NIFA Challenges Pilots Past Bare Minimums

By Scott Spangler on May 20th, 2010

Discussion over the state of professional pilot training is continuing several weeks after we posted Pro Pilot Training Evolving to Industry Needs.  Proficiency-based training has been a central theme, as has educating pilots past the bare minimums set forth by the FAA. I knew examples of this existed, but I couldn’t remember where until an online article by the Terra Haute, Indiana, Tribune-Star, ISU Hosting Annual National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s National Competition, jogged my memory.

NIFA-Logo If you’ve never heard of NIFA, it “was formed for the purposes of developing and advancing aviation education; to promote, encourage and foster safety in aviation; to promote and foster communications and cooperation between aviation students, educators, educational institutions and the aviation industry; and to provide an arena for collegiate aviation competition.”

NIFA members are extra-curricular flight teams at 77 two- and four-year collegiate aviation programs nationwide. They are in 11 regions, and the top finishers in the regional Safety and Flight Evaluation Conferences are this week (May 17-22) competing in the 90th annual national Safecon. In the 1990s I reported on a half-dozen of them, and seeing that the event rules are relatively unchanged, it is still my opinion that these aeronauts are aviation’s best hope for the future. Looking at NIFA’s sponsors, from Cessna and Sporty’s to NBAA and name-brand regional and major carriers, the industry seems to think so, too. 

Safecon Landing The most concise explanation why this is true is that these students, most of whom are just a year or two into their aeronautical educations, embody the “beginner’s mind,” as defined by Michael Maya Charles in his exquisite book, Artful Flying.  For them, the minimum performance parameters spelled out in the FAA’s Practical Test Standards are not a final exam but a place to start.

Regional or national, each Safecon is a combination of seven flight and six ground events that challenges a pilot’s knowledge and skill. Power-off landings is a perfect example. The target is not 60-foot-tall runway numbers. Landing within this distance wouldn’t qualify a pilot for the team. No, these pilots aim to put the main wheels on a 4-inch-wide chalk line. Judges stand alongside the runway to measure the touchdown point, which rarely exceeds a foot or two. The top finishers are usually separated by inches. To make sure the engine is at idle, another judge points a directional microphone at each plane as a pilot pulls the power to idle on downwind when abeam the line.  Pilots can “clear” the engine once on the base leg. They can use flaps, but not below 100 feet AGL on final.

nav legs In the navigation event students fly a multiple-leg cross-country of 70 to 120 miles. Pilots fly with a safety observer, and using any technology beyond a sectional chart, plotter, pencil, and E-6B is disqualifying. “Each contestant must submit a flight plan before take-off, including, but not limited to, the estimated time en route for each leg, estimated total elapsed time, and estimated fuel consumption.” Points are assessed for the difference between what’s planned and actual, and for other deviations, such as not flying directly over a turn point, where a judge sits, looking skyward. Lowest score wins.

What’s important here is that these aviators are flying with all of their senses except, maybe, taste. One checks the other, does the slipstream noise coincide with the airspeed and the stick force, and does progress across the ground in the given wind assure success, or is a more expedient turn to base needed?

Similar thought processes are at work in the ground events such as ground trainer (a flight-training device), aircraft preflight inspection, and Simulated Comprehensive Aircraft Navigation (SCAN), where competitors employ a non-programmable flight computer, plotter, and pencil to find the answers to a 40-question exam created by the event’s most demanding judges.

What makes these aviators special is that they volunteered for it, and all that I’ve met relish the challenges presented. Perhaps the best comparison to their shared spirit is found among the volunteers who serve in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Maybe that’s the key to attracting those who will make good professional pilots. Make it tougher, not easier. Challenge them to be better than the bare minimums. Teach them to be an extension of the airplane and metaphysically integrated into the airspace, and if they aren’t capable, say so and send them on their way. Aerial  automatons—those who want to push buttons and levels and twist knobs to deliver the numbers demanded by a voice on the radio—need not apply. –Scott Spangler

Related Posts:

2 Responses to “NIFA Challenges Pilots Past Bare Minimums”

  1. John Kosak Says:

    Robert –

    I had the opportunity to participate in one of these Safecons about one year into my flight training. I was humbled after finding out exactly how little I knew and how much my flying skills could improve when compared to the folks who were winning these events. While I did well in ground school and in my flying according to the FAA, the knowledge and skills required to participate in the NIFA events pushed me to higher levels. While I never went past my Private Pilots license in flying, I have put my knowledge to use working in the operations side of aviation for over 10 years now. I’ll never regret that experience or the drive to learn more and improve my flight skills. Great write up, thanks for sharing!

  2. Wes Leighton Says:

    This is the world of Google. People don’t have to know the basics because one is able to search for the answer. With computers becoming more predominant in aircraft, push the button, there is the answer, even it is wrong.

    Problem solving skills are becoming less appreciated by society, until there is a problem. This is happening thru out aviation: mechanics, avionic technicians, air traffic controllers. The goal is to teach to the lowest common denominator so any one can do any job….cheap.

Subscribe without commenting