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Professional Opportunities: To FE or not to FE?

Heading to the airlines? Then "Yes!"

They're called plumbers in the business. They only ride side-saddle. Some are said to go "stare crazy" over time. Others become perennial back-seat drivers.

As uncharitable as airline slang is in describing the flight engineer, or FE, it's really nothing more than good-natured teasing. In reality, any pilot occupying the front seat of a vintage jet aircraft knows how important the FE is to ensuring a safe flight.

"From the airline's perspective, there's absolutely no second-class-citizen status to the FE position," said J.D. Whitlatch, vice president of flight standards and training for United Airlines. "First officers and flight engineers wear the same stripes on their uniforms. Those three-crew ships are complicated marvels and the flight engineer is an essential member of the team."

As long as airlines continue to fly venerable airplanes with names like Boeing 707, 727, and 747-100; Douglas DC-10 and DC-8; and Lockheed 1011, they will need FEs.

Just how important is the ability to fill the flight engineer position to your chances of getting an airline job? Of the 14 major air carriers, nine - Airborne Express, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, DHL Airways, Federal Express, Northwest Airlines, TWA, United Airlines, and United Parcel Service - ask or require that applicants pass the FAA's flight engineer knowledge test (FEw) before applying. Non-scheduled and lesser-known jet cargo airlines almost universally require that job applicants have passed the test.

Many other outfits, including Atlas Air, American Trans Air, Polar Air Cargo, and Gemini Air Cargo, favor applicants who already hold the flight engineer rating, which requires additional training and successful completion of a practical test. Some of these smaller companies also offer full-time professional flight engineer (PFE) jobs, which require both an FE rating and an airframe and powerplant mechanic (A&P) certificate.

The official description of the flight engineer position is provided by the FAA itself. "At one time, the flight engineer functioned as an in-flight maintenance person. Today, the flight engineer is a technical expert who must be thoroughly familiar with the operation and function of various airplane components. The principal responsibility of the flight engineer is to assist the pilots in the operation of the airplane. Specific duties vary with different airplanes and operators."

In other words, the FE is a systems manager. It is the flight engineer who conducts the preflight inspection, makes sure that all hydraulic systems are operational, keeps an eye on temperatures and pressures throughout the airplane, monitors fuel consumption, keeps fuel and hydraulic pumps humming, and maintains adequate electrical power to keep the coffee hot.

To serve as a flight engineer in FAR Part 121 operations, the FE must be "rated" to perform such duties. The first step to earning the FE rating is successful completion of the FEw.

The knowledge, or written, test comes in a variety of flavors. They are:

FEX: Turbojet and Basic

FET: Turboprop and Basic

FEN: Reciprocating and Basic

Unless you plan to spend your career as an engineer on a four-motor piston airliner such as the Super Constellation, you'll want to take the FEX knowledge test.

The test consists of 80 multiple-choice questions and must be completed within three hours. Subject areas include federal aviation regulations; theory of flight and aerodynamics; meteorology; preflight, normal and emergency operating procedures; airplane equipment; airplane systems; and airplane and engine limitations.

You can take the test at just about any commercial computer testing center that conducts knowledge tests for general aviation certificates and ratings. And there are plenty of products available to help you prepare. Peruse the aviation catalogs and magazines and you'll discover video courses, books, and weekend ground schools.

Before you can take the FEX, you must fulfill the FAA prerequisites - you must be at least 19 years of age; be able to read, speak, and understand English; and hold an unrestricted commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating or an airline transport pilot certificate issued by the FAA or another International Civil Aviation Organization member. There are alternate qualifications for non-pilots, such as experienced maintenance technicians.

Completing the FEX written test is probably a good idea no matter which air carrier you want to work for. Since many carriers evaluate applications on a point system, applicants who have passed the FEX knowledge test are likely to earn some extra points. As with other aviation knowledge tests, FEX test results are valid for 24 months. If you don't pass the flight engineer practical test within that time, the test results will expire and you'll have to retake the exam. There is an exception for anyone who works in an FAR Part 121 operations environment. For those employees, the test results remain valid for the duration of employment.

Bear in mind that passing the FEX knowledge test does not qualify you to occupy the flight engineer seat. The FAA also requires additional type-specific training and a practical test.

According to the FAA's rules, "The flight training must be completed in the airplane type which will be used for the tests. The minimum amount of flight training is five hours." Applicants with a commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating may be eligible to conduct all of the necessary flight training in an approved simulator.

But chances are that any FAR Part 121 air carrier will require much more than the FAA minimum training before letting you fly in the third seat. A new hire at United Airlines who is assigned to the FE seat on a Boeing 747-100 will spend close to two months at the company's Denver training center. After two weeks of initial company indoctrination, the soon-to-be flight engineer will spend 10 to 12 days learning the airplane's systems and another 32 to 36 hours in a simulator.

At the end of the instruction period, the trainee is expected to pass a four-hour practical test covering standard operating procedures and malfunctions from engine start through shutdown. After all of this, the apprentice flight engineer undergoes 25 hours of initial operating experience (IOE) under the watchful eyes of specially designated captains. Once IOE is completed, the airman is finally a full-fledged flight engineer on the 747-100. If the new FE wants to transfer to a DC-10 panel, he or she will have to undergo another month of transition training.

It's worth noting that the certificate issued by the FAA references only "flight engineer," not "flight engineer/B-727." The authority to actually serve as a flight engineer in a particular aircraft make and model is the airman?s training record, which acts much like a logbook endorsement for an operating privilege.

Pilots who want to work for the major airlines should pursue an FE position as a stepping stone to the driver's seat. The big companies hire flight engineers with the expectation that they will someday move to the front left seat.

This doesn't mean that there is not a career path for someone who wants to be a flight engineer exclusively. Though becoming less common as older jets are replaced, the PFE is a career option at a few airlines in the United States and many others around the world, particularly in South America. Polar Air Cargo, based in Long Beach, California, flies a herd of B-747-100s and -200s. Polar requires that its PFEs have both a flight engineer rating and an A&P certificate. Thus, a low-time private pilot with a maintenance background could conceivably enjoy a career as a 747 crewmember and earn a handsome first-year salary of more than $4,000 per month.

Why the A&P requirement? Airlines that hire PFEs with A&P certification generally transport boxes and people to remote destinations, many without modern maintenance facilities. The thinking is that the PFE would have the technical and mechanical savvy to supervise the work of a repair crew if the airplane were to require service in some remote location.

For airlines where you need the FE rating, applicants may choose to attend a commercial course offering the necessary training. The courses typically cost between $4,000 and $5,000, last approximately a month, and include simulator training.

Before you invest that kind of time and money, decide how the rating will advance your career. If the rating will virtually guarantee you a position as an FE or PFE, then the expenditure is probably justified. On the other hand, it might be a mistake to make the investment if you simply hope the rating will make you more desirable to a major airline. If Delta or Federal Express hires you as an engineer, you still will be required to train to company standards. Walking into the first day of training with a pre-purchased flight engineer rating will not automatically advance you to the head of the class.

Until the last airplane with the third cockpit seat is moth-balled - which won't be for many years to come - there will be a role for flight engineers in aviation. So, for the foreseeable future, anyone looking to the airlines for a flying career should answer the question, "To FE or not to FE?" with an emphatic "Yes!"

Anyone considering taking the FEX knowledge test can review the questions on the Internet (ftp://ftp.

By Wayne Phillips

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