Hanna Fowler, a 2017 aviation management graduate and chief pilot for Flex Air, never considered a career in aviation as a young girl, even though both of her parents are pilots. She unexpectedly decided on the career, not unlike the way she decided to attend Auburn University.
“I often joke that Auburn and Auburn Aviation chose me more than I chose them,” she said. “I remember touring the campus for the first time as a senior in high school, not really convinced I wanted to go there. But I felt this distinct grounded, homey feeling. Auburn really does become your home and will always hold that special place in your heart.”
During her years at Auburn, Fowler did more than earn a bachelor’s degree and train to become an airline industry pilot; she also played a significant role in community outreach as a founder and the first president of the War Eagle chapter of Women in Aviation International.
Community outreach, particularly to underserved groups, is a strategic priority for the Department of Aviation and a key component of Auburn’s land-grant mission.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), female pilots comprise roughly 5% of most U.S. airlines’ workforce populations. Although, the carriers are actively working to increase that percentage, particularly in light of an airline pilot shortage brought on by mandatory FAA retirements, post 9/11 industry restructuring and increased flight training requirements.
Industry experts, including Auburn Aviation Professor James Birdsong, who is also the coordinator for Auburn’s aviation program and a former U.S. Air Force pilot, believe recruiting more women could be the key to reducing the pilot deficit and, at the same time, changing the landscape of the historically male-dominated profession. Philanthropic support, industry partnerships, and community outreach are essential components of Auburn’s plan to address these issues.
With a 100% graduate employment rate and an aviation student population which includes more than 16% women — well above the airline industry average —Auburn is positioned to advance a model of diversity, inclusion and student success.
“We’re definitely trying to increase diversity, but through our academic programs, outreach efforts and professional and industry partnerships, we’re really just creating greater opportunities for our students,” Birdsong said.
Generous support from Tiger Giving Day 2019 funded one of the two Auburn women’s aviation teams who competed in the 43rd annual Air Race Classic, the epicenter of women’s air racing. The War Eagle Women — Orange team placed second in the overall competition and took first place in the collegiate division. The blue team placed 15th overall and sixth in the collegiate division.
Through events like Girls in Aviation Day, Auburn educates students in grades K-12 from rural and underserved counties throughout Alabama about the options available to them through aviation careers.
The fourth annual Girls in Aviation Day at Auburn University Regional Airport on Oct. 19 welcomed hundreds of students from Alabama and Georgia. The event featured activities for all ages and genders, as well as displays from several aviation companies, regional airlines and local pilots and their personal aircraft.
“Girls in Aviation Day shows young girls that working in aviation is a real possibility for them. The event also builds our relationships with industry partners who send pilots and aircraft to inspire future women in aviation,” said Daphne Walker, Department of Aviation engagement coordinator. “Along with our students, these women currently working in aviation show young girls that there are established footsteps they can follow.”
Students in the Department of Aviation also teach basic classes on the physics of flight in elementary and middle schools in the area. “Just like with our academic programing, we’re very intentional and strategic about our outreach,” Birdsong said. “We want young girls to get excited about aviation as a possible career, and we want them to see Auburn as the place they can begin that adventure.”
Auburn’s aviation programs have grown significantly in recent years, reaching the highest enrollment to date in fall 2019 with nearly 500 students in both the professional flight and aviation management programs.
Growing Auburn’s aviation programs will create many opportunities for students from all backgrounds, many of whom will one day enter the aviation industry to blaze their own trails and create pathways for others, much like Hanna Fowler.
“The best advice I can offer to anyone in the beginning stages of their education and career is work hard and seize the opportunities that come your way as a result,” she said. “You’ll end up exactly where you are supposed to be.”