Perspectives: Mike Lewis, Electrical Engineer
Written by Mike Lewis   

Perspectives on Engineering
Since there have been many questions over the years dealing with engineering degrees and careers, I thought I would share my perspective of being an electrical and software engineer in both the military and civilian sector for almost 15 years.

My Background
I went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona on an Air Force ROTC scholarship with a degree in Electrical Engineering.  My plan was to study engineering and fly on the side.  However, once I started my engineering degree, I quickly learned that there would not be enough time to fly in addition to my engineering studies, as an engineering course load is pretty much a full time job.

Upon graduation, there was a drawdown in the number of pilot slots following Desert Storm, and that combined with my genuine love on engineering made me reconsider my career goals for being a pilot.  Instead, I decided I wanted to pursue a career as an engineer.

Following graduation, I was assigned to Rome Laboratory at Griffiss AFB, NY, where I was lead software engineer for a major command and control planning system.  After that assignment, I attended the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, where I received my Masters degree in Software Systems Management.  Following that assignment, I was assigned as the Chief of the Operational Flight Program (Embedded Avionics) Branch at Kelly AFB, Texas, where I was in charge of the development and maintenance of some of the C-17 avionic software.  I finished out my military career at Brooks AFB, Texas, where I was deputy program manager for a medical evacuation planning and execution system.

I was then employed by a major defense contractor in Minnesota where I worked on a variety of projects, including leading the systems integration and testing of major air defense programs for NATO countries.  I am now employed at a small software company in Eagan, Minnesota where I am working on a variety of projects including working on a cutting edge, next generation portable air traffic control system.

Studying Engineering
So, back to the point of this perspective:  what to expect if you want to major in engineering.

First, you must LOVE math and science.  Eat and drink and sweat math and science.  Algebra and geometry are only the beginning; the math you will be required to perform as an engineering student will make those look like child’s play.  Calculus, trigonometry, differential equations, matrix methods, and Laplace and Fourier transforms will take the math you know now and stand it on its head, transform into another dimension, and sometimes appear to have more akin to zoology than mathematics.  And how much math will you take?  Well, I got an automatic math minor upon graduation without having to take any additional math classes.

Simple physics will take on a whole new level when you start looking at statics and dynamics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, materials strength, and heat transfer.  And even though I was an electrical engineering student, I was required to take all of those aeronautical engineering classes as electives and “broadening” classes.  Why?  There is likely some point in your career where you will have to interface with other engineering disciplines, and you must understand the basics of those disciplines to fully do your job.  For example, a friend of mine worked on the F-22 as an electrical engineer working on placing a GPS antenna on the aircraft.  He had to understand the aerodynamic aspects of the antenna, since it could cause aerodynamic disruptions to the airflow.  I’ve had to work with aeronautical, civil, and systems engineers to name a few.

If you are considering an engineering degree, plan on studying a lot.  I believe the rule of thumb was 3 hours studying for each credit hour taken.  And this doesn’t include your time spent in the laboratory as part of your course work.  As you can see, with a 16-18 hour course load, it doesn’t leave a lot of free time for flight lessons.  Plan your time accordingly.

Engineering and Pilots
So now the section that most of you really care about: how engineering will help your career as a pilot.  Simply put, it won’t do a whole lot with one major exception.

In my career in the Air Force, I met more pilots with non-technical degrees (such as English, history, even music) than pilots with technical (engineering or science degrees).  It would appear that an engineering degree doesn’t do anything to enhance or degrade your chances for being a pilot.  The most important requirement is that you have a degree.

However the one exception is this: if you want to be a test pilot, you MUST have a degree in engineering or physics.  When I was at AFIT, I had some classes with pilots who were receiving their Masters degrees in engineering en route to Edwards AFB to be test pilots.  And I not sure what the requirements are for civilian test pilots, but since most of them are former military test pilots, I would expect that they are similar.

Aviation Careers for Engineers
There are many opportunities for all engineers that are closely related to aviation.  Civil engineers must understand aircraft to design runways and taxiways.  Electrical engineers must understand radios and avionics and ensure new electrical devices don’t disrupt aircraft communications.  Software engineers must understand how avionics work when they design the software embedded in them.  Mechanical engineers have to understand the stress of the engines on the airframe.

An example from my background was in the C-17 avionic software development.  We had to test it on the workbench, and then integrate it in a cockpit simulator.  We had to fly the simulator around for a while in a variety of conditions to verify the avionics before it could be flight tested.

However, if you want the ultimate in an engineering career with flying, consider a career as a flight test engineer.  This is a career where you fly with test pilots and test a variety of systems in-flight.  The flight test engineers I know have received some flight training to be able to take control of an aircraft and land it in the event the flight crew becomes incapacitated.  It’s the closest you can come to being a test pilot without being a pilot.  If you are unable to become a pilot but still have a desire to fly cutting edge technology, this might be an alternative.

Engineering is something that is very difficult, and you really have to want to do it to succeed.  However, it has its own rewards.  For me, the feeling I receive at seeing an idea become a design and then become a real working apparatus is something that I would never trade for anything in the world.  Another feeling is the pride I have in my work knowing that something I have done will enhance the safety or improve the performance of an aircraft.  

I’ve also had a lot of great experiences: flying the C-17 simulator to solve a timing problem between the mission computer and heads-up display; solving critical problems in the software during the middle of wartime operations; working with NASA on adapting new military avionic testing techniques for testing space probes; and developing and fielding a much-needed capability in only hours after the request was made.

If for whatever reason you cannot become a pilot but you are strong in math and science and want to have a rewarding career working with aviation, consider a career in engineering.    You might not have the pride that comes with flying the aircraft, but you can feel the pride that comes with knowing that your idea and hard work blossomed into something that allows that aircraft to take to the sky!