UL graduates spread their wings in world of aeronautical engineering

UL is producing aerospace graduates for the industry worldwide, but job prospects in Ireland remain limited

Pio Fitzgerald: “When I was standing on the flight deck [of a Boeing 747 from Shannon to New York] at the age of five I knew I wanted to be involved in airplanes. It captured my imagination.”

Pio Fitzgerald: “When I was standing on the flight deck [of a Boeing 747 from Shannon to New York] at the age of five I knew I wanted to be involved in airplanes. It captured my imagination.”

Mon, Aug 25, 2014, 01:35

It’s not many of us that can claim to have decided on our career choice – and later fulfilled it – at the age of just five, but for Kerryman Pio Fitzgerald, there was a sense of destiny on his first flight on a Boeing 747 from Shannon to New York.

“When I was standing on the flight deck at the age of five I knew I wanted to be involved in airplanes. It captured my imagination. I was amazed at the crackling on the radio, all the dials. It’s an environment that captures children, and I was caught by it,” he recalls.

At first, this fascination led to dreams of becoming a pilot, but an interest in physics and maths at St Brendan’s College in Killarney meant his career aspiration evolved into becoming an engineer.

While studying at the University of Limerick, Fitzgerald got his first chance to practise his skills when he was offered an internship with Seattle-based Boeing. After completing a master’s in the UK and a spell working for a consultancy firm, he returned to the world’s largest aerospace company – and he soon distinguished himself.

Working in Boeing’s control design division, Fitzgerald was tasked with dealing with a flutter issue on the wing of the company’s 747-8 jumbo aircraft, a problem which upset its aerodynamic.

He struck upon an elegant solution which required no physical modification to the wing and added no weight to the aircraft, by sending a message to control surfaces on the 747-8 wings, called ailerons, which typically move up and down as the pilot banks the aircraft.

Engineer of the Year

Solving the problem saved Boeing a substantial sum and won Fitzgerald, who was then just 34, the honour of being named Boeing’s Engineer of the Year for 2011. He was also nominated for Flightplan’s Innovator of the Year award, alongside billionaire innovator Elon Musk – the winner of the award the previous year was Sir Richard Branson.

“I was very surprised, very humbled, but I work with the very best engineers in the world,” he says, adding that his modification is still in service and “doing quite well”.

Fitzgerald trained in aeronautical engineering at the University of Limerick, the only institution to offer a degree course in the subject in the Republic, with Queens University in Belfast offering a similar option in the North.

Since it was first established in 1992, almost 400 graduates have completed UL’s degree course. According to Dr Conor McCarthy, senior lecturer in aircraft structures at UL and assistant dean of research for faculty of science and engineering, almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of these are living and working in Ireland.

“Graduates work mostly on structures and engines,” McCarthy says. “At undergraduate level they’re taught engine technology and structures, control systems and the design of aircraft, so students tend to end up as design or development engineer.”

Belfast-based aircraft manufacturer Bombardier is a big employer of UL graduates, Ryanair also takes on a lot of structural engineers, and the Irish Aviation Authority, while Shannon Aerospace also employs graduates.

Nonetheless, career prospects in the sector in Ireland remain limited and many, like Fitzgerald, now work abroad. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus for example, is the largest employer of UL graduates, with about 50 or so working Irish engineers working for the company across Europe.

“Ireland is never going to host a major manufacturer like Airbus, but the trend going forward is in R&D,” McCarthy says.

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