For a Student Pilot, the Sky’s the Limit at Auburn University

Looking to the Sky

“You’ve got to be highly motivated. There is always going to be someone who tells you it’s great and someone who tells you it’s terrible. You’ve got to know what you want and go for it. Work hard at it,” said pilot David McIlwain.

David McIlwain in front of a jet airplane

McIlwain, a senior at Auburn University from Helena, Alabama, knows firsthand that the sky’s the limit when you put in work to get there, and he has 1,300 hours of flight time to prove it.

His fascination with flying began when he was a wide-eyed child watching air shows. When he met a group of pilots through his dad’s job, he thought they were the “coolest people on earth.”

Years of begging paid off on McIlwain’s 17th birthday when his parents let him take his first flying lesson.

“When we landed, the instructor asked if I was going to come back, and I asked him if he was available tomorrow,” McIlwain said. “I came back the next day and have been hooked ever since.”

Putting in the Time

In high school, McIlwain took every opportunity to work near airplanes and save money for flight lessons. He was a plane washer and a runway worker at Shelby County Airport before he became a flight instructor for two years.

At age 20, McIlwain flew his first jet through a corporate contract. He now flies light twin-engined planes for several corporations based in Birmingham during the week. He flies skydivers up to jump with Skydive Atlanta on the weekends in order to get more flight time logged.

Life Above the Clouds

As a pilot, he has flown across the country and traveled more than ever before.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have these experiences and go to these places,” he said. “I feel like it’s hard to find that in another job.”

Aerial view of Mt. RainierMcIlwain said his favorite trip was a two-day job from Seattle, Washington, to Birmingham.

“We went over the Cascades and the Rockies, and through the valleys in May. There were still snow caps everywhere,” he said. “It reminded me after everything had felt like work for so long, why I love flying.”

McIlwain said the best part of flying is that it gives him a “new appreciation for life” and puts everything into perspective.

“It’s an escape from all the world’s problems,” McIlwain said. “I say I’m going to work, but it doesn’t feel like a job.”

Taking Flight at Auburn

When he came to Auburn, McIlwain chose to major in psychology with a minor in aviation management. The combination has equipped him to be a pilot by understanding social situations and the workings of the aviation industry.

“Psychology has definitely helped firm up social skills and working with a group on projects,” he said. “Aviation management instructors either have airline or military experience and share their stories with you. I learn new things from people I meet because they may have done something I haven’t done, and I think Auburn has been a great place for that.”

After graduation in May, McIlwain hopes to start off with a regional airline before working as a commercial airline pilot.

McIlwain flying a twin-engined plane

“I definitely have more to learn, but I feel comfortable that I know enough to break into it,” he said. “Any of the major commercial airlines–Delta, United, American Airlines–are all excellent companies to work for and all treat their pilots great.”

McIlwain encourages students considering careers that require intensive work outside the classroom to do what it takes to reach their dreams.

“Careers like this aren’t for everyone, but I’ve never heard of someone wanting to quit,” he said.

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