Flying with Cavagnaro


by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

Catherine Cavagnaro readied Niky for the flight. Niky is her 4-seat Beechcraft Bonanza, one of two airplanes she uses to teach flying lessons and practice her aerobatics for stunt flying. She inspected the body of the craft before moving into the cockpit to check the controls, the flight software and the communications system.

Next, she prepped her passenger, Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety, to see Sewanee from the sky.

Cavagnaro has been flying since 1999, but she said she got a bit of a late start. She moved to the Mountain from California in 1993 to take a position as professor of mathematics at the University. She didn’t learn to fly until she was 34. But that didn’t stop her from going full throttle.

Since she learned to fly in 1999, her flight path has been direct. In 2001, after encouragement from a friend, she became certified to instruct aspiring pilots.

“Once I became a private pilot, I started taking lessons from Bill Kershner, and after a few years, he asked me to teach with him. I started teaching with him and that’s the point where I specialized in aerobatics. He passed away in 2007 and over those years, I kept doing more and more teaching and flying. I never meant to do it, but people kept calling me. I’ve run the school at the airport by myself since,” she said. “I’ve had people come here from all over the country and the world. Student pilots all the way to airline and military pilots. They come here to learn and it’s just been great.”

Cavagnaro said she’d seen Brigety exploring the Domain, riding horses and jogging around campus. She said when she suggested the two of them go flying, he immediately agreed.

“He really seems like he’s enjoying the gifts that this Domain has to offer, and one of the most unique of those gifts is our airport. I asked him if he would like to take a flight, and he jumped at it. I showed him his kid’s schools and his new house. He absolutely loved it,” she said. “Where else but Sewanee can you do this?”

Brigety echoed her sentiments and said seeing Sewanee from the top down is something everyone should have the chance to do.

“It was a great experience to fly with Dr. C, as her students call her. She took me up in one of her airplanes and asked me if I wanted to do any aerobatics. I said no thank you,” he said. “To see the true glory of the Domain was fantastic. There are lots of schools that have libraries and football teams and orchestras, but very few have their own airport. That is something we absolutely have to use to our advantage. Mark my words -- we are going to develop it.”

Over the years, Cavagnaro has become an expert in aviation, getting involved in research with the University of Tennessee Space Institute and writing a monthly column for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association magazine, which has the highest circulation of any aviation magazine in the world, about the science of flight, proficiency, efficiency and safety.

“I’m also a designated examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration, which allows me to occupy a unique role in encouraging safety. I want to know our pilots are going to be safe to themselves and their passengers,” she said. “I feel like I’m forever a student of aviation. Everything I do in math and aviation makes me love the other field more. Being able to fly, it’s like a roller coaster where you determine the course. Every week, I learn something about the science of flight that I didn’t know before. It’s a never ending opportunity to learn and study and become better.”