The theater lost Jamie Engler, who was determined to become an actress, the day she heard a pilot for Cape Air, who’s now a good friend, speak at her high school. She already liked flying in airplanes. When she missed a study abroad trip to London, she was more sad about missing the hours-long flight than missing London. Suddenly a new career possibility opened.
“I was like, ooh, a pilot, I like that,” Engler said, “I told my dad, and he got me an introductory flight for my birthday between junior and senior year and I started flying. I’d never even read a book on airplanes. The quote I use often is, 'What went up never came down.'”
Now a pilot for Spirit Airlines, Engler is still flying and still exploring the possibilities in her chosen field. That included receiving her Master of Science in Aviation and Aerospace Management from Purdue University in 2023, a degree she earned entirely online and, well, on the fly.
Engler was flying for Cape Air and living in St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, when she was accepted to Purdue’s program, which is designed especially for working professionals. She was able to accommodate the coursework while moving her home base (twice), changing employers, and maintaining the busy schedule of a working pilot who might land in multiple time zones a day. She worked on her degree after moving to Puerto Rico, then following a move to Florida, and while switching jobs from Cape Air to Spirit Airlines. Among other things, she wrote papers in the wee hours of the morning in hotel rooms on layovers and did discussion posts on her iPad while waiting for passengers to disembark.
“The flexibility that the classes provided was just exactly what I needed to get this accomplished,” Engler said. “It fit into my lifestyle rather than me having to change my life and my schedule.”
“The teachers were always so patient and understanding with me,” Engler added. “If I ever needed an extension because things went into some sort of meltdown and I'm trapped halfway across the country from my laptop, they were always like no problem, let me know when you can turn it in.”
Flexibility doesn’t mean the program isn’t rigorous. Engler said she had to be a relentless calendar keeper and time manager.
“I felt like the teachers really pushed your critical thinking,” she said. “Every time you had a viewpoint on something or a perspective, they were always, 'But what about this?' The material was fantastic. I think the ‘what you pay for what you get’ is fantastic too.”
Engler only half-jokingly said she decided to earn her master’s because she was bored. The COVID-19 pandemic had drastically reduced the number of people flying, especially on tourism-oriented routes like Cape Air’s in the Caribbean, and that left her with extra down time. Still, going back to school was something she most likely would have done eventually in any event.
“I think education is incredibly important in an industry designed for us to be constantly learning,” Engler said. “I always wanted to get a master's, maybe this was the time.”
She looked at various options for earning her master’s. A colleague who’s a Purdue alumnus strongly suggested Purdue’s program. It looked like a good fit. It was fully online, and the curriculum was focused broadly on aviation management, which is what Engler wanted.
Engler didn’t view going back to school for her master’s as an immediate career booster. She’s on track to become a captain regardless. But the degree sets her up with a skill set that could come into play if she ever reaches a time when she can’t be a pilot or wants to make a shift in careers.
Moreover, she thinks the broader perspective she gained on the industry, along with the business and leadership skills, makes her a better crew member for her team now and will help her be a better captain. She’s part of a constantly moving operation that includes airport managers, pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, ground crews, security personnel and a host of others, as well has hundreds of passengers. She said that earning her degree from Purdue enhanced her understanding of everything that happens outside the cockpit and makes her a more well-rounded participant and decision-maker.
Her master’s program did have at least one immediate career benefit. When her one of Spirit Airlines interviewers asked her a question about what kind of leader she saw herself as, she didn’t have any problem coming up with an answer. She had just finished a paper on that very topic for her favorite class – in aviation leadership.
To learn more about Purdue’s 100 % online Master of Science in Aviation and Aerospace Management, visit the program website.