The pandemic forced the 2021 NIFA SAFECON (National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference) Championship to be held virtually this year without the flying segments. After completion of the online events, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Golden Eagles Flight Team from its Prescott, Arizona, campus won the event, making them 13-time national SAFECON champions and the winningest collegiate flight team of the past 25 years.
During the virtual championship between teams from 28 universities, ERAU flight students competed in Aircraft Recognition, Computer Accuracy, SCAN (Flight Planning), Preflight Inspection, and Ground Trainer competitions. All competitors took tests at their schools, with NIFA judges watching via Zoom calls. ERAU’s team had 35 members this past year, with 10 of those being freshmen brought on to the team in late 2020. “NIFA SAFECON is to collegiate aviation what the Super Bowl is to the NFL or the Stanley Cup is to the NHL,” ERAU said.
NIFA exists as a forum for collegiate aviators to expand their studies and further their careers by participating in competitive and non-competitive events, networking with industry and peers, and applying themselves to push beyond their ordinary curriculum. The organization can trace its roots back to a group of students at Columbia University that formed a flying club in 1919. Their first competition was held on May 7, 1920, and Yale University took first place, assisted by Juan Trippe, future founder of Pan American Airways, flying a war-surplus Curtis JN-4 Jenny.
According to NIFA, Popular Aviation magazine said of the organization, “A National intercollegiate aviation association was organized at Washington, DC in December to put competitive flying activities between colleges in a class with football, baseball, and other major sports. Delegates from most of the leading universities were present.”
“I think the biggest thing I’m proud of in the team is the level of perseverance and the many obstacles that we had to overcome in the last 10 months,” said Shaun Shephard, the ERAU Golden Eagles Flight Team’s head coach. “There were numerous times where we didn’t know what was going to come in the next week, our regionals were pushed until February, we had an extended winter break, and we had a time of shut down in early fall semester. All of our meetings and practices were socially distanced, and we had very little time that the team could come together, so we were always being taken out of our comfort zone.”
In each of the timed virtual events, students were presented with a series of questions that were augmented by Powerpoint presentations prepared by NIFA. Anyone who has ever taken an FAA written exam would easily recognize the kinds of navigation, performance, weight and balance, and other questions the student competitors had to answer. In the Aircraft Recognition category, students were shown photos of various airplane makes and models via a Powerpoint slide deck and given three seconds to view each slide and fifteen to thirty seconds to name the correct manufacturer, model number, and common name.
“I have been reminding the team about what that word team really means is ‘Together Everyone Achieves More,’” Shephard added. “We were successful in nationals not because computer accuracy swept the top five spots or aircraft identification took five of the top six spots, but because everybody continued to push each member of the team to be the best they could when it mattered. We will enjoy this 13th championship, but we are already looking forward to next year to complete a repeat championship.”
ERAU-Prescott won the Judges Trophy with 1,832.5 total points. The University of North Dakota can in a close second, with 1,822 points, and the Southern Illinois University team came in third, with 1,702 points. The next NIFA SAFECON is planned for 2022.