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In 1930, API President Bradford Knapp, who lead the reconstruction effort at the school beginning in 1928, and Dean of Engineering, John J. Wilmore, recruited and hired Volney C. Finch to establish an aeronautics program in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Finch, a retired naval pilot had worked at the Naval Aircraft Factory and had done research in aircraft structures and engine cooling. A graduate of the Naval Academy, Finch had studied at MIT, had received a M.S. degree from the University of Washington, and had written four textbooks on aircraft design and engines.
Alabama Polytechnic Institute became one of twelve universities or colleges in the United States offering a degree in Aeronautical Engineering.4 The first aeronautical courses taught at API were a junior course that covered aviation topics ranging from aerial navigation to meteorology and a senior course in aircraft design. Additional courses were added as an aeronautics option. As was to be the case for a number of years, the entire field of aeronautics was considered fair game. After all, the knowledge base was still relatively small. The December 1931 issue of Southern Aviation5 contains an article describing a program, under Professor Volney C. Finch and Instructors Solon Dixon, (See Fig. 2.) and Victor W. Randecker, which included "airplane design, maintenance and operation of airplanes, and the business of commercial aviation." Since that time, although the titles have changed, there have been parallel programs in aeronautical engineering and aeronautical administration at Auburn.
The API catalogue for 1931-326 lists graduate courses in aeronautical engineering, including airplane structural design, aircraft instruments, advanced aerodynamics, aeronautical problems and theoretical aeronautics.The aeronautical labs were highly applied. Six types of airplane engines, including a 220 horsepower J-4 Wright Whirlwind, were used to study propulsion fundamentals. Airplane fuselage frames were used to test welded joints. A Vought U. O. twoplace biplane with a radial air-cooled engine and a Boeing pursuit plane with a water-cooled engine were both used to demonstrate aeronautical principles and design techniques.
The aeronautical engineering program produced thirteen graduates of the aeronautics option in 1932. A full four-year curriculum and a separate degree in aeronautical engineering were in place by 1933. Marshall S. Cayley, a member of the first aeronautical engineering class of eleven students, later attended the Boeing School of Aeronautics, served in World War II and worked for United Airlines for 32 years. Robert G. Pitts, another 1933 graduate, was to figure prominently in aerospace education at API.
The depression of the early 1930's caused great difficulties in all areas, but higher education in the southeast was particularly hard hit. Finch had plans for an engine test bed and wind tunnel in the mechanical and aeronautical building,8 but, funds were not available. In fact, API ran out of money to pay employees and offered, as some relief, eggs, meat and produce, from the agricultural sector of the school, and script. After fighting for financial survival and winning many political battles, including keeping the aeronautical program, Knapp returned to his home state as president of Texas Technological College.
Rather than appoint a new president, the Board of Trustees established an administrative triumvirate of John J. Wilmore (Dean of Engineering), B. H. Crenshaw and L. N. Duncan. The three were actually able to function well enough together to bring some measure of financial stability. However, before that happened, another setback, this time to aeronautical education in particular, occurred in 1933. Finch, unable to support his family on what API could pay, accepted a position at Stanford University. Additionally, an aviation accident that year claimed the life of a student. In spite of these problems, aeronautics continued to be very popular and B. M. Cornell returned to API as a replacement for Finch. A true visionary, Cornell proposed, in 1934, a combination research center and recreational facility, including a golf course, on the site of the W. W. Webb airport, which was still privately owned. He wanted API to conduct interdisciplinary research in areas such as cotton fabrics for aircraft structures. Although Cornell's ideas were not included as part of the API planning, the aeronautics program, which included aeronautical business subjects, contined to be very popular and productive with 119 students in 1935. One of the 1935 graduates was Wilbur Tichenor, who, during World War II, became Col. Tichenor, and later was Director of Facilities at API.
After receiving a master's degree from the California Institute of Technology, Robert G. Pitts returned to Auburn as Cornell's assistant in 1935. With the help of students, he rebuilt wrecked aircraft to raise funds for the department. The 1937-38 senior design class also helped Pitts design and construct API's first wind tunnel.
Cornell advocated the entrance of API into the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), but the privately owned Auburn-Opelika Airport (improved W. W. Web airport) was needed for the venture. Competition from Georgia Tech and the University of Alabama was a factor in convincing API President Duncan to take over ownership of the airport and engage API in the process of training civilian pilots. The payment to the former owners totaled about $375.
Cornell and Pitts began the ground school part of the CPTP in 1939 with twenty students. Alabama Air Service handled the flight instruction. Cornell and Pitts also helped instruct in the Tuskegee Institute ground school. Cornell convinced Duncan the API could do a better job of flight instruction and the Auburn School of Aviation was formed with Pitts in charge. During the next year, students from the advanced CPTP at Tuskegee Institute, some of the famous "Tuskegee Airmen," also received advanced flight instruction at the Auburn-Opelika Airport, because the field at Tuskegee had not been approved for aircraft heavier than Piper Cubs.
After a somewhat lengthy political process, federal funds for improving the airport were obtained in 1941. Over the course of the next several years, over 1,400 pilots trained at API.