Few people have a longer commute to the office than Aaron Palmer. “I live in Fayetteville, Arkansas,” he said, “so every time I go to work, I’ve got to get to Atlanta.” However, he doesn’t mind a bit. Each day, he gets to live out his dreams at 35,000 feet as a pilot for Delta Air Lines. “I really, really love it,” he said.
Palmer joined Delta in May 2022 and is now based at the company’s largest U.S. flight hub, Georgia’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. It’s also the world’s busiest airport, with an average of 286,000 passengers each day, but he enjoys the challenge of serving one of the largest customer bases in aviation.
After a decade spent working his way up—from flight instructor to regional airline pilot and corporate pilot—landing his current role as a first officer flying for a major airline is a crowning achievement. He also found the time to earn an MBA.
Palmer enrolled in the online Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Aviation Management program at Henderson State University in March 2021 and graduated in May 2023.
He says the degree gave him leadership skills he can use every day as a pilot in charge of an airplane and a crew. “Just checking your ego goes so far when you’re trying to set that example and lead others,” he said. Coursework also offered new perspectives on customer service, which he never forgets is part of his role.
“Aviation, like any industry, presents challenges that require effective problem-solving skills,” he said. “My MBA helped provide a foundation for critical thinking and strategic decision-making, along with understanding passengers’ needs.”
Chasing the Dream
Palmer is from Fort Smith, Arkansas, which is also home to the elite 188th Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard. He attended Southside High School near the Ebbing Air National Guard Base, which was close enough that he could watch military jets take off during seventh-period track and field. One day while running laps with a friend during class, he spotted the planes flying overhead and remarked, “Man, that would be really fun to do.”
His friend had a neighbor who happened to be a pilot at the base, so Palmer asked for an introduction. Soon he was touring the facility and seeing those jets up close. “I got to go fly the simulator,” he said. “I was hooked.”
Palmer applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy during his senior year, but a tip from his sister Britta changed his course. She attended Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia and suggested he look into the aviation program at Henderson State University across the street. He and his mother visited the campus and were impressed with the program as well as the university’s tight-knit community of students and faculty.
He enrolled at Henderson State after graduating from high school in 2011. Majoring in aviation with a minor in physics, he quickly advanced from “knowing nothing about flying to becoming a flight instructor,” he said.
Palmer went on to become a pilot for regional carrier Republic Airways after completing his bachelor’s degree in 2015, starting work for the company the following year.
While he had an exciting new job, it wasn’t quite glamorous. Long days, tight schedules and unexpected overnights are par for the course while aviators pay their dues, building experience and logging the flight hours required to work for larger airlines. “That was rough living,” he admitted.
When the opportunity came to join Tyson Foods as a corporate pilot, Palmer and his wife, Kimberly, moved to Fayetteville, and his career prospects improved. “That was a great job,” he said, recalling the company’s positive culture and generous support. Tyson also encouraged pilots to advance their education, paying for up to 80% of tuition costs.
Palmer returned to Henderson State as an online MBA student while working a full-time captain’s schedule. He recruited a couple of close buddies who flew for Tyson to the program as well. “We were in each other’s weddings, best friends,” he recalled. “And we all just said, let’s do it.”
Leading by Example
Palmer completed the last year of his MBA studies while traveling the world with Delta. He says being able to work ahead in his courses was a big advantage whenever his schedule included long-distance flights or overseas destinations such as Iceland.
“I could not have gotten my master’s if it wasn’t online,” he stressed. “There’s simply no way, with my job, I could do it.” Criss-crossing multiple time zones in a day in a pressurized airplane cabin can also be taxing on the body, and Palmer says he appreciated having the option “not to do homework after eight hours of flying.”
Studying at his convenience helped him stay focused and enjoy the MBA experience more. He liked how readings and case studies “broadened his spectrum,” and classes such as Marketing Management challenged him to develop new skills.
“I just found it so interesting,” he said of the course, noting that simulation exercises in marketing gave him practical experience in a different field than his own. “This is something, if I was not flying, I could see myself doing,” he said.
Managerial Leadership and Ethics also inspired Palmer to examine his management philosophy and discover how he works best with others. “It’s made me realize that I’m a servant leader,” he shared. “I love mentoring. I love giving people opportunities that I wish I would have known [about]. I like to challenge them and see them grow and fulfill their dreams.”
He says Dr. Lonnie L. Jackson also set a great example during the course by practicing the strategies he was teaching. “He’s an effective communicator,” Palmer explained. “He was so quick to get back with you on anything you had a question about.”
Palmer also highlights the time and attention Jackson gave him as a mentor, advising on classes to take and how to work school into a pilot’s schedule. “He really showed his leadership style through his communication and always being there. And I know it wasn’t just for me, [it was] for all his students,” he said. “Dr. Jackson was superb at that.”
Cruising Altitude, Clear Skies Ahead
Palmer says Henderson State’s online MBA program has helped prepare him for a variety of professional paths in aviation, from airport operations and carrier compliance to human factors management (addressing safety risks such as maintenance lapses or pilot fatigue).
Studying leadership has also given him a deep appreciation for his current employer, as he connects the skills and concepts he’s learned to what he has experienced on the job with Delta. “They really, really love their employees,” he said, expressing his respect for the organization and its management. “There are multiple roles within that company that you can [have] with an MBA,” he added. “Definitely, that’s a card in my back pocket.”
Palmer says the program’s emphasis on “customer-centric” approaches to doing business also demonstrates why the degree could be beneficial for anyone in his field. “Pilots or individuals in the aviation industry with this background might be more attuned to understanding and anticipating passenger needs,” he suggested, “ensuring a more comfortable and enjoyable journey.”
In addition, coursework has given Palmer new tools to manage his personal finances and to help others do the same. He enjoys following stock market moves and trends and that he’s able to interpret them for friends and family. “You see it all come together outside the classroom,” he explained, describing the business mastery and sense of accomplishment he has as an MBA graduate.
“No one can take that away from you,” he said. “That’s something that I always think about. I [have] this security now. If something were to happen to me and I couldn’t fly anymore, we’ll still be okay.”
Palmer believes that aviators at all levels can have the same powerful MBA experience that he did studying online at Henderson State. “Your end result is just so much satisfaction,” he said. “That’s how great it is.”
At the moment, he’s content to sail the skies and consider his options for the future, knowing that he has the right business expertise for whatever adventure he chooses next. And that his short-term investment in a long career is paying off. “I think that was worth every penny,” he said.