Ireland’s only NFQ Level 8 degree in aeronautical engineering has been producing aerospace graduates for the industry worldwide since 1991, writes Dr Ronan O’Higgins
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Author: Dr Ronan O’Higgins, course director BEng Aeronautical Engineering, Department of Mechanical, Aeronautical and Biomedical Engineering, University of Limerick

University of Limerick (UL) has a distinguished history of aviation education and training. It has been the leading Irish supplier of graduates for the Irish and international aviation industry for more than two decades. In the Republic of Ireland, UL is unique in offering the only aeronautical engineering programmes accredited by Engineers Ireland for chartered engineer status. This unique position was confirmed by the accreditation of its new MEng programme in 2013.

In a relatively short time, UL’s graduates have risen to the very top of the aerospace industry, and count among their number CEOs, vice presidents, aircraft architects and Boeing’s ‘Engineer of the Year’ for 2011.

Aviation education began at UL in 1991 with the establishment of the Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA) chair in aeronautical engineering and the creation of an aeronautical engineering stream within the B.E. mechanical engineering course. The success of the stream led to the creation of a separate Honours Bachelor of Engineering (Level 8) in aeronautical engineering in 1996.

When GPA’s sponsorship ended, UL demonstrated its commitment to the programme by renewing the chair, which still exists today. The programme went from strength to strength in the 2000s and, in 2011, in response to changing accreditation requirements, a new one-year Master’s of Engineering (Level 9) in Aeronautical Engineering was launched. In all, more than 500 aeronautical engineers have graduated from UL.

Graduate opportunities


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A group of fourth-ear aeronautical students display their Design/Build/Fly aircraft entry

The quality of the aeronautical engineering programme is evident by the fact that graduates from the course are successfully competing for jobs in blue-chip companies in the aerospace industry. More than 50 UL graduates work for, or have worked for, Airbus, while large numbers have found positions in the likes of Bombardier Aerospace, Rolls Royce, Boeing and the European Space Agency.

At the same time, graduates are found throughout the Irish aircraft-leasing and maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) industry. Since the days of GPA, Ireland is a major player in the aircraft leasing industry with approximately 50% of the world’s leased aircraft fleet leased and managed from Ireland. Aircraft-leasing companies, such as Dublin-based Santos Dumont, are significant employers of UL graduates and actively support the programme by providing work placements and scholarships for students.

A major survey of UL aeronautical engineering graduates in 2010/11 found that 70% of them work in the aerospace/aviation industry and 63% live in Ireland. The 70% figure is quite remarkable, given the university’s location on the edge of Europe, and is on a par with the leading aerospace programmes in Europe.

To enable graduates to compete for so many different roles, UL developed a broad-based engineering degree and implemented the highest standards of excellence in teaching. Aeronautical engineering staff have been shortlisted at least four times for the UL Teaching Award.

Two key highlights of the programme are:

  • The year-long design/build/fly exercise, in which the students work in large teams to go from a blank sheet of paper to a flying aircraft, which must meet tight specifications and mission requirements set down by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA);
  • The flight mechanics module, during which students spend a week aboard a specially instrumented aircraft and perform in-flight laboratory exercises.

Another great strength of the programme is an eight-month co-operative education work placement in top aviation companies in Ireland and throughout the world. UL has developed well-establised links with international aerospace companies like Airbus and Boeing. This summer, two students are heading to Boeing Commercial Airplane Group in Seattle, Wasthington, to work within an engineering design team at Boeing’s Everett Factory.

The Everett plant, the world’s largest building by volume (98.3 acres under roof), is the home of the iconic 747 production line as well as the 777 and 787 production lines. These types of placements give students a tremendous perspective on their studies, and a critical edge when they compete for employment upon graduation.

Research and innovation


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Third-year aeronautical engineering students pictured in front of the Flight Test Lab Aircraft at Shannon Airport

A key feature in the success of aeronautical engineering at UL has been its highly research-active faculty. Through more than 20 EU-funded research projects, in partnership with virtually every major aerospace company in Europe, UL has built its reputation and contacts, which has helped its graduates find employment. Funding brought in through research has also enabled state-of-the-art equipment to be purchased, which is available to undergraduates for project work.

As an example, UL hosts the Irish Centre for Composites Research, and more than €5 million has been spent in the last five years in creating one of the top university composites research laboratories in Britain and Ireland. In recognition of its research achievements, UL received the Award for Aviation Research and Development at the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) Annual Aviation Industry Awards 2014.

A recent (2010) addition to the course is the opportunity for top-performing students to spend a semester at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) or Georgia Institute of Technology (GT). US News and World Report ranks ERAU first in the USA for aerospace engineering in universities where doctorates are not offered and ranks GT second in the USA for aerospace engineering in universities where doctorates are offered (just behind MIT).

In fact, such is UL’s standing that GT ran a semester abroad at UL in 2013, in which GT aerospace engineering students and faculty spent 10 weeks at UL running a full semester of teaching. That such highly-ranked universities would choose to partner with UL speaks volumes about the reputation of UL’s aeronautical engineering programme.

Graduate achievements


The engineering graduate achievement that stands out is that of Dr Pio Fitzgerald (class of 1999), who won the Boeing Commercial Airplanes Engineer of the Year award in 2011 and was also shortlisted for Flightglobal’s Innovator of the Year award, for his solution to a flutter problem on the Boeing 747-8.

Paul Devaney, another graduate of the course and Rolls-Royce fleet business director for Boeing 717 engines, has already written the official Rolls-Royce book on the development of the Trent 900 engine, entitled Powering the Whispering Giant, from his experiences on that programme; he is also, at the time of writing, on a sabbatical from Rolls-Royce, scaling Mount Everest – the final leg of the ‘Seven Summits’ challenge, i.e. climbing the highest peak on each continent. He spent six months in UL in 2013 to prepare for this challenge.

In 2011, Robert Downes, after leaving his position as Airbus A380 landing gear flight-test manager, graduated top of his MBA class at the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, UCD and was recipient of the UCD Smurfit Student of the Year award. These and nearly 40 other graduate stories are available at www.ul.ie/mae.

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  Author: Dr Ronan O’Higgins, course director BEng Aeronautical Engineering, Department of Mechanical, Aeronautical and Biomedical Engineering, University of Limerick University of Limerick (UL) has a distinguished history of aviation education and training. It has been the leading Irish supplier of graduates for the Irish and international aviation industry for more...