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Purdue Aviation Day Takes Off

A photo of an air pilot getting ready to take off for Purdue's aviation day

Purdue University has featured strong ties to aviation throughout its history. Famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart lived in Duhme Hall while serving as a counselor for women students and advising Purdue’s aeronautical engineering department. Chesley Sullenberger graduated from Purdue and saved hundreds of passengers’ lives after successfully landing his plane in the Hudson River. The university’s mark on aviation is celebrated annually at Purdue’s largest student-run event – Purdue Aviation Day (PAD).

“The actual event in its entirety can be traced all the way back to 1911 and building off and honoring that history is very important to us,” says Jeffrey Watts, a junior in the professional flight program and executive director of PAD.

The 2024 edition of PAD provided many exciting opportunities for attendees to interact with different aspects of the aviation field. Panels, fireside chats and displays allowed guests to connect with pilots and aviation professionals, while static displays and aerial demonstrations got attendees up-close-and-personal with a wide variety of civilian and military aircraft. The event is always free to attend and attracted 12,600 attendees this year.

A photo of the Happy Jack's Go Buggy Airplane

Highlighting this year’s event was the appearance by the Air Combat Command A-10 Thunderbolt II Demonstration Team from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. The aircraft performed a full demonstration and a Heritage Flight with a World War II-era P-51 Mustang to commemorative US Air Force history. This is the final year the A-10 Demo Team will perform at airshows, with Purdue among only 20 events nationwide selected for the team’s farewell season.

The performance was also a homecoming of sorts for the A-10, which served with Indiana Air National Guard in Fort Wayne. 

“The Indiana Air National Guard Unit used to fly the A-10 that the demo team brought this year, so we have the tradition of having the A-10 at the event as a static display aircraft,” says Jonah Rifkin, junior in aviation management and economics “It’s one of the biggest eye catchers at the event.”

Aerial demonstrations are a recent addition to PAD, which began with a performance by the US Army Golden Knights parachute team in 2023. This year’s aerial performances also included an Indiana Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotanker and a South Carolina Air National Guard F-16 Fighting Falcon.A photo of an aviation day participant talking to a visitor about airplanes

“Like many others, I remember when I first became interested in aviation – it was when I watched Top Gun,” Watts remembers. “My hope is that someone becomes interested in aviation here and they can look back on PAD and say this was their Top Gun moment.”

Putting on an event of this scale requires a dedicated crew – and PAD is planned and executed entirely by students. There are 21 student leaders, all in aviation fields, who assist in planning and running Purdue Aviation Day, with 240 volunteers contributing to a successful event. Those with executive positions have had experience volunteering at the event in the past. Planning begins quickly after the previous event. To book the A-10, the PAD crew had to submit paperwork by July 1, 2023.

“I always make the joke that the best part of PAD ending is that there are 364 days until next year’s PAD,” says Watts.

PAD is a community wide effort that requires student leaders to make connections across the campus, community and the aviation industry. Campus organizations support aspects such as budget and security, while sponsors have a presence and provide community and industry support. PAD attracts interest from alumni across the aviation industry, ranging from those interested in bringing aircraft to industry recruiters and guest speakers. Envoy Air sponsored this year’s PAD, joined by an additional 51 sponsors. There is a wide range of sponsors, including many regional airlines.

Events like this open up the airport to the general public and serve as a gateway for future careers in aviation. For example, when Rifkin was considering colleges, he discovered a Purdue Aviation Day YouTube video while searching for information on Purdue’s aviation program. This led to him to accept his admission offer and call Purdue home. Now, he is a part of PAD, and is honored to continue the event that made such a lasting impact on his life.

“Purdue Aviation comes up pretty high in the search,” emphasizes Rifkin. “It’s one of the first search results. It’s a huge honor to get to play a small role in an event that’s definitely going to continue.”A photo of a Helicopter named the UH-60L Blackhawk at Purdue's Aviation Day

The contributions of women to the field of aviation were celebrated at this year’s PAD with Purdue Women in Aviation 10, presented by Rolls Royce. Prominent women in aviation represented at PAD included guest speakers Shannetta Griffin, associate administrator of airports under Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and alumnae Laura Savino, a former United Airlines captain, and Heather Penney, Senior Resident Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and former US Air Force pilot. Erik Amend, the Federal Aviation Administration regional administrator for the Great Lakes Region, was another featured guest speaker. Guest panels also included topics on young professionals in aviation and celebrating diversity, equity and inclusion in aviation.

Many companies also attend PAD to recruit students from all disciplines, breaking the barrier between student and industry. PAD encourages students in aviation fields to attend future events to make connections in the industry.

“Outside of viewing static display airplanes, grabbing food and seeing a guest speaker, you can also do some amazing networking,” Watts emphasizes.

Another important local tie to this year’s event was the appearance of Southern Airways Express, which will be providing commercial flights from West Lafayette to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD). The airline showcased their aircraft to celebrate the upcoming return of commercial air service to West Lafayette, with flights scheduled to begin May 15.

Though this year’s PAD is over, 2025 PAD is already in the works and the executive team encourages all interested to fly by in the following year. No tickets are necessary, so check out their website and Instagram for future details.