West Point Flying Team hosts service academies at first flying competition
Story and photos by Mike Strasser
USMA Public Affairs Assistant Editor
WEST POINT, N.Y. (April 10, 2014) — It was a competition and like all things Army-versus-Navy, the West Point team wanted to win.
However, the greater mission was building relationships between three relatively new flying programs.
The West Point Flying team hosted the first inter-service academy flying competition at Dutchess County Airport in Wappingers Falls, April 5-6, with teams participating from the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Coast Guard.
The hangar they occupied for two days became a giant learning laboratory for about 40 cadets, midshipmen and coaches to develop their skills sets while learning ways to build their teams. If successful, this would lay the groundwork for future competitions among the academies.
The timing was perfect, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Ron Whittle, West Point Flying Team officer-in-charge. West Point has garnered recognition and awards from competing in the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA) Region VII SAFECON starting in 2010. Within the Aviation Club, they’ve developed a successful Ground School with Lt. Col. Tanya Estes instructing cadets who want to learn more about aviation or need to prepare for the private pilot license exam.
Now they were ready to take on hosting duties.
“We’ve toyed with the idea for years, but I think it originated at Nationals last year,” Whittle said.
That’s where he spoke with one of the USNA advisors, retired Rear Adm. Robert Nutwell, who was there with a few midshipmen observing the competition. Whittle said Nationals is a good experience for student aviators, but not ideal for either academy because of cost and scheduling since the 10-day event conflicts with term-end exams.
A volunteer group of National Intercollegiate Flying Association judges helped organize the first inter-service academy flying competition with teams from the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy participating April 5-6 at Dutchess County Airport in Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
Support for launching this inaugural competition was immense, Whittle said. Two hangars were provided free of charge, as well as an aircraft used for the pre-flight inspection event. A group of NIFA judges volunteered their time to help develop the events, judge the competition and provide feedback to the teams.
What they came up with was a scaled-down series of events with military relevance and a simplified scoring system.
“All of this was designed to emphasize shared learning and leader development rather than just competition,” Whittle said.
NIFA Chief Judge Sean Breen was particularly enthused by this competition, since it would be his first time seeing the Naval Academy team, a Region X school. It would also be the first competition ever for the Coast Guard team. Asked when the flying team was formed, Carter Schlank, cadet-in-charge, said point-blank, “Today.” Although they were only able to compete in the ground events, like the pre-flight inspection, a navigation exercise on a flight simulator and written exam, they received plenty of encouragement from the aviation community there.
The U.S. Naval Academy performed well in the Message Drop event April 6, getting closest to the target as observed by the cadets and midshipmen on the ground. However, after the scores were tallied, the West Point Flying Team claimed the win in this event.Class of 2015 Cadet Joe Scherer, the West Point Flying Team cadet-in-charge, inspects an airplane during a ground event April 5 at Dutchess County Airport. The team’s only firstie, Class of 2014 Cadet Frank Arnold, would claim first place in this event. The Coast Guard Academy Flying Team earned its first award when cadet-in-charge Cadet 1st Class Carter Schlank placed second in this event.
In the flight simulator, competitors are tested on accuracy navigation as they operate off the instruments in white-out conditions while flying the pattern (as seen taped to the screen) using the right altitude and speed at each turning point..
Schlank said there are about 180 members of the Aviation Club, which offers Ground School training and hosts a lecture series that has featured astronauts, military aviators and subject matter experts. Once they develop a flying team, the Coast Guard would be in the same region as USMA, which could become a budding rivalry in time.
Like West Point, the Naval Academy only just re-established its flying team. Commander Kevin Doney, USNA Flying Team officer-in-charge, said it ceased being a club activity in 2008 but was reintroduced in 2012. Due to the sequester, they weren’t able to participate in regionals so this was their only competition this academic year.
“This has been great,” Doney said. “It’s a competition but it’s camaraderie, the same thing you see at an Army-Navy football game. You have a group who, years from now, may be fighting together, but they’re here working together right here, right now.”
The West Point Flying team edged out Navy in the first inter-service academy flying competition. The cadets scored 179 points for first place with the Naval Academy team recording 144 points. The Coast Guard Academy scored 26 points, participating only in non-flying events.
West Point cadets won five of the seven competitive events (short field accuracy landings, message drop, aircraft preflight, simulator, manual flight computer).
In the Top Pilot Competition (highest individual scores), this is how West Point ranked among the 26 competitors:
First: Class of 2014 Cadet Frank Arnold;
Second: Class of 2016 Cadet Will Watson;
Fourth: Class of 2016 Cadet Brian O’Connor;
Sixth: Class of 2015 Cadet Joe Scherer;
Seventh: Class of 2015 Cadet Pete Scherer;
Eighth: Class of 2017 Cadet Mitch Boylan.
In the Short-Field Accuracy Landing event, Class of 2015 Cadet Pete Scherer placed first; Class of 2014 Cadet Frank Arnold placed first in Aircraft Preflight and Class of 2016 Cadet Nick Ives placed first in the Flight Simulator.
When they weren’t competing in an event or cheering teammates on, the airfield was their classroom. Cadets and midshipmen were riveted to every take off and landing, not only from fellow competitors but by commercial pilots using the airstrip—casually critiquing the pilots’ performances and fascinated by the appearance of a Gulfstream G550 making its descent on the same runway they had just performed accuracy landings.
Class of 2016 Cadet William Watson said it was unique sharing this competition with other future military officers.
“In regionals, we compete with people who are focused more on becoming civilian pilots, airliners and things like that,” Watson said. “You can tell the difference between talking to them and now talking with midshipmen who have similar goals of graduating and becoming officers. It really has been a good experiencing connecting with the other academies.”
Watson said they trained with the Coast Guard team a month ago at Stewart Airport.
“We were able to introduce them to some of our training and how we prepare for competition,” Watson said. “I think they see how our team has grown and it gives them an idea for their own team. We’ve been working fairly close with them.” Last year, Watson was the sole plebe on the team. This year, there are four from the Class of 2017 taking his place which is indicative of the growth this flying team has experienced. In fact, the team has more than doubled in size from a year ago.
“There’s a lot of new talent on the team, as well as a lot of new ideas that can help out the team,” Watson said. “Like Mitch, who is like the master of the flight simulator now. Before him, we never had anyone that good at it.”
Watson is referring to Class of 2017 Cadet Mitch Boylan, from Marietta, Ga. He earned his private pilot’s license during his junior year in high school by winning a bet with his father.
“If I finished my Eagle Scout project he would pay for the license, and as soon as he said that had it finished two months later,” Boylan said. “I don’t think he expected me to do it.
His father is also a pilot, which influenced his interest in aviation.
“One of my favorite things about West Point is being in the Aviation Club,” he said. “It’s been fun, I love flying and the team is great.”
Class of 2016 Cadet Regina Parker had just completed her testing to become a certified Advanced Ground Instructor and will be teaching Ground School next semester to her peers.
“That’s just another great example of our growth,” Watson said. “I definitely see in the future a bigger club, more members and more interest in general.