seal  Purdue News

September 16, 2003

Aviation history flies high at Purdue this month

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University, known as the "Cradle of Astronauts," will celebrate the 100th anniversary of manned flight by presenting both the history and future of aviation at the university with a variety of events, including an open house on Saturday (9/20).

The open house, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., will include the Purdue Airport and aviation technology department facilities. The event is free and open to the public. The airport is located west of campus, just off of State Road 26.

1911 flight demonstration
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Even before opening the first university-owned and operated airport in the country, Purdue and its alumni were involved in aviation. The university and its graduates were involved in some of the most important landmarks in aviation, beginning shortly after the Wright brothers' historic 1903 flight.

"Lots of people know about Purdue's astronauts, but you could also call Purdue the 'cradle of pilots.' If you look at the history of flight, at every major development, every important achievement, Purdue alumni have been involved," said John Norberg, whose book, "Wings of the Dream: Purdue in Flight," will be released next month.

"To this day, if you get on a commercial airplane there is a good chance there is at least one Purdue graduate in the cockpit."

Purdue Airport 1964
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Some of that history will be on display during the open house, as will some of Purdue's current flight facilities and research. Faculty members and students will be on hand to teach the public about the history and future of aviation at Purdue.

Some of the highlights of Purdue's earliest flight involvement include:

• As early as 1908, Purdue graduate Cliff Turpin was helping the Wright brothers develop a more efficient and lighter engine for follow-up airplane models.

• Jimmie Johnson, another Purdue alumnus, was one of the world's first test pilots.

• In 1924, Purdue alumnus Frederick Martin commanded the first round-the-world flight.

• From 1935 to 1937, Amelia Earhart was a part-time staff member as a consultant on women's careers. She regularly flew out of the Purdue Airport and could often be seen in the skies above campus as she prepared for her round-the-world flight.

While at Purdue Earhart not only developed her plan to circumnavigate the globe – the flight that led to her disappearance in 1937 – she also served as a mentor and role model for female students. She gave several talks extolling the virtues of education and championing women's rights.

Earhart was an integral part of aviation at Purdue during her time on campus, and the Purdue Research Foundation helped purchase the Lockheed Martin 10E she used in her ill-fated attempt to fly around the world.

Tom Carney, professor and head of Purdue's aviation technology department, said, "Not only was Amelia Earhart a pioneer in flight, but also in her ideas about the role of women. She blazed new trails in aviation at Purdue and encouraged a generation of female students to blaze their own trails upon graduation."

As the frontier of aviation moved into outer space, Purdue alumni led the way. Many of the eager young pilots who trained at Purdue became the first men in space. Starting with Iven Kincheloe, the first man to fly beyond the Earth's atmosphere, and continuing into the current space program, Purdue graduates have had a deep impact on the space program.

Kincheloe graduated from Purdue in 1949 to become a top military pilot. A celebrity, he was nicknamed the "Mr. Space" by the press. In 1956, Kincheloe set a record by flying his X-2 plane at an altitude of 126,000 feet.

"Iven Kincheloe died in a crash before the space program put a man in space," Norberg said. "Had he lived, there's no question in my mind that he would have been one of the first men to fly in space, maybe the first. He had the astronaut persona before there even was an astronaut persona. It was as if he was born to fly."

Kincheloe was followed by young men who studied at Purdue and continued to pioneer space exploration. Among Purdue's 22 astronaut alumni was Virgil "Gus" Grissom and Roger Chaffee, who were killed in a launch pad fire in 1967 while preparing for the first Apollo mission. Grissom had previously flown into space during the Mercury and Gemini programs.

Purdue also counts among its alumni both the first and last men to walk on the moon – Neil Armstrong in 1969 and Eugene Cernan in 1972.

As the flight program grew during the 1960s, Purdue became the first university to offer pilots a four-year bachelor's degree in aviation. It also was one of only a few schools to offer a comprehensive aviation program, educating not just pilots, but also airplane mechanics as well as airline and airport administrators.

Purdue officials sought a way to provide students with practical experience as they were finishing their education. The university started a charter airplane service – Purdue Aeronautics and later Purdue Airlines – which became one of the region's most used charter carriers.

