Flying - - FEATURES - By Stephen Pope

Hun­dreds of young pi­lots shined at this year’s col­le­giate na­tional cham­pi­onships.

Each spring, as col­lege cam­puses buzz with the anx­i­ety and an­tic­i­pa­tion of fi­nal-exam week, a se­lect hand­ful of stu­dents be­come laser fo­cused on a dif­fer­ent kind of test — the in­ter­col­le­giate na­tional fly­ing cham­pi­onships, an avi­a­tion skills com­pe­ti­tion that pits some of the best and bright­est young pi­lots from around the coun­try against one an­other to vie for the chance to lead their school’s flight pro­gram to vic­tory.

This year, 383 stu­dents from 28 schools par­tic­i­pated in what has come to be called the Safety and Flight Eval­u­a­tion Con­fer­ence (Safecon), held April 30 to May 5 at In­di­ana State Univer­sity in Terre Haute, a quick hop south­west from In­di­anapo­lis. For bud­ding young pi­lots who flew them­selves to the com­pe­ti­tion in their schools’ air­planes, the jour­ney was the long­est cross-coun­try many had ever made — span­ning more than a thou­sand miles for some far-flung teams. Also draw­ing 53 coaches and 80 judges, the week­long com­pe­ti­tion took on a fes­tive at­mos­phere as the young avi­a­tors tested their met­tle at the con­trols of their air­planes, in sim­u­la­tors and on writ­ten and hands-on tests.

At the end of the week, the scores are tal­lied and one school is crowned the win­ner. In 2016 and 2017, the Golden Ea­gles flight team from Em­bry-Rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Univer­sity’s Prescott, Arizona, cam­pus took home the Na­tional Cham­pi­onship Tro­phy. This year they were in search of a rare three-peat as they ar­rived at Terre Haute Re­gional Air­port adorned in their trade­mark but­ton-down shirts and ties and with a quiet air of con­fi­dence about them.

And why not? Con­sid­er­ing the rich his­tory of the Na­tional Flight Cham­pi­onships dat­ing back al­most 100 years, win­ning twice in two years is a com­mend­able feat — three in a row would put the school in rar­efied ter­ri­tory with a hand­ful of past win­ners, in­clud­ing Har­vard’s flight team in the late 1920s and early ’30s, the first three-peat cham­pion.

The com­pe­ti­tion, which be­gan in­aus­pi­ciously in avi­a­tion’s early days, has grown in size and pres­tige ever since. It all be­gan on May 17, 1920, when stu­dents from nine pri­mar­ily Ivy League col­leges com­peted in the first fly­ing com­pe­ti­tion of its kind or­ga­nized by what was then called the In­ter­col­le­giate Fly­ing As­so­ci­a­tion and held at Mitchell Field on Long Is­land. Yale took home that first-ever tro­phy, ably as­sisted by a 20-year-old ju­nior named Juan Trippe, who would fa­mously go on to found Pan Am seven years later.


By 1929, the com­pe­ti­tion had mor­phed into a ma­jor event, with a news ar­ti­cle about it ap­pear­ing in

Pop­u­lar Avi­a­tion (the orig­i­nal name of this mag­a­zine be­fore it changed to Fly­ing dur­ing World War II) and judg­ing presided over by none other than Charles Lind­bergh and Amelia Earhart, who per­son­ally handed over the Tif­fany-de­signed Loen­ing In­ter­col­le­giate Fly­ing Tro­phy to those cham­pion fly­ers from Har­vard. It is the same tro­phy still awarded each spring at Safecon and to­day hosted by the Na­tional In­ter­col­le­giate Fly­ing As­so­ci­a­tion (NIFA).

