In December 2013, I was asked to provide an overview of Aircraft Engineering to the Piedmont Chapter of the South Carolina Society of Professional Engineers. Recently, the legislature in South Carolina was petitioned to change the law exempting aircraft companies from the requirement of registration for their engineers. This stirred up a lot of questions in the PE community, particularly how aircraft engineering is regulated and accountable. Hopefully, these reflections will provide some clarity. And, of course, this is flavored with my opinion, too.
To be clear up front, I support certification of all engineers. When I go into a doctor's office, I am always appreciative to see that my doctor has been board certified and has demonstrated having met at least a minimum set of requirements. I encourage all our employees to take and pass the PE exam. At a minimum, a certified engineer should oversee and approve completed engineering. However, the PE exam is not the only way to be certified. In fact, I will go as far as saying, a PE certification may not be appropriate for aircraft design approval.
Next to the medical industry, arguably there is no other industry more regulated than the aircraft business. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides oversight for both the design and production of aircraft. Through the delegated authority process (FAA order 8100), qualified engineers assure that the regulatory requirements are met and that the aircraft type design is approved. Authority is delegated based on demonstrated abilities. Designated Engineering Representatives (DER) are the equivalent of a PE in the aircraft engineering business.
So, should states exempt aircraft companies from the legal requirements for state registration? I believe the answer is YES, provided that the aircraft company follows the FAA process. Many professional engineers fear that the aircraft exemption will lead to exemptions for other industries. Perhaps other exemptions are appropriate. But, a qualified certification program that demonstrates a minimum level of competency should always be a requirement. In most cases, state registration is the best choice.