Pilots aren’t the only people who make a career in aviation and space. Airplanes and spacecraft are designed by engineers, built by factory workers, serviced by mechanics and technicians, and overseen by air traffic (or spacecraft) controllers. Airline captains work closely with dispatchers. Flight planning depends on weather forecasts from meteorologists. Managers supervise all these workers to keep the business of aviation running smoothly. So, for every job as a pilot, there are several more on the ground.
Unfortunately, while most economists agree that the recession is over for the country as a whole, things are still slow in most aerospace industries. Airlines are being hit by rising fuel costs, and the resulting low profits make it difficult for them to buy new (more fuel-efficient) hardware. Business aviation is slowly growing, helped by tax incentives, but new production of general aviation aircraft is still extremely slow. And military and other federal aviation and space programs are certain to be targets in deficit-cutting moves. Nonetheless, there continues to be hiring in the industry, in large part to replace retirees. And the new field of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA—formerly UAV) operations remains a bright spot with unlimited potential for the future.
One common thread held true while researching this article: The more education and experience you have, the better your odds of being hired. Even blue-collar jobs today require basic computer skills, and as more people compete for fewer professional jobs, standing out from the crowd with an advanced degree, unusual experience or both, helps.
Here are nine career fields outside the cockpit—and one that involves a cockpit of sorts, but never leaves the ground:
1. Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA, formerly UAV Operations) is a brand-new field that many people expect to expand rapidly. An expert told us that in the long run, every flying job that’s “dangerous or dirty” will move to remotely piloted vehicles, mentioning fire fighting, pipeline patrol and agricultural spraying as examples. There are at least two unique career fields associated with RPA operations: remote pilot and sensor operator. Pilot qualifications are basically the same as those for entry-level airline jobs: An FAA commercial pilot license, preferably multi-engine (though single-engine may be enough, depending on the vehicle) with several hundred hours’ experience. A four-year degree, and Airline Transport Pilot and Flight Instructor certifications are a definite plus, and for the jobs available now, U.S. citizenship is required. Salaries start at around $50,000, and reach $75,000 with a couple of years of experience. As Kansas State University professor R. Kurt Barnhart told us, “It sure beats CFI pay!” Most of the available jobs today are overseas, working for defense contractors or along the U.S. border—but that’s almost certain to change. Barnhart told us that RPA operations out of small airports are becoming “almost routine,” and expects the FAA to begin introducing new rules to codify RPA operations later this year. We recently noticed a new chart symbol for UAVs on the latest editions of U.S. sectional aeronautical charts.
Slow, steady growth is seen for engineers, who design aircraft and aerospace vehicles. These jobs require a four-year bachelor’s degree in engineering or a physical science.
2. Air Traffic Controllers keep instrument pilots safely separated and offer advisory service to others. This is among the most challenging of all aviation careers. A senior controller we spoke to some time ago described his job at the FAA’s Fort Worth Center as “like playing three-dimensional chess games every day for 30 years, and never losing a game.” According to the FAA, more than 7,000 federal controllers were hired in the last five years—nearly half of the federal ATC workforce—mainly to replace older controllers who reach the mandatory retirement age of 56. Controllers work rotating shifts, which usually amount to a 40-hour week, though overtime may be required. New hires start at $37,070 after graduating from the FAA’s ATC Academy, but further raises with experience push the average controller’s salary past six figures, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Initial training is followed by on-the-job training as a Developmental Controller at an ATC facility for up to four years. Dr. Jose Ruiz, Associate Professor of Aviation Management and Flight at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, expects that ATC “employment opportunities will remain steady for the foreseeable future.”
3. Space Operations is somewhat akin to Air Traffic Control, though usually without the drama—once a satellite is in orbit, it takes a major effort to bring it down. Entry-level jobs are available in the field for spacecraft (or satellite) controllers, who monitor spacecraft on-orbit 24 hours a day. This involves shift work (often on a rotating schedule). Past experience from the military, NASA, FAA Air Traffic Control or civil nuclear power helps, as does a college degree in engineering or physical sciences. With additional education, controllers can move up to positions as Mission Analysts (involved anytime a change is expected or observed in a spacecraft orbit) or Satellite Engineers (who troubleshoot problems). Steve Shaffer, who until recently was in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) space operations center, estimates that “a few thousand” people are employed in space operations—mainly in private industry. At NOAA, the pay for controllers starts at $34,000, and can rise to $97,000 with experience—and with controllers required to cover 24 hours a day, overtime and holiday pay means that most controllers can expect to add about 20% to those figures.
4. Airline Dispatchers share responsibility with the captain for the safety of U.S. scheduled airline flights, and are involved in many aspects of flight planning and operation. They’re required to pass an examination comparable in most respects to that required for the Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, and hours for dispatchers are limited by federal regulations. According to Airline Dispatcher’s Federation President Joseph Miceli, a 23- year veteran of United Airlines, employment in the field is “steady” at “about 5,000” licensed dispatchers in the U.S. He’s encouraged by the news that airlines continued to hire dispatchers last year despite mergers, and expects hiring to increase this year. Miceli told us that starting salaries vary from $20,000-$40,000 for new hires at regional airlines, while “the majors start at $50,000, and can go to six figures with experience.”
