West Point Flying Team wins its first regional competition
Story and photos by Mike Strasser
WEST POINT, N.Y. (March 20, 2013) — The sky’s the limit for the West Point Aviation Club as members of its Flying Team recently returned from spring break with eight trophies, having won their first regional competition in only three tries.
Since its establishment in 2010, the Flying Team has gone from competing on its own dime to being a fully-funded military club under the Directorate of Cadet Activities and sponsored by the Department of Military Instruction. The result of which enabled the team to claim the title of Northeast Collegiate Regional Flying Team champions during the competition March 9-11 in New Bedford, Mass.
The win earns them an automatic invitation to the national competition in May where they have the opportunity to compete for the first time at the National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s annual Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference.
The Pointer View was invited to attend flight training and other club activities earlier this year as the Flying Team prepared for regionals and to learn more about the activities within the Aviation Club. This is the first of a two-part series.
One evening in January, hours after the Corps of Cadets was dismissed from another academic day at West Point, a couple dozen cadets returned to the classroom. The cadets meeting that evening were all part of the West Point Aviation Club, but separated by two entirely different pursuits. At one end of the hallway on the fifth floor of Washington Hall there was a group of cadets, new to the field of aviation, studying the basic concepts of flight in Ground School.
On the other end of the hallway was the Flying Team, testing their knowledge in a DMI conference room in preparation for regional competition.
The Flying Team
It was just one of those childhood dreams, Class of 2014 Cadet Frank Arnold said. When you’re a kid, you can just look up at the sky, see a plane and imagine how cool it would be to fly. It’s another thing entirely to make that a reality.
Arnold enlisted in the Army National Guard and served as a Black Hawk crew chief. His plan was to become a warrant officer and fly helicopters, but while deployed, Arnold discovered the opportunity to attend the U.S. Military Academy and chose a different path. Before entering the Preparatory School, Arnold earned his helicopter pilot license. When he joined the West Point Aviation Club, he could only compete in the ground events as a non-flying member until he acquired the fixed wing add-on to his license.
“When I first joined there were only three members on the Flying Team, so we all did each event but I just couldn’t fly the plane,” Arnold said.
Currently the Flying Team has seven members, the largest its roster has been since its formation three years ago. The team’s primary mission is to compete, but as with all clubs and teams at West Point, there are strong leader development implications to being a club member.
“We try to run the club like a military unit. That can be seen in the briefings that start each meeting, or in the precision with which we practice our landings,” Arnold, the club’s cadet-in-charge, said.
"If you really, really love it, you find a way,"
-- Lt. Col. Tanya Markow, on earning a pilot license
There’s also an organizational structure that includes the normal OICs and CICs but also cadets selected as safety, training and supply officers. The club has three levels of membership—gray, black and gold—as cadets advance from Ground School to Flying Team non-flying and flying members. Class of 2015 Cadet Dan Hawbaker, a Ground School graduate, is one of the Flying Team’s newest members, still without flight experience but was able to compete in the written examination with another new non-flying member, Class of 2016 Cadet Will Watson.
“Being a ground member on the Flying Team still gets you a lot of exposure, and you still get to fly, but not competitively or on your own until you get the pilot license,” Arnold said. “You can still fly with us, and that’s something we’re trying to work on more.”
Arnold said to get the training and experience required for a license, there’s no better person at West Point to provide that than Air Force Lt. Col. Ronald Whittle.
“He has a huge amount of experience as an aviator and time in as an instructor,” Arnold said. “He knows a lot about flying large aircraft and instructing on different aircraft.”
Assisting Whittle in both Flying Team training and Ground School is Lt. Col. Tanya Markow.
“She was an Apache flight instructor and her experience is in rotary-winged aircraft,” Arnold said. “But she also has the experience of a flight instructor as a civilian airplane pilot.”
Markow, a West Point Class of 1995 graduate, was one of the first female Apache pilots in the Army, and is now an instructor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Whittle is a 1988 graduate of the Air Force Academy and serves as West Point’s Accession Division chief and Air Force liaison at DMI.
“Any questions you can think of about aviation, they can answer,” Arnold said.
The obvious goal for any competitive team is to enter nationals, and the Flying Team is no exception. Given the chance, they’re eager to see how they’d fare against another service academy. But ask the current roster and they’ll always place safety as the top priority, then developing as aviators and leaders.
“The club is all about learning more about aviation and becoming a better pilot,” Arnold said. “It’s also a way we can gain more leadership experience and exposure to the military side of flying which is a lot different from how we all learned to fly in civilian schools.”
Class of 2013 Cadet Bryan Wilson stepped down as the club’s cadet-in-charge but still serves as the assistant CIC for Arnold.It’s a common practice among clubs to allow non-firsties the opportunity to lead, and as a mechanical engineer major, Wilson was glad to have some extra time to concentrate on academics.
“My time has been heavily consumed in my major right now, where as Frank has a little more time than I do; not much, but a little bit more,” Wilson said.
