Photography by Lisa Ross
It feels more like a frat party than a flight line.
Large groups of people are lined up along Runway 9L at Don Scott Field in Columbus, Ohio. As each aircraft comes in for a landing, the crowd cheers, jeers, and makes predictions and jokes: Who among these competing collegiate teams will land the closest to the line drawn across the runway?
It’s the second day of the national SafeCon 2017, and the 12-member team from The Ohio State University—this year’s host school—is hopeful they will be this year’s winners. The competitive spirit is the hallmark of the 69-year-old weeklong event, sponsored by the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA).
“SafeCon embodies the spirit of aviation in a way that is not only competitive, but also bonding as students across the nation come together for the most intense week of aviation they have worked so hard for,” said Andrew Langen, SafeCon’s 2017 president and now a senior in the university’s aviation program. “The competitive spirit is what drives us to perform better and do our best to make our school proud.”
John Ginley is one of those guys who is so nice, you can’t believe he’s real. He’s thoughtful, concerned, kind, and conscientious. Today, however, he’s wound a little tight, anticipating the outcomes for the students he’s helped coach on the Ohio State team. Now a corporate pilot, Ginley returns to his alma mater each year to help coach the flying team. As the assistant coach, he wants a good showing for this team almost as much as the students themselves. Maybe more so.
“When I was on the team, I had a tremendous experience,” Ginley said. “Having the opportunity to make these kids’ experience even better is a way to pay it forward.”
Ginley is among a fraternity of former SafeCon competitors who experienced the competition’s guts and glory as students and realized the impact it had on their lives. So many former competitors return to the event to help judge, manage, and encourage students that they appear to outnumber the current competitors. But their vocal presence fosters the jovial nature of the event.
The OSU team takes the fraternal aspect of the event to another level. Not only do they function as a band of brothers (and sisters), but they bond as a social club. The members of the flying team have a tradition of studying, working, and partying together. And because no fraternity is complete without nicknames, they have an annual tradition of awarding bowling shirts embroidered with those nicknames at a dinner during the SafeCon event.
The awarding of the shirts is also the first time new team members learn their nicknames. The “Colonel,” then-head-coach Rob Numbers (a former air traffic controller in the U.S. Army), Ginley (“Ringo”; he had long, thick hair as a student), and other returning coaches and cheerleaders have selected the new team member nicknames based on behavior witnessed during months of practice. Lauren Tamilia is dubbed “Selfie” because of her constant photographs, and Kyle Wang is “Curious George” because he asks so many questions.
It’s all in good fun, and, Ginley says, they take great strides to ensure the names are positive and never embarrassing. See, he’s a really nice guy.
“This has been going on since the 1980s, and I can almost guarantee that our flight team and alumni are one of the most engaged groups to date,” said alumnus and former head coach Scott van Ooyen. “My favorite part of SafeCon is when the large group of the Ohio State alumni return to take the flight team out to dinner. It’s fun watching the interaction with Boeing 777/767/737 pilots and Cessna 150 pilots. The students really get to engage with the alumni building friendships, being mentored, and networking for their future careers.”
More than 380 college aviation students from 27 schools across the nation compete in 23 flight and ground events at SafeCon (Safety and Evaluation Conference). Students are judged on flight planning, simulator flights, navigation, interviewing, preflighting, precision landing contests, power-off landings, and other aviation-related tasks. The more than 90 judges are representatives from competing schools, most of them former competitors.
“NIFA competitors, along with their coaches and advisers, are absolutely some of the finest aviation professionals that I have ever had the pleasure to associate with during my career,” said Richard G. Smith III, NIFA executive director and former NetJet executive. “The competitors’ tenacity is infectious, their capabilities are superior, and their integrity is beyond reproach. During my career in jet aircraft flight operations, I’ve learned to recognize certain traits that are indicative of an individual’s capability to make the right decision at the right time. These SafeCon competitors demonstrate those traits day in and day out.”
Trophies and awards include the championship, awarded to the team with the most cumulative points during the competition; flying event champions; ground events champions; safety awards; top scoring contestant; achievement; and individual trophies for the specific events such as short-field landing, power-off landing, and message drop. There are also achievement interviews and a judges’ trophy.
Ginley says the most fun events are the navigation competition and the message drop event. The navigation event is a cross-country flight over a three- to five-leg course between 70 and 120 nautical miles; the contestant submits a flight plan that estimates the time en route for each leg, total elapsed time, and fuel consumption. The contestant with the fewest penalty points wins. Training for the navigation event, Shelby Watters earned her nickname. She and Wang used a GPS to navigate to the airport firehouse and got hopelessly lost (even with Curious George asking all those questions). Watters became known as “Firehouse.”
She redeemed herself as the pilot for the message drop event. With Junn Shimizu as dropmaster, the pair came within 67 feet of the target from 200 feet agl in the team’s Cessna 150 to place ninth overall. For Watters, the team is especially important; she started at another school and transferred to Ohio State, where she found her perfect home. She is now a senior and one of the 2018 team event leaders.
“SafeCon is a place of friendship and connections,” said Shimizu. “We introduce new members to the OSU flight team each year, we mingle with fellow flight teams from around the country, and we network with many aviation professionals that come out to support SafeCon. I enjoy the family-like atmosphere. I think SafeCon promotes a family culture where everyone is welcome and the resulting opportunities you get from your friends and connections are almost endless.”
Captain of the 2017 OSU team was John Tomchak, who graduated this past spring and was a CFI at the school until landing a job flying a Hawker jet for a private company in Pittsburgh. He was a consistent leader in all events (first in simulator, third in preflight, and seventh in navigation with Austin Green, as well as a regional top pilot, outstanding team member, and top scoring contestant) and it was clear many of the team looked up to him. The “Doctor” was also the tallest member of the team.
Co-captains for the 2018 team are Jonah Desrochers and Green. A soft-spoken New Englander, Desrochers (“Gutter”; he’s not much of a bowler) is a nice complement to the gregarious Green (“Gump,” because he is the team’s ping-pong champion), an ROTC candidate who counts juggling among his many talents.
“I am on the flight team to better myself. There is no better way to enhance your proficiency than a friendly competition,” said Desrochers. “If you are doing it just to put on a résumé, you are missing the point. Teamwork, effort, and becoming a fine airman—this is what it’s about.”
The OSU team flew in one of two Cessna 150s donated by university alumni. The first, N500SU, is a 1974 model that was donated in 1998. The second, N510SU, is a 1973 model that was donated in 2016. During the 2017 competition, 510SU bore the hand-written signatures of every member of the team and many supporters.
The OSU Buckeyes came in fifth overall in the 2017 national competition. They scored fifth in the flying portion with 119 points and sixth in the ground portion with 59 points. They were seventh in line for the Judges Trophy, which is awarded for overall participation of all the contestants on the team.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s team from Prescott, Arizona, won the national championship trophy with a total of 500 points, the highest in the team’s history. It was the Golden Eagles Flight Team’s eleventh national title. Liberty University of Lynchburg, Virginia, won the Grover C. Loening Trophy for outstanding all-around college aviation program, and Liberty also won the American Airlines Safety award.
Nick Moore, a rising senior at Embry-Riddle-Prescott and captain of his flight team, won the top pilot trophy with 93 individual points (out of a possible 100 points). In addition to being the top overall scorer, Moore won the soft-field landing category.
“Participating in SafeCon takes your piloting skills and enhances them so much more than a traditional flight training experience,” said Ginley, who will take over as head coach for next year’s competition. “SafeCon is the national stage for collegiate aviation. It is the competition to be the best of the best.”