Imagine flying through the skies in a small, single-engine plane. The sun is shining, and the blue sky spreads all around you, sealing you in under a bowl of beautiful blue.
Below you extends a long line of pavement: a landing strip. You know that somewhere down there is a small marker partway down the strip and nearby are lines of judges waiting and watching to see how you do. Your goal is to finish your landing as close to that little marker as possible. Points will be deducted for inaccuracy.
But you’re confident in yourself and your skills—skills that have taken years of study and practice to develop. You’re going to nail this. So you angle the plane in for a landing and go.
If you think the above sounds like tons of fun, you might want to consider joining a flight team like the Flying Mavericks at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). The Flying Mavs are one of about 70 teams across the nation that compete each year to prove their skills in the air and on the ground with the technical aspects of flying. The Flying Mavs are a part of the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA). NIFA gives college-aged aviators a chance to participate in competitive and non-competitive events, as well as meet with pilots and other people in the industry.
To learn more about the Flying Mavs, we spoke to members of the team: Brandon Perkins, Philip Wier, and one of their coaches, Mike Munch.
Brandon Perkins is a sophomore at UNO studying aviation. While his ultimate goal is be a pilot for a major airline, he knows he has to work to get there. And he’s putting in a good chunk of that work competing with the UNO Flying Mavs.
Philip Wier, by contrast, is a junior who transferred to UNO. His focus is on air transportation administration—the business side of running and operating an airport. He has his pilot’s license though, and says he would also love to be a pilot for the air force. He competes out of the love of flying and to hone his skills.
Mike Munch is a coach for the Flying Mavs. He is a UNO alumnus currently working on a Master of Public Administration, specializing in aviation. He flew for the team prior to becoming a graduate student, and came back to re-join the team as a coach.
“My responsibilities,” Mike told us, “are to help mentor and guide the team to success. So that means preparing tests, educating them on principles and procedures either flight related or on the ground side on how to take these tests to help them become professional aviators in the future.”
Despite all three students having wildly different goals and histories with aviation, they come together for this team.
When we asked for more information on the NIFA competitions, Brandon told us that there are ten regions around the country, and that each region houses several flight schools. The schools get together and compete a few times a year, eventually building up to a national competition.
The competitions are split into two parts: ground events and flying events. The ground events include comprehensive tests that cover everything the students have learned so far in school, testing their knowledge and memorization of key topics they’ll need going forward. These are all things they’re going to need to know if they stick to their dreams of flying or managing airports.
Then there are the flying events. “Preflight we count as a flying event,” Brandon told us. “They take an airplane and do things wrong to it, like switching light bulbs, taking parts off, stuffing the engine”. For the competition, Brandon or one of his teammates then has to figure out what’s wrong with the plane.
Other flying events include navigation competitions—where students create a flight plan and then fly it themselves—and two landing events—which involve expertly landing the plane as close to a marker on the runway as possible.
All of this is a lot work for the students, but it sounds well worth it: the students get to meet industry professionals at these competitions in addition to other colleagues and peers from all across the nation. They make lasting connections that can help them later—no matter where they end up in the aviation industry.
We asked Brandon and Philip about their favorite part of being on the UNO Flying Mavs team. Philip told us, “The other members of the flight team and the coaches. Just that experience of us all coming together and sharing our love of flying and doing it in a competitive manner.”
“Everybody’s hanging out,” he added. “There’s just that common bond of we’re all here loving aviation and we’re all here just going places with aviation.”
Going places with aviation, indeed. Philip and Brandon are both planning to pursue different paths after graduation, but they come together here on this team, under Mike’s careful guidance as their mentor—even while he also pursues a different career path.