UND Flying Team captures second-place overall finish at SAFECON 2021

Special to Devils Lake Journal

The UND Flying Team captured a second-place overall finish at the 2021 Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference, extending the University’s multi-decade record of flight excellence.

For the past 37 years of competition in the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA) event, better known as SAFECON, UND has placed first or second 31 times.


But flight was notably absent from this year’s SAFECON festivities, which was held May 17-21. Most years, SAFECON features a dozen or so events testing students’ all-around aircraft knowledge and skills – in the cockpit and on paper. This year marked the first time the competition was held virtually. Thus, ground-based events made up the core of contests in 2021.

Even so, the UND Flying Team performed exceptionally, with several individuals placing high in key events. In fact, UND aviators Garret Turco and Joseph Taylor ranked first and second as top scoring contestants, among hundreds of competitors from across the country.

'Never give up'

Overall, UND’s 15-student team came up just short behind Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – Prescott (Ariz.). The full results for SAFECON 2021 can be found on the NIFA website.

Leading the team were Associate Professor Lewis Liang, head coach, and Assistant Professor Ryan Guthridge, serving as assistant coach. The pair also presided over UND’s 2019 first-place finish – the 17th in UND’s long history of championships – before SAFECON 2020 was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other members of the coaching staff include Assistant Professors Mark “Monty” Johnson and Jered Lease, both of whom are former SAFECON competitors and champions.

Robert Kraus, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, said that despite the cancellation of flying events in 2021, the team stayed motivated and engaged to place well in all categories.

“We are proud of this team’s accomplishments and thank them for their dedication and many hours spent preparing for the competition,” Kraus said. “I would like to thank the NIFA group that made it possible for most of the competitions to still take place, and we look forward to next year’s event, which will be hosted by The Ohio State University.”

The team, guided by Liang’s coaching mantra of “Never give up, never give up, never give up,” delivered results during a challenging time. Due to COVID circumstances, the team wasn’t able to gather for practice sessions in the ways it had in past years, Liang said. And the format of competition taking place on campus felt more like final exams as opposed to one of the biggest networking opportunities of the year for collegiate aviators.

Gritty efforts

The ground skills tests were all administered in closely proctored settings, with NIFA judges viewing multiple angles of the testing rooms on Zoom.

In that environment, participants were tested on how well they could recognize and identify a variety of aircraft, how well they could plot and navigate a simulated cross-country flight with a number of variables and their ability to solve mathematical flight planning computations using a manually operated flight computer, among other challenges.

Liang noted that the “carrot” of SAFECON being much more than a competition was missing for the team, but the crew persevered and put forth an exceptional effort. Despite the dampening effects of the pandemic, UND still took second place for the Judges Trophy – an award signifying the depth of participation among the 28 total teams.

“The word I go to is ‘grit,’” Liang remarked. “Our coaching staff worked hard to keep this team motivated, to keep practicing for these events. In working with many new students on the team, our coaches have done an incredible job.

“This team truly never gave up, and they of course get all of the credit for that devotion and diligence.”

Members of the 2020-21 UND Flying Team are Ryan Fitzgerald, Bailey Harris, Alexis Hesse, Caroline Kelley, Max Langerud, Cobi Pimental, Jason Preston, Grace Rames, Aaron Schwartz, Jaspinder Singh, Jebediah Sussenbach, Joseph Taylor, Garret Turco, Mikayla Weiss and Seth Wiebe.

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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