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 all-around 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.
Flying 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 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 Top Gun. 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 ERAU-Prescott 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 one-hour 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 part-time 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 ERAU-Prescott 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.