section, we’ll try to cut through the red tape with a straightforward account of what it takes to learn aeronautical engineering.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Aeronautical Engineering?
If bachelor’s degree programs in aeronautical engineering are any guide, it will take you four to five years to accumulate the relevant engineering skills and knowledge. Students seeking more specialized training will spend an additional year attaining their master’s degrees, and the ones who really love research will add another three years to get their PhDs.
Keep in mind that there is no substitute for on-the-job experience, especially if your mode of study does not incorporate the laboratory-style application of skills. In addition to the time you put into studying, you should do everything within your power to procure an engineering internship or find work as a technician, which is easier said than done.
How to Learn Aeronautical Engineering: A Step-by-Step Guide
However you go about acquiring the knowledge, your learning process should include these steps.
- Build a science and math foundation. College-level physics, chemistry, multivariable calculus, and linear algebra are all essential for getting aircraft off the ground, keeping them up in the air, and navigating them through the airspace under various conditions.
- Obtain core knowledge in mechanical engineering. Many institutions classify aeronautics as a subdiscipline of mechanical engineering, and the foundations of the two fields are quite similar. Learn one on the way to learning the other, and kill two birds with one stone.
- Study and apply the science of flight. As it pertains to the Earth’s atmosphere, that is. Add training in aerodynamics, aeroelasticity, and jet propulsion to your mechanical engineering education in dynamics, systems design, and heat transfer.
- Procure an internship in the aerospace industry or public sector. You need a job when you’re done studying, and nobody will hire you unless you can prove that your skill set is more than academic. Search far and wide for internship opportunities, and if you score an interview, be prepared for common internship interview questions.
The Best Aeronautical Engineering Courses and Training
Because engineering colleges and ABET work hand-in-glove to design and standardize the curriculum, standalone aeronautical engineering courses are hard to come by.
But that does not mean they don’t exist. Where available, outstanding single classes present great opportunities for you to build skills and confidence. And enough of that may embolden you to apply for one of the top aerospace engineering programs in the world.
With any luck, one of the courses on this list will take you to new heights.
Best In-Person Aeronautical Engineering Classes
Live classrooms and labs are essential features of engineering programs. Without a way to apply textbook engineering principles on actual design, construction, or repair projects, aeronautical engineering students would not be able to build practical knowledge for their first jobs.
Short of a full-scale bachelor’s degree program, you have a few options for learning practical skills at an educational facility or training site.
Clovis Community College
- Name: Aerospace Engineering Transfer Credits – Fresno, CA
- Time: 3-4 semesters (42 units)
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: $290 per credit plus fees
Community colleges all over the country assist students with their vocational goals every day. And Clovis Community College, located in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, is just one example of a junior college that assembles special course packages for students to earn transfer credit in anticipation of becoming engineering majors at a four-year school.
Their package for aspiring aeronautical engineers is called a Certificate of Achievement in Mechanical, Aerospace, or Manufacturing Engineering, and includes core math, physics, chemistry, and engineering prerequisites. By checking these courses off of your list early, you’ll be placing yourself near the front of the line for an engineering internship.
University of Kansas Aerospace: Short Courses
- Name: Principles of Aerospace Engineering – San Diego, CA
- Dates: September 13-17, 2021
- Prerequisites: Some engineering competency
- Cost: $2,695 or $2,495 with early registration
The Lifelong and Professional Education branch of the University of Kansas is ahead of the curve when it comes to providing training opportunities to the general public. Their short courses program spans the length of the country, serving communities in and around Orlando, Seattle, and San Diego as well as Kansas City.
This Principles course is among the menu of options that KU is offering at the Marriott Hotel in the Mission Valley neighborhood of San Diego next September. Enrollees will get an accelerated glimpse at all the topics covered in a typical aeronautics bachelor’s program, including aerodynamics, propulsion, aeroelasticity, and flight mechanics.
Best Online Aeronautical Engineering Courses
We’re still a few years away from the technology that would make distance learning for aeronautics rival the hands-on experience of a fully in-person curriculum. But thanks to computer-aided design software, you can get pretty far with a little book learning, and there are online courses that can bridge at least some of the gap between theory and practice.
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
- Name: Fundamentals of Airplane Performance, Stability, Dynamics, and Control
- Time: 10 hours on-demand
- Prerequisites: Some engineering competency
- Cost: $795
Professional societies don’t wield as much influence as they used to, but their educational services remain high-value alternatives to universities and colleges. This short course consists of five lectures of escalating complexity on flight mechanics.
Each lecture focuses on a different aspect of the science of flight, walking through the equations needed to estimate the performance of aircraft under a given set of conditions.
Technical University of Munich (Coursera)
- Name: Digitalization in Aeronautics
- Time: 10 hours
- Level: Intermediate
- Cost: $79 per month after free trial
Learn all about the impact of digital technology on the aviation industry with 23 video lessons, four readings, and one quiz spread out over four weeks. The two German professors tackle Euro-centric applications, including Bavaria’s digital strategy, a digital modeling language with Swedish origins, and a German design collaboration.
