Each of us have various requests for our time and resources. Whether it is in the form of a monetary donation or our effort through volunteering, each of us have many worthy causes where we could invest our time, effort, energy and recourses…
The one group of recipients that I have always volunteered my time, effort and resources to is “young aviators.” I believe that if I can leverage my knowledge and skills to help young pilots (one of which I was myself not all that long ago) further their professional aspirations, then that is a worthy investment in the future of aviation as a whole. I believe that every pilot has a duty to help the future of the greater aviation community, similar to how every citizen of the United States has the civic duty to vote on the first Tuesday of each November.
My involvement in volunteering stems from my time as a student at Bridgewater State College (BSC), where I was a member of the school’s competitive flight team. The BSC flight team competed against other schools from the northeast United States each fall at a regional event and for all four of my years at BSC, we qualified to compete at the national competition against the best of the best in collegiate aviation from across the country.
After graduating from BSC, I began volunteering as a flight competition judge with the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA). Each fall (and the occasional spring due to weather cancelled fall events) I look forward to spending an extended weekend camped out in drafty hangars and along-side runways judging a variety of events. How often do you get to stand at the edge of a runway and watch aircraft land literally just feet away?
These competitions are designed to encourage safety and aeronautical proficiency through competition. The format allows for skill building, networking and professional development as well as providing the opportunity for competitors to learn how to work together as part of a team. As a former competitor, I know that I learned a lot and honed a wealth of professional skills as a member of a competitive flight team.
In addition, competitors are judged in a variety of events, with many mechanisms in place to provide feedback to the contestants on how to improve their skills for future competitions. This is where the judges come into play. By providing thorough and accurate feedback, judges are able to help young aviators improve their flying skills all the while they are also developing many other life skills. Having the ability to advise competitors on techniques for the competition is only the start. The competitors are not only thankful for the judges being there, allowing the events to run properly but the competitors also seek council and advice for their intended aviation-related future endeavors. This type of organic interaction leads to judges becoming mentors for the young pilots looking for experienced insight. It is really cool to hear from former competitors that are now flight instructors, military pilots and/or airlines pilots that I either competed with or against or judged while they competed.
Recently, I was asked to be an event judge at a similar type collegiate flying event, but this one had a slightly different theme. The teams, instead of being based on geographic location were all service academies. The competition was hosted by the United States Military Academy at West Point (NY) and the flight events were held at the Dutchess Country (Poughkeepsie) Airport (KPOU). Also competing were the flight teams from the United States Naval Academy from Annapolis, MD and the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT.
I was very intrigued at the prospect of being a part of the first collegiate flight competition between the academies. The chief judge, Sean Breen did an unbelievable job coordinating the event with the flight team advisor from West Point, Ron Whittle. These two guys did an unreal amount of preparation and invested a great deal of their own time to make the event a resounding success. Over the course of the weekend-long event, competitors were able to take part in a variety of written, simulator and flying events. While the event didn’t have support and oversight from a national organization, due to the efforts of all the judges as well as the teams, it was a great success! I especially enjoyed the Sunday afternoon tour of West Point, a truly historical place.
The preflight event has always been one of my favorites at competitions like these. While I was a competitor in NIFA events I finished LAST, 2nd and 1st in three separate preflight events, showing that the feedback from judges does help competitors improve their skills. The preflight event calls for a mechanic and lead event judge to “bug” a typical training aircraft (usually a Cessna 152 of 172) with a variety of airworthiness items or bugs that a competent private pilot would be able to find during a thorough preflight inspection. Competitors then have 15 minutes to find as many bugs as possible, typically competitors find anywhere from 10 to 24 of the 30+ “bugs”. A couple of my personal favorites including removing the fuel drain safety wire from an under-wing fuel sump or the reversal of a break pad so that the pad faces away from the disc. But I don’t want to give away too much here!
After the event, competitors receive a score sheet with notes on what items they found and what they did not find in addition to scores for thoroughness and method. The idea is that the valuable feedback provided by the judges will allow the students to improve their skills. Similarly for the landing events, each portion of the traffic pattern is evaluated in addition to the distance the aircraft touches down from the specified “landing stripe”. Students then receive their scorecards for each portion of the pattern, from which they can receive insight on each part of their flying, this will help them do better at future competitions and be better pilots in general. Again illustrating how competitors improve using judges’ feedback from year-to-year, when I was a senior I won the short field landing event at the regional competition. This was based largely on feedback from the previous years when I finished outside of the Top 5.
I know that for many pilots, the weekends are the times you get to fly but I’d like to appeal to your sense of being a part of something bigger than yourself. Being an active member of the aviation community through volunteering, even just one weekend per year as a collegiate aviation judge is a great way to give back to help the future of aviation! I highly recommend that you find a way to be involved with helping the future of general aviation, whether it is with the Young Eagles of by serving as a NIFA event judge, I know that afterwards you’ll feel just as fulfilled as I do after I volunteer my time and energy to help these young pilots!
-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9