Flight engineer

In aviation, a flight engineer is a member of the aircrew of some aircraft. The flight engineer is responsible for monitoring and controlling many of the aircraft systems during flight.

History of flight engineering

The first airplanes only had a single operator: the pilot. The pilot was responsible for flying the airplane, navigating, and ensuring that all systems worked correctly. The pilot had to have a great deal of knowledge of the technical details of his or her airplane, or disaster could occur from mis-handling (or failure to recognize) even a minor malfunction. There was also the danger of crashing because the pilot was not paying attention to where the airplane was going while trying to correct some malfunction.

As airplanes became larger and more complex, and as longer flight durations became possible, a co-pilot or "second pilot" (in England) was added to the crew. The copilot assisted the pilot or airplane commander in the flying of the airplane. They would typically trade off actual flying duties to avoid problems of fatigue. They would also cross-check each other on critical operations, reducing the chances for unintended disasters. Both the pilot and copilot still needed to have a great deal of knowledge of the details of their airplane, since between them they had to resolve any problems that arose in flight.

Having two people that could fly the airplane meant that one of them could devote the major part of his attention to actually flying the airplane, while the other pilot attempted to resolve a problem with the airplane. As the pilots typically also had to do their own navigation on long flights, one pilot (typically the copilot) could serve as a navigator while the other pilot flew the airplane.

Originally civil air transport planes could be operated by a single pilot with no copilot. After a few accidents causing passenger death or injury were attributed to pilot error, the regulating agencies required passenger airplanes to be set up with a two-person cockpit, and required a copilot on the flight.

As airplanes became larger and more complex to operate, the workload on the pilot and copilot became excessive at certain critical parts of the flight regime, notably takeoffs and landings. Piston engines on aircraft required a great deal of attention to many gauges and indicators. Inattention or a missed indication could result in engine or propeller failure, and quite possibly cause loss of the airplane if prompt corrective action was not taken.

In order to dedicate a person to monitoring the engines and other critical flight systems, the position of flight engineer was created. The flight engineer did not actually fly the airplane, unlike the pilot and copilot. Instead, the flight engineer had his own specialized control panel, allowing him to monitor and control the major aircraft functions. The flight engineer needed to communicate quickly with the airplane commander in a case of emergency, and also worked in close coordination during takeoffs and landings. Thus, the flight engineer position was usually placed on the main flight deck, just to the aft of the pilot and copilot. One of the first airplanes to have an official flight engineer position was the Avro Lancaster bomber used in World War II.

The flight engineer's duties

Flight engineers monitor, set and adjust engine power during take off, climb, cruise and go-arounds, or any time the pilot flying requests the F.E. to set a specific power setting during descent and approach. F.E's also set and monitor the following systems during flight: pressurization, fuel, air conditioning, hydraulic, and electrical systems. F.E's are also responsible for preflight and postflight aircraft inspections. On aircraft where the F.E's station is located on the same flight deck just after the two pilots (all western three man deck aircraft), they also monitor aircraft flight path and crosscheck pilot selections.

On some military aircraft the flight engineer sits behind the pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit, facing sideways to operate a panel of gauges and indicators, and on the Tupolev Tu-134 the flight engineer sits in the nose of the aircraft.On western civilian and military aircraft F.E's sit between and slightly aft of the pilots for take off and landings (P-3 Orion, C-130H), the F.E's chair can travel forward, aft and it can swivel laterally 90 degrees: this enables him to face forward and set the engine power, move aft and rotate sideways to monitor his systems panel. The flight engineer is the aircraft systems expert onboard and responsible for troubleshooting and suggesting solutions to in-flight emergencies and abnormal technical conditions, as well as computing takeoff and landing data.

The basic philosophy of a three man flight deck on western aircraft should an abnormality or emergency arise is as follows, the captain hands over the actual flying of the aircraft to the copilot, then the captain and flight engineer together review and carry out the necessary actions required to contain and rectify the problem, this spreads the workload and ensures a system of cross checking which maximizes safety. The captain is the manager and decision maker, copilot does the flying, flight engineer reads the checklists and executes actions required under the auspices of the captain.

It can be argued that a three man flight deck is inherently safer than modern two man flight decks when there is a malfunction. Whether this argument is true must be weighed in terms of the actions that are required to recover from an in-flight abnormality or emergency.

Elimination of the flight engineer position

The advent of computer technology, reliable software, and a desire by airlines to cut costs by reducing flight deck crew, has eliminated the requirement for flight engineers on modern airliners. The same general logic has led to the removal of the flight engineer position in many modern military aircraft. Flight engineers are a rare sight today. However older aircraft still flying today such as early model Boeing 747s, the Boeing 727, the Lockheed L-1011, and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 still require flight engineers.

Some air transport organizations refer to the flight engineer as a "second officer" if he or she is also a pilot. On many commercial airliners, the flight engineer is third in command, after the captain and first officer. Some airlines treat the flight engineer position as the first of a three-step promotion path for pilots (the two remaining steps being first officer and captain); others treat flight engineers as completely independent crew members, and in this latter case the engineers may have a strong technical and mechanical systems background instead of training as pilots.

On new generation two-man deck aircraft, sensors and computers monitor and adjust systems automatically. There is no onboard technical expert and third pair of eyes. If a malfunction, abnormality or emergency occurs it will be displayed on an electronic display panel and the computer will automatically initiate corrective action to rectify the abnormal condition. One pilot does the flying, (PF), and the pilot not flying (PNF) will resolve the issue. The PNF has the additional workload of monitoring the pilot flying and carrying out his requested commands, doing the radio work and reading the checklists to ensure that the computer has done its job and that follow up procedures are accomplished as per checklists. Additionally the PNF must complete the paperwork relevant to the problem.

External links

* [http://www.faa.gov/education_research/testing/airmen/test_questions/media/FAA-CT-8080-6A.pdf Computer Testing Supplement for Flight Engineer] FAA 1999

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