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?

  • $\begingroup$ Where should I repost it? $\endgroup$
    – user11377
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ ok I'll do that $\endgroup$
    – user11377
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ Where are the opinion areas I need to delete? $\endgroup$
    – user11377
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 16:56
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The title and last sentence are a valid question, of how Burt Rutan (or others) gained experience. The list of 4 options seems to be more asking for career advice, which will at best be someone's opinion. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ If you want to be like Burt Rutan, consider taking a job at Scaled Composites. Their web site suggests they're recruiting right now. (Burt himself has retired, BTW) $\endgroup$
    – user11516
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 21:15

1 Answer 1


Let's look at every of your concepts:

  1. Joining a large company: As you noticed yourself, you won't get a broad range of skills, but a deep understanding of a narrow field, unless you rotate between departments every few years. This will be hard to pull off, and will take time. If you are good at what you do, your boss will try to keep you (they always try to promote the duds away in big companies, and the good people get stuck. Really!)
  2. Building RC models is great if you want to become a configuration expert at low speed aerodynamics. You will gain no experience in transsonic aerodynamics, structure, systems - 90% of the needed knowledge cannot be gained from model aircraft. But after 20 models you will be great at understanding flight mechanics and the pros and cons of different configurations.
  3. Forget flight simulators. Things only get interesting once you leave the realm of attached flow. Stalls, spins, flutter, oscillating shocks - that is what you need to understand when you want to do good work, and flight simulators will not teach you this. At all. Also important is to understand the effect of single failures on the whole aircraft, and designing for robust response. Again, no simulator will give you anything even resembling a realistic response.
  4. Hybrid: Now we are talking: Keep your eyes and ears open! Visit conferences, museums, exhibitions and talk to the people. Get a pilot's license and fly yourself! Read books and technical reports. Be open to all things, be it metallurgy, fuel chemistry or whatever. Try to do stints in workshops and flying clubs. Volunteer for workshop duty and do maintenance and repairs. Don't be shy to ask, and if you see something strange, don't stop until you have arrived at a convincing explanation. Do this 10 hours a day for 10 years, and you will collect the necessary all-around knowledge.

The best way will be to participate in as many aircraft design projects as possible, from start to finish. This has become extremely hard, and some engineers will spend their whole professional life working on just one design. Let's face it, the golden days where you would work on a new design every year were maybe 80 years ago. On the other hand, the Internet can bring you an incredible wealth of information and past experiences from which to learn. Like this site. Use it!

  • $\begingroup$ What advice can you give me at my age to become an aircraft designer. $\endgroup$
    – Ethan
    Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 14:29
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Ethan: Go to university and get a good degree in aero/astro. Until then, do as I recommended to user11377. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 16:50

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