By, Connor Murphy
Ten years ago, Andrew Hollingsworth was in Odegard Hall, on a field trip from his hometown of Fargo.
He remembers seeing banners in the rotunda – markers of championships for the UND Aerobatic Team. He also remembers getting hooked on the idea of flying upside-down after seeing the “bright planes” as an elementary school student.
In 2018, Hollingsworth, a junior at UND, made his first dive into competitive aerobatics, in Salem, Ill. Today, he can consider himself a champion.
It was announced recently that the UND Aerobatic Team secured its 10th National Championship in 11 seasons.
“It’s surreal to look around and know I’m a part of all this,” Hollingsworth said, not too far from where he first became enamored with the sport. “I’m happy to be here.”
Reclaiming the throne
After a brief slip to second place in 2017, UND reclaimed the collegiate throne of the International Aerobatic Club (IAC) in 2018 after a series of competitions in Salem, Ill.; Spencer, Iowa; Oshkosh, Wis.; and Lamar, Colo. The final results went public last week following an averaging of season scores between competing institutions.
Commercial aviation alum Jarrett Croy led the team as president, with senior Alex Hunt, as captain. The team included Elizabeth Birch, James Jacobson, Torin Walhood, Mitch Oswalkd, Ashton Croy and Elise Wheelock.
Michael Lents, assistant professor of aviation and a master certified flight instructor, has been with the team since 2008 and serves as head coach.
“We started out strong, and early, with a lot of team practice,” Lents said, describing the team’s championship stature. “They did a great job of carrying that momentum and I was extremely proud of how it all came together.”
Lents’ own aerobatic pursuits, highlighted by his qualification for the 2018 World Advanced Aerobatic Championships in Ploiesti, Romania, presented a bit of a challenge for his students in the middle of the season. He credits his veteran students for their ability to lead, maintain and practice whenever possible.
Coach Michael Lents (center) hoists two of the now-10 championships the UND Aerobatic Team has earned since 2008. After a brief slip into second place in 2017, UND is back on top. Flanking Lents are team members Andrew Hollingsworth (left) and Team Captain Alex Hunt. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.
Croy, who’s been a full-time flight instructor at UND since last summer, made full use of his time while working a packed student schedule. It earned him a first-place finish for the season among collegiate competitors.
“Whereas other people might play Frisbee golf or do something else, I’d hop in the Decathlon (aircraft) and get an hour of practice flight,” he said. “That’s my relaxation; that’s what I do for fun.”
Hunt, a native of Hallock, Minn., says over the three years he’s been a team member, it’s become easier to find gaps for practice. Of course, in North Dakota, the weather has other ideas. Factor that with aircraft availability and the pressing need for instructors – the gaps get even smaller.
“Those are all challenges, but a lot of it is scheduling as often as you can and hopefully a couple of those practice flights will work,” he said, adding that the training environment of UND Aerospace prepares team members for finding solutions and overcoming adversity.
Lents says the continued success of UND on the national level makes him proud of what students are able to accomplish as they push for excellence not only in aerobatic flying, but also in their professional development.
If you’re thinking about aerobatic contests as a type of track meet, with its judges, downtime and weather-watching, you aren’t too far off, says Lents.
“It’s like family game night,” he joked. “You jab everybody, hug at the end. The contests we go to have us meeting up with familiar faces.”
The collegiate circle is tight-knit with a few mainstays and others phasing in and out of competition. Hunt says downtime is spent talking with other pilots.
“I’m good friends with a lot of the Metropolitan State University of Denver team and still talk to them in the offseason,” he said.
“It’s tight-knit but we also have new people that join,” Croy said. “It’s cool to see new people and what they bring – typically you ogle over the airplane, talk to them and then they’re part of the group.”
At the larger events, like the National Championships at Oshkosh, Wis., which attract thousands of spectators, there’s still that community feel. Lents describes superstars like Rob Holland, one of the most decorated aerobatic pilots in history, as someone familiar and approachable.
Holland let Hunt fire up his plane, for instance.
“It’s a neat connection to make and get these students involved, learning tips from the next level,” Lents said.
The skills acquired by aerobatic fliers are useful as they move forward in their careers. Not only does the experience boost confidence, it develops accurate, quick reactions to unusual situations. Image courtesy of Carmelo Turdo.
When asked how aerobatics competition has enhanced their UND experience, team members said it bolstered their confidence as pilots. As an instructor, Croy benefited by having increased comfort in the airplane. Part of the learning process for aspiring student-pilots is making mistakes without compromising safety, and now Croy feels confident to bite his tongue and allow his students to correct mistakes themselves.
For Hunt, it’s developing the muscle memory to come out of spins and inversions. At first, like many new pilots, the prospect was frightening. He says he’s a much better pilot because of the aerobatic training.
“I would definitely agree with that,” said Hollingsworth, now a season into his childhood dream. “Unusual attitude training is a breeze in courses after this. Once you’ve stalled inverted, everything else is easy.”