If I want to design and build planes, what career would that be? Would it be a mechanical engineer, systems engineer, or what else. (I feel like saying aerospace engineer is too vague and most companies like Lockheed Martin don't have that as a job but mostly as a business unit other jobs fall under.)

Also, is there a job in which you design and build planes and pilot planes? I really want to become an engineer that designs planes but still want to pilot them as a fighter pilot or test pilot, I just want to know if there is possibility of doing both.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm afraid your question is just too broad, and therefore off-topic. There are too many careers in aviation, and you are basically asking for a list. Try focusing your question down some. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry if I came off mean in that comment $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't take it that way @LukeJustin. I understand exactly what you are asking, you have an interest in an aviation career and you want to know what is out there. You are among like minds for sure, it's just that this is a forum style question, and this is a question and answer site. Questions here need to be focused and specific, or they are considered off topic. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ There's no reason why you couldn't do one thing as a job and do the other thing as a hobby (either be a pilot who builds kit planes in their shed, or be an engineer who takes up flying in the weekends). Both career paths can pay well enough to eventually fund your hobby. $\endgroup$
    – Sanchises
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 9:23
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    $\begingroup$ @LukeJustin - sure, you want to become a mechanical engineer specializing in aviation! Go for it! Fortunately, you can literally google university courses for this. However, the idea of ALSO being a test pilot or fighter pilot would be a big ask. It would not be impossible but it would just literally take a huge amount of time. Simply, it would be like saying "I want to be a pro basketball player" (no problem, takes say 12 years of 2000 hour a year practice) AND "I want to be a doctor" (also no problem, takes about 9 years of 2000 hour a year study). BOTH would be almost impossible. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 14:29

10 Answers 10


You were born 100 years too late.

In order to be an improvement over existing designs, airplanes become ever more complex and every detail is optimised over years and years. The days when someone like Robert Hall or Kurt Tank would design and test fly their designs are long gone.

The best you can do is to design an experimental aircraft and maybe market it as a homebuilt or a kit plane. But forget about designing front-line fighters all by yourself: This by now involves thousands of engineers and the test pilots have very different careers from those of the lead engineers.

  • $\begingroup$ What did you mean by test pilots and very different careers from those of lead engineers. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ Test pilots normally start their careers as military pilots or engineers with lots of flying experience. Then they continue at a test pilot school for more studies and miss a lot of the experience the design engineers collect at that stage in their careers. They follow very different career paths from each other. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ Even today, very small aircrafts are designed by a very small team and lead designer does have a great role, for instance, Atol aircraft is to large extend design of one man, Markku Koivurova, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ATOL_495 $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 9:48
  • $\begingroup$ @LukeJustin Either you build the rocket as an engineer or you fly in it as an astronaut. Nobody gets to do both, not in projects with multibillion dollar budgets. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ And it's best to have other people check your work, in any case. Get something wrong in this business, and lots of people can die. $\endgroup$
    – Davidw
    Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 21:35

Rather than being concerned with titles, let's take a look what's involved in designing/analyzing/certifying a modern airplane:

  • External aerodynamics: deduce the aerodynamic characteristics and propose changes in outer model line as required to achieve the desired characteristics. Skills: applied mathematics, aeronautics engineering.

  • Flight science: deduce the airplane performance, controllability and stability characteristics, and propose changes in flight controls/aerodynamics as required to achieve the desired characteristics. Skills: applied mathematics, aeronautics engineering.

  • Loads and dynamics: deduce the structural/aerodynamic coupling on the aircraft and resolve external loads on structures, control surfaces and landing gear. Skills: applied mathematics, aeronautics engineering.

  • Thermodynamics: deduce the heating and cooling requirements, internal gas flow, as well as anti-icing solutions. Skills: mechanical engineering.

  • Structure: design the internal structures that shape the aircraft, and mechanical mechanisms that perform their intended functions. Skills: mechanical engineering.

  • Stress: deduce the stresses inside aircraft structures and propose changes such that the relevant parts achieve the required fatigue cycles. Skills: mechanical engineering.

  • Flight controls (traditional): designing the mechanical/hydraulic architecture and interconnection to achieve the desired mechanical pathways for actuating flight control surfaces. Skills: mechanical engineering, hydraulic engineering.

  • Flight controls (FBW): designing the electrical, computing and hydraulic architectures to achieve safe and reliable actuation of flight control surfaces. Skills: mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science.

  • Control law (FBW): designing the mathematical model and software implementation of flight control laws/autopilot to achieve precise and robust control of the airplane. Skills: electrical engineering, control systems engineering, applied mathematics.

