By, Connor Murphy
The University of North Dakota Flying Team earned its 17th national championship in SAFECON competition this past week, May 13-18, hosted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The team has now finished first or second in 30 of the past 36 years at the National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s (NIFA) annual flight and safety competition and convention.
UND student aviators took first place in six of SAFECON’s 12 events, with all 14 competing members contributing to the team’s overall point total. Events tested a wide range of pilots’ abilities both on the ground and in the air, from aircraft recognition to manually navigating cross-country flights.
This year, Associate Professor Lewis Liang won Coach of the Year among 30 institutions. Liang has coached the UND Flying Team for the past decade, and this year took on a new assistant coach in Ryan Guthridge. Guthridge last year won Coach of the Year with the University of Nebraska-Omaha before returning to his alma mater as assistant professor of aviation.
“This was a total team effort,” Liang said. “We had a young team that had to work hard after losing experienced upperclassmen. They knew it was a rebuilding year, and we asked them to do their best – they gave it their best this week.”
“The team had big shoes to fill,” Guthridge said. “They spent the year grinding it out with grit and determination, and their work ethic brought home a championship. The feeling is unreal.”
Best of the best
Co-captains Steve Roche and Adam Douville led this year’s championship team. Roche earned first place finishes in Aircraft Preflight Inspection and Short Field Landing; Douville took first in the Ground Trainer and Traditional Navigation events.
Other first place event finishes came from Benjamin Ediem (Simulated Comprehensive Aircraft Navigation), Garret Turco and Jason Preston (Unlimited Navigation).
High placings in other events solidified the team’s overall first place finish. Paul Lindseth, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, said they persevered against the country’s best of the best to win it all.
“Congratulations to the students who made this such a great team effort, they were each huge contributors,” Lindseth said. “Hats off to Lewis Liang and Ryan Guthridge – they had a young team and were able to instill them with the confidence to win. It’s a fierce competition that ensures a bright future for aviation nationwide.”
Aviