Buzzing high above northern Columbus, a small, single-engine, Cessna 150 airplane is making its way to the Ohio State University airport. The little plane makes a big impact with its signature block “O” on the tail and scarlet and gray fuselage, or body, of the plane.
This little plane has a reputation, not just in Ohio, but around the country. Richard Ward, OSU flight team head coach, said only the best pilots at one of the best aviation programs in the country fly this plane, and it continued to earn respect May 12 through Saturday at the national intercollegiate flying competition, SAFECON 2011, hosted at the OSU airport, Don Scott Field.
Twenty-eight of the country’s top collegiate flight teams gathered for the annual flight competition. The program has been going on since the 1920s and takes place at a different location every year, but OSU has hosted the competition six times. Each team won one of 10 regional divisions to compete at the national level.
The events range from aircraft recognition – which requires the participants to identify obscure parts of a plane – to flying events, and a no-power landing, which simulates an engine failure during landing.
Independent judges evaluate the events. Competition is stiff and prizes range from cash to certifications toward piloting license. But some competitors said bragging rights are important, too.
“Everyone is out here just to prove they’re better than everyone else,” said Brad Hock, a fourth-year in aviation management and president of SAFECON 2011. “They’re all pilots, Type A personalities. All they want is to say, ‘I’m better than you.'”
Hock said SAFECON is also a great way to train these pilots, many of whom hope to fly commercially.
“All the skills they’re demonstrating throughout the competition are what you’re going to need in an interview to get on with an airline,” Hock said. “They’re going to expect you to show these skills before they hire you.”
Eric Hueve, a fifth-year in aviation and flight team member since 2008, said the toughest competition includes Embry-Riddle of Daytona Beach, Fla., the University of North Dakota and Western Michigan University.
“It’s no different here on the flight team than any other OSU sport,” Hueve said with a laugh about the Ohio-Michigan rivalry.
Ward said a national win is no easy task.
“In order to win a national championship, you sort of have to have everything go your way,” Ward said. “The level of the talent is so high, you really have to have a perfect week to win.”
The team won the preflight inspection event, in which the pilots had to conduct a physical inspection of an airplane and identify problems before flight.
While the competition can get heated, the atmosphere among the teams is friendly. Hueve said the aviation community is a pretty tight-knit group and there is a good chance the competitors in SAFECON 2011 will be flying together professionally in the future.
“These are future colleagues. They’re competitors now, but you can’t burn your bridges,” said Sean Maxwell, a fifth-year in aviation and flight team member since 2009.
These competitors bond over a mutual love of flying, and ultimately, that is what it is all about. The team said it welcomes anyone with an interest in flying.
“We don’t say ‘You have to have a pilots license’ or ‘You have to be an aviation major’ to join,” Maxwell said. “A love for airplanes is all you need.”