ERAU students back in the air after Christmas Day tornado

 - January 24, 2007, 11:21 AM

The spring semester at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s (ERAU) Daytona Beach, Fla. campus started only six days late last month despite a Christmas Day tornado that destroyed campus buildings and almost two-thirds of the school’s single- and twin-engine piston flight-training fleet. No one was injured in the storm, which the National Weather Service classified as an F2 (causing considerable damage). The rest of Daytona Beach International Airport, where ERAU is located, survived unscathed.

The tornado caused an estimated $50 million in damage, destroyed 40 of the school’s 65 Cessna 172 and Piper Seminole trainers and damaged another 10. In addition to the aircraft, Spruance Hall, the school’s main administration building that houses the president’s office, student records and financial and other sensitive information, has been rendered unusable and may have to be demolished, according to university spokesman Robert Ross. No private student information was compromised, Ross added.

The main maintenance hangar, a building housing aircraft simulators and the gym were also heavily damaged. However, Ross said that overall the campus was largely untouched and the damage could have been much worse. “[The tornado] was selective in what it did,” he said.

University officials began the search for replacement aircraft almost immediately after the storm hit in an attempt to start classes as close to on time as possible. According to Ross, the fleet has been fully replaced with other leased aircraft of equal and, in many cases, better quality. “They are exactly what we needed. In many ways there isn’t a substitution at all,” he said. Though most of the replacement aircraft are leased from other flight schools and some individuals, Ross said the entire industry has been helpful and cooperative.

Two days after the storm hit, the school set up a fund to help defer the cost of rebuilding campus facilities. According to a school official, the fund had more than $115,000 by the middle of last month. Donations have come mainly from individuals, according to the official.

Ross was confident about the school’s long-term ability to recover from the storm. “We had already put in an order to buy 29 additional aircraft from Cessna,” he said. He added that the manufacturer promised the university it would do everything it could to deliver ahead of the originally scheduled date, set for this summer. In addition, the campus clean-up has been completed and damage repairs are proceeding quickly. Said Ross, “People come back on campus and wonder what all the fuss was about. It’s confidence-inspiring.”