2014 marks 75 years of aviation education at WMU

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Photo of a WMU airplane in flight.

WMU's first aviation program began in 1939.

KALAMAZOO—The faculty, staff and students in one of Western Michigan University's most technically advanced disciplines are about to spend the coming year turning back the pages of history to celebrate their roots.

Throughout 2014, WMU's College of Aviation will mark its 75th year of providing aviation education through what has become one of the top such collegiate programs in the world. The college's three undergraduate degree programs date back to 1939 when WMU jumped headlong into what was still an area of study and an industry in its infancy. The Wright brothers' first sustained flight had only taken place 36 years earlier in 1903, the year WMU was founded.

WMU's college is planning a series of events during the coming year to mark the storied history of aviation at WMU. College officials say the first events will likely take place later this spring and the anniversary celebration will become part of many of the college's regularly scheduled events. The initiative to mark the 75th anniversary will formally conclude in the fall with a major celebratory event.

A long history of aviation education

In 1939, the Michigan State Board of Education authorized and approved Western Michigan to offer a two-year, non-degree curriculum in Vocational Aviation Mechanics designed to prepare students for positions as licensed airplane mechanics, licensed engine mechanics, airplane factory mechanics and pilot mechanics.

That same year, WMU began offering the ground school portion of the Civilian Pilot Training program, sponsored by the federal government, with the flight portion of the program contracted out. Both the mechanics programs and the pilot training initiative were under the direction of Elmer C. "Buck" Weaver.

By 1947, WMU had established a four-year bachelor's degree curriculum called air transportation, and by 1955, the University started its own flight-training program at the Plainwell, Mich., airport. The Kalamazoo airport was the program's home from 1959 to 1997, when it moved to Battle Creek, Mich.'s W.K. Kellogg Airport. In 1999, WMU's aviation programs were organized into the College of Aviation—WMU's seventh degree-granting college.

Today, the college offers bachelor's degrees in aviation flight science, aviation management and operations and aviation maintenance technology to nearly 800 undergraduates.