  • Electrical systems: designing the high and low voltage systems that send power from electrical generators to intended areas safely and reliably. Skills: electrical engineering.

  • Human factors: analyzing and designing hardware/software interfaces that are intuitive, precise and robust for pilots/operators/occupants. Skills: industrial engineering.

  • Interiors: while often poo-pooed as not aeronautical enough, it is one of the most important selling points of an aircraft as far as occupants are concerned (especially business jets). Skills: industrial engineering, interior design.

  • Integration: even listing the above took some time, so it's important to elucidate, trace and validate the requirements such that when everything is put together, they fit. This may involve dozens or even hundreds of suppliers that may have limited scope to the overall design objective. Skills: systems engineering, industrial engineering

  • Reliability and safety: deduce the probability of failures of any system/part on the aircraft and ensure that the criticality of the failure warrants the designed probability. Skills: systems engineering.

I'm probably missing a few key areas. But as you can see, designing an aircraft is an extremely diverse endeavour that would require life-times worth of knowledge and experience. You can be an expert in any number of fields, and still make indispensable contributions to the overall design.

Experimental test pilots are probably as close as any person could to be a jack of all trades. Most test pilots I know are more familiar with the overall aircraft design and systems than most designers of their particular field(s). On top of having accumulated many flight hours (most of them military), they are well-versed in technical engineering and most of them have Masters in engineering.

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    $\begingroup$ Thannk you so much for putting the time into this $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 21:38
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    $\begingroup$ Yep, especially if you are just out of school, you will end up as a very small cog, doing fairly minor tasks, in very big machine. When you get to be experienced you get to be a slightly bigger cog in your specialty, but just in your specialty. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 22:50
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    $\begingroup$ Agree about test pilots, but even their heyday is over. There are so few of them, and they don't get to test 100+ types, amassing such a wealth of experience... $\endgroup$
    – Zeus
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ @AJP, well, ideally, yes, but there's just not that many new ones being designed and flight tested during a pilot's (or an engineer's for that matter) career, and especially not such a variety of them as there was until about the 70s. This is a fairly fundamental problem, and arguably it's even more serious for engineers than for pilots. $\endgroup$
    – Zeus
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 8:40
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    $\begingroup$ @AJP, drones are even worse: in addition to aerodynamic complexity that rivals that of a helicopter, they've got incredibly sophisticated autopilots. The only reason they're so cheap is because the safety and reliability standards are far below those of manned aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 23:39

I'll address the question in the title: how to get into actually designing an entire aircraft. Not every component, but making the major, visible decisions.

Such jobs do exist, but they aren't easy to get. Design is an iterative process that goes continuously more in-depth on every step. It begins with a requirements document, which are responded to with design proposals, which then get elaborated on for at least 3 steps - conceptual, preliminary, and detail design. Each step takes more than 10x the number of people than the previous.

To design the entire aircraft, or at least a large part of it, you want to be in that select 1% involved in conceptual design. For that, the primary degree to get is specifically Aerospace Engineering. Anything else, more specific, is too likely to pigeonhole you into one of the departments that do detail design work. For general design, where you'll be selecting the planform and the engines, you need breadth of knowledge more than you need depth.

Let's look at three ways to do it:

  1. Big industry. Seems obvious, as you'll get hired right out of college, but the hard part is getting the right job. New engineers start in detail design, and most engineers stay there. For each person making major decisions, big aerospace needs 100 rank-and-file engineers that just make the 3D models and fill out the part lists.

Working your way up through promotions and lateral moves may work, but runs the added risk of getting detached from the technical work. You'll have to make yourself extremely visible, inside and outside your company, specifically showing your interest and ability to create or develop design concepts.

Most if not all large aerospace companies have a "Skunk works"-like unit, which among other things plays around with pie-in-the-sky projects. That's your goal, you have to get in. That takes reputation, and gaining it while doing your basic duties is comparable to doing a full-time job and a Ph.D. at once - in fact, one approach is to do just that. You'll have next to no free time, but I know people who have achieved this. This is a difficult approach with a slim chance of success, but the upside is that you'll be financially secure in any case; at worst you might be bored.

  1. Startups. Starting out in as the smallest companies that still design and build aircraft is a more sure way to get to design at least something. It can be a startup that's playing with ultralights, electrics, or just unusual ideas. Such companies avoid or outsource low-level work, defer the painful weight-cutting phase, and focus on the broad strokes.

