In A Case Study in Aircraft Design: The Boeing 727, published as a retrospective in 1978, the authors repeatedly refer to what would generally be called a flight engineer as the third crewman.

This clearly predates any need for political correctness but diverges from all other references I have seen for the crew position of the non-flying member responsible for powerplant monitoring and some aircraft maintenance.

Was this driven by pressure from customers at some point during the project? Is there any other precedent for this title?


The only other reference I can find for the term is in the Wikipedia article for the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior.

On further looking, I see a Boeing 720 operations manual that refers to its third crewmember as the systems pilot - another term not commonly used.

The 70-page document has a dozen references to third crewman and none to flight engineer.

Flight deck description

An extract from the Flight deck description shows the frequency of use.

The question was motivated by this very deliberate use of a term not otherwise used in literature at a time of transition in aircraft design. The motivation looks to be marketing related, but I can't see how changing the title of the crewmember would modify customer perceptions and wanted to understand if this attempt at a form of technical newspeak had any impact.

It is not intended to reflect on the clearly valuable contribution by the engineer in an aircraft designed before automation removed the need to monitor the status of the aircraft systems.

So far, responses have questioned many possible meanings of the question, but none have had an opinion on the straightforward interpretation. While the question is not related to physical aircraft structures, it would inform positioning of the product in a marketplace beginning to notice the arrival of Airbus.

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    $\begingroup$ The specific reason for the terminology chosen by the authors may only be known to them. I'm not sure this is answerable as it is currently written... $\endgroup$ Feb 13 at 1:37
  • $\begingroup$ I would be interested in knowledgeable hypotheses from the late 1970s that might explain the tension for not using an industry term still common so deliberately. $\endgroup$
    – Pekka
    Feb 14 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ Is your question specifically about the numeric ranking, or just the fact that the FE is considered part of the flight crew? Even if you are having trouble finding examples of the terminology I would think there would generally be no dispute at the time that a FE was part of an aircraft's flight crew, since they are directly involved in the operation of the flight. Even though they don't have direct input on the controls, other than occasionally the throttles for fine-tuning the thrust. They also sometimes provided additional eyes and ears during takeoff and landing operations. $\endgroup$ Feb 14 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ Since the paper doesn't seem to be that easily accessible it might help if you quote a few sentences using that term so that the context is better understood. Same for the operating manual. I briefly glanced at PAA_727_Vol1, at the bottom of PDF page 28 it says "but first officer and flight engineer have Puritan masks and goggles". If you have found other places in the document that use different terminology it would help to provide the location and preferably a quote of the entire sentence. $\endgroup$ Feb 15 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ Pekka - the actual page numbers in the document are a bit convoluted that's why I was referring to PDF page number 28, i.e. 28 of 470. What I was quoting is at the bottom of the second page of the 2-page "Flight Operations Bulletin" dated Jun 21, 1991. Probably you already saw it since you said you saw similar references, that's the one that I was referring to. $\endgroup$ Feb 16 at 18:10

2 Answers 2


Mainly because they were #3 in the command structure, which is more or less rooted in maritime practices.

Pilot #1, Copilot #2, Flight Engineer #3. That is, if the pilot is incapacitated, the copilot is in charge, if the copilot is incapacitated, the FE is in charge.

#4 in the command structure would be the chief flight attendant or purser. If it's only a 2 person flight deck crew, the chief FA would be #3 (or "third crew-person").

This command hierarchy would apply on the ground as well which is why it doesn't stop at pilot/copilot, so if the airplane was in a hijack situation or some other crisis and both pilot and copilot were unconcious or dead, and someone asks "who's in charge here", if you're the FE, you're it, and if there's no FE and you're chief FA, you're it.


The flight engineer is a required flight crewmember on the 727, one of three. This is a natural way to describe the flight engineer, and I don't see why pressure or precedent would be required.

  • $\begingroup$ The necessity of the position is not in dispute. It is the name assigned to the position that has been called flight engineer since at least the days of B-17s. Try finding more than the one reference I located to this, not so natural, way to describe the position. $\endgroup$
    – Pekka
    Feb 12 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ Further, does this mean the navigator is the fourth crewman and the radio-operator the fifth? By pressure I was suggesting that an airline in the mid-1970s might not be seen to be buying an aircraft with a flight engineer as its staffing costs would be higher than even the B737 from the same vendor. $\endgroup$
    – Pekka
    Feb 12 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Pekka A B727 has only three required crewmembers. By 1978, a "normal" airline crew is two people, so it's natural enough to call the "extra" crewmember the third crewmember in this instance. It doesn't follow that you would still call the flight engineer the third crewmember in a 5 crewmember operation. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Feb 12 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but a normal airline crew of two was only applicable to twin engine aircraft at that time and not certified for ETOPS flights. In 1978 the B747, L-1011 and DC-10 still carried flight engineers on long-haul routes. Any reference to something other than a fringe 1950s carrier bomber would be satisfactory. $\endgroup$
    – Pekka
    Feb 12 at 16:19

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