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Taking flight: Women in aviation soaring high at Auburn

Air Race Classic pilots with Aubie

On Saturday, Nov. 13, an on-field recognition for Women in Aviation will be held to celebrate Auburn Aviation program’s success and position as a leader in the industry. The ceremony will be before the Auburn vs. Mississippi State game at Jordan-Hare Stadium. 

Before taking flight for an annual air race this summer, Auburn’s three teams of female pilots were treated to a rally hosted by the Department of Aviation. Students, families, faculty, and members of the Auburn community had the opportunity to meet the racers, see the aircraft, and get photographs taken with Aubie and the pilots.

Since 2017, Auburn Aviation has competed annually in the Air Race Classic—a traditionally transcontinental air race for female pilots (the route was adjusted this year due to the pandemic). This was the first year that Auburn Aviation had three teams competing, thanks to funds raised by Tiger Giving Day donors. The aviators for this year's race were: Caitlyn Miller and Isabella Velarde, flying for Team White; Sierra Hardwick and Elizabeth Moorman, flying for Team Orange; and Mattie Bohanan and Meg Cooper, flying for Team Blue.

“I am so grateful to have been chosen to race in the Air Race Classic this year alongside a good friend, Caitlyn Miller. I learned so much about flight planning and how to be strategic when it came to flying the route,” said Isabella Velarde, a senior in professional flight and part of Team White.

The Orange, Blue, and White teams departed Auburn for their one-day derbies, and each team had their own individual routes. There had to be a total of five legs, and scores were determined based on the accuracy of the teams’ flight planning between their waypoints.

Although no collegiate awards were given this year, two of Auburn’s teams finished in the top 20 overall. And over the past five years, most of the Auburn Women’s Air Race Classic teams have ranked near the top among collegiate pilots.

History of Auburn women in aviation

Recognized as a trailblazer in aerospace engineering and aviation, Nelda Lee, the second woman to earn an aerospace engineering degree from Auburn, holds the distinction of being the first civilian woman to fly the F-15 Eagle.

A champion for women in engineering and aviation, Lee has mentored generations of Auburn students throughout her career and was selected to give the keynote address at this summer’s commencement ceremonies. She further advocates for women pursuing careers in the industries through her work with organizations such as Women in Aviation International, Whirly-Girls and Ninety-Nines.

Lee graduated from Auburn in 1969, but female aviators at Auburn University have been around since 1941, when women were part of new program to train civilian pilots. And even though the national average of women working as pilots is around 6%, Auburn’s enrollment for female aviators is, on average, more than double that number.

“Our data back to 2014 shows that our program has been fairly consistent for female enrollment at about 14 to 16%,” said James Birdsong, assistant professor of aviation and program coordinator.

Birdsong said that women seeing women taking active roles in aviation leads to more women in aviation. That was certainly true for Maggie Murphy, a junior in professional flight.

“When I came here to visit, our tour guide was a woman, and seeing other women in the program really meant a lot to me,” Murphy said.

Female aviation faculty who are combat veterans (Mary Riley, an Army helicopter pilot, and Rebecca Baughman, Air Force A-10 fighter pilot) and successful female aviation alums also are part of Auburn’s aviation story.

Future of aviation

New technologies, new alumni, new donors, and new facilities have taken Auburn Aviation to new heights. Other groups, like the War Eagle Chapter of Women in Aviation, are dedicated to fueling the pipeline, recently hosting Girls in Aviation Day at Auburn University Regional Airport to promote Auburn’s aviation program.

Given the success of Auburn Aviation over the years, one can expect the future of Auburn aviators to be bright.

“Our alumni and students are leaders in the world of aviation and given the opportunities ahead in a growing industry with forecasted high workforce turnover due to mandatory retirement age, Auburn’s storied aviation program is well positioned to advance aviation education well into the second century of flight,” Birdsong said.

Tags: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Students Aviation

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