While working, MTSU aerospace grad flies over commencement site instead

May 19, 2023 at 08:34 pm by WGNS News

MTSU erospace Department professor Paul Craig, right, on the tarmac at Smyrna (Tenn.) Airport, waits as one of his now-former graduate students, Tony Briotta, a test pilot with Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., and a colleague re-enter the Gulfstream G600.

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Tony Briotta would’ve enjoyed attending Middle Tennessee State University’s May 5 commencement to personally receive his master’s degree, but he was working.

And, you could say he was just 45,000 feet from graduation and Murphy Center, where four total commencements found more than 2,650 fellow students graduating during the course of two days.


As a Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. test pilot based out of Savannah, Georgia, Briotta and a co-pilot headed west and eventually toward Nashville, Tennessee, that day on a five-hour up-and-back mission.

Photographs requested by Aerospace Department professor Paul Craig and taken by the co-pilot show Briotta flying over Murfreesboro and Murphy Center “a few hours earlier than the actual ceremony, but I was overhead the same day,” he said.

“Paul wanted us (graduates) to send him a picture where we were the moment we graduated,” Briotta, 56, and a Bluffton, South Carolina, resident, added. “I thought it was interesting and close enough to tell him I was test flying a new Gulfstream 500 over Murfreesboro at 45,000 feet.”

Craig said “most of the graduate students in the Master of Science in Aeronautical Sciences program do not live in the local area and cannot attend the graduation ceremony. The tradition I have is to ask each graduate, who cannot attend the ceremony, to take a photo of themselves at the time of the ceremony and send it to me. It doesn’t matter where they are or what they are doing — just document their graduation with the photo.”

Craig’s had students send photos of  themselves at the beach, toasting in a pub or in a backyard lawn chair. Briotta happened to by flying a Gulfstream past Murphy Center at Mach .85 — or 652 mph — too fast to grab his diploma.

Since the graduate courses are offered online, Craig rarely meets his students in person, but he met Briotta and other MTSU alumni working for Gulfstream when they flew to Smyrna Airport as part of the March Aerospace Expo.

“All of our graduate students are really exceptional, mature, professional people,” Craig said. “Monday through Friday, they are working full time. Tony always did go the extra mile and take it to the next level (working on his master’s).”

Briotta’s pursuit of the degree will allow him to teach — possibly at MTSU someday — when he retires and leaves Gulfstream.

“Tony would be a terrific teacher and educator,” Craig said. “He has years of knowledge that students would soak up.”

At the Aerospace Expo, Briotta met department Chair Chaminda Prelis. He also has established working relationships with professors Wendy Beckman and Joe Hawkins.

Gulfstream connections - Briotta works and flies with MTSU alumnus Bill Maples (Class of 1996), the son of Wally Maples (’63), Aerospace Department professor emeritus and former chair. Bill Maples recommended Briotta check out the revered collegiate aviation program and consult with Wally Maples, which led to a connection with Craig and the graduate program.

Briotta, Bill Maples and Eric Holmberg flew the Gulfstream 600 test aircraft to Smyrna. Holmberg’s son, Clay Holmberg, is an aerospace professional pilot major. Also making that trip were Nevin Douangvilay (’14), a flight test engineer, and maintenance manager Corey Zimmerman (’09) — both MTSU graduates as is Gulfstream pilot Jon Berry (’94).

“The school (MTSU) has earned a strong reputation at Gulfstream,” Briotta said. “That’s why we tried to recruit at the career fair.”

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