That will get you to work in a very small design team, building airplanes just as you're designing them, and possibly even flying them. To join a company like that, piloting skills can be more important than an advanced degree, and experience with homebuilts can just win them over - they're looking for enthusiasts, not 9-to-5'ers.

This path is less selective than the other two, but you better have a good plan for supporting yourself, as flight school and homebuilts will be big out-of-pocket expenses, especially if taken while in college (you want to start early, after all). In other words, it's risky. But "full-stack" design experience in a small company can then get you into conceptual design roles in progressively larger companies. Eventually you might end up leading a large project, or even running your own company - startups prepare you for that better than office work does.

  1. Test pilot. This is less designing, more flying. Being both a test pilot and an engineer is not only doable - a college degree is already a common prerequisite for becoming a military pilot, and aerospace engineering is the perfect choice.

To get from there to being involved in design, you need to be a test pilot. This job isn't about just flying, but about evaluating the aircraft, requiring a lot of fundamental knowledge. Not all test pilots come from a military background, but military flying is a proven fast track. An advanced degree in a related field is also common for getting into a test pilot position, and it will refresh your technical knowledge.

This is less likely to get you into a decision-making role, but it can get you on the principal team, where your experience and input help drive the decisions. In smaller companies, test pilot and engineering roles can be combined. If you maintain and build upon your engineering skills, test pilot experience will also open a lot of extra doors for you - an engineer that knows first-hand how design decisions affect flight characteristics is highly useful at early design stages. Your roles will tend towards consultant rather than staff work.

To sum this up, all 3 paths start with an aerospace engineering degree. Then:

  • Flight school -> resume-building (homebuilts, jobs, publications, etc) -> startups (you're there, designing experimental aircraft) -> sell yourself up to design bigger things.
    Requires: Lots of enthusiasm, obsession preferable.
    Risks: Running out of money.
    Bonus reward: The fun starts right away; lots of innovation on the job.
  • Industry -> advanced degree/Ph.D -> public visibility -> climb the ranks -> try for "Skunk works" style teams.
    Requires: High intelligence, office skills.
    Risks: Getting stuck in detail design.
    Bonus reward: Big projects, lots of funding.
  • Military (officer) -> pilot training -> service -> advanced degree -> test pilot -> industry job. This answers your desire to build and fly planes, with a focus on the flying part.
    Requires: Excellent fitness + intelligence + discipline.
    Risks: Not making the cut for a pilot.
    Bonus reward: Flying the coolest stuff.

None of these is likely to be a straight road. These are just checkpoints to reach; you'll do a lot of other things along the way, building up knowledge, experience, and visibility. But purposefully developing your competencies towards this goal gives you a shot.

As other answers have outlined, there's a lot of different jobs in aircraft design, and they have different requirements. Talented people can get into conceptual design from any starting point in the industry, and you may cross several disciplines. The routes above are just some of the ways to maximize your chances.

In any case, start early. Pick up some light reading, add aerodynamics, build a model plane, fly a sim, get to the real planes once you can. Make dozens of paper designs, each more detailed than the last. In college, ask the most questions, jump on every relevant project, go to every conference, take every opportunity; be a star student if you can, or at least the geek among the geeks. The kind of jobs you're after require as much knowledge about different aspects of aviation as you can get, so use the time you've got.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. Do you recommend I major in Areospace Engineering or mechnical? Whats the difference? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ @LukeJustin For your goal, Aerospace all the way - it will teach you a little about everything, plus the big picture, which is what you need. If you go mechanical, you'll be able to work in a lot of fields, but your work will be designing components, not the whole thing. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ While your advice is correct in general, there is a lot of potential for frustration along the way. This is everything but a straight road and will only look that way in retrospect for a select few. I have been in preliminary design jobs in two aerospace companies and we retired colleagues who had never got even one design off the ground. In their whole career! $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ This is an excellent answer focusing on being the technical lead on an aircraft program. Whatever route is chosen, it is important to emphasize that you still won't feel like you designed the entire aircraft. There will be many parts you have no idea about because the rest of the team did the work. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 2:41
  • $\begingroup$ I think light reading would be the book on blimps. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 2:28

Not for modern airplanes. Let's look at an example.

Take a small airplane, the Cessna Skyhawk.

Even on an airplane that small, Cessna doesn't make all of the components itself. For example, the engine is made by Lycoming, the avionics are provided by Garmin, the propeller is made by McCauley etc. There isn't a position at Cessna involved in the design of all the components, because Cessna itself doesn't even design all of them.

It becomes even more complex on larger and/or higher-performance aircraft such as fighter jets.

