When Kiah Erlich was researching colleges, Auburn University seemed a logical fit for the California high school student who wanted to go into aviation.
“I researched only aviation programs because my heart had been set on that for quite some time,” she says. “Auburn had one of the few aviation management programs in the country, so I made the move.”
Erlich pulled up stakes, came down South and found exactly what she was looking for in a college and aviation experience. And more.
Erlich, a 2010 aviation management graduate who is now director of flight support services at Honeywell Aerospace, attributes that in great part to Dale Watson, director of aviation education at the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business. Watson took Erlich under his wing and helped shepherd her through her Auburn experience.
“He is a true living example of the ‘Auburn Family,’” Erlich says. “It was that family feeling I got instantly when I went to Auburn that told me it was the place for me. Like Auburn, aviation embodies the same family feeling. It was a natural fit that Auburn have an aviation program.”
Not only does Auburn have an aviation program, Erlich says, it has a top-notch one at that.
After two near-death experiences that threatened to end the program in the past 15 years, 2014 saw the formation of the Auburn University Aviation Center, with plans to move the aviation programs from the Harbert College of Business to the interdisciplinary University College, where more aviation core courses can be offered and the program can soar to new heights.
It already has a good start.
“I remember sitting in Dale’s office,” Erlich recalls. “He looked at me and my parents and said, ‘Auburn aviation is the best-kept secret in the country.’ To this day, that still rings true.”
Auburn’s aviation history goes back a long, long way, almost to the start of aviation itself.
At the end of 1903, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright made history in an airplane just outside of Kitty Hawk, N.C. Four years later, the siblings came to Alabama and, according to Auburn native Robert Knapp, stayed at his home while meeting with Alabama Polytechnic Institute engineering professors to redesign their airplane so it could be transported in a wagon.
In his 2002 History of Auburn Aerospace Engineering, John E. Cochran Jr., former head of the aerospace engineering department, said that while the Wright visit could not be verified, the brothers most definitely visited Alabama in 1910, looking for a location for a winter flight school. They landed near Montgomery at what is now Maxwell Field and provided instruction there for three months.
There was already aeronautical instruction going on at API, and that increased during World War I. According to Cochran’s history, “a visit by Charles Lindbergh to Birmingham in 1927 added to the considerable interest in aeronautics at API.”
The program really came into its own in 1939, when the Civil Aeronautics Authority came calling. “When the CAA decided the country needed to prepare for the war that was imminent, they created an act to fund airport aviation facilities at mostly land-grant colleges to prepare pilots for World War II,” says Gary Kiteley, professor emeritus in Auburn’s aviation program.
At the time, the Auburn/Opelika airport was a private venture, but Robert Pitts, head of API’s aviation program, worked with the airport commission, convincing them that turning the airport over to API would allow the airport to “qualify for a grant to develop the airport, extend the runway and do a lot of good things to serve as a World War II pilot training platform,” Kiteley says.
The CAA program began to grow, as did Auburn’s reputation for training in aerospace engineering. Astronaut Ken Mattingly earned a degree in the program in 1958, as did Ron Harris, who became a NASA engineer and Rocketdyne manager. Axel Roth, a 1959 graduate, became associate director of NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.
The CAA program led to a nationwide program to support military pilots, which in turn led to an ROTC contract program that brought Kiteley to Auburn in 1965.
“Auburn had the largest ROTC contract flight program of any of the universities, and they were looking for someone to run that program,” says Kiteley, who was then chief flight instructor at Purdue University. “I had an advanced student who needed a long, cross-country flight, so we arranged a flight from Lafayette, Ind., to Auburn. We got there at 1 or 2 in the morning; my interview was the next day with Robert Pitts, and I was offered the position.”
At that time, the only aviation program at Auburn was the aviation management program, which was part of the aerospace engineering department. “I saw the importance of tying the flight program in with the academics since at the time there was no professional flight degree program,” Kiteley says. “There were courses offered, but that was it. One of my goals was to develop a curriculum in flight, and after three years, it became an official degree program in 1970.”
The program Kiteley developed was intended to train civilians, not military pilots, so they would qualify for civilian flight positions such as with airlines. That program complemented the aviation management degree program, which trained students to, among other things, run airports of all sizes.
In the 1990s, as Auburn University struggled financially in light of dwindling public funding, so did many of its programs.