Wilson grew up near Kirtland Air Force Base, near Albuquerque, N.M., where he participated on a swim team there.
“My sister and I were around the military a lot and whatever she got interested in—me, being the impressionable little brother—I got interested in, too,” Wilson said.
He said he’s been flying since the age of 13, shortly after his father earned his own pilot license. Wilson got his just days before entering Cadet Basic Training.
“I took my time with it … and enjoyed it,” Wilson said. “I went from sail planes to powered planes.”
They might have learned to fly before entering West Point, but a lot of the aviation knowledge is maintained at the academy. While preparing for the written examination required for regional competition, the cadets would hold court at the Department of Military Instruction conference room on the fifth floor of Washington Hall. They’d look at a seemingly endless slideshow of aircraft projected onto the screen and call out each make and model with surprising accuracy. The names of some aircraft, which eluded them, would become subject of closer examination as the cadets picked out features that might offer hints.
“We built that knowledge base here and Nevada is our expert,” Wilson said.
Class of 2013 Cadet Nevada (Jacob) Shelton, a third generation pilot, grew up with an interest in aviation and would use his father as a subject matter expert to all his questions about aircraft.
“My grandfather became a civilian instructor and now works for the FAA still, at 84, as a flight examiner,” Shelton said. “My dad flies for the airlines and was hired straight out of college at 21, so it was only natural for me to become a pilot.”
Shelton learned a lot from his father while sitting next to him in the co-pilot seat. At age 16 and before receiving his driver’s license, Shelton earned his student pilot’s license. The private pilot license would soon follow, while still in high school and a year before entering West Point.
“I was sort of engrossed in aviation all along just being with my dad and grandfather, seeing the aircraft firsthand and then picking up books on different types of aircraft,” Shelton said. “Then it was looking at aircraft pictures online … I don’t know, I just picked up the knowledge and asked lots of questions. It’s kind of a nerd thing. There are people who like baseball cards and I like to look at aircraft.”
Website: Aviation Club
Photo Gallery: Aviation Club on Flickr
The 2012-13 West Point Flying Team is Class of 2013 Cadet Nevada Shelton, Class of 2014 Cadet Frank Arnold, Class of 2015 Cadets Dan Hawbaker, Pete and Joe Scherer, Class of 2013 Cadet Bryan Wilson and Class of 2016 Cadet Will Watson. On the left and right are the team’s officers in charge, Lt. Col. Tanya Markow and Air Force Lt. Col. Ronald Whittle. In front of the them are the eight trophies they earned while competing in the 2013 Northeast Collegiate Regional Flying Team Competition March 9-11.
The team placed first overall with a score of 548 at the Northeast Collegiate Regional Flying Team Competition in New Bedford, Mass., March 9-11.
The competition featured five schools and more than 40 pilots participating. The team placed first in flight events, which includes accuracy power-off and power-on landings, precision navigation and message drops. They placed third in ground events, to include three exams on aviation knowledge, and placed second in Safety.
In addition: Out of 25 contestants, the West Point Flying Team took second, third, fourth, seventh and 11th in power-off landing; third, fifth, eighth, 12th and 24th in power-on landing. In the simulated bomb drop, West Point placed first, sixth, eighth, ninth and 13th.
In the aircraft pre-flight inspection, West Point placed second and third among 10 competitors.
Top Pilot Award: 2nd Place: Frank Arnold 3rd Place: Nevada Shelton 4th Place: Bryan Wilson 8th Place: Pete Scherer
The Flying Team is now invited to the national competition scheduled in May at Ohio State University. Air Force Lt. Col. Ronald Whittle, the team officer in charge, said he couldn’t have been more impressed by the cadets’ performances and said that even the event organizers were shocked with the team’s results.
“Moreover, they were especially impressed with how well every member of our small team performed,” Whittle said. “No one’s individual performance resulted in this win. It was the team’s combined efforts, preparation and disciplined execution that led to their win.”
Along with placing second in the Top Pilot Award, Arnold—who earned his pilot’s license nearly a year ago—also placed second in Power-Off Landing and Aircraft Preflight Inspection, third in Power-On Landing, and fourth in the Simulator Event.
“His consistent top performance across all these events is phenomenal given his short time as a pilot and the much higher experience levels of the competition pilots,” Whittle said.
Members of the West Point Aviation Club's Flying Team train on take-offs and landings out of Richmor Aviation at Stewart Airport in Newburgh.
Using the tools of the trade, cadets will prepare a navigation plan prior to a flying operation. The sectional aeronautical chart is like a road map for aviators, with congested areas colored yellow. When planning a route, cadets will use points on the ground that are easily identifiable from 3,000 feet above like high-tension wires and railroads. Class of 2015 Cadet Peter Scherer said it is similar but more complicated to the navigation courses conducted during summer training where terrain features are used to plot points on a map. “The cadets doing this in the Aviation Club are going to use these skills constantly during summer training,” he said. In his hand is the E6B flight calculator, otherwise known as the whiz wheel, which is basically an algorithmic calculator on a circular scale. On the map to the left is a fixed plotter, another instrument used for flight navigation planning. In competition, all the pilots are given 60 minutes to plan a cross-country flight given specific latitude and longitude coordinates using these tools. They are required to plot the course, estimate the time and the fuel burn. Later, the accuracy is graded on the actual flight.
