Kendall Higdon and Caitlyn Miller have flown the friendly skies around Auburn for years.
What they hadn’t done, until last summer, was compete as a team in a four-day, 2,400-mile air race.
Known as the pinnacle of women’s air racing, the annual Air Race Classic hosted more than 50 teams. And Auburn’s War Eagle Women’s Orange team finished second-place overall and first among college teams.
But the race was more than just a competition for the recent graduates of Auburn University’s professional flight program.
“I wasn’t expecting the level of camaraderie or the opportunities to ask so many women aviators about their experiences and careers,” Caitlyn said. “It was incredible to see women from all backgrounds and how aviation has played such a pivotal role in their lives.”
For Kendall, who had competed in the race once before, this time was very different.
“I went into it more comfortable, more competitive, and more focused, especially being supported so strongly by the Auburn Family,” she said. “We wanted to do well and show them that their support was worth it and really have it pay off.”
Their race was made possible, in part, by 163 generous donors who participated in Tiger Giving Day, Auburn’s 24-hour day of giving, held in February.
Among these donors is Nelda Lee, a pioneer in aviation and a veteran of the Air Race Classic. In 1969, she became only the second woman to receive an Auburn degree in aerospace engineering. She blazed trails in aviation as a McDonnell Douglas Corp., now Boeing, design and flight test engineer for 45 years, racking up firsts, including the distinction of being the first woman to record flying time in an F-15.
She’s been there, done that. That’s why she wanted to help Caitlyn and Kendall seize their opportunity to do the same.
“I knew firsthand what these two women were about to undertake,” Nelda said. “I knew their dreams, goals, expectations, shortfalls, and joy. So, when this appeared as a Tiger Giving Day project, I was glad to help and felt fortunate that I was able to give.”
The significance of Nelda’s involvement was not lost on Caitlyn and Kendall. They already were huge fans.
“She’s an incredible role model,” Caitlyn said. “I knew who she was from my first day in the program. Ms. Lee has had such an impact on so many people. We just couldn’t be more thankful for her support.”
Since graduation in 2018 and 2019 respectively, Kendall and Caitlyn have continued their training at Auburn, working as certified flight instructors while they prepare to pursue careers as commercial airline pilots.
As Nelda has been for them, Caitlyn and Kendall recognize that they have the opportunity to inspire countless young girls.
“Even if they don’t want to pursue aviation as a career, I think it can be a real light for them to see women in typically male-dominated fields having so much fun and doing well,” Caitlyn said.
“We take being role models very seriously,” said Kendall. “We want to set a good example and show young girls that this is attainable. It’s not like wanting to be a Disney princess. Being a pilot is something you can actually do. But I guess you can still hold on to all the qualities of a princess, too. They’re not mutually exclusive.”