5. Engineers design every aerospace vehicle (and equipment that goes into them). These professional jobs require a four-year bachelor’s degree in engineering or one of the physical sciences as a bare minimum to enter the field. Most engineers work a regular 40-hour week, but some work on rotating shifts, and others work odd hours when required. The most recent BLS data shows almost 90,000 engineers of all types employed in aerospace product-and-parts manufacturing—predicted to increase by 4% this decade—at an average salary over $56,000, rising to six figures with additional education and experience. Paul Kostek, a distinguished lecturer for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is upbeat about the field: “Like the rest of the economy, we’re seeing slow, steady growth for engineers. The demand for unmanned vehicles continues to grow and provide opportunities in both the military and civilian market. We’re seeing some interesting opportunities appear outside the US. This is providing opportunities for suppliers (avionics, engines, navigation) that will be a plus for engineers. And the successful launch of the SpaceX Dragon capsule opens a new market for engineers—commercial space development.”
6. Aviation/Airport Managers fill a variety of roles focused on the business side of aviation, according to University of North Dakota Professor Kim Kenville, who says this field is ideal for those with strong people skills: “This isn’t a job for an introvert—you have to deal with unhappy people.” The job generally requires a four-year degree, according to Kenville, who told us that entry-level pay for new managers has risen to around $40,000 (higher at consultancies), and can easily increase to six figures with experience. She says the field is growing slowly due to the state of the economy. Students graduating from UND’s aviation management track currently need “around six months” to find a permanent position, and Kenville believes that’s typical. The odds can be improved by starting with an internship, which she called “readily available,” and typically pays $10-$15 per hour. Kenville told us that sponsoring organizations work hard to find permanent jobs for interns. On the whole, she’s upbeat about the field: “Airports that are city controlled are taking hits, but other than that, by and large the airport world is doing well.”
7. Meteorologists and Atmospheric Scientists forecast the weather—a matter of grave concern to pilots. Minimum qualifications include a four-year science or engineering degree, but an advanced degree is highly desirable. Operational meteorologists (including U.S. Weather Service teams collocated with FAA regional traffic control centers) work round-the-clock shifts, while long-range forecasters and those involved in atmospheric research work regular office hours. According to the BLS, there are approximately 9,400 meteorologists and atmospheric scientists employed in the U.S., with a median annual over $80,000. About one-third are employed by the federal government (mainly the National Weather Service). The BLS expects the field to grow by about 15% in this decade, with most new jobs coming from the private sector. Professor Eugene Takle of Iowa State University agrees with the BLS projections: “Most of our graduate students take jobs in DOE or NOAA outside the area of forecasting. The private sector exhibits a growing need for meteorologists, primarily wind-energy forecasting. But this area is highly volatile and linked to the economy (and, for the wind industry, to public policy on tax incentives for renewable energy).”
8. Safety, Logistics and Planning are among the white-collar support positions found in large organizations including aerospace manufacturers and airlines. A two-year community-college degree will help to qualify a candidate for entry-level jobs; a four-year bachelor’s degree may be required for supervisory and management positions in these fields. According to the BLS, more than 6,000 logisticians (responsible for getting raw materials, parts and subassemblies to the right place at the right time) are employed in aerospace product and part manufacturing, at an average salary of almost $68,000 per year. The BLS doesn’t break out what proportion of occupational safety and health specialists and technicians are employed in aerospace businesses, but those jobs average over $45,000 per year, and employment in the field is expected to grow by 15% in this decade. Part of this growth may be due to new federal requirements, including mandatory wildlife assessment and a likely FAA rule on safety management systems, according to UND’s Kim Kenville. These fields, along with maintenance control, are representative of jobs that mechanics, technicians and other hourly workers can work their way into with additional education and experience.
|NASA Engineer Rod Chima works in a supersonic wind tunnel (above, top). Installers at Cessna Aircraft mate the wing and fuselage of a Citation CJ4 (above, bottom).|
9. Aerospace Medicine offers high-paying jobs for Aviation Medical Examiners (AMEs), Flight Surgeons and their support personnel. AMEs and Flight Surgeons are physicians whose earnings, according to the BLS, average over $186,000 per year for those in primary-care specialties (from which most AMEs and Flight Surgeons are drawn). According to Dr. Richard Jennings, who directs a NASA-sponsored aerospace residency program at the University of Texas, over 4,000 physicians work as full or part-time AMEs, though he doesn’t believe that accounts for the bulk of their income: “Most AMEs perform fewer than 20 flight physicals per year.” By contrast, physicians who complete an aerospace medicine residency are “usually employed by government agencies such as the FAA, NASA, Army, Navy, Air Force or NTSB. Others may work for universities, airlines, pilot unions, manufacturers and aviation insurance providers. While most specialists in aerospace medicine have decent salaries, compared to other physicians we tend to be at the lower end of the physician salary spectrum—in part due to government salary scales. On the other hand, we have an extremely rewarding area of practice.” Dr. Jennings named five ASM-certified physicians who have been selected as NASA astronauts and added “probably half of AMEs are pilots.”
10. Aerospace Manufacturing and Maintenance specialists create and maintain the hardware that other aerospace professionals work with. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), almost 214,000 people are employed as machinists, assemblers, inspectors, machine-tool operators, mechanics and service technicians at aerospace manufacturers, airlines and other operators, repair stations and FBOs. These jobs pay by the hour, and often involve shift work. According to the BLS, getting hired for these jobs usually requires a semester or more of community-college or other specialized training—and with employment in this field expected to shrink by nearly 2% this decade, getting hired may take time.
|Airport Consultants Council
Airline Dispatchers Federation
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
American Meteorological Society
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Iowa State University Meteorology Program
Kansas State University
NOAA Satellite and Information Service (NESDIS):
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Aviation
University of North Dakota, College of Aerospace Sciences
University of Texas, Aerospace Medicine Overview
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook