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NIFA team wins Certified Flight Instructor competition at virtual SAFECON event

Liberty’s 15-member NIFA team  (Photos by Ellie Richardson)

Liberty University’s School of Aeronautics National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA) team landed two top-10 individual performances at the 2021 SAFECON National Championships, held virtually from May 17-22.

Gretchen Thennes, who graduated with a commercial/corporate concentration in May, finished first in the Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) competition, placing ahead of five men’s instructors in the field of six contestants. She became one of five certified flight instructors on Liberty’s 15-member NIFA team last August and started working part time in that capacity this past fall.

Gretchen Thennes

“Every flight instructor is given a one-hour lesson they have to teach, which is different every year,” said Liberty Associate Director for Flight Training Katie Wagner (’17), who just finished her fourth season as the NIFA team’s head coach. “She did the private work for presenting the lesson that is graded by a group of judges, following a rubric.”

Thennes will spend much of this summer on a mission aviation trip to Africa.

Fellow senior Julia Tindell placed eighth out of 39 contestants in the ground training event, receiving 32 points from the judges with a score of 9,838.

Julia Tindell

Tindell, who recently became a flight instructor, submitted her virtual performance in the ground training event earlier in the spring semester. Students were judged on a variety of parameters, including air speed, altitude, and directional heading.

“It’s an instrument flight route,” Wagner said, noting that cameras facing the student and behind the student record the simulated flight data. “Contestants are given the pattern at the start of nationals, two days prior to the event, and they memorize it. They are only looking at their instruments inside the simulator as they fly the route and are docked points based on how closely they follow those parameters, with the lower the score the better.”

In the Group Events Championship, Liberty placed 12th out of 28 teams with a total of 22 points. Complete results are available online.

Team captains Josh Engberg and Nico Palumbo, who will both graduate in December, provided exceptional leadership for the team through a difficult season affected by COVID-19 restrictions.

There was no in-person flight competition portion of this year’s SAFECON event, which was all ground competition held remotely. Liberty hosted Guilford Technical Community College for the virtual competition and its Region X representative proctored the NIFA team’s test.

“It was definitely a hard year overall,” Wagner said. “Part of the excitement of being on the NIFA team is going to fly at competitions and working to become a more precise aviator. There was still a lot of hard work to put in in the simulators, with a lot of the training done virtually, but to not have the flying competitions, the team did really well to stay motivated for regionals and nationals based on the circumstances this year.”

Next year’s competition, to be hosted by Ohio State University, is expected to return to the in-person format with a full slate of ground- and flight-based events — from preflight inspection, aircraft recognition, and navigation to various landing competitions — in which student pilots are judged on safety and skill.

Liberty’s NIFA team is the 15-time defending Region X champions, through 2019. Its program was awarded the prestigious Loening Trophy three years in a row, from 2017-19.

Named after the first aeronautical engineer for the Wright Brothers, the Loening Trophy is the rarest and oldest of all collegiate aviation awards. Made of pure silver, it was commissioned in 1929 and presented annually at the SAFECON competition to the nation’s most outstanding all-around collegiate aviation program, with an emphasis on academics, community involvement, professionalism, a comprehensive safety program, and pro-active advancement of the future of aviation.

The two Liberty Belles teams’ shared Air Race Derby route is the only one out of 99 entries to fly over Virginia and North Carolina.

Five members of the Liberty Belles, an all-women’s flight team coached by Megan Bradshaw, will compete on two teams in this year’s Air Race Derby on June 12, starting and ending in Lynchburg.

Pilot Erika Jordan, co-pilot Meredith Boardman, and teammate Savannah Rotmeijer will comprise one team with pilot Chloe Cady and co-pilot Kristi Serafin forming the second. They will fly two of the 20 Cessna 172S Nav III Skyhawks in Liberty’s fleet.

This year’s event will be shortened to one day with pilots charting their own courses through a total of five stages of at least 60 miles each. Liberty’s two teams will travel from Lynchburg Regional Airport down to central North Carolina and back on identical loop courses.

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