In addition to providing service for Big Ten football teams, the Chicago White Sox and a variety of other sports teams, the Purdue charter service also flew Hugh Hefner's Playboy jet.

"Purdue Aeronautics and Purdue Airlines, provided students with airline experience not available at any other university at the time," Carney said. "On each flight, the crew was a mixture of professional captains and advanced, professional pilot students. It was the predecessor to the current program that lets professional pilot students join the faculty captains of Purdue's fleet of corporate turbine aircraft, another experience that most other universities do not offer."

Norberg said Purdue continues to be a leader in flight. Faculty from the Schools of Engineering is heavily involved in propulsion research for rockets and jet engines, among other fields. School of Technology faculty are engaged in research on the next generation of airport security.

"A number of factors have worked together for the last 100 years to establish and keep Purdue at the forefront of flight," Norberg said. "The aviation technology department is regarded as one of the three best in the country – maybe the best – and the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics consistently ranks in the top.

"The great stories from the past just go on and on. Even in a 400-page book I couldn't come close to telling the stories of all of the amazing people who helped advance aviation, both for Purdue and for the world."

Today, more than 10,000 people fly in and out of the Purdue Airport each year. AmericanConnection, a regional partner of American Airlines, serves the airport with two round-trip flights to St. Louis every day.

"The Purdue Airport is an important piece of the economic picture in Lafayette and West Lafayette," said airport director Betty Stansbury. "The convenience of local service is invaluable to local businesses, as well as government and community leaders. It is an important component of attracting new businesses to Lafayette and West Lafayette."

Purdue's Department of Aviation Technology serves approximately 600 students at the West Lafayette campus and approximately 100 at the School of Technology's Indianapolis campus. The department offers associate's and bachelor's degree programs in aviation management, aeronautical technology and flight. Graduates enter careers with airlines, airport authorities, aerospace manufacturers, corporate aviation and government agencies.

Purdue began its aeronautics and astronautics program in 1943 as part of the School of Mechanical Engineering and established the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. During the past 50 years, the school has awarded 6 percent of the nation's bachelor's degrees and 7 percent of the doctoral degrees in the field. That translates to 5,102 bachelor's degrees, 1,130 master's degrees and 346 doctoral degrees.

Norberg's book will be available from the Purdue Press early next month for $29.99. For ordering information, call (800) 247-6553 or go online.

Other Purdue activities both during and after Flight Week that will celebrate the 100th anniversary of flight include:

• Purdue Galleries will present "Sky, Blue, Heavens," an exhibit running through Oct. 12 that showcases the response of artists to the technological and cultural phenomenon of manned flight.

• The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company will be at Purdue from Sept. 22-26. During that time they will provide master classes, dance workshops and school performances for the campus and the community. The residency will culminate in a performance at 8 p.m. on Sept. 26 of original works based on the theme of flight. The residency and performance are sponsored by Purdue Convocations.

• Retired Tuskegee Airmen Col. Charles McGee will speak at 7 p.m. on Oct. 3. McGee fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and he holds the record for the highest three-war total of fighter combat missions of any pilot in the U.S Air Force history. His military career began as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed pioneers who fought racial prejudice to fly and fight for their country in World War II. The event is sponsored by Purdue's Black Cultural Center.

• More than 250 third- through eighth-grade students will visit Purdue's Fall Space Day on Oct. 25 for hands-on activities involving space exploration. Astronaut and Purdue alumnus John Blaha also will speak.

Writer: Matt Holsapple, (765) 494-2073,

Sources: John Norberg, (765) 496-7783,

Thomas Q. Carney, (765) 494-9954,

Betty M. Stansbury, (765) 743-3442,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Related Web sites:
The History of Flight at Purdue


The public watches a flight demonstration on the Purdue University campus in 1911. From the early days of aviation, Purdue researchers and alumni were involved in advancing the young science. (Purdue University file photo)

A publication-quality photograph is available at

The Purdue Airport was a busy facility, used by both the public and the community by 1964, when this photograph was taken. Founded in 1930, it was the first university owned and operated airport in the country.

A publication-quality photograph is available at

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