I am a new aircraft designer, and work for a small company (which doesn't have the enormous resources of a Boeing or Lockheed) so we have to work with limited resources to get good at our trade. I've been looking over different approaches for becoming a master designer, and for learning the shortcuts and tips all great designers pickup over the years of practicing their art.
From reading, it seems most good designers got their experience by essentially apprenticing with great engineers, or having the freedom to try stuff and see if it worked or not. I was thinking how a designer could get good in a small company like mine and came up with the following options:
1) Leave the company for a larger, better funded company like Boeing and come back
Pros: Have freedom to try stuff since company has the budget to absorb mistakes, and get to interact and learn from experienced engineers at company.
Cons: From all the people I talk to, nobody can take an aircraft (even a model) to full completion since the big companies compartmentalize the skills they pick up, meaning they good at making their widget or subsystem, but never work on integrating everything together to make the whole system.
2) Build a lot of R/C models to learn the fundamentals by flying, crashing, and repairing the aircraft
Pros: Get a ton of flight experience and building experience so will quickly learn what works, what doesn't work, and learn how to take aircraft from design to flight fully.
Cons: Aerodynamics do not fully scale unless the R/C models are somewhat large (around the 10-15 kg mass), which means crashes, even minor ones, cause a LOT of damage, which gets costly quickly. Replacing busted motors, shafts, wings, and the time that is needed to do this can quickly eat into any real experience.
3) Use a digital flight simulator like X-Plane or Kerbal Space Program to learn what flies and doesn't
Pros: This is the ultimate for cheapness. I can design and crash an infinite amount of times at no additional cost, as well as fly the aircraft at full scale and see all of the response characteristics in a variety of conditions.
Cons: Building the aircraft in the physical world does not mirror how its built in the software, meaning a lot of new factors (like weight gain, manufacturing inaccuracies) come into change how the actual aircraft flies compared to the simulator aircraft. Also, the simulator has limitations in its physics model, so things like stall behavior or transsonic drag will differ significantly between simulator and real life.
4) Use a hybrid system, using 3D printing, modular parts, R/C aircraft, and flight simulators
Pros: This will teach me how to take a design to completion by first designing/flying aircraft in simulator using modular parts (like in Kerbal Space Program), then print those modular parts (wing sections, fuselage sections, wing/fuselage joints, etc.) in real life using 3D printers, and assemble the aircraft at small R/C scale to fly, before finally going to full scale using the same modular parts, only scaled up. It lets me make mistakes and learn without bankrupting the project since I learn how to avoid the big mistakes while the consequences are still small.
Cons: I will need to design and build modular blocks light enough with the same performance as that in the simulator at both R/C and full scale. Also, while somewhat easy for airframe components, building engines this way would still be costly, as some combustion engines have different performance at small scales than large scales (heat leakage and manufacturing tolerances become more important at the small scale than at large scale) meaning it might cost too much to build the system of modular parts.
What option did designers like Burt Rutan use for getting good at aircraft design?