The performances of newcomers were a big part of the story for the Polk State College Flight Team at the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA) Region IX competition at Lakeland Linder International Airport.
During the six-day competition from Oct. 23 through 28, six newcomers took home medals, which are awarded to those who finish in the top 10 in each event. As a team, Polk State finished fourth overall. Although only the top three teams received automatic bids to the national NIFA Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference (SAFECON) competition, Polk State has since received an at-large invitation.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our team,” said Gordon Mayes, Polk State Program Director for Aerospace. “Our team gets stronger every year.”
Brody Livingston, 20, had an event to remember. He and Ryan Main took home first place in the Traditional Navigation event – the lone victory for Polk State during the competition.
“It was a lot of fun,” Livingston said. “I got to meet a lot of new people. It was a little intimidating at first going up against bigger schools. We quickly realized that we’re as good as they are when it comes to being pilots.”
Beau Swinhoe, 18, another first-year student, finished fourth in Short Field Landing. Swinhoe narrowly missed placing third and taking home a trophy.
“It was a little bit disappointing, knowing I was just a couple points away from getting a trophy,” she said. “That’s something to work toward next year.”
Swinhoe was also 13th overall for the comprehensive Top Pilot category. That was the best among women at the competition and second-best for Polk State behind Main, who finished sixth.
“Overall, the experience was so much fun,” Swinhoe added. “We bonded a lot as a team. It was nerve-racking at times, but I 10-out-of-10 would do it again.”
Cole Webb, 18, had a strong showing in his first competition, placing sixth with teammate Daniel Bontrager in Unlimited Navigation. Webb finished 11th in Computer Accuracy.
“For it being so many of our first year, to win that many awards was amazing,” Webb explained. “We narrowly missed third. In the future, I think we could do even better.”
Breaking down barriers
Seven of the 24 members of the Polk State Flight Team to attend this year’s regional competition were women – the most in program history. Mayes contended that Polk State had more female competitors than any other team at the competition.
“I’ve always competed in male-dominated fields,” said Angelica Jung, a first-year team member who once competed in motocross. “There’s always been just a small percentage of women in aerospace. I’d like to fill the void in the industry and continue helping the team make a name for itself.”
“Being a female in aviation, you feel the need to prove yourself,” Swinhoe said. “Walking up and taking fourth (in Short Field Landing) was a very empowering feeling. I just love aviation. It’s taken over my life.”
A close-knit team
While bigger schools have the luxury of having pilots specialize in specific events, Polk State’s pilots often participate in multiple events. Proving they belong with bigger colleges and universities has brought a sense of pride.
“A lot of people put in a lot of time and effort for us to be successful,” said Livingston, who earned his private pilot license in Michigan before attending Polk State. “Everyone on the team supports and encourages each other. My favorite thing about being part of the Flight Team is making new friends. I came down here without knowing anyone and they’ve become my circle.”
As opposed to some of the bigger teams, Polk State Flight Team members say being small allows them to be a close-knit group.
“Going in, I was really nervous,” Swinhoe said. “I enrolled in school late. At the first practice, everyone welcomed me with open arms. On the Flight Team, we all have the same interests, same goals, and we’re all really supportive of one another.”
While team members rally around one another, they also credit Mayes and Flight Team Coach Lee Malone for their success at competition and in general. Their fundraising efforts, Webb noted, helped get the team matching uniforms for the competition.
“They do a lot for us,” Webb said. “Lee is a great coach. He really keeps the team together and our morale up.”
Polk State will now prepare for a third straight trip to the national SAFECON competition. This year’s event takes place in Janesville, Wis. from May 13 through 18.
“We did well in a lot of events we haven’t typically done well in,” Mayes said of the recent regional competition. “Our team is going to grow in January with more students coming in. We have a very bright future.”
Polk State had its best finish ever at nationals this past year in Oshkosh, Wis., placing 21st overall.
“Our school has an underdog mentality,” Jung added. “We want it just as bad as the other schools. We get to participate in multiple events and see where our strengths are. We’re here to have fun and support one another.”
In addition to Livingston, Swinhoe, and Webb, Ryan Godwin, Hunter Hollowell, and James Chamberland also took home medals as first-year students at the regional competition. That bodes well for the Polk State Flight Team moving forward.
“Our potential is huge,” Jung concluded. “This opportunity to compete really gave me a feel for what it’s like. I feel like everyone is prepared to get better.”