June 16 was not the best day for flying in Tallahassee, Florida, with clouds rolling in late afternoon, followed by thunderstorms.
Pilot Maggie Hearn and co-pilot Elizabeth Moorman had taken off from Auburn earlier that day, stopping to refuel in Tallahassee before taking off to beat the storms. Hearn, a senior in Auburn University’s professional flight program, and Moorman, a recent graduate of the program, were on their way to Lakeland, Florida, for the 2022 Air Race Classic.
About 15 minutes into the flight, after flying through clouds and leveling off at 5,000 feet, a low oil pressure message made the two turn around and head back to the airport in their single-
engine Cessna Skyhawk.
“A couple of minutes after that we ended up losing full power in our engine,” Hearn says. “The plane was shaking a lot. … We were probably 10-15 miles from the airport, so we knew we weren’t going to be able to make it there.”
And that, she says, is when their training in Auburn’s School of Aviation — the only one like it in the state – kicked in.
“We’re a very applied major,” says James Birdsong, Delta Air Lines assistant professor and coordinator of Auburn’s aviation program. “It’s not all just theory.”
That’s been the case since 1941, when Auburn’s flight program sprang out of World War II.
“We’ve had a program ever since then, though the health of the program has reflected the health of the industry,” says Birdsong.
The darkest time, to hear him tell it, was about 2007 to 2012.
“After the recession, nobody was hiring pilots,” he says. “They raised the retirement age of pilots from 60 to 65 in 2007, so from 2007 until 2014, there essentially were no young pilots hired. It was a bleak time.”
So bleak, Birdsong says, that when he retired from the military and began teaching at Auburn in 2014, the administration was looking at closing the program, which was then part of the College of Business.
Eight years later, and part of the College of Liberal Arts since 2017, Auburn’s aviation program is flying high. “I’ve seen it grow from less than a hundred students in 2014 to about 700 this fall,” Birdsong says. “It’s grown a lot.”
AVIATORS TEACHING AVIATORS
Birdsong says there are a number of reasons for that, beginning with the people teaching in the program and the “real-world” training the program’s students receive.
The program maintains a close affiliation with Auburn’s airport, run by Bill Hutto, who also teaches in Auburn’s program. That affiliation between university and airport means more pilots are involved in Auburn’s program than before.
“You have people with aviation backgrounds now running the department,” says Jim Witte, another retired military pilot who is director of the School of Aviation and Delta Air Lines professor.
Auburn’s flight students can join the program and expect to fly their first semester. “We’re advocates of students coming into the program with a private pilot’s license, because it shows us you are familiar with the basics and you’re committed,” Witte says. “It basically cuts a year off the program.”
Using a fleet of 40 aircraft purchased by the university and housed at the airport, students typically graduate with about 350 flight hours. A job as a regional airline pilot generally requires 1,000 hours, so the rest come the year after graduation, with recent graduates, like Moorman, working as flight instructors.
“All the planes flying around Auburn are typically 22, 23-year-olds teaching 18-year-olds to fly,” Birdsong says. “They already have jobs in hand. They just have to build their hours.”
PARTNERING WITH DELTA
Those “jobs in hand” are the other critical piece of the success puzzle, borne of important and strategic relationships through the airline industry.
For Auburn, it started with Delta. The $6.2 million Delta Air Lines Aviation Education Building opened in late 2018 next door to the airport terminal. The 23,000-square-foot building houses classrooms, debriefing rooms and world-class flight simulators, which students can use to “fly” around the world.
In addition, Delta selected Auburn to take part in its Propel Pilot Career Path Program. Students selected for that program are offered jobs before they graduate.
“Delta was the point on the spear, definitely the pioneer,” Witte says. “United has come on board, very actively, and the others are following. The idea of a flight school associated with industry is absolutely critical to the product we produce. That doesn’t necessarily make us unique, but it certainly makes us good.”
Witte is now overseeing an aviation school that is more than surviving. It’s thriving.
The program has already outgrown the Delta building, intended for 300 students, and administrators are now making plans for Delta Phase II. That addition to the current building would provide more space, including room for a second simulator, possibly for a Boeing 737 aircraft, Witte says.
A partnership with nearby Southern Union State Community College allows graduates from that school with an airline mechanics certificate to join Auburn’s aviation management program.
Auburn’s School of Aviation is also in the process of launching a master’s degree program in aviation management. Currently, the school offers undergraduate degrees in professional flight and aviation management, with a certificate available in aviation hospitality management.
In May, the university’s War Eagle Flying Team won its first-ever Loening Trophy, college aviation’s oldest and rarest award. It was first awarded in 1929 by a judging panel that included Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
“It’s a big, big deal in aviation,” Witte says. “The original trophy is in the Smithsonian.”
In just a few years, the Auburn flight program has soared to be recognized as one of the top collegiate flight programs in the country — and the only one in the Southeastern Conference.
“We were hanging on by our fingernails,” Witte says. “But now we have 700 students expected in the fall and agreements with all of the major airlines, which means very few of our graduates leave here unemployed. We’re healthy and growing, with new buildings planned. It’s just a complete reversal of what we had a few years ago.”
‘FIELD. THERE’S A FIELD.’
Caught in the skies over Tallahassee with no engine and no airport close by, Hearn and Moorman put their hours of on-the-job training at Auburn to good use.
“There’s no way to completely replicate it, but we trained in this scenario all throughout our training,” Hearn says.
With Hearn at the helm and Moorman co-piloting, the two started scanning the ground for a place to land.
“My partner pointed across me and said, ‘Field,’” Hearn recalls. “’There’s a field to land in.’”
So that’s exactly what they did.
“We landed in a government-owned field with a big tower in the middle of it, so we had to avoid that,” she says. “There were some parts of the field where there were some crops growing, so I knew that wouldn’t be ideal. But there was one spot with just short grass, and that’s the spot I picked. It was a little bumpy, but not too bad.”
Hearn doesn’t remember a lot of the immediate aftermath.
“I just hugged Elizabeth,” she says. “We were so happy to be on the ground and alive. I do remember that.”
And soon after, they were on the phone with the Auburn aviation program, telling them they needed another plane pronto, so they could get back into the sky and get to Lakeland for the competition the next day.
“They thought we were crazy, but they sent another plane,” Hearn says.
And off the duo flew to Lakeland and the Air Race Classic, where they finished second in the country among college teams.
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama.