Story By Haley Mautz
Photos By Robert Noles and Contributed to LIVE Lee
For more than 100 years, Auburn University’s aviation program has flourished into what it is today; the second-best ranked aviation college in the nation, according to a May 2023 article from the Auburn University College of Liberal Arts.
But, like everything involving Auburn, in order to understand the significance of this ranking, it is essential to understand the history of the program. In the early 1920s, the API (Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which became Auburn University in 1960) began teaching its first course in aviation administration. By 1939, API had absorbed the local airport with plans to participate in “Civilian Pilot Training.” This program trained its students to fly in aerial combat, a skill that was crucial during World War II. As the end of the war drew near, the university continued to expand and enhance the program.
Today, the program said it takes pride in cultivating a curriculum of holistic, multidisciplinary studies to accommodate more than 1,000 students and over 4,000 alumni. A strong advocate to these students and alumni is James Witte, aviation program chair and director of the school of aviation. Witte has held this position since 2020, but has been licensed to fly aircrafts since 1957.
According to Witte, his responsibility is overseeing the program’s success and progress.
“That overall philosophy makes the current job exciting and rewarding at the same time,” Witte said. “Aviation is not only a place for active learning, it’s also a place for active job performance. Because of the inherent dangers in our normal work environment, the minimums are not good enough.”
Witte also said that safety is stressed just as much as technique and basic skills for students enrolled in the program.
“Someday an Auburn flight school graduate may be driving an aluminum tube at 300 miles per hour with 300 people on board,” Witte said. “The safety and well-being of the passengers is the ultimate test for any pilot.”
In a world where flying is quickly becoming a preferred mode of transportation, programs like Auburn’s are working hard to produce pilots that understand their aircrafts and can work diligently in stressful situations.
Witte said that some of his favorite memories have been watching the program grow and flourish throughout the years.
“My favorite memory working here took place on June 16, 2022, [when] three Auburn University aircrafts departed Tallahassee Airport for the Annual Air Race Classic, a female-led race of over 2,400 miles,” Witte said. “Shortly after takeoff, Team 65, consisting of pilot Maggie Hearn and co-pilot Elizabeth Moorman, experienced catastrophic engine failure. Executing a 180 degree turn to return to the airport they found it was beyond glide distance. Working as a team, they identified a suitable field and successfully landed with no personal injuries or damage to the aircraft.”
Witte said that very few pilots can execute an off-airfield, dead-stick landing, which is when a pilot is forced to land after engine failure or loss of power.
“Even after thousands of flying hours, their skill and professionalism in a truly perilous situation serve as a model for all who fly and remain a proud moment for the individuals and the flight school,” Witte said.
The School of Aviation continues to expand into new territories every day.
Within the school, there are two paths of study: professional flight and aviation management.
Nicole Bilotta, senior and professional flight major, decided to take the first route.
“It feels great to be a part of such an amazing program,” Bilotta said. “The way this program is run is impressive given the number of students and capacity the program is dealing with on a day-to-day basis. As a flight major, you start flight training your first semester at Auburn, we typically have lessons three days a week on the ground, we have classes of about 30 people that cover any number of things [including] aviation weather, human factors, aerodynamics and propulsion.”
According to Bilotta, the class even has an Airbus 320 simulator, which provides students with hands-on simulated flight experience, including reproductions of authentic pedestals, control, knobs, dials and levers found in real aircrafts.
Because of the tremendous support felt at Auburn, Bilotta said she holds big aspirations for her future.
“In the next five to 10 years, I hope to be at a mainline like Delta or American [Airlines],” Bilotta said. “I think one day it would be really cool to be a captain on the A320 or A330.”
Additionally, the second branch of the program is aviation management, and students hold a similar drive for success.
Jenna Palazzolo is a junior and aviation management major, with a minor in business and aerospace studies.
“What’s interesting about this major is there’s a business minor built in, so every student takes classes like accounting, finance, management and marketing to broaden their knowledge of the business and logistical side of aviation,” Palazzolo said. “My dream has always been to be a pilot; I went to an airshow with my parents in high school and immediately knew I had to be in the sky.”
The daily schedule for a student in this field can look different depending on who you ask, according to Palazzolo, who is also member of the ROTC program [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps].
“For many others and I in this field, the end goal is to fly [for] the military,” Palazzolo said.
When both Bilotta and Palazzolo were asked what it was like to be studying in a male dominated industry, both women had only positive experiences to share.
“All the guys are very nice, and we all just want to learn the best we can and become pilots for [a] bigger aircraft one day,” Bilotta said. “Auburn also has a leading standard of women in our program sitting at around 21%.”
Palazzolo shared a similar sentiment, and said she admires her female professors.
“I think seeing these powerful women in the air making a difference changes a lot of the men’s perspectives on the topic,” Palazzolo said.
Coupled with the cutting-edge technology like the Airbus 320 simulator, the program has its eyes set on improvement, becoming more competitive and innovative every day and playing a role in Auburn University’s rapid growth.