Each subsystem has become so specialized that experts in that field are required to design state-of-the-art components, and market forces make it more efficient for one company to specialize in a subsystem and provide that subsystem to all airplane manufacturers (i.e Garmin avionics) instead of each manufacturer having a small team of specialists for each subsystem.

The closest thing you could do (as others mentioned) would be to make and sell experimental kit planes, but even then you'll probably outsource at least the engine and avionics.


If to see an aircraft as a vehicle that is able to fly by gaining support from the air, the definition may cover also drones of all kinds. Then a realistic way would be to create a startup that designs a drone.

For instance, I know a Swiss startup that designed unusual VTOL fixed wing drone offering much more endurance than its helicopter-like competitors. It needed a very complex controller just to do the transition. The drone is now great in high-precision aerial surveys.

The startup has been created by a few students right from the university.

  • $\begingroup$ There are more than one startup in this field and common to all is a 90% software / 10% hardware workload. This is far removed from the back-of-the-pants flying of yesteryear. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 27, 2020 at 11:19

Probably the last guy that was able to do that successfully was Burt Rutan. A person whose history is worth studying if you are interested in this sort of thing. Designing a complete aircraft from scratch today is far less likely then designing a complete car.

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    $\begingroup$ This exactly. The answer to this question is: be Burt Rutan. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 18:50

At one step remove, technical computing.

Over the four years I in technical computing at BAE SYSTEMS, I was helping design:

  • Operational research simulation Observe Orient Decide Act loops
  • Sensor integration
  • Genetic design of wing shape
  • Simulated annealing of processor allocation
  • Structural integrity modelling
  • Radar cross-section estimation
  • Autonomous air system collision avoidance (for which I had to learn the pilot's rules of the air etc.)
  • Fault detection in fuel systems

Essentially the job is having enough software engineering to create tools to solve problems that the experts in these domains couldn't solve using off the shelf tools, matlab or numpy.

Each of these different topics was something I had to learn enough about to translate the different specialists' knowledge into meaningful results.

All engineers are specialists, but the only other engineers who also had to know a bit about everything were the systems safety engineers.

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    $\begingroup$ It's perhaps a good point, but it can go the other way too. As a kid, I worked (just as an assistant) in the software group for just the engine development at a well-known aircraft engine research project at the time in Europe. It was minutely specialized, all the software folks did only exceedingly specialzied stuff... $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Fattie yes, there's a big difference between embedded software and technical computing $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ yes, very true....you're right $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Jun 22, 2020 at 14:44

As a professional engineer, as other answers have said, you will never be able to build an entire plane on your own.

Courses do exist though which allow you to study the basics of all major elements of aircraft and avionics system design, and then specialise in your chosen field. For example, this course from Loughborough University in the UK.


  • $\begingroup$ There are many universities offering aerospace engineering courses, some of which even include flying but they produce about 10 times as many graduates as the UK has jobs for aerospace engineers. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ @RobinBennett I wouldn't disagree with you there. That's a general fault of the UK university system, which is mainly designed to occupy young people for 3 years and separate them from tens of thousands of pounds, not to prepare them for a future career. Music Technology is even worse. At least with aero engineering you can easily move into other areas of engineering such as automotive, control systems, or software generally. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 9:16

Study Aerospace Engineering in Stuttgart, Germany.

You put your focus on aircraft design. The faculty designs, builds and operates its own experimental aircraft. I would guess that 40-60 % of the students have a piloting license. You can also join the Akademische Fliegergruppe Stuttgart (AKAFLIEG).

As far as I know, there are similar universities in other countries, e.g. the SUPAERO in France.

  • $\begingroup$ None in America? MIT? Purdue? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ @LukeJustin: It would help to know where you live, but yes, there are plenty more. $\endgroup$
    – Orbit
    Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ I live on the east coast of the us $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ @LukeJustin: The punishing fees at US universities make things like Akafliegs impossible. Students have to focus on their grades so they finish with minimal debt. Being in an Akaflieg means adding maybe two years to the curriculum and skipping many classes, but learning by doing. Did it myself, so I know what I am talking about. Best you can do is to show up at one of the groups and hang out with them for some time. You will learn more in a shorter time than anywhere, but not be able to show a fancy diploma for it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 27, 2020 at 11:23

This may be an offbeat answer to the question, but the career you're looking for is that of a YouTuber. Colin Furze is a person who designs and flies his own vehicles. It'd take a lot of media savvy, and I'd shudder to think about the economics of it, but there you have it.


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