Nowa­days, how­ever, the Loen­ing Tro­phy is pre­sented to what is deemed to be the year’s most out­stand­ing al­laround col­le­giate avi­a­tion pro­gram in the na­tion. The grand prize of the week, in­stead, goes to the school and stu­dents who take home the Safecon Na­tional Cham­pi­onship Tro­phy, awarded at the end of a fun and chal­leng­ing com­pe­ti­tion that tests young pi­lots’ skills in a bat­tery of com­pe­ti­tions, in­clud­ing spot land­ing con­tests, pre­ci­sion nav­i­ga­tion cour­ses, mes­sage drops, IFR sim­u­la­tor ses­sions, writ­ten tests and a truly di­abol­i­cal air­craft pre­flight in­spec­tion test.

vis­ited Safecon this year to ex­pe­ri­ence the ex­cite­ment of the event first­hand. The day we ar­rived, the air­port ramp was bustling with the sights and sounds of young stu­dents pre­par­ing for the first fly­ing event of the week, a nav­i­ga­tion com­pe­ti­tion that re­quired two pi­lots from each team to fly a pre­de­ter­mined route. They’d be judged on how pre­cisely they flew the course as well as their time around the course to the minute and fuel burned to the tenth of a gal­lon.

As dozens of air­planes were jock­eyed into po­si­tion on the ramp and pre­pared for staggered de­par­tures, stu­dents who were wait­ing for their turn to par­tic­i­pate con­gre­gated in a large han­gar filled with long rows of ta­bles, where they en­thu­si­as­ti­cally chat­ted with mem­bers from other teams or stretched their legs to meet with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from a num­ber of re­gional air­lines that had set up booths around the perime­ter in­side. Ev­ery stu­dent we spoke with told us they planned to fly for a ma­jor air­line or large cor­po­rate flight de­part­ment one day.

A com­mon thread among the stu­dents was their en­thu­si­asm for the event, which starts to build weeks or even months be­fore the com­pe­ti­tion be­gins as they spend ex­tra time in the air work­ing to im­prove their skills, putting in ad­di­tional hours of prac­tice above and beyond what is re­quired for their reg­u­lar course­work and flight-train­ing sched­ule.

“We look for­ward to this from the start of the se­mes­ter,” said Bren­dan Abel, a ju­nior at Kent State Univer­sity in Ohio. “Safecon is the high­light of our year.”

His fly­ing part­ner, Jef­fry May, also a Kent State ju­nior, agreed, say­ing the event is spe­cial to him be­cause of the ca­ma­raderie and nat­u­ral bonds that form among stu­dents from dif­fer­ent schools, who like and re­spect one an­other de­spite the fierce com­pe­ti­tion for a na­tional cham­pi­onship.

“We make a lot of friends at Safecon,” May said. “We get to meet stu­dents from other schools to give us an idea of what it’s like fly­ing in other parts of the coun­try with dif­fer­ent weather and air­craft fleets, whether it’s Em­bry-Rid­dle in Florida and Arizona or the schools from up north like the Univer­sity of North Dakota. I think that in­ter­ac­tion makes us bet­ter pi­lots.”

The ad­di­tional prac­tice stu­dents like Abel and May put in to fly a per­fect nav­i­ga­tion course or drop a mes­sage “bomb” into a 55-gal­lon drum off the end of the run­way cer­tainly helps them be­come more pre­cise pi­lots as well, an­other fac­tor that ex­plains the pop­u­lar­ity of join­ing a school’s flight team. Com­pet­ing schools at this year’s Safecon in­cluded the United States Air Force Academy, Pur­due Univer­sity, Florida In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, South­ern Illi­nois Univer­sity, Auburn Univer­sity, Kent State Univer­sity, The Ohio State Univer­sity, West­ern

“I fell in love with the school and met peo­ple on the flight team, and it looked like so much fun,” said OSU’s Ja­cob White (bot­tom right). “We look for­ward to this from the start of the se­mes­ter,” said Kent State’s Bren­dan Abel (top left). “Safecon is the high­light of our year.”

Michi­gan Univer­sity and oth­ers, all of which se­cured the right to com­pete by fin­ish­ing with enough points to qual­ify at each of 10 re­gional events around the coun­try held in the fall.

