Eagle Turns from Engineering to Helicopter Pilot at ERAU in Prescott, AZ.

When it came time to define her career pursuit, Elizabeth Mitchell (’22) kept an open mind. And that allowed Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to help her pursue a new career as a helicopter pilot.

Elizabeth Mitchell ('22) switched majors from engineering to a B.S. in Aeronautical Science with a Helicopter Pilot Specialty. (Photo: Embry-Riddle / Connor McShane)
Elizabeth Mitchell ('22) switched majors from engineering to a B.S. in Aeronautical Science with a Helicopter Pilot Specialty. (Photo: Embry-Riddle / Connor McShane)

From Engineering to Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Science

Mitchell began her Embry-Riddle journey focused on engineering because she “was always interested in how things work, how things go together, how you put them together and how they run.”

But a little more than two years ago, Mitchell decided that she wanted to learn to fly helicopters and ultimately switched her goal to earning the Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Science with a Helicopter Pilot Specialty offered at the Prescott Campus.

“I got my private [license], loved it and decided to keep flying,” she said. “I liked it better as a career choice than engineering.”

The switch also gave Mitchell the opportunity to become deeply involved in helicopter safety research, especially in the vital area of inadvertent flights from visual to instrument conditions – one of the causes cited by the National Transportation Safety Board in the crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant.

It’s the type of unique hands-on opportunity that Embry-Riddle often provides its undergraduates, and Mitchell has made the most of it.

Leading the research project in Prescott

“She has become the face of the research project,” said Associate Professor Dawn Groh, the department chair of Aeronautical Science at the Prescott Campus. “Elizabeth routinely takes part in high-level meetings with professional pilots and safety experts, and everyone thinks she is a graduate student.”

The research project employs a virtual reality simulator to put pilots into scenarios where they suddenly lose visual contact with the ground or the horizon.

“We're seeing how they react and then walking them through what went well, what went bad and what could go better,” Mitchell said of the program, which is part of her senior capstone project and will result in recommendations for the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team

“It's been awesome,” said Mitchell. “I've been the lead student researcher on it, so it's a big project and it's been cool to be involved in all the pieces from creating the scenarios and running people through them to learning about the administrative aspects of it, such as how to get funding. It's really an incredible experience.”

Beyond an opportunity that few undergrads get, Mitchell has been enjoying her progress through the helicopter program because although she’s focused on flying, she’s also indulging her love of tinkering and exploring how things work.

“The classes that I like the best kind of still pull from engineering,” she said. “I took the general systems class, and it was a lot of fun learning about all the different engines, how they work and getting to see examples of them. This semester I just finished advanced helicopter systems, which was looking more in-depth at helicopter-specific stuff because they do operate very differently from airplanes.”

How has Embry-Riddle helped improve helicopter flight?

Thanks to Embry-Riddle’s focus on innovation and technology, Mitchell also has been able to stay on the leading edge of the latest tools used by working helicopter pilots.

“I think one of the big things are the night vision goggles,” she said. “We used them in the advanced systems class and the helicopter operations planning class in Prescott. It's been cool to put them on, talk about them, learn how they work and then use them. For me, it was almost an abstract concept until I got to use them and see what it was like.”

Mitchell will be wrapping up her degree soon in Prescott and has her sights set on flying firefighting helicopters for a living, saying that “flying will be my career and engineering will be a hobby on the side for fun.”