An area of expertise that falls within the category of aerospace engineering is the study of aerodynamics. What is or are aerodynamics? It’s a field that examines the motion of air and how air passes over moving objects—typically man-made vehicles whether airborne like planes and spacecraft or land-based like cars and bikes. It’s through aerodynamics that an airplane can overcome the forces of gravity and drag, so it’s at the core of mankind’s ability to fly and travel quickly.
Before anyone can label themselves an aerodynamicist, they first must complete a degree in a parent subject such as aerospace engineering or aeronautical engineering. This is a career for the mathematically or scientifically minded, but it can also be glamorous in a geeky kind of way. Aerodynamicists have a hand in designing the world’s fastest, most efficient machines.
The Aerodynamicist’s Job
The aerodynamicist has a complex job that involves designing, building and testing aircraft, vehicles and structures. Extensive analysis, technical reporting, record-keeping, and research is undertaken. The job requires a lot of liaising with other engineers. Aerodynamicists must be meticulous in every aspect of their work, including communications. They should be able to work with all types of personalities.
One of the primary ways that an aerodynamicist tests the aerodynamic properties of a design is by use of a wind tunnel. A wind tunnel generates a flow of air so that the “aero” properties of an object or structure (e.g. model airplanes or buildings, bicycles, crash helmets) can be measured.
Some of the key components of a wind tunnel include drive motors, a fan (often an axial fan) or turbine, a nozzle that speeds up the air, a test section, acoustic mufflers and turning vanes. Wind tunnels vary considerably in size and design depending on the industry they cater for. The largest wind tunnel in the world is owned by NASA and measures 80×120 foot (test section dimensions).
The wind tunnel is where some of the bread-and-butter work of the aerodynamicist takes place and where a lot of experience is gained. A more senior aerodynamicist may eventually focus more on design than wind-tunnel testing and will use specialist aerodynamics and aerospace software to assist. Like most jobs, managerial roles are at the peak of an aerodynamicist’s career, if he/she should want that.
Where the Work Is
There are various types of company or agency that might employ an aerodynamicist. Some of them are listed below.
- Airplane designers and manufacturers
- Private airlines
- Spacecraft and aerospace designers and manufacturers
- Motor racing companies (e.g. Formula 1)
- Motor car designers and manufacturers
- National defense agencies (e.g. Air Force)
- Bicycle designers and manufacturers
- Governmental departments
- Research laboratories (private or public)