In 1998, plans were made to close the aviation management program, leaving the aerospace programs too small to justify a separate department for them in the College of Engineering, according to Cochran’s history. Outcry from students and alumni saved the programs, but the aviation management program moved to the College of Business.
Some 15 years later, the threat of closing the programs returned. With dwindling numbers of participants, the Harbert College of Business made plans to keep the aviation management program but sunset the flight program.
Once again, though, alumni and other supporters rallied.
“It was absolutely heartbreaking to hear they were trying to close the program,” says Erlich, who went on to get her MBA from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “It was sad; it was sickening; it was infuriating … I am grateful to those alumni who completely went above and beyond to fight to save the program. They are my heroes. They are the embodiment of the Auburn spirit.”
In the end, Provost Timothy Boosinger created the Auburn University Aviation Center and William Hutto ’90, who has been Auburn University Regional Airport director since 2001, was put in charge of it. The flight school is part of that effort, as is the initiative to move the other programs from the Harbert College of Business to University College, an umbrella for interdisciplinary units of undergraduate study. The move will free students from having to complete core business requirements and make room for more aviation courses.
“If all goes as planned, we would start this new program next fall,” Hutto says. Once everything is in place, the professional flight management and aviation management majors and minors now part of the College of Business will be offered by University College. Flight school courses and labs will be offered through the Auburn University Aviation Center in the University College. Also planned is a new minor in Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones. “Auburn was the first entity, public or private, to get FAA approval to teach people to fly drones outdoors and untethered,” Hutto says.
Hutto says there are “roughly 4,000 alumni” of Auburn’s aviation programs, with graduates working as pilots, running airports, and working in computer avionics and for weather companies, among other types of jobs.
“With the flight school, we have our professional flight degree program for those interested in flight for a living, and we also have a flight minor,” Hutto says. “We also teach Auburn students who just want to learn to fly.”
Ashley Tucker, 22, is a media studies major who is minoring in German and in professional flight.
“I grew up in an aviation family, so my whole life was surrounded by the love of flying,” she says. “But it wasn’t until my second semester here at Auburn that I decided I wanted to pursue flying myself. A good friend of mine was doing lesson preparation in our dorm’s study room, and he had his aviation study materials spread out across the table. I was immediately fascinated and quickly discovered aviation was a major/minor through the university. Within the week I declared my minor in aviation professional flight.”
Highlights of her training have included her first solo flight and a more recent flight this summer.
“I flew our Seminole, a multi-engine plane, for the first time, and it was the most exciting flight I’ve had next to my solo,” she says. “I didn’t stop smiling the entire flight because it felt like the first taste of true aviation. That hour in the air gave me a glimpse of the next step of flying larger aircraft, and it confirmed my passion for aviation even more.”
Tucker plans on a career in aviation after graduating.
“I hope to soon work for the Auburn flight program as a flight instructor until I build my hours, and then move on to the regionals and, ultimately, the majors,” she says.
In addition to the move to University College, a new aviation education facility at the airport is on the horizon, Hutto says.
“It’s going to more than double what we have in total space right now,” Hutto says of the facility that could open in the fall of 2018. “The flight school right now is in an old 1950 building supplemented by a double-wide trailer. Potential students will come and visit, and they love campus, but when they see that flight education building, it’s somewhat of an obstacle for us to overcome.”
The flight program—which has 141 students, up from 115 last year, according to Hutto—also introduced this fall what could be another football pregame tradition. At the home games this fall, a drone hovered 80 feet above the field, delivering the game ball to Aubie.
“It got a lot of visibility,” Hutto says. “I was pleasantly surprised by how many people talked about it. At the end of the day, part of our initiative is outreach, to inspire people to achieve dreams.”
Events like the drone flying over the stadium, which Hutto hopes will continue next year, are much more than stunts. The outreach helps spread the word about the Auburn program, something Kiah Erlich is ready to happen on a large scale.
She wants what Dale Watson called one of the country’s “best-kept secrets” to go public. “I would love my colleagues to say, ‘Wow, you went to Auburn. I heard they have an excellent aviation program.’ Instead they say, ‘Auburn—they have an aviation program?’ ” Erlich says, sighing.
“Auburn has a gem in its aviation department, and that gem deserves to be shared with the world.”