Connection and Celebration Headline Averett’s Annual Aviation Day Event

Posted on March 23rd, 2023 by Cassie Jones

Hundreds gathered on Friday, March 17, for Averett University’s Department of Aeronautics’ annual Aviation Day. Held in an airplane hangar at Averett’s George J. Falk Flight Center at Danville Regional Airport, alumni, current students, prospective students and their families, aviation partners and University faculty and staff joined to kick off the day.

An impressive showing of nearly 40 alumni from various sectors of the aviation industry came back to show future aviators the many paths Averett Aeronautics majors can take upon completing the program. Graduates include pilots all around the globe, flying for every major domestic airline and a number of international airlines, as well as serving as pilots for companies like FedEx and UPS, for a variety of criminal justice agencies, and as commercial pilots for private businesses. Many are also in non-flying jobs, working as industry leaders in grounds operations, aviation marketing and PR, aeronautics education and more.

“We’re grateful to welcome home members of our Aeronautics alumni family today. You are the real testament to the extraordinary strength of our program,” said Averett President Dr. Tiffany M. Franks to the alumni in the room. “Your returning today speaks volumes about your experience here and how others invested in you, and now you want to invest in others. We couldn’t be more appreciative. Welcome home to all of you.”

Nearly 30 high school students considering a career in aeronautics and their families attended, learning about the various sectors of the industry and Averett’s offerings in sessions throughout the day – including some cadets from Hargrave Military Institute.

Through a newly implemented partnership between the University and Hargrave, qualifying high school students can achieve their goals sooner by completing private pilot ground school and flight labs

at Averett’s FAA-approved Part-141 flight school, all while earning dual enrollment credits for both Hargrave and Averett for each course.

“People often comment on the amount of community partnerships we have at Averett, and it’s very true. Innovative partnerships that meet critical workforce needs are a major strategic priority at Averett, and when we can partner with an esteemed military academy, right here in the region, it’s a win-win,” said Franks. “We’re delighted to welcome Hargrave cadets to Averett’s Aeronautics program.”

Dr. Franks presented Hargrave President Eric Peterson, Hargrave Academic Dean Jim Tung, and Hargrave Board of Trustees member Tom Nichols with a framed collage honoring the partnership.

“We are deeply grateful to Averett University, Dr. Franks and the entire program team for working with us to formalize the aeronautics partnership,” said Peterson. “We see this partnership as the first step toward additional opportunities for collaboration between our institutions, and hope that this program represents the ways in which we can collectively benefit our students and the larger communities around us.”

Dr. Franks then introduced the crowd to Nathanial Duff, the inaugural cadet in the partnership program. Duff is a senior cadet at Hargrave with an interest in aeronautics. This fall, he completed the coursework and his first solo flight.

In keeping with an age-old tradition of the Averett Aeronautics program, Duff was presented a special token to commemorate this accomplishment. When Aeronautics students complete their first solo flight, the huge milestone is celebrated by having their flight instructor cut off the back of the student’s shirt to show that he or she no longer needs help. Then, the instructor decorates it and presents it to the student. Flight Instructor Ricardo Roman-Flores presented Duff with his decorated shirt.

“This is a big milestone for our students and a major point of pride for us all, and Nathaniel, you’ve earned this same rite of passage. Congratulations from all of us here at Averett!” said Franks.

Averett’s Aeronautics program is home to several Piper Archer TX planes and additional aircraft – 11 total – which were parked along the tarmac in a static aircraft display. Averett Chief Flight Instructor Travis Williams ’00 announced the addition of another aircraft that will round out the school’s fleet to an even dozen.

“We will soon be the proud owners of a brand new, million-dollar Piper Seminole PA-44 twin-engine airplane,” he shared, unveiling a rendering of the future branded plane. Students in the crowd exploded with cheers of excitement.

The University has committed to adding an aircraft for every 12 new students in its Aeronautics program. This year, almost 110 students are enrolled, and steady growth is expected in the coming few years.

According to Forbes, a peak shortfall of about 24,000 pilots is anticipated in 2026, representing about 23% of the pilot workforce. Programs like Averett’s are addressing this increasing workforce demand.

The Forgotten Heroes Foundation flew in two aircraft for the event – a North American AT-6 Texan WWII trainer, and an L-39 Albatros, a high-performance jet trainer fighter designed in Czechoslovakia. Piloted by highly decorated retired Navy pilots, the planes flew in from Chesapeake, Virginia, escorting David and Louisa Evans, parents of Averett Aeronautics freshman Isobel Evans. Isobel was introduced to aviation through the foundation, and found her way to Averett to study Aeronautics.

“Aviation Day was such a fun and exciting day here at Averett! I was extremely happy to find out the Forgotten Heroes Foundation would be able to fly my parents out and I was even more thrilled to see them!” said Isobel.

“Averett means a lot to me, especially the aviation program here. The community here is like a family and everyone is so much fun to be around. I’ve made so many great memories here and can’t wait to make more,” she continued. “Averett really stuck out to me. Everyone here was so welcoming and helpful and Averett offered such a unique flight program. I couldn’t pass on the opportunity of attending school here and becoming a pilot. I am happy to say I definitely made the right decision.”

Isobel is one of 15 female students now enrolled in Aeronautics at Averett – a record for the program’s more than 40-year history.

“It is important to me that women continue to make strides in aviation and it is amazing to see how successful women have been, especially at Averett,” Isobel said. “I think it is important that women are welcomed into the aviation industry as they have so much to offer. Aviation is such an incredible industry and I encourage all women who are interested to get involved any way they can…and to take flight lessons, as it is such an incredible experience and opportunity.”

According to the FAA’s 2022 Women in Aviation Advisory Board Report, women make up less than 20% of the aviation workforce, with the largest gender gaps in senior leadership positions, professional pilots and maintenance technicians. It states that roughly 5% of airline pilots are women, and only 3.6% of airline captains are women.

“When I was a freshman in this program, I was the only female student in my class, and there were only a couple female students in the entire program. To have 15 now is very exciting,” said Jennifer Freeze ’06, assistant chief flight instructor, assistant professor and chair of Averett’s Aeronautic academic department. “I think it is important for our women to be able to talk with our female alumni about their experiences and challenges.”

At the event, students had the opportunity to network and learn more about partnership programs and job opportunities from alumni, aviation partners and employers for the first hour of the day, including Piedmont Airlines, Dynamic Aviation, the VA Space Grant Consortium and the Virginia Small Aircraft Transportation Systems Laboratory. Goodyear sponsored and prepared lunch for the day’s attendees, cooking out on the Goodyear blimp grill.

“I am blown away by this day – from the number of alumni who came back and partners who participated, to the engagement of our current students and interest from prospective students and families. It means so much to me, and it says a lot about what this program means to so many others, too,” said Williams.