Just over 100 years ago, most people were perfectly happy getting around on trams; along came the Wright brothers, and suddenly everyone was looking up. Planes were used for military purposes within a decade; the first airmail service was inaugurated in 1918; and the first commercial passengers flew in the Twenties, attended by the first air stewards.

Since then, man has walked on the moon, flown at the speed of sound and nipped over for a weekend in Alicante for just £1 plus tax. With every development comes a hunger for more, and as the industry grows – a survey released earlier this month by the Society for British Aerospace Companies found that orders had increased by 65 per cent in 2007 – so does its workforce. The same study put the number of people working in aerospace in Britain at over 113,000.

Now, with concerns about climate change and controversy over airport expansions – such as the proposed third runway at Heathrow – the demand is for lighter, cheaper, quieter aircraft; British aerospace engineers are at the forefront of making it happen.

When the Airbus A380 – the world's largest commercial airliner – launched in 2005, it was as a result of the work of highly skilled engineers who had contributed as researchers, designers, manufacturers and project managers. For example, a team of around 120 design and stress specialists from GKN Aerospace Engineering Services worked on the design of the wing-box structure, while engineering design and management consultancy Assystem UK contributed to the mid- and outer-rear spars (wing flaps, to the uninitiated). The 32,000 or more parts that eventually went to make up the wings were put together in hangars at the West Factory in North Wales.

Last month, two British Airways employees became the first engineers in the UK to be qualified to maintain the A380; by the time it takes delivery of its first A380 in 2012, the company hopes 50 will have made the grade. Safety is a huge concern for the aviation industry, and highly skilled and dedicated workers are required to keep both ageing fleets and cutting-edge aircraft in the skies.

As well as being component designers, systems engineers or maintenance engineers, aerospace specialists can work on research projects focusing on particular capabilities that have led to some huge leaps in avionics. Teams from Rolls-Royce have recently been working on emission-cutting schemes, including the testing of an old-style propeller-driven engine, and a jatropha plant-derived "green jet fuel".

In more leisurely pursuits, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic initiative is on course for lift-off early in 2010, with over 200 people – including the physicist Stephen Hawking – having paid $200,000 (£135,000) to experience weightlessness for between four and six minutes aboard SpaceShipTwo. The commercial space shuttle was apparently dreamt up by Branson after a conversation with former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, but it was made a reality by talented aerospace engineers.

Around half of the Society of British Aerospace Companies' £43.8bn of orders in 2007 were for military aircraft. One such is the Eurofighter, the culmination of a European collaboration that included heavy involvement from BAE Systems. This Mach 2-speed plane made its maiden flight in 1994 but continues to develop: a model equipped with Tranche 2 avionics, offering more sophisticated mission computers, was tested in Warton, Lancashire, last year.

Advances in computing mean that as well as working in labs, wind tunnels and aircraft hangars, aerospace engineers are using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to assess how flow moves around objects. This can significantly reduce costs, as it can save on parts being built, meaning many more options can be tested at a fraction of the cost.

While, technically speaking, you do have to be a rocket scientist to apply for a job as an aerospace engineer, it is not a particularly complicated process. A good place to start is by attending engineering fairs to get an idea of who is employing (find out more about one of these on page 3), and visiting the websites of companies you're interested in to apply for work experience or jobs.

More vacancies can be found by paying a visit to www.aerosocietyjobs.com, the Royal Aeronautical Society's recruitment website; you can also upload your CV to be searched by employers. They will be looking for a degree in engineering, physics, mathematics or computer science, and ideally a postgraduate qualification in aerospace engineering if your first degree was in a different subject. Experience is very desirable – evidence of a sandwich year, vacation placement or work-shadowing, for example – as it shows you have experience of solving problems to a customer brief.

Graduates who do secure jobs face the challenge of creating the next generation of engineering triumphs, such as the silent aircraft that scientists at the University of Cambridge have been working on with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "The Silent Aircraft Initiative has been very much an enterprise in which the whole is greater than the sum of the separate parts," said one of the MIT professors at the time the project was unveiled. The same is true of the whole aerospace industry – and you can be a part of it.

'This was a natural career for me to go into'

Chris O'Brien, a systems engineer at BAE Systems, has just completed his first year with the company.

"I'm on the Sigma leadership scheme for graduates, which involves different placements surrounding the business. It means that I'm gaining a hands-on understanding of the whole company as well as my own specialism.

This was a natural career for me to go into, both in terms of my academic and extracurricular life. I studied an undergraduate degree in physics, then a Masters in computational science and engineering, both at Manchester. I'm also an infantry rifle platoon commander in the Territorial Army, so even before I worked for BAE Systems I was using the kit that they made at weekends.

My favourite day at work was when we travelled to a firing range in the North-west to test out some new bits of technology for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). All the engineers who had worked on it got to see it operating for the first time, and it was a success. That's the pinnacle of what we do."

'I find the work very rewarding'

April Considine, a structural design engineer at Marshall Aerospace, helps to design modifications to aircraft.

"My job involves producing 3D models, production drawings and reports. The work is challenging: you have to understand all the factors that go into producing an effective design, such as establishing whether it is strong enough, if it can meet certification requirements, how it is going to be made and fitted, and so on. I find the work very rewarding. It's satisfying to see components that you have drawn and designed actually on the aircraft.

I joined Marshall Aerospace in 1995 as a technical apprentice. That was a three-year programme that involved a working tour of the company, covering design, planning and manufacture. After my apprenticeship I took a BTEC Higher National Diploma in aerospace studies and then a BEng degree with the Open University. I have already started the postgraduate degree programme, and when I complete the Masters I will be aiming for Royal Aeronautical Society chartership."

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