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April 20, 2015

Plumbers in the Sky: The Demise of the Flight Engineer

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Written by: Michael Lothrop
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As airliners developed into larger, multi-engine aircraft, it became necessary to add a cockpit crewmember to manage the complex systems in use. This was especially true with early piston and jet engines, as they required much more input and monitoring. With advances in modern technology, this position — the flight engineer — has been all but eliminated in the modern day airliner design.

Flight engineers were responsible for operating and monitoring the hydraulic, pressurization, fuel, electrical and air conditioning systems. They accomplished this from a seat in the cockpit, which sat sideways behind the pilots. This seat was situated in front of a panel with the controls and gauges for the systems they monitored.

Photo courtesy of aerosavvy.com

Photo courtesy of aerosavvy.com

The flight engineer had many tasks to accomplish. In addition to managing aircraft systems, they were responsible for conducting the interior and exterior preflight inspections, making calculations for various aspects of aircraft performance and ensuring the proper paperwork was on board. On many aircraft the flight engineer managed the movement of fuel into different tanks as the flight progressed, leading to the flight engineer becoming referred to as a “plumber.”

There were generally two types of flight engineers industry wide: the professional flight engineer and the second officer. The professional flight engineer often came from the ranks of airframe and powerplant mechanics. They were not rated pilots and not eligible to upgrade to a pilot position. Second Officers were pilots who were assigned to the flight engineer role while waiting to gain seniority to move into a flying position. Requirements for applying to a second officer position included a commercial pilot’s license, a minimum number of flying hours, and to have passed the flight engineer written examination.

When newly hired to the airline, the flight engineer student would attend a thorough sequence of training courses. First he attends a ground school which is approximately four weeks long and covers the aircraft systems in such depth that it is often joked they teach how to build the plane in your garage. Ground school culminates in an hour-long oral examination given by a flight engineer. Next was three weeks of simulator training, at the end of which the student receives a check ride from a flight engineer check airman. The final phase was the initial operating experience (IOE). During the IOE the student would perform duties on a revenue flight with a flight engineer check airman. The last leg of trip would be the line check. After successfully passing, the flight engineer would be cleared to begin performing regular duties.

Once training was completed the assignment of duties depended on one’s seniority. Cockpit position, crew bases, and schedules were bid by seniority. Usually the better the assignment meant the more seniority it would take to obtain that position. Employees would bid based on their personal work lifestyle preference. For some, being based in their home areas was a motivating factor, while for others upgrading to a flying position was a goal. It was for this reason that bidding a flight engineer position on a high-paying piece of equipment could take make seniority than a flying position on a lower paying aircraft with an unfavorable schedule.

Not every second officer assigned as a flight engineer immediately jumped at the chance to upgrade to first officer. Some remained in the flight engineer seat as it was a great place to learn about airline operations. They got to work with two experienced pilots and had a front row seat to learn call-outs, company procedures and arrivals and departures from several airports. It was a good place to learn while on probation without having to jump right into the decision making world of the right seat as many pilots do today.

Seniority became more of a factor as the end of the of the three-person cockpit crew drew near. The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act — which relinquished government control over fares and routes — drove competition among airlines. Rising fuel costs and shorter routes requiring smaller aircraft contributed to older aircraft being retired in favor of more modern and efficient ones. By the time of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, all but the last of the three-position flight deck aircraft had been retired. Airlines parked all but the most efficient aircraft within months of the attacks, which found many filling the flight engineer seats looking for work.

As the airlines were parking their fleets of older aircraft, flight engineers were looking for opportunities to upgrade to flying positions. Those who had the seniority to bid a first officer seat did so. The remaining professional flight engineers were forced to retire along with second officers who were over age 60. The remaining junior second officers were furloughed. While some were recalled after three years, most were laid off again. The average wait for recall to the airlines was about ten years.

Modern day airliners of all sizes are just as complex, if not more so, than their multi engine predecessors. While providing an excellent training ground for entry-level pilots, the flight engineer’s position is no longer needed with today’s technology. The functions the flight engineer once performed are now automated into solid-state processors housed in racks in the electronics bay beneath the cockpit. Any manual controls required are now within the reach of the two pilots.

There are no longer any US-based passenger carriers operating fleets that require flight engineers. There remain a handful of cargo, charter, and private operators with aircraft in their fleet requiring a flight engineer, but those are not as frequent as they once were. While flight engineers may be gone as a profession, they are certainly not forgotten.

Michael Lothrop is a lifelong aviation enthusiast and writer from Maine. Mike grew up around the airport and has a professional background in public safety and business. Follow him on Twitter.

 

 

 



About the Author

Michael Lothrop
Michael Lothrop is a lifelong aviation enthusiast and writer originally from Maine. Mike grew up around aviation and is currently the director of operations and safety for an aviation related company.




 
 

 

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  • Gilberto A Rivera

    Me thinks there is a reason for this position. The more you know about your aircrafts systems, the better the pilot of that aircraft you would be. Sure, this position eased a lot of the pilot’s workload, now eliminated thru technology. But, I can’t help thinking that there is no substitute for understanding how or why something works as opposed to having a gauge or digital display tell you the value of “x”.

  • ewrcap

    Its all automated now and under normal circumstances an engineer is unnecessary. But during emergencies, boy do I miss them!