The conversation that led to the inception of the aviation program at Morningside University could be likened to a pilot being concisely told by air traffic control to standby for takeoff. Retired Colonel Brian Miller, the former commander of the 185th Air National Guard who now serves as director of aviation at Morningside, made a call to President Emeritus John Reynders just before the holidays in December 2018 to see if Reynders might be interested in sitting down to discuss the possibility of starting a flight school. Reynders replied that he appreciated the call and that he would get back to Miller after the new year, and the conversation concluded in under a minute.

Miller truly wasn’t sure that another phone call would happen, but Reynders was good to his word. In the weeks that followed, Reynders consulted with now retired Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Bill Deeds, and the two had concurred that the idea was worth exploring. Conversations were quickly set up to bring the City of Sioux City, the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce, Oracle Aviation, and Morningside together to develop a plan.

“The idea was simple yet audacious: create a flight program that leveraged our underutilized airport and forged a synergy between Morningside and the other players,” Miller recounted. But as the winds of change blew, so did the onset of COVID-19, throwing a wrench into the plans. Determination prevailed, though, as the partners pushed forward their vision through nearly four years of turbulence caused by the pandemic and an array of challenges.

Emphasizing the power of teamwork, Miller praised community collaboration as the force that transformed their vision into reality. 

“None of this would have taken off if every single one of the partners hadn’t stepped up and made commitments to help hold all the pieces together. There are huge benefits for each partner involved, and the culmination of the efforts are going to result in world-class pilots and aviation management specialists being turned out from this program while also increasing traffic at our airport and creating more opportunities for Siouxland.”

Takeoff, early arrival, and delays

At the heart of Morningside’s aviation venture is the construction of a 40,000 square foot dual-purpose facility at the Sioux Gateway Airport that will be used by Morningside and Oracle Aviation, a fixed-base operator (FBO) based in Omaha. Oracle will use the hangars and first-floor spaces for its operations, and the second floor of the facility will house offices and classrooms to be used by the Morningside University Department of Aviation.

“The building is going to introduce new generations of pilots and aviation management professionals to the skies, and it will also act as a catalyst for increased airport traffic and funding that will amplify Sioux City’s economic development,” said Miller. “Coast-to-coast flights are now going to want to be able to stop in Sioux City to refuel. Not only will we be able to get them landed and back in the air quickly, but they are going to see this beautiful facility and the name Morningside University on the flight school. It’s going to showcase Sioux City and Morningside in an impressive way that will help give us not only a national reputation, but a global one as well.”

While the original timelines foresaw the building being completed in fall 2023 followed by the launch of the program in 2024, the arrival of President Dr. Albert Mosley at Morningside marked the acceleration of plans. Sensing the palpable enthusiasm surrounding the program and the soaring need for aviation expertise, Mosley and the Morningside executive leadership team made the announcement that the inaugural class would happen one year earlier in fall 2023.

This advancement was made possible due in large part to the strategic hiring of Aaron Diedrichs as chief flight instructor. Working alongside Miller, Diedrichs quickly mobilized the initial phases of the program and recruited 16 students to start in fall 2023, 11 of whom planned to pursue the professional flight program. Though the opening of the facility was delayed, Diedrichs managed to make the necessary pivots while keeping the momentum behind the program moving forward.

“Ideally we would have loved to have been in the facility when the program launched last fall, but we adjusted and students are still learning and flying. We have strong partners behind us, and that has helped a lot,” shared Diedrichs. Diedrichs also cites the location of the airport itself as being a major benefit to the program.

“Being at Sioux Gateway Airport, Morningside is fortunate to have runways, four-season flying weather, and an FAA control tower right on the field that few other programs have. We have military, commercial airline, aero-medical, and corporate all flying on one field, and our airspace is relatively uncongested with our training space just five minutes out after takeoff – something a lot of programs just don’t have. When you combine all the advantages of our airport and location with the fact these students also get to enjoy all the benefits of being a Morningside student, it isn’t hard to see we really are shaping a world class training environment.”

The thrill of flight

Two students among the inaugural class are Valerie Mejia, a freshman from Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, and Trevor Paulsen, a freshman from Yankton, S.D. 

Valerie is the daughter of a commercial airline pilot and has been dreaming of following in her father’s footsteps since middle school. She was thrilled when Morningside launched the program because of the close proximity to her home and family. 

Meanwhile, Trevor is a football player who has loved planes since he was five. He had been planning on pursuing exercise and sport science in college so he could continue to play football, but when he saw that Morningside would allow him to get a pilot’s license and be part of the Mustangs football dynasty his plans changed. 

Each is loving the excitement that has accompanied the launch of the program.

“Whenever people ask me about college and my major and I tell them I’m part of the aviation program, they immediately are excited and impressed,” said Paulsen. “It’s fun to be part of something people are really interested in.”

Mejia found herself getting a big share of the spotlight on the program when she became the first student to fly as part of the newly launched program in early September. With media on the ground and plenty of cameras pointed her way, Mejia recognized her moment as one with meaning beyond herself.

“I knew my flight meant the first student to fly would be a woman, and there aren’t a lot of women pilots out there. It felt good to know that other little girls out there would see me on the news and maybe see themselves as a pilot, too,” Mejia shared. “It was a little nerve wracking knowing so many eyes were on me, but once we got into the plane the nerves went away. Everything we had learned was in my mind and I felt confident. It felt amazing to finally get to take off and get up in the air to do the thing I want to spend my life doing.”

Echoing the sentiment of blossoming confidence, Paulsen recounted a moment he had during his second solo flight. After a successful takeoff into a quiet air space, Paulsen suddenly had five other planes enter the traffic pattern – a number of planes that many delta airports won’t even allow because of how congested it makes the air traffic.

“There was a helicopter, a KC 135, and some other jets. I was getting extended down and the tower was telling me to keep waiting. It was stressful, but I just stuck to my training and listened closely to the tower. It felt good to know that everything I am learning at Morningside is going to equip me to handle the unexpected,” recalled Paulsen.

The sky’s the limit

Reflecting on all that has happened in the short life of the program so far, Diedrichs is proud of what he has seen students like Paulsen and Mejia accomplish in such a short time. He also knows that the rich experiences they have had so far are only the beginning of what is to come.

“The aviation program at Morningside is more than a curriculum. It enables students to captain their own destinies by developing their aviation skills while also being able to have the opportunities and relationships that are the bedrock of the Morningside experience. Whether they want to play college football while getting flying time to become a commercial pilot, or whether they want to manage the many components that go into flying while enjoying life in the residence halls or singing, the Morningside Department for Aviation can make their dreams a reality,” said Diedrichs.