Best Free Aeronautical Engineering Courses
If you’re leery of spending money on training that won’t result in certification, we understand your hesitation. Unfortunately, free courses in aeronautical engineering are few and far between. Those you do come across are definitely worth checking out, at least as an appetizer to a more comprehensive course of study.
Below are a couple that we can recommend to get you started.
Delft University of Technology (edX)
- Name: Introduction to Aeronautical Engineering
- Time: 7 weeks
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: Free to audit
It would not be an understatement to call this the best free aeronautical engineering course on the web. Taught by four faculty members from TU Delft in the Netherlands, which has one of the strongest aerospace engineering programs in the world, this introductory course moves steadily through the history of aviation, aerodynamics, and flight mechanics.
The recommended time commitment is ten to twelve hours per week, but students are encouraged to work at their own pace. If the knowledge gained is not incentive enough for you, there is also the option of paying fifty dollars for a certificate of completion, which may boost your chances on the entry-level job market.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Name: Aerodynamics
- Time: Self-paced and on-demand
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: Free course materials
Pursue this option only if you’re a self-starter because these free materials from the Fall 2005 iteration of MIT’s Aerodynamics course do not come with a professor to guide you through them. But with the textbook as a proxy for your teacher, you should be able to pound through the lecture notes, study guides, problem sets, and exams on your own.
The Best Aeronautical Engineering Books
Whatever brought you to the brink of devoting five years of your life to learning aeronautical engineering, one of the most efficient ways to decide whether to take the plunge is to read a conversational exposition of the subject.
Either of the books below will both gratify your curiosity and bring your vocational future into clearer focus.
Fundamentals of Aerospace Engineering: Beginner’s Guide, By Ali Baghcheshara, Francisco Gallardo Lopez, et al.
Many book-length introductions to aerospace engineering contain pages upon pages of complex math equations, most of which are intimidating or indecipherable to the beginner. That is not this book, which the authors wrote with an audience of math novices in mind. Regardless of your comfort with calculus and linear algebra, there is something here for you.
Keep in mind, however, that aerospace engineering applies to both aeronautical and astronautical engineers, so it’s possible that only half of the book will interest you. The first fifty pages cover aeronautics exclusively, with chapters on aerodynamics and jet propulsion. Once you’ve read that, flip to the end and check out the section on careers.
Aircraft: The Definitive Visual History, By DK and Philip Whiteman
One of the best ways to learn aeronautical engineering is to study the history of innovations in aircraft design. At 435 pages of beautiful illustrations, Aircraft: The Definitive Visual History brings these innovations to life, one groundbreaking advance at a time.
Feast your eyes on everything from reconstructed prototypes for the oldest flying machines in existence to the latest in jet engine technology. Best of all, every illustration comes with detailed labels and descriptions for every part and feature. More than just a coffee table book, it will be there for you, ready to reference, the next time inspiration strikes.
Best Online Aeronautical Engineering Resources
As hard as it is to break into the aeronautical engineering profession, the Internet makes it easy to overcome hurdles that used to be insurmountable. If you hope to design and build aircraft for a living, these two websites belong on your digital workbench.
Academy of Model Aeronautics
Aeronautical engineering is such a huge, complex, and resource-intensive discipline that it can seem impossible to get your learning off the ground. One piece of advice is to start small, which you can literally do with the Academy of Model Aeronautics, an international association of aviation enthusiasts who build model airplanes.
The engineering principles are essentially the same, but the materials and equipment are obviously a lot cheaper and easier to use than what you need to build a full-scale aircraft. Just use the search function to look up your local AMA chapter, and start testing out your designs alongside a supportive community of like-minded thinkers and doers.
Aeronautics engineers cannot possibly memorize all the information thrown at them over the course of their training. They need to understand the basic principles and when to apply them, of course, but the specs of various aircraft and equations for calculating performance can and should be kept in an accessible handbook.
That is Wolfram|Alpha in a nutshell. The Aircraft page gives you instant access to an encyclopedia of information about aircraft types and properties, which you can use to look something up or compare and contrast the performance of different aircraft.
Should You Study Aeronautical Engineering?
Without a doubt, learning aeronautical engineering is a smart career move. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average aerospace engineer takes home a salary of $116,500, which is roughly $20,000 more than the average salary for all engineers.
Yet the professional barriers to entry remain relatively high. Despite the wide variety of courses, resources, and alternative training regimens available to motivated and independent learners, the highest-earning aeronautical engineers are those who went the traditional route, spending four or more years laboring through degree programs.
It would be a mistake, however, to let that discourage you. When it comes time to decide whether studying to become an aeronautical engineer is an investment worth making, your passion, drive, and resourcefulness will be the only factors that matter.
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