Thursday, November 02, 2017

Collegiate flying competition enters final day at Auburn on Friday

Bradley Euken says he has wanted to be a pilot for as long as he can remember, even before he could spell his own name.

“When I was in preschool, I had a hard time spelling my name. So I asked my mom if I could change my name to Airplane,” Euken said from a runway at Auburn University Regional Airport. “She said, ‘No. You have to keep your name, Bradley. You cannot change your name to Airplane.’”

Now a student working toward a degree in Auburn’s flight program, Euken has been busy this week as one of the coordinators of an aviation competition.

Auburn University is hosting the National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s Region IX competition this week.  Friday is the final day for events, but 60 students from five schools have been vying all week for the chance to advance to nationals.

Auburn, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Jacksonville University, Florida Institute of Technology and Polk State College are competing for team and individual awards. The top three teams will compete in NIFA’s national event at Indiana State University next spring.

Let the games begin

“My favorite event is the message drop,” Auburn student Spencer Dulac said Thursday between events. “That's where you fly a low approach over two targets. You have a drop master in the right seat of the plane. They drop balsa wood boxes out of the plane, and they try to nail the target. It’s very fun, it’s very quick, and it’s not stressful to fly.”

“A lot of people say there’s a really precise technique to it,” Euken chimed in. “I did it last year, and it’s all luck.”

Dulac, a national champion in the message drop, said, “It’s all luck, but I’ve won first place three times.”

“You were lucky three times,” Euken said as a plane touched down on the runway next to them.

The public is invited to watch Friday’s message drop event from 8:30 a.m.-12 p.m. while standing on the observation deck in the terminal building.

Thursday, the student pilots were competing in landing events. One required them to shift the plane’s engine to idle when they reached a certain spot, then the pilot had to guide it to a certain mark on the runway without turning on the power. Another event involves students viewing pictures of various aircraft and identifying them.


“We’ve got a great new president who’s very behind our program,” Dulac said of university president Steven Leath. “He’s welcomed this event to our campus, and we’re excited to host these fine schools.”

SAFECON, the official name of the regional competition, is on a four-year rotation, so Auburn hosts it every four years.

“I know that there’s upwards of $40,000 in hotel rooms that are booked for this event,” Dulac said. “And all these teams have to eat. So it’s great for the Auburn-Opelika area to have all these teams spending money at local restaurants during these events.”

Bill Hutto, airport and aviation center director, said competition pushes the Auburn team to improve year after year. In 2016, the Auburn team finished ninth in the national competition, up from twelfth place in 2015. In individual awards, Auburn also has claimed the best male pilot in each of  the past three years.

“Like with any competition, there’s camaraderie among the teams. There’s the opportunity to develop friendships,” Hutto said. “But everybody wants to do well and try to advance to nationals. So one of the things I really like about it is, that they practice often. It improves their flying skills. And as they get together, they challenge each other. And they are trying their best to do well, which ultimately improves the overall experience for our students, and the overall program.”

Judges for the competition are volunteers who come from various aspects of the aviation world.

“We have non-pilots, commercial pilots from airlines backgrounds, and also military,” chief judge Brendan Goldfarb said. “Not everybody’s here for the whole week. But if you count the total number, we probably had between 20 and 30 judges throughout the whole week.”

SAFECON is scheduled to conclude Saturday with an awards banquet in the Student Center ballroom.

“Everyone’s got a fun, competitive mindset, and they all want to get the first-place trophies at the end,” Dulac said. “We practice year-round for this, and at this event, we’re trying to get to the national level. Everyone wants the regional championship title, to take back to your school.”

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