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Soar Eagle: Tiger trio studies aviation 'above the clouds'
Auburn punter Ian Shannon wears fog glasses during instrument training, allowing him to see only his plane's instrument panel. (Photos courtesy Todd Van Emst, Auburn University Athletics)
Sept. 11, 2017

By Jeff Shearer

AUBURN, Ala. - On Saturdays, Ian Shannon wants hang time.

The rest of the week, Auburn's punter seeks flight time.

Shannon, one of three professional flight majors on the football team, earned his Private Pilot Certificate last year.

"I have the ability to fly during visual flight rules," says Shannon, a sophomore from Marietta, Ga. "During clear days, I'm allowed to fly, whoever, wherever."

Friday morning at 7:30, Shannon flew a Cessna 172, without an instructor, from Auburn University Regional Airport to Macon County and back, logging another hour in the cockpit.

<em> Ian Shannon arrives at the Auburn airport before 7 a.m. to begin preparing for his flight.</em>
Ian Shannon arrives at the Auburn airport before 7 a.m. to begin preparing for his flight.

Shannon is halfway toward securing his instrument rating, the next step on his journey to becoming a commercial airline pilot.

"You have to be able to apply all of the information," says Shannon, who has recorded 90 hours of flight time. "Daily, I'll go into class and learn about your vestibular system, your inner ear fluids, and then that day you'll go fly, and you'll go into a cloud, and you're thinking, `I don't know if I'm upside down or right-side up.'

"You have to really learn to trust your instruments. It's cool to learn something and apply it that day."

This year, two freshman teammates joined Shannon in Auburn's aviation education program, offensive lineman Nick Brahms and kicker Anders Carlson.

In aviation, as in football, competition brings out everyone's best.

"Now I've got them and I can never let them be better at flying than me, so I have to always be studying more than them and always be better than them," Shannon says.

"As athletes, we're competing every day. Bringing it into the classroom with a couple of my best friends is awesome."

<em> Teammates Ian Shannon, left, and Nick Brahms talk after their flights on Friday.</em>
Teammates Ian Shannon, left, and Nick Brahms talk after their flights on Friday.

Brahms and Carlson each grew up in aviation families. Nick's dad flies internationally for Delta. Anders' mom is an international flight attendant, and both of his uncles are pilots.

"Knowing that Ian was able to do it, and that it was an option here, made me really interested," says Carlson, from Colorado Springs, Colo. "I don't think any other school that I looked at had anything like this."

His father's model planes piqued Nick's boyhood interest. A recruiting trip to Auburn solidified his career choice.

"When I came here on a visit, I found out about the program," says Brahms, from Navarre, Fla. "I thought, `That would be pretty cool, not sitting at a desk all day.' It's amazing. I wouldn't want to do anything else."

'Our students are in high demand'

Auburn University's aviation program began in 1941. Students begin flying on their second day of class.

"We feel very confident our students are as prepared as any from any university to go out and compete in the workforce," says Dr. Bill Hutto, Auburn's Airport and Aviation Center Director.

"Our students are in high demand," Hutto says. "Our program is growing. We focus on producing leaders, not just pilots, not just managers, but leaders in the industry."

Aviation courses begin at 7 a.m., an hour earlier than most classes. Juggling the demands of aviation education with playing football at Auburn requires maximum dedication.

"The student-athletes really are impressive in the way they do things because they have to put so much more into it," Hutto says. "Not only do you have to enjoy it, but you have to find that time and really make it a priority.

"They're somewhat of an inspiration to the other students to say, `Hey, if you can balance all that you have going on in your life, I know I can do it as well.'"

With a new aviation education facility opening in 2018, Auburn's program, part of University College, is in demand, Hutto says.

Shannon talked aviation with Auburn University president Dr. Steven Leath, a fellow pilot, during Leath's recent visit to practice.

"Since I've joined the program, in a year, it has completely been renovated and it is phenomenal now," Shannon says. "We're starting new classrooms, new curriculums, new majors, and all of the classes now are leaning toward helping people become airline pilots and industry leaders. It's amazing."

Aviation, Hutto says, is a "very lucrative career field," with starting salaries for recent graduates at $60,000 and alums in their late twenties earning $250,000.

"Student-athletes in our program have to have a passion for sports and flying, and the desire to be the best you can be," he says.

"It can be tough sometimes, but I enjoy it," Carlson says. "It's not hard if you enjoy it."

"It's a lot of time," says Brahms, who enrolled in January. "It's tough, with football. You've got to get up early most mornings, when you could be sleeping in, but I love it. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

The payoff for those early wakeup calls and rigorous study sessions is the view from the aerial classroom.

"Just the scenery," says Brahms, who made his first solo excursion last week. "Sometimes, there will be a cloud layer below you. It's beautiful up there above the clouds. Seeing the stadium, too, from the air is incredible, just the whole campus is pretty. I can't describe it. You've got to go up there."

<em> Ian Shannon checks the fuel level during his pre-flight inspection.</em>
Ian Shannon checks the fuel level during his pre-flight inspection.

Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:



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