NIFA ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Tay­lor Newman took us on a tour of the stag­ing area for the com­pe­ti­tion at the air­port, where stu­dents lined up to plan flights, take tests and par­tic­i­pate in sim­u­la­tor ses­sions. Some of the events, such as the sim­u­lated IFR fly­ing, are held on the In­di­ana State cam­pus a few miles away in state-of-the-art sim­u­la­tors, he said. “We keep them pretty busy through­out the week,” Newman said, “and they take a lot of pride in com­pet­ing and try­ing to do their best.”

Adam Dou­ville, a Univer­sity of North Dakota se­nior, said com­peti­tors on the flight team earn a cer­tain amount of re­spect from other stu­dents on cam­pus who sup­port them, sim­i­lar to col­lege sports teams, though with­out the thou­sands of cheer­ing fans and march­ing bands. His fa­vorite part of the com­pe­ti­tion, he said, is the land­ing con­test, dur­ing which judges stand at the side of the run­way with walk­ing-wheel tape mea­sures and record the pre­ci­sion of each touch down to the foot.

“We put in a lot of time and ef­fort pick­ing spots and try­ing to hit them for the land­ing com­pe­ti­tions,” Dou­ville said, not­ing that of 25 stu­dents on the UND flight team 15 were se­lected to com­pete at Safecon this year for the na­tional cham­pi­onships.

The com­pe­ti­tion mixes ground and flight ac­tiv­i­ties to keep stu­dents busy on days when the weather isn’t co­op­er­at­ing. An air­craft iden­ti­fi­ca­tion writ­ten test we pe­rused looked tough, and of course, the pre­flight in­spec­tion com­pe­ti­tion is leg­endary for its dif­fi­culty. For that com­pe­ti­tion, judges give stu­dents 15 min­utes to find as many dis­crep­an­cies as pos­si­ble on a se­lected air­plane and earn points for each they cor­rectly iden­tify. Dis­crep­an­cies can in­clude myr­iad prob­lems, from miss­ing pa­per­work to dis­con­nected fuel gauges, wa­ter in a fuel tank, cross-rigged ailerons, a miss­ing safety wire on an oil fil­ter, miss­ing or dam­aged an­ten­nas, plugged static port or pitot tube, a rag or bird’s nest in an en­gine cowl­ing in­let and lots more.

The Univer­sity of North Dakota won that event, putting the team in the early points lead as ERAU-Prescott scored high enough for sixth place. The stu­dents don’t truly know how well or poorly they’re far­ing against the other teams un­til the fi­nal day of the com­pe­ti­tion, when the points to­tals and win­ning school are an­nounced. Dur­ing the week, teams go with their gut feel­ing about how they’re do­ing. While stu­dents cer­tainly want to win, we got the sense when talk­ing to many of them that they’re just happy to be among so many other like-minded stu­dents with as­pi­ra­tions of a pro­fes­sional fly­ing ca­reer and a love for fly­ing.

Tall and with a big, friendly smile, Ja­cob White, a sopho­more at Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity whose fa­ther is an air­line pi­lot, stood out among the stu­dents on the flight line mostly for his bright-or­ange flight suit and cow­boy hat, which made him look a lit­tle like a char­ac­ter from

He said he didn’t know much about the Fly­ing Ag­gies flight team un­til he got to cam­pus, but he was im­me­di­ately drawn to the peo­ple and the chance to com­pete.

“The Fly­ing Ag­gies have been around since the 1950s,” he said. “I fell in love with the school and met peo­ple on the flight team, and it looked like so much fun. I love fly­ing air­planes


and I love to com­pete, so it seemed like a great thing to do.”

White’s get-up con­trasted with the stu­dents from ERAUPrescott con­gre­gat­ing around an air­plane the next row over, who looked like a group of but­ton-down cor­po­rate pi­lots wait­ing for a planeload of pas­sen­gers to ar­rive. Nick Moore, a se­nior and the ERAU-Prescott team cap­tain, praised this year’s team as among the strong­est group he’s been a part of since he got to cam­pus, which he at­trib­uted to the hard work they put in lead­ing up to the com­pe­ti­tion.

“We prac­tice all the time and ded­i­cate a lot of time through­out the year,” he said. “We have three one­hour prac­tices a week and an all-day prac­tice on Satur­day, plus op­tional ses­sions. I ded­i­cate at least an hour per day to my events [nav­i­ga­tion and air­craft iden­ti­fi­ca­tion]. The core group of peo­ple is one of the best teams I’ve worked with,” Moore added. “This group re­ally shines. Every­body comes to­gether for a com­mon goal.”

ERAU-Prescott team mem­ber Spencer Thomas, a ju­nior, took home the Top Pi­lot hon­ors at the 2017 Na­tional Cham­pi­onships, and was com­pet­ing this year in just about ev­ery event, in­clud­ing the spot land­ing con­test and nav­i­ga­tion. In other words, if an­other school hoped to win the tro­phy, here was the pi­lot they would have to beat. So, of course, we asked him what he thought of ERAU-Prescott’s chances for a three-peat.

“It’s look­ing pretty good so far,” he said with a smile, ob­vi­ously con­fi­dent in his skills and those of his team­mates. “It’s a good group of pi­lots on our team, and it’s been get­ting stronger ev­ery year.”

Asked if be­ing on ERAU’s Golden Ea­gles flight team was a goal he had be­fore com­ing to the school, Thomas nod­ded. “In high school I found a video on YouTube of the flight team and de­cided I wanted to be on it,” he said. Since join­ing the team he’s be­come sharply fo­cused on win­ning cham­pi­onships, he said. “It’s a solid 20 hours a week” of ex­tra time for team prac­tice. “It’s al­most like hav­ing a part­time job,” he said, adding with a broad smile, “Some­times it feels like a full-time job.”

By the end of the week, that ded­i­ca­tion paid off for Thomas, Moore and the other mem­bers of the ERAUPrescott team, who not only won a na­tional cham­pi­onship for a third year in a row and the 12th time in school his­tory, but did it run­ning away by sweep­ing sev­eral com­pe­ti­tions, in­clud­ing air­craft recog­ni­tion, com­puter ac­cu­racy, cock­pit re­source man­age­ment, ground trainer, nav­i­ga­tion and power-off land­ings. Prescott’s Golden Ea­gles fin­ished with 544 points, not only the high­est in the team’s his­tory but the most points earned by any team since the es­tab­lish­ment of the com­pe­ti­tion’s mod­ern scor­ing sys­tem. ERAU-Prescott also won team-based hon­ors, in­clud­ing the Judges Cham­pi­onship Tro­phy, Flight Events Cham­pi­onship Tro­phy and the Ground Events Cham­pi­onship Tro­phy.

And then, of course, the stu­dents got to fly them­selves home. The air­lines, cor­po­rate flight de­part­ments and other avi­a­tion com­pa­nies lucky enough one day to hire the fine pi­lots from ERAU and all of the schools that com­pete for the na­tional cham­pi­onship will find some ex­cep­tional avi­a­tors among their ranks. That’s of small con­so­la­tion for the flight team stu­dents at the 27 other schools that will en­deavor to break Prescott’s streak, but we’re cer­tain they have al­ready be­gun prac­tic­ing hard to give them the best shot of claim­ing vic­tory next spring at Safecon 2019.

Orig­i­nally formed by Ivy League schools, to­day’s col­le­giate fly­ing cham­pi­onships in­clude the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Teams flew more than 60 air­planes to Terre Haute, In­di­ana, in early May to com­pete in the week­long com­pe­ti­tions.

Each school brings a dozen or more stu­dents to com­pete at Safecon, which moves to dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions each year.

ERAU-Prescott’s Spencer Thomas and Nick Moore led the school to its third con­sec­u­tive and 12th over­all cham­pi­onship.

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