Our “So You Want To Be” series interviews men and women in engineering or jobs that require an engineering background to ask about their career, how they got into their line of work, and what their job entails.
Today’s interview is with Javier Sierra, an Aerospace Engineer who has been working at the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) F-35 Integrated Test Facility in Patuxent River, MD for four years.
Javier works on flight testing new military aircraft; specifically releasing weapons on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
Tell Us About What You Do as an Aerospace Engineer at NAVAIR
I majored in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Florida and was hired out of college by the Naval Air Systems Command – my official title here is Aerospace Engineer. But my actual job is Store Certification for F-35s.
This job typically includes being at planning meetings, going down to inspect different weapons that are going to be fitted on different jets, fitting them to the jets and then testing. Speaking of jets- to clarify there’s an Air Force, Navy and Marine flavor F-35 and here at Pax River we focus on the Navy /Marine flavor; e.g. the F-35B and F-35C.
Is this what you set out to do as an engineering student?
No, actually. When I first got to NAVAIR I started out doing Mass Properties – but they have a rotational program called ESDP (Engineer and Scientist Development Program). I got to come out and do Store Certification on F-18s and enjoyed it, so I transferred to that department permanently and was assigned to work JSF Store Certification.
If you want to be an Aerospace Engineer working on the JSF, how should you prepare?
I would strongly encourage an engineering background. Mainly mechanical or aerospace engineering, although we do also have a couple electrical engineers working with us. And then from there – I’m not sure how you’d get into weapons exactly other than to just apply for it.
Among the team that works here, a few of them did take internships (in college) with one of the major armament manufacturers.
- ATK (jobs) (they make missiles)
- Raytheon (jobs) (they make bombs and missiles)
- Boeing (jobs) (they make bombs and missiles)
Their internship experience helped them get into this realm, and got them used to working around the government.
What is the pay system like? Are you on the GS system?
No, we are just salary. We transferred from GS (General Schedule system, used in United States civil service) to a pay-for-performance system. This new pay banding system, STRL (Science and Technology Reinvention Laboratory) incentivizes performance. Whereas the GS system is just time based (like tenure) this one gives you an opportunity to excel, showcase what you’ve done and be rewarded for it.
A few examples of performance that might be rewarded could be improved cost, improved schedule or if you had a really big increase in performance.
This job requires a Security Clearance – what was that like?
Once you get the job offer, then, depending on what you are going to be doing (in your new job) they begin conducting the background check.
The background check begins by filling out the SF-86. How long it takes… is on a case-by-case basis depending on the individual getting reviewed – but we’re (at NAVAIR) on par with everyone else. The interim security clearance was pretty quick, I think it took about 2 months to get. And then the full security clearance can take anywhere between 6-8 months.
What sets an outstanding team member apart?
Being willing to take on more responsibility is really the main thing. Leading different efforts instead of just contributing (obviously you have to be here a while before you can do this). But once you have a couple years experience you’ll start feeling like you’re up for the challenge.
That’s the nice thing about NAVAIR and working for the government, you do get a fairly large amount of responsibility fairly quickly if you want it.
Are there any stereotypes for weapons engineers?
Typically the weapons guys are the most laid back and kind of rowdy. I think that carries over to NAVAIR.
The environment here is really pleasant. And here, at least, it’s also really young. I’d say the average age is about 30 or under.
What is the best part about being an Aerospace Engineer at NAVAIR? The worst?
Specifically, for my job, the best part is getting a store (a storage tank, a weapon, anything they put on the pilon is a store) certified for the fleet – that’s an effort that can range from 8 months to a couple of years depending on what weapon you’re certifying. Fit checking, then the static store, then capitive carriage flights, then the first release testing, and so on.
When all those fall into place and you can expand that envelope and you’re able to deliver a new capability to the fleet… getting through that process is the best.
The tough part is the time commitment- especially with the Joint Strike Fighter project, you’re working weekends and overtime a lot to meet the schedule restrictions.
Flight testing, for example, is so fluid when it comes to scheduling. During flight testing you’re trying to find all the problems with the system you’re working on so that when you deliver it to the fleet it’s the safest and most reliable it can possibly be. That way the Marines and the Naval aviators out there don’t find the problems in the field.
And the logistics themselves for the flight test – great weather, all the instrumentation has to be cooperating, a control room full of engineers all have to be in place… a lot of things have to align just to get that right for a test.
A single test point is usually a specific altitude, or a mach number, or a calibrated air speed number, etc. Then you can define it either by G’s experienced, side slip angle or some other variable – there’s a lot of different ways you can define it.
So you monitor all those parameters to make sure you stay inside the tolerance bands in each one of those for a required amount of time – and if you do –you’ve completed the test point. One.
On the first weapon separation from last summer, we had one test point on a LOT of work. But it was a milestone. It was the first weapons separation on any of the F-35 aircraft.
How would you describe your work / life balance?
Working with F-35s has been a bit more challenging to balance the work / life schedule. But I think it’s something that they’ve (the command) recognized, especially recently, that a lot of people were having issues with that and they’ve taken some steps to mitigate that as a problem. So, for example, they’ve identified more time in advance – weekends that they won’t do any test flights – so people can make plans and have those days off.
It’s come to the attention of leadership and they’re taking big steps to mitigate the work / life balance issues.
How do you climb the ladder at NAVAIR?
One of the bigger benefits in working for NAVAIR specifically… is the ability to grow.
I started in mass properties and during this rotational program I found something else that I was more interested in and I had that opportunity to go over there and start working on that instead. And the same opportunity is there for management.
Engineers here can definitely take charge of their careers. If you’re interested in technical work you can stay in technical work your entire career and not be bored. If you want something in management there’s always programs coming up and you can apply to go and be a lead on them.
Are there any must-have certifications?
There are a couple certifications that the government requires (DAWIA). But there are different tracks depending on what your career is – program management, test evaluation, etc. You are able to take courses out of track if you are interested in them, it gives you different insights (you may not gain otherwise).
So when I started at NAVAIR with mass properties I started my certifications on the systems engineering track, then I jumped over to the test and evaluation track when I went to weapons. And later on if I want to move on to program management I have the option to take those classes, too. It is a flexible system.
Any other anecdotes you can share about being an Aerospace Engineer at NAVAIR?
It’s pretty neat to come to work and work with the fifth generation fighter jet… featuring all the latest and greatest in technology. It is a rare opportunity and it’s something that, as an engineer, you don’t get to experience that often. Also, with this job in particular, it’s a little bit more hands on than your normal engineering job where you may sit in an office and stare at a computer all day.
While we do have some of that, we also have days where you actually get to go out to the aircraft and put your hands on the aircraft itself, fit the weapons, and work with your hands.
It is that hands-on experience… that’s something I really enjoy about being here.
- Aerospace Engineers (you can sort by location at left)
- Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) (as a keyword)
- Joint Strike Fighter (as a keyword)
- Weapons (as a keyword)
(Tip: Use our advanced search with keywords “weapons,” “joint strike fighter” or “JSF” in the “All of These Words” field.)
Education Required: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical or aerospace engineering, certifications (preferred). This job entails continued education.
Salary Range: $61,000 – $98,000 for “Aerospace Engineers” working for the government, with $79,000 being the mean. (According to Payscale.com)
Work Schedule: Project-based. Regular hours with expectation of working overtime and on weekends.
Industry: Aerospace Engineering