Enlightened aviation adventure creates path to success for alumnus

Contact: Tom Thinnes

YPSILANTI, Mich.—If you want an out-of-the-box thinker, then Eric Epplett is your guy.

He probably had a bit of that in him by the time he graduated from Spring Lake High School in 2008, kind of like Clint Eastwood's character in "Heartbreak Ridge" when "Gunny Highway" muttered that Marines are never stumped because they always "improvise."

In all, Epplett spent about nine years at the WMU College of Aviation as a student and staff member.  He earned a bachelor's degree in aviation science and administration in 2012 and, while employed by Western, added a master's degree in sports management in 2015.

He joined the College of Aviation's recruitment and outreach team right after his first degree was hanging on the wall.

"I learned to never continue to do things the way they have always been done because that's the way it was," Epplett says about one of his philosophies.  "Always be willing to try something new or different."

That perspective hasn't changed since he joined Kalitta Air, based at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti on the east side of the state, as an international flight-clearance coordinator.  "The airline industry can be stuck in its ways," he says.  "It can take a lot of effort to get leadership to think outside the box and not retain the way the operation has always been.  That's a challenge."

Epplett specifically chose WMU because of its aviation program that is headquartered about 100 miles southeast of his hometown on the Lake Michigan shoreline.

"I wanted to stay in state and was immediately drawn to WMU by a tour of the main campus and the College of Aviation," he recalls.  "I saw firsthand how innovative and well-rounded its aviation graduates are.  As I progressed through the program, I realized and understood the comprehensive skill sets, and how applicable they are to all phases of aviation."

Helping make his Western decision was an experience right before his sophomore year at Spring Lake High.  "At a summer day camp," he says, "I experienced several aspects of aviation, including airport operations, air-traffic control, and flight.  The week culminated with planning and operating a discovery flight, which really drove my interest in aviation."

Epplett soon came to realize that he had made the right choice, along the way proving that among the best year's of a person's life can—and should be—college.

As an undergrad, he also served as a resident assistant in a residence hall.  "I formed tight friendships with 20 people across campus," he says.  "Living and working together creates a unique bond.  Seven years after graduation, many of us are still friends, see each other regularly, take part in weddings, and watch new Broncos come into the world.

His favorite class was the course in crew resource management taught by master faculty specialist Gil Sinclair.  "I enjoyed the materials and learning the importance of crew relationship," Epplett says.  "which is incredibly valuable across sectors of the aviation industry.  I apply those concepts in my work in operations, effectively communicating and resolving issues across departments."

Epplett and Thinnes

He credits Tom Thinnes, the college's manager of recruitment and outreach, for much of his professional success and for filling Epplett's book of fond memories about the Western chapter in his life.  As part of recruitment campaigns, he traveled the nation to attract new Broncos.  With Thinnes, he led the program's summer camps for five years.  Then there were the annual treks to Oshkosh, Wis., and the EAA AirVenture, the premier international air show staged by the Experimental Aircraft Association.

"Tom has always been incredibly supportive of my career goals and always pushed me outside of my comfort zone," Epplett says.  "He is always willing to hear crazy ideas, or to talk you off the ledge."

The memorable adventures had a few misadventures along the way that have also stuck with Epplett:

  • The times their vehicle's GPS took them to the wrong locations, including once to a house of questionable economic proprietorship in St. Louis.
  • On a trip to Louisville, the trailer hauling the college's life-sized model of a single-engine plane, used to promote the aviation program, was stolen from its parking spot at the exhibition center.
  • After their college-fair duties, the exploration of unique breweries and brew pubs in such host cities as Buffalo, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
  • On the long drives to college-fair cities, quoting the funny dialogues from "Step Brothers" (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly), the "Dumb and Dumber" movies, and "Saturday Night Live" skits.
  • "And watching Tom ‘smoke’ the Golden Gate Bridge as he tried to operate a flight simulator."

Not exactly a replica of his comprehensive duties at Kalitta Air, which was founded in 2000 and has built a fleet of almost 40 freighters that provide express air delivery of virtually anything—as well as on-demand charter service—across the United States and around the world. The "virtually anything" recently included taking U.S. citizens out of China because of the coronavirus outbreak.

"My main role at Kalitta is to ensure that necessary overflight and landing permissions are in place for a flight to operate," Epplett says.  "This includes auditing the flight schedule and procuring necessary permits.  I interact with people all over the world to make a flight happen."

Such tasks are what he likes best about his job.  "Being a part of the solution to the big puzzle of airline operations is very satisfying," he says.  "It is rewarding to see several departments come together to ensure the safe and efficient operation for a flight."

The Epplett family

That's the pro.  Working odd hours is the con.  "Working in airline operations," he says, "you have to be flexible to be on duty days, nights, weekends and holidays.  Finding a good balance between work and life is the challenge.  The other side of that is -- when I work four days (and nights) on, I get four days off."  That results in some special time with wife Christina and daughter Nora.

As a mentor to current and future students, Epplett can demonstrate that there is more to the unique and challenging aviation industry than jumping into a flight deck and taxing off into the wind blue yonder.  He believes students should receive a broad idea of what the industry is truly like and the opportunities, including financial benefits, it offers.

"I strongly believe in what WMU offers," he says.  "Graduates of the College of Aviation are very well prepared to begin their careers.  I enjoyed working at the college and spreading the brown-and-gold word across the country. The enthusiasm that I saw among young people at our summer camps made it all very worthwhile.  I want to keep that enthusiasm alive and well."

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