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Liberty flight team places fifth at NIFA nationals, pilot gleans top honor

May 20, 2014 : Liberty University News Service

Zach Floto, who graduated from Liberty University School of Aeronautics (SOA) on May 10, earned the National Top Pilot Award out of more than 300 participants from 28 schools at the National Intercollegiate Flight Association (NIFA) competition, hosted by Ohio State University Airport on May 12-17. Liberty’s SOA was awarded the Collegiate Aviation Progress Award after its flight team soared to a fifth-place showing, its best-ever finish. James Curry, a 2013 graduate and Certified Flight Instructor at Liberty, placed third individually in the Top Pilot field.

“Top pilot is the highest personal honor a collegiate pilot could achieve,” second-year coach Kyle Dillon said. “We’ve never really even come close to putting a pilot in that category before, so to have two do it in the same year, with one of them winning, it’s a testament to their hard work and a very large feather in each of their caps.”

Zach Floto with his award for earning the Top Pilot of the NIFA competition.
Zach Floto with his Top Pilot award poses in front of Liberty's Cessna-150.

Floto accumulated a total of 98 points in a variety of categories including Short Field Landing, in which he placed second with Curry third, and Ground Trainer, in which he finished third. He also teamed with Daniel Hartman to place third in Crew Recourse Management and paired up with Sean Cothran to take fourth in the Navigation Flight Event.

“It’s been quite a whirlwind,” said Floto, who competed on Liberty’s flight team as a sophomore in 2012 before spending his junior year completing an internship with Delta Air Lines. “On May 6, I took my certified flight instructor test and got my instructor’s certificate. Then my family came into town (from Colorado) for graduation and I raced out to the flight competition (flying to Columbus, Ohio, on May 11).”

Liberty placed fourth in flight events, ninth in ground events, and fifth overall with 221 points, edging the United States Air Force Academy (sixth, 213) and Ohio State (seventh, 187) and trailing only team champion Southern Illinois University (349), Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University-Prescott (Ariz., second, 318), the University of North Dakota (third, 317), and Western Michigan University (fourth, 283).

The SOA’s previous best placement was 15th in 2010 and 2011. It finished 18th out of 29 teams last May.

“It definitely shows we’re reaching a new level of maturity as a program and as a flight team, getting toward that next echelon of aviation professionalism,” Dillon said.

John Marselus, a Liberty SOA aeronautics professor who serves as faculty advisor to the team, applauded Dillon and assistant coach Matt Sylvester for their training expertise with the 14 participating pilots.

“I have been the advisor now for four years and this is the most cohesive, selfless, and Christ-honoring team we have had in all those years,” Marselus said. “Kyle Dillon and Matt Sylvester did a superb job of leading the team through many hours of preparation and practice.”

Fluctuating weather patterns, including a few thunderstorms, posed challenges for the aviators throughout the week.

“We did have some significant weather, which caused some delays and required flexibility from the participants,” Marselus said, noting visibility, cloud height, and wind speed are three variables the directors had to watch for safety purposes. “The head judge did a superb job of choosing the correct events at the right time to complete the competition.”

This was the first year Liberty was able to compete with its Cessna 150, purchased for the school two weeks before last year’s NIFA nationals.

“Absolutely, it was a huge benefit being able to use the 150,” Floto said. “Without the 150, I don’t think schools have much of a chance. It’s definitely a great tool to use.”

Liberty qualified for nationals by winning its ninth consecutive Region X title, Oct. 16-19 in Franklin, Va., where it debuted the Cessna-150, which can land at slower speeds than other models, giving pilots an advantage in the landing competitions.

Liberty University SOA's Cessna-150 aircraft lands during NIFA competition.
A Liberty pilot in the Cessna-150 approaches the runway at Ohio State University Airport right on the targeted line.

Curry also placed fifth and Hartman 13th in the Power Off Landing event while Jared Yoder took 13th and Patrick Spencer 19th in Computer Accuracy; Sechan Hwang placed ninth in the Ground Trainer; and Yoder was 12th in Crew Recourse Management.

“It was special that we spread the wealth amongst five or six different competitors,” Dillon said. “Usually, there would only be two or three people that would actually place. It was fun to see everyone kind of get in on the action.”

On Monday, Floto will fly to Wichita, Kan., for two weeks of training for this summer’s Cessna Discover Flying Challenge.

“It’s a traveling internship,” Floto said, noting he was one of six selected to travel throughout different regions of the United States in brand new Cessna 172 Skyhawks, the primary training aircraft for incoming Liberty students.

“I’ll be flying up and down the East Coast … landing in different cities every night, going to air shows, fly-ins, and Cessna Pilot Training Centers,” Floto said. “I’ll be teaching people how to fly and about aviation.”

In early April, Liberty’s SOA signed an agreement with Cessna to provide an affiliate flight training program for its qualifying Cessna Pilot Centers (CPCs) at airports across the country.

Dillon hopes the team’s success at nationals will help with recruiting efforts next year.

“If you are going to pursue a career in aviation, being a part of the NIFA team is probably the best extracurricular activity you could do,” Dillon said, noting all the pilots had an opportunity to network with regional carriers.