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School of Aeronautics NIFA team earns 18th consecutive Region X championship


Liberty University’s National Intercollegiate Flight Association (NIFA) team stands in front of the two Cessna 172 Skyhawks it flew to the Region X competition in Danville, Va. (Photos by Alyssa Stone)

For the 18th time in a row, Liberty University’s National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA) team won the Region X competition held last Wednesday through Saturday at the Averett University Flight Center in Danville, Va.

For many on this year’s team of student-pilots, this was the first time experiencing the thrill of competition, which has only given them more motivation to prepare for next spring’s SAFECON National Championships in Wisconsin.

A Liberty School of Aeronautics NIFA team member prepares to take off during last weekend’s Region X competition at the Averett University Flight Center.

At nationals, they will fly two of Liberty’s Cessna 172 Skyhawks to compete in a field of approximately 500 aeronautics students from more than 30 college programs around the United States for awards in a variety of aviation disciplines, ranging from landing and navigation to pre-flight and flight planning to safety and sportsmanship.

“We have nine newcomers on the team this year, along with six returning student-pilots and two returning coaches,” said SOA Director of Flight Operations Ian Dutkus, who serves as the team’s faculty advisor. “The new members have brought energy to the team. After going through a transitional year last year, having a fresh group of eager competitors has helped build an extraordinary bond within this team. They have jelled rapidly, and the overall mentality of the team is very competitive. They hold each other to a high standard of excellence.”

The team’s highest finish at SAFECON nationals was 10th place back in 2017, when it returned from Ohio State University with the Loening Trophy, presented annually to the most outstanding all-around collegiate aviation program in the nation.

Chloe Cady (’21), who serves as both assistant coach of Liberty’s NIFA team and the primary coach of the Liberty Belles, an all-female flight team that participates in the Air Race Classic each summer, said the regional and national competitions test the student-pilots in a variety of preflight and flight procedures as well as navigational operations.

“It definitely challenges their knowledge and their flight skills,” she said. “We put all of our team members in the events they are strongest in and have spent the most time practicing, and they all did really well. Now, they’re going to go out and put the work in to sharpen those skills for nationals.”

Team members perform a variety of pre-flight checks on the runway.

Liberty finished first in the SAFECON championship standings with 790 points, followed by host Averett (700), the United States Naval Academy (483.5), Elizabeth City (N.C.) State University (386), and Hampton University (214.5), and also received the Competition Safety Award.

Liberty swept the top four positions in the Unlimited Navigation category, led by the tandem of senior pilot Maison Kasyanov and sophomore safety observer Franchesca McKellar (73.96). They were followed by the second-place duo of senior pilot Matthew Hollow and junior safety observer Ian King (75.65), the third-place pair of graduate pilot Victor Thennes and junior safety observer Zeke Erickson (86.0), and the fourth-place tandem of graduate pilot Olivia (Smith) Lewis and junior safety observer Ashley Legoas (159.3).

In the Message Drop competition, Liberty had three of the top four entries, with sophomore Brooke Hite (dropmaster) and Lewis (pilot) teaming up for first place with 74.6 points, freshman Jacob Fordyce (dropmaster) and Kasyanov (pilot) finishing second with 78.3 points and senior Nathanael Brown (dropmaster) and Thennes (pilot) claiming the fourth spot with 100.5 points.

Liberty swept the top three places in the Ground Trainer category, led by Kasyanov (11,237) and followed by senior Gyeongmin Kim (16,263) and Zeke Erickson (18,746), with sophomore Ian King landing in fifth (28,773).

Kasyanov finished second in the Top Pilot competition with 122 points while Lewis (91) and Hollow (90) placed fifth and sixth, respectively, and Thennes (74) came in eighth. Kasyanov won the Simulated Comprehensive Aircraft Navigation competition while teammates Hite and Brown placed third and fourth, respectively.

Liberty School of Aeronautics Director of Flight Operations Ian Dutkus, who also serves as faculty advisor for the NIFA team, checks in on a pilot before she participates in an event at the Region X competition.

Hollo took third in the Short Field Landing competition, with Kasyanov finishing seventh, while senior Noah Bond came in second in the Power-Off Landing event, followed by Lewis in fifth. Hollo, Kim, and Thennes posted a 1-2-3 finish in Computer Accuracy. Kasyanov (114 points) earned second place in Aircraft Recognition, two points behind Averett’s Jackson Dobbs, with Hollow (94) placiing fourth.

As a team, Liberty finished first in the Ground Events Championship with 329 points, ahead of Averett (229), the overall winner of the Flight Events Championship with 471 points, 10 more than Liberty.

“In the flying events, we had a rough landing day for a multitude of reasons, some that we could have controlled,” Dutkus said. “We struggled to put the plane down when we needed to.”

King was Liberty’s nomination for the Outstanding Team Member after finishing fifth in both of his ground competitions.

“He has a great attitude, works very hard, and was very supportive of the team while he was there,” Cady said.

She shares assistant coaching duties with Alex Coldren (’22), who plans to begin working for Republic Airways in the spring, when Hollo is projected to assume his coaching duties after exhausting his NIFA eligibility at regionals.

Hollo is one of four flight instructors on the team along with Kasyanov, Thennes (’23), and Lewis (’22), one of four female pilots on the team.

Most of the team members are pursuing their B.S. degrees in Aeronautics: Commercial/Corporate, though at least three (King, Thennes, and Ashley Legoas) are planning to go into missionary aviation and two (King and Fordyce) are currently in the Aviation Maintenance Technician (AMT) program.

NIFA team Assistant Coach Chloe Cady (right) stands with three of the female pilots at the event.
Team members discuss flight strategy between events at the Region X competition.

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