MURPHYSBORO -- A United Airlines Airbus 320 touched down Saturday morning at Southern Illinois Airport, with more than 100 prospective aviation students from Chicago on board.
The SIU Aviation Career Day flight is a 20-year partnership with the university and United Airlines to give high school students a closer look at the SIU aviation program.
"This is a key recruitment tool that we use," said SIU Chancellor Rita Cheng. "It's a strategy that the alumni and David NewMyer put together long ago. If we can get students on campus and get them to talk to faculty and staff and see Carbondale and the SIU campus, we have a great percentage that want to come to school here."
United Airlines supplies the plane, a value of $15,000 to $20,000, according to NewMyer, department chair for Aviation Management and Flight.
The students got a bird's-eye view of the campus, not only from the airbus, but 80 of the students were taken for a loop around Southern Illinois and the SIU campus in the aviation school's Cessna airplanes.
The students also were give a walking tour of the campus, learning about aviation careers from United Airlines representatives, most of which are SIU alumni, before hopping back on the plane for a return trip to Chicago.
But the Aviation Career Day not only connects prospective students with SIU, but it also brings together aviation program alumni.
The plane's captain, Barry Batson, and his co-pilot, Kevin Richardson, are both graduates of SIU's aviation program, and they met for the first time in the plane's cockpit.
"You have two Salukis, one hired by United in 1989 and one hired by United in 2013, flying this trip, and they never met each other before this trip," NewMyer said.
Batson said Aviation Career Day is responsible for his career as an United Airlines pilot.
"It's a very important program," Batson said. "I was part of the internship back in 1990 and without this alliance between SIU and United Airlines, I wouldn't be here today."
NewMyer credits the start of the program in 1994 to SIU alumnus Bill Norwood, who served on the Board of Trustees at the time.
"He was the first African-American pilot and captain at United, and on top of that he was somebody who was a leader in aviation," NewMyer said. "He graduated from SIU in '59. He was one of the first people we trained as a pilot here."
SIU has the only public college aviation program in the state and consistently ranks in the top six of the nation's 48 flight schools, according to David Jaynes, coordinator of aviation facilities and enrollment management.
Jaynes said a desire to fly is the most important characteristic for a prospective student in the aviation program.
"You have to have passion for it; otherwise, it doesn't make any sense," Jaynes said. "It's too expensive, it's too much work, it doesn't pay enough. There are a lot of things you can do for more money that doesn't require you to live that life, but in aviation you have to live the life."
Dalton Thompson has that passion. The Naperville North senior is already enrolled in SIU's aviation program.
"I have a large passion for flying," Thompson said. "I actually have my private pilot's license and my dream has always been to fly for United Airlines. This is living the dream -- the best office in the world."