Pilot started career at SIU

By Lauren Duncan

An alumnus who fine-tuned his flying ability at SIU has taken his experience to new heights.

Clarence Copping, a 1977 graduate of SIU, is one of three SIU Alumni Association Distinguished Alumnus Award honorees this year. Although the aviation and College of Applied Sciences and Arts graduate is a senior captain at United Airlines, he has also done work for SIU in past years.

Copping, who is originally from Palatine but has lived in St. Charles since 1993, had flying experience before he started at SIU. He said his father was a World War II pilot, and he was always interested in aviation.


“I was one of those guys that somebody takes you up in an airplane and you just kind of go, ‘This is for me,'” he said. “And so I was very lucky. I knew what I wanted to do early.”

Copping began to fly in high school with the Boy Scout Explorer Post, where he became friends with someone a year older who was attending SIU. Copping said he visited the friend in Carbondale, where he was introduced to the flight and aviation technology programs.

“I came home to my parents and said ‘I want to go to SIU,'” he said. “I made it real easy for them.”

Copping already had a private pilot’s license when he enrolled at the university because of his high school flying experience.

He said he was very busy in aviation technology and flying courses during his first two years at Southern Illinois Airport through the university. He said his peers and he had a lot of fun, but the curriculum often required a full day of work.

He received his flight instructor’s certificate at the end of his sophomore year and was hired by the university as a part-time flight instructor. He said he instructed during his junior and senior years and even got the opportunity to fly some charter flights.

“It was a really great learning experience, getting paid to learn at that point,” he said.


Copping was hired to work full-time as an assistant chief flight instructor for SIU a few months before he graduated in 1977. He did that for a year and a half before he placed an application with United Airlines.

“I didn’t think I was qualified, but I wasn’t going to not apply for the job,” he said. “Unbeknownst to me, because I had the rating that I had and the flight time I was able to get at SIU, and … the mechanics rating, all of that put together, in United’s eyes, I was able to get hired as a pilot.”

Copping said he was 22 years old when he got his job at United Airlines. After three years, though, he was laid off.

SIU was looking for pilots at the same time. Copping was hired In 1981 as a university charter pilot, which is someone who provides air transportation for administrators and the athletic teams. He was at SIU for another two years until he was recalled by United Airlines. He has been with the airline ever since.

“So, I actually worked for SIU twice,” he said. “It was nice because I really enjoyed SIU and I enjoyed southern Illinois, and when they hired me back in 1981 it was like going back and being able to do some flying and be in Carbondale — something I never thought I’d be able to do again. It was a nice opportunity.”

Since being back at United, Copping flies as a triple seven captain, or a pilot who flies one of the world’s largest twin engine jetliners all over the world. He also helps instruct captains training to fly for United. Generally, he said, he’s away from his own home a few weeks a month.

Copping said some of his favorite places he visited include London; Beijing, China and various places in Europe as well as in the U.S. However, he said he doesn’t always get to visit all the places he wants because he has to try to maintain a regulated a sleep cycle. Copping said a perk to the job, though, is marking his calendar for the next opportunity if he misses something the first time.

“It’s really fun to see these things all around the world — to see other cultures and respect other cultures,” he said.

On top of working for United, Copping has also done work for NASA. He said he got involved after his father-in-law, also a pilot, recommended it to him. Copping has been involved in flight studies in California and Virginia in reconfigured space shuttle simulators.

Copping said he spends a few weeks a year working in the NASA studies. His next experience will be the week after Homecoming.

One of Clarence Copping’s services to SIU include a trip he organizes in the spring for aviation-interested alumni and high school students to fly down to SIU in a United Airlines Boeing airplane to visit the campus.

This year, the students will see the new Transportation Education Center, a 228,000 square-foot complex that houses three programs, including aviation management and flight which opened at Southern Illinois Airport this fall.

In addition to catching the football game, Copping said he plans to bring his parents to the new TEC facility while he’s in town for the weekend. He said he enjoys the few times a year he is able to visit SIU.

He emphasized that a person really has to want to be a pilot to do it. One person with such a drive Courtney Copping, his daughter who is a senior studying aviation management as well as a Flying Saluki.

Like her father, Courtney Copping doubles as a student and flight instructor at the university.

“It kind of comes full-circle,” she said.

She said her father never influenced her to study aviation.

“Honestly, it means a lot to me because I see my dad, he really cares about the school a lot and he gives a lot to SIU,” she said. “It’s nice to see him recognized.”

Although Copping said her father never pushed her to become a pilot, she said he’s one of her greatest mentors.

“I’m really grateful he never pushed me toward aviation, but he gave me the opportunity to go up and do all of this fun flying, and it was something I came to decide on my own I wanted to do,” she said.

While his daughter isn’t quite through with her experience at SIU, Clarence Copping said he is appreciative of the experience university offered him.

“I was given a lot of opportunities to learn at SIU, and I took advantage of it, but there were a lot of people down there who helped me learn my job — my craft — and I will forever be grateful of SIU for the opportunities they gave me to learn,” he said.

Courtney Copping said she is glad to see her dad win the award.

“He’s a role model for me,” she said. “He’s my favorite pilot.”