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.”
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.
Indeed, UL hosts the Irish Centre for Composites Research and developing the sector is a strategic priority for Enterprise Ireland and the IDA. Its research themes include joining, adhesive bonding and surface engineering and, if you consider that Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’s A350 are composed of greater than 50 per cent composite materials, the centre’s links to the aerospace industry are very clear.
“We’re well placed to produce composite materials, because it doesn’t require huge energy resources,” says McCarthy.
The university has also just finished working on the Maaximus project (More Affordable Aircraft through eXtended, Integrated and Mature nUmerical Sizing) with 57 partners – all aerospace companies and research institutes from around Europe – with the goal of achieving the fast development and right-first-time validation of a highly optimised composite fuselage thanks to a co-ordinated effort between virtual structure development and composite technology. It has also secured €1.35 million in funding from Science Foundation Ireland to develop novel bonding solutions for composites.
If the aeronautical engineering sector is somewhat limited in Ireland, though, it hasn’t held UL graduates back from flying high across the world.
“After the internship, I realised I was getting as good an education as I could have anywhere in the world,” says Fitzgerald. He adds that during a trip back to UL two years ago, he was “impressed with the quality of the teaching and the relevance of the content being taught”.
Home for Fitzgerald is now very much in Seattle – “it’s almost as pretty as Killarney” – and like him, other Irish aircraft engineers are contributing to the global development of the aerospace industry.
Aisling Shannon, who graduated from UL in 1998, is one of about 20 Irish people working at the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands, where she has worked on structural engineering projects for the past eight years.
She came to the position following a role with Astrium (now Airbus Defence and Space) in the UK. “Once I started working there I realised that everything about the space industry fascinated me and I knew that this was to be the career path I would choose for myself,” she says.
While Shannon says it is unlikely that she would return home – “the roles that I have seen available in the Irish space industry are not really suited to my experience” – she is keen to stress that there are many opportunities for Irish students and graduates at ESA.
These include the agency’s stagiare programme, which accepts applications each autumn, and the ESA’s one-year graduate programme, the premise of which is to give graduates the start needed in the space industry before they return to their home country to advance their career. “Many of these graduates return to ESA as experienced professionals years later,” she adds.
Back in Seattle, Fitzgerald is working on the next generation of triple-7 aircraft, the 777X. He is on the team that is integrating the aerodynamics, loads and dynamics and flight control design on the new aircraft.
“It’s quite an exciting part to be involved in for an aeronautical engineer,” he says – and quite a journey for that five-year-old boy.
Graduate high-fliers: where the jobs are
Biggest employers of aeronautical engineering graduates
1. Airbus (across Europe)
2. Bombardier, Belfast
4. Irish Aviation Authority
5. Shannon Aerospace
Source: University of Limerick