Although there is a lot more to this career than happily tinkering with the intricate innards of airplanes, "Almost anybody who works in this line has had a fascination for aircraft," says Darryl Chan, Manager Aircraft Engineering at Cathay Pacific Airways. "I lived near an airport and used to travel a lot... and [was in] the air cadets at school - it grows on you inside that you want to be in aviation."
A permanent member of the Cathay team since 1990, before that Mr Chan also worked for the airline as a student industrial trainee for four months a year. His experience with the airline has seen him pass step by step from Engineering Trainee to Senior Technical Services Engineer, before becoming a Technical Service Manager in 1996 and reaching his current position in 2001.
"You need to be good
technically, but you also need a good business head, so you can make a sound technical judgement but also assess its cost impact"
The nitty gritty
"Most people think an engineer's just another doer, but actually you can become a manager. Our engineer grade is junior manager grade, with the same responsibilities," Mr Chan notes. Indeed, opportunities are widespread within the field. "Engineering's vast [at Cathay Pacific], with 400 people in Hong Kong and 400 people out on the lines. There are lots of opportunities within engineering itself," he continues. "An airplane's so complex that you need different people to look after different aspects of managing it." Aviation engineers can therefore find themselves specializing in technical, commercial or planning divisions, for example covering the planning and logistics of aircraft maintenance.
Every day's a new day
Aircraft engineers are more than technical experts, however. Efficient maintenance of the 76-strong Cathay Pacific fleet goes hand-in-hand with cost control, as Mr Chan explains: "We've realized we're a business. You need to be good technically, but you also need a good business head, so you can make a sound technical judgement but also assess its cost impact. On top of that, every airplane's different with unique quirks, each airplane ages and is complicated and unique, so every day's a new day."
As English is the industry's common language, aviation engineers must also enjoy a good command of English and be able to interact with people from all nationalities.
However, Mr Chan emphasizes that a passion for aircraft remains the bottom line: "As far as engineering re-muneration is concerned, it's somewhere in the middle. So people do it for the love of airplanes... Some of it is nice in the office, other bits are dirty and people don't want to get their hands dirty. It's not very glamorous but it's part of the job."
"At the end of the day, engineering has to be safe and disciplined," Mr Chan continues. Excellent team skills are thus key: "If an aeroplane has a problem in Hong Kong or anywhere else in the world, and you send it to a group of engineers ... you'll find specialists and meet the right people. They may meet and work together once in a lifetime - and never see each other again. But it's got to work that time and you've got to get it right. So team communication is pretty vital."
Open to all
Specialization takes place post graduation. "At university, you don't necessarily have to do an aircraft engineering degree - we take a whole slew of engineering degrees. Because aircraft engineering is a specialized area, Cathay Pacific teaches you about a plane from ground up."
Mr Chan is happy to note that a number of the trainees are female. "Every year we take on two or three. They make up half the contingent - and they're very capable."
Mr Chan urges potential aviation engineers to attend the airline's industrial training program for students, held every summer, or indeed to speak to other aviation companies in Hong Kong. "Aviation's one of those weird things - you either love it or you hate it. Somebody can come to us and say, I really want to join, but at the end of the day it might not be right for them."
There are great opportunities in China. People have spending power and there'll be massive growth in China to sell aeroplanes," comments Mr Chan. "As aviation develops, so will the role of the aviation engineer in China. Boeing expects China to buy over 2,000 aeroplanes in the next 20 years - and that means engineering staff. Currently, Cathay Pacific Airways send part of the fleet to TAECO in Xiamen, in China, for heavy maintenance ... and our staff go up to China to provide support there.