Class of 2015 Cadet Pete Scherer conducts pre-flight checks on the Cessna during flight practice in January. The West Point Flying Team conducts its training out of Richmor Aviation at Stewart Airport in Newburg.
Within the Flying Team, he is not alone. The Scherer brothers, Joe and Peter, both in the Class of 2015, have similar interests in flying and aircraft trivia. Peter joined the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary’s Civil Air Patrol at the age of 13.
“I got an orientation ride in a glider at the local airport which was 10 minutes away from my house,” Peter said.
He spoke to the fixed base operator there and later found himself a summer job at the Boulder Airport.
“I ended up getting enough flight credit to get my glider rating when I was 16,” he said. “Then I moved right into powered aircraft. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, always been interested in it and it’s been awesome.”
Joe also worked there and earned his glider pilot license at age 14. He also worked at a grocery store to earn money toward his private pilot license. He knew someone who owned a hangar and grass strip where the brothers would learn from instructors and gained sufficient flight time toward their licenses.
Markow said many pilots have similar “flights of passage” stories. For her, it was work in a Chinese restaurant, Radio Shack, an airport and an Italian tailor shop ... all to pay for the expenses of flight training.
“If you really, really love it, you find a way,” Markow said. “My family didn’t have a lot of money so I had to work hard for it, sometimes earning $4 an hour. You can get really creative when you want to learn how to fly. Sometimes you just find pilots who can teach you something without charge.”
Two young pilots from Boulder, Colo., choosing to serve their country in the military might have seemed better suited for that “other” service academy closer to home. Instead, West Point beckoned.
“Joe was the one who got me interested in coming to West Point,” Peter, a mechanical engineering major with an aeronautical track, said. “Initially, we got recruited to play football, and I always wanted to join the military so I thought this would be a cool thing to do.”
He played football at the Preparatory School but focused his attention on flying when he entered the academy. Peter scouted the Directorate of Cadet Activities website to find the club that matched his interests. Joe, a systems engineering major, said he examined West Point, Air Force and Navy and ultimately was attracted to the prestige of the U.S. Military Academy.
“I was looking specifically for the military experience, and yes, I love flying, but there is aviation in every branch of service, not just the Air Force,” Joe said. “West Point offered a lot of opportunities for me and I see how Lt. Col. Markow graduated and pursued an aviation career. So if I could do something similar that would be sweet.”
During one frigid Saturday morning in January, with the rest of the team absent due to illness or other academy obligations, the twins had the runway all to themselves. The training is conducted at Stewart Airport and based out of Richmor Aviation, the fixed-based operator where the team does all of its flying, fueling and planning. Nassau Flyers, out of Republic Airport in Farmingdale, N.Y., provides all their rental aircraft.
“The reason we chose them is because they’re a flight school and so they maintain their aircraft to a higher level as required by the FAA,” Whittle said. “We can be assured that the airplanes we get are very well-maintained and suitable for training.”
Whittle also likes the historical significance of where they train.
“This used to be Stewart Army Air Field and during World War II a sizeable portion of the Corps of Cadets would do flight training here,” Whittle said. “In fact, it was the Army Air Corps back then, so I think it’s kind of neat that we are reliving that history of cadet training.”
At full strength, the team would train on two single engine Cessna planes, with one in the air at all times while others conduct non-flight training, like navigational sorties.
“That requires a lot more planning,” Whittle said. “The cadets will figure out the route, the speed and altitude, the fuel used and the timing of the whole flight. In the competition, when you build that plan, you’re expected to fly it precisely. If you deviate from it, there will be points lost.”
Accuracy in planning, as well as flying, is practiced during each session at the airport.
“When time permits they also train on the ground events and the knowledge portion,” Whittle said. “That’s not the priority when they’re at the airport because that mostly happens during club meetings at Washington Hall. “The question we get a lot is how will fixed-wing flying prepare cadets for rotary wing flying later on.
"By far, most of the skills they learn and the value they get from the club has nothing to do with physically flying the airplane,” Whittle added. “It’s the judgment you develop, which applies to any aircraft. With time control and even precision landings you’re learning dynamics of flying.” The leadership value of a club activity is also a draw.
“They have the opportunity to manage a training program as well as a safe flying operation,” Whittle said. “How they prepare and train for a competition, how they conduct safety briefings, the interactions with instructors … those are all skills they will have to know as a platoon leader.”
(Editor’s Note: Part II of this series will be available on March 28 with more details about the regional competition, some history on the Aviation Club and what the Ground School has to offer cadets interested in aviation.)