For the Polk State Flight Team, it has been a banner year. Earlier this month at the 2023 National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA) Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference (SAFECON), Polk State notched its best national finish ever.
Over the six-day event from May 8 through 13 in Oshkosh, Wis., Polk State finished 21st overall out of 30 teams. It finished 18th in ground events and 19th in flight events.
“I’m extremely proud,” said Gordon Mayes, Program Director for Aerospace at Polk State College. “The standard that NIFA represents is the highest in college aerospace. With limited resources compared to the big universities, we did extremely well.”
Polk State earned the trip to Wisconsin with a top-three regional finish in Lakeland back in November. This marks the third straight year that Polk State has reached the national competition – impressive for a team founded in 2015.
“It’s incredible that our team has come this far,” said Tim Nickel, 24, the oldest member of the team and a first-year participant. “We’ve been through a lot. I’m honored to have been part of it.”
While Nickel is the team’s oldest member, Vanessa Hernandez, 17, is its youngest. A dually enrolled student, Hernandez is completing her junior year of high school at Central Florida Aerospace Academy in Lakeland.
“Coming from an aerospace high school, I try to meet people and do extracurriculars that will help me achieve my career goals,” Hernandez said. “As a young member, I thought it might be hard to fit in with the Flight Team, but we’re a close group and we’re all friends.”
Led by coach Carl Valeri and team captain Dan Bontrager, Polk State participated in several events, including message drop, power-off landing, flight computer, short-field landings, flight navigation, aircraft recognition, and aircraft preflight inspection among others.
“It feels exciting to be part of the Flight Team’s history,” said Isaac Castellanos, the team’s safety officer. “As a small team, we definitely had our challenges. Our performances the last two years shows how competitive we can be.”
One of the challenges the Flight Team faced was having to raise money to be able to make the trip. Ten members of the team competed.
“It’s been incredible to watch this come together,” Nickel added. “I think the excitement of ranking high in nationals has pushed us to pull forward and do even better things. There’s so much enthusiasm and I’m certain we’ll get back next year.”
Competing against the likes of Auburn University, Oklahoma State University, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Ohio State University, and more, Polk State was one of just two junior colleges to qualify.
“Being with our competitors, there was a lot of camaraderie,” noted Castellanos, who competed in nationals for the second time. “We got to make connections with others in aviation, which was one of the highlights for me.”
The camaraderie was also one of the highlights for Hernandez. She enjoyed the vendors, events, and viewing area. A first-year member, Hernandez looks forward to returning to nationals next year.
“I thought it was very professional and organized,” she said. “Meeting people from other teams, we all want the same thing in life and got along well. To finish as high as we did, it was great to be a part of.”
In addition to its best-ever showing as a team, Polk State also had its best individual performances at nationals. Mikel Garmendia placed 11th in the instrument simulated flight event – the highest-ever for a Polk State pilot at nationals. Ryan Main placed 13th in the power-off flight and in the top 70 overall.
“We’re very happy with the support the community gives to the Flight Team,” Mayes added. “The team is very much self-driven by the student instructor pilots. They study hard. We’re very pleased with the results. We look forward to competing again next year.”
As a smaller school, Polk State will probably always be one of the smaller teams to compete in the national event. Nickel and Castellanos each would like to see the team grow.
“Aerospace here is a great program,” Nickel said. “It’s growing. The more people we get for the Flight Team, the better.”
“Over the past few years, we’ve been a small team,” Castellanos added. “We’re starting to see a lot more motivated individuals, especially at the flight school. We’d certainly like to see more people involved. We want to build a more competitive team, but we’d also like to be recognized as some of the best professionals in the industry.”