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As airplanes became even larger requiring more engines and complex systems to operate, the workload on the two pilots became excessive during certain critical parts of the flight regime, notably takeoffs and landings. Piston engines on airplanes required a great deal of attention throughout the flight with their multitude of gauges and indicators. Inattention or a missed indication could result in engine or propeller failure, and quite possibly cause loss of the airplane if prompt corrective action was not taken. In order to dedicate a person to monitoring the engines and other critical flight systems, the position of Flight Engineer was created. The Flight Engineer did not actually fly the airplane; instead, the Flight Engineer had his own specialized control panel allowing him to monitor and control the various aircraft systems. The Flight Engineer is therefore an integrated member of the flight deck crew who works in close coordination with the two pilots during all phases of flight. The Flight Engineer position was usually placed on the main flight deck just aft of the pilot and copilot. Earlier referred to as the flight mechanic on the four engine commercial seaplanes like the Sikorsky S-42, Martin M-130 and the Boeing 314, the Flight Engineer role was referred to as the Engineer (much like a ships engineer) on the first very large flying boat, the Dornier Do-X where he operated a large and complex side facing engineering station similar to later large transport aircraft. The first commercial land airplane to include a flight engineering station was the Boeing 307 but only ten were built before the onset of World War II; during the war the Avro Lancaster bomber and Handley Page Halifax required a Flight Engineer as these large bombers had only one pilot. The first military operation involving Flight Engineers was in February 1941 on a Short Stirling, and was the first four-engined bomber raid of the war by the RAF.
The Flight Engineer (Air Engineer in the Royal Air Force) is primarily concerned with the operation and monitoring of all aircraft systems, and is required to diagnose and where possible rectify or eliminate any faults that may arise. On most multi-engine airplanes, the Flight Engineer (FE) sets and adjusts engine power during take off, climb, cruise, go-arounds, or at any time the pilot flying (PF) requests a specific power setting to be set during the approach phase. The FE sets and monitors the following major systems: fuel, pressurization and air conditioning, hydraulic, electrics, ice and rain protection, oxygen, fire and overheat protection, and powered flying controls. FEs are also responsible for preflight and postflight aircraft inspections, and ensuring that the weight and balance of the aircraft is correctly calculated to ensure the centre of gravity is within limits. On airplanes where the FE's station is located on the same flight deck just aft of the two pilots (all western three-man deck airplanes), they also monitor aircraft flight path, speed, and altitude. A significant portion of their time is cross checking pilot selections. The flight engineer is essentially the systems expert of the airplane with an extensive mechanical and technical knowledge of aircraft systems and aircraft performance.
On some military airplanes (C-5, E-3, KC-10) the Flight Engineer sits behind the co-pilot in the cockpit, facing sideways to operate a panel of switches, gauges and indicators, and on the Tupolev Tu-134 the flight engineer sits in the nose of the airplanes. On other western military airplanes, such as on the P-3 Orion and C-130H, FE's sit between, slightly aft of, and (in the case of the C-130A-H models, slightly higher than the pilots. On the P-3 Orion the Flight Engineer is responsible for starting and shutting down engines at the beginning and end of flights and also during in-flight shutdowns which are carried out to save fuel on long range operations.In most cases, a military Flight Engineer is also authorised to make and certify repairs to the aircraft when it is away from its base. This can eliminate the need for technical repair crews to accompany the aircraft on short deployments. On civilian airplanes the FE is positioned so that he can monitor the forward instruments, pilot selections and adjust the thrust levers located on the centre pedestal; the FE's chair can travel forward and aft and it can swivel laterally 90 degrees, which enables him to face forward and set the engine power, then move aft and rotate sideways to monitor and set the systems panel. The Flight Engineer is the aircraft systems expert onboard and responsible for troubleshooting and suggesting solutions to in-flight emergencies and abnormal technical conditions, as well as computing takeoff and landing data.
The basic philosophy of a three man flight deck on western airplanes should an abnormality or emergency arise is as follows: the Captain hands over the actual flying of the aircraft to the Copilot, then the Captain and Flight Engineer together review and carry out the necessary actions required to contain and rectify the problem. This spreads the workload and ensures a system of cross-checking which maximizes safety. The Captain is the manager and decision maker (Pilot Not Flying, PNF), the First Officer/Copilot is the actual flier of the aircraft (Pilot Flying, PF), and the Flight Engineer reads the check-lists and executes actions required under the auspices of the Captain (PNF). There can be occasions when the roles of the pilots during an emergency are reversed, i.e. the Copilot becomes the PNF and the Captain becomes the PF; one such example was on the A300 B-Series aircraft when there was a complete loss of generator-supplied electrical power, whereupon the standby instruments that were powered were on the Captain's side only, requiring the Captain to be PF and the PNF and Flight Engineer to resolve the issue.
On all commercial airliners with a Flight Engineer the FE is the third in command, after the captain and first officer.
In the late 20th century, the development of powerful and small integrated circuits and other advances in digital technology eliminated the need for flight engineers on airliners and many modern military aircraft. Some of the last airplanes to use flight engineers are early model Boeing 747s, the Boeing 727, the Boeing E-3 Sentry, the Lockheed L-1011, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and the Tupolev Tu-154s.
On two-man flight deck airplanes, sensors and computers monitor and adjust systems automatically. There is no onboard technical expert and third pair of eyes. If a malfunction, abnormality or emergency occurs it will be displayed on an electronic display panel and the computer will automatically initiate corrective action to rectify the abnormal condition. One pilot (PF) does the flying and the other pilot (PNF) resolves the issue.
- "The History of the Air Engineer", Flight Lieutenant D C Stringman (1983), publisher unknown