Spartans Soaring at the Perfect Time
By Cassie Myers
The “best kept secret in aviation” is secret no longer: SJSU Aviation offers students a great range of experiences and career opportunities.
The aviation program at San José State can be summed up with many clichés: a hidden gem, a great opportunity, small but mighty. But clichés are clichés for a reason: they’re often true.
Let’s start with the hidden gem idea. Many people don’t know that San José State even has an aviation program, a problem that frustrates Scott Miller, ’88 Aviation, who as an alumnus, professional pilot and current lecturer in the department, is a walking poster child for everything the program can do. “We're one of the best kept secrets and I’m not sure we need to be a secret,” he says. “I wish the program was more well-known outside of aviation, because within aviation it's got a great reputation.”
The program, which has existed at SJSU since the 1940s, has gone through various permutations over the years. Current students have the ability to focus on four different concentrations: professional flight (for pilots), airport management, airline operations and maintenance management. The program also offers a master's degree in engineering technology with two specializations: smart manufacturing and applied network systems.
The program’s uniqueness lies in its location (it’s the only university aviation program in the Bay Area, which has several airports that can offer graduates career opportunities) and in its affordability and accessibility. Since most flight schools are private, the costs are steep — at SJSU, aspiring pilots still need to pay separately for flight schools, but SJSU’s partnerships with the flight schools can help aspiring pilots earn college credit as they rack up their flight hours.
Miller is proof that students can get there. Avery Lalor, ’24 Aviation, is one such hopeful.
Students test the flight simulation in the SJSU Aviation lab. Photo courtesy of Derrick Meyer.
“Oh my gosh, people get paid to do this”
Initially, Lalor didn’t even think about being a pilot. “I'd never seen a female airline pilot before and so I think subconsciously I didn't even consider it,” she says. But her mom suggested it, and the idea blossomed.
What she calls her “defining moment” was as dramatic as a movie: when visiting her uncle on the British Virgin Islands, she ended up on a small charter plane, and asked the pilot if she could sit with him in the cockpit. With his help, she actually took the controls. She was 17.
“We started to climb out and he was showing me how the GPS worked and everything. And he said, ‘Ok, take us to Puerto Rico,’” she remembers. “We were flying over islands and stuff, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, people get paid to do this.’”
She’s really enjoyed her time at San José State, particularly the classes at Reid-Hillview Airport. One of her fondest memories is an avionics class where the students had a semester to assemble a radio from scratch and then test its ability to tune into a frequency and listen to the tower. She also loved a class in aerodynamics which walked students through the science and math of why and how planes fly using wind tunnels and other experiments. She currently has her private pilot’s license and got her instrument rating this July, which will allow her to fly without visual reference.
Members of the 2018 Precision Flight Team. Photo courtesy of Reese Abrams.
SJSU aviation students at an Airport Day event at Hayward Executive Airport Day. Photo by Robin McElhatton.
A tight-knit community
Reese Abrams, ’23 Aviation, a fellow professional flight student, has also loved her time in the program. When she graduates this December, she guesses that she’ll be about two years away from flying for major airlines, although her goal is simpler than that: “Whoever will pay me to fly, I’ll do it,” she says. In the meantime, she already has her commercial license and flies tours around San Francisco from the San Carlos Airport.
She has been deeply involved in the aviation program, largely in her role as captain of the professional flight team for the ’22-’23 school year. The team competes twice a year at regionals and nationals in various events ranging from spot landing (getting a plane to land on a specific marker) to navigation events (dropping a package from a plane onto a specific marker) to written tests and simulator events.
SJSU has been qualifying for nationals since the 1960s, an impressive feat considering that, as Abrams explains, the entire flight team program at SJSU is fully student-led and they teach themselves. They even get to fly themselves to the event, a highlight for Abrams, who flew a small plane all the way from San José to Ohio last year.
She loves aviation itself, but the people are her favorite part of the experience. Her favorite memory of the whole program, she says, was a Halloween trip out to Oceano. She and several aviation friends flew their planes out, went to the beach, got lunch, and then turned around and flew back home. “I don't really know of any [other] major that has such a tight-knit community,” she says.
“I could fly a plane but couldn’t rent a car”
Miller jokes that he could “rent a plane but not a car” for many of his early piloting years. He caught the aviation bug even earlier than Lalor or Abrams. He remembers being five or six on his first airplane trip and knowing even then that he wanted to be a pilot. He got his private pilot certificate in high school and ended up graduating from the SJSU program (then called aeronautics) in 1988. He worked his way up to commercial airline pilot, and now flies for Southwest Airlines. He also teaches a lecture class (AVIA 194) over Zoom for SJSU aviation students.
“It's a great opportunity for me to be able to connect with the next generation of pilots,” he explains, “and it’s a good opportunity for the students to have some direct exposure to what the career might be like, hearing from somebody that's flying full time right now.”
He’s excited for the future of aviation, and encourages students to get into the industry. “If you're the least bit interested in learning how to fly or have a professional career as a pilot, now is the time,” he says.
Michelle Tripp on the job as an airfield safety officer at SFO. Photo by James Maher.
“There are always new ways that aviation is embracing technology and is flourishing.”
— Michelle Tripp
Other career options
Miller and others are also quick to highlight the other career opportunities in aviation. There aren’t just pilots; there are air traffic controllers, maintenance workers, flight dispatchers, and aviation security officers, among many other positions. As Michelle Tripp, ’17 Aviation, ’24 MS Human Factors and Ergonomics, explains, “The world of airport operations is a vast network of career opportunities.”
Tripp has worked as an airfield safety officer at SFO International Airport for five years. She focuses specifically on Part 139 regulations and Part 139 compliance – essentially, she ensures that various parts of the airport are up to code. She inspects runways and taxiways to make sure they’re safe and compliant, but also deals with wildlife management (“Planes and wildlife just do not mix,” she says ruefully), terminal management, construction, medical escorts and emergency response.
Even when interviewed after a 14-hour shift, she’s enthusiastic about her job.
“A lot of things are different every single day,” she says. “I get to experience new challenges. And it also gives me a sense of purpose. I feel like I’m doing something to help maintain the safety of the airfield and the traveling public.”
She fell in love with the “sense of adventure” that aviation brings at a young age, and has never lost that feeling. She enjoyed her time at SJSU, feeling that the degree “made it easier for [her] to excel.” She encourages students to join the aviation program and take advantage of the resources surrounding it, including aviation clubs and the various networking possibilities. “We're very fortunate to be in Silicon Valley,” she explains. “There are lots of job opportunities here. It's kind of amazing.” Tripp adds that she works with several of her former classmates from the program, and that there’s a “sense of community.”
Tripp is also excited for the future. She’s currently working toward a master’s in human factors and ergonomics, which may open up yet another career path for her, as airports need to be OSHA-compliant and often collaborate with or hire their own ergonomics experts to make sure they’re up to code in that arena as well.
“There are always new ways that aviation is embracing technology and is flourishing,” she says.
The bottom line? If you’re considering a career in aviation, take Miller’s advice: “This is a great time to start and San José State is a great place to get your start.”
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Top photo: Members of the 2018 SJSU Precision Flight team, which competes at various aviation events around the country. Photo courtesy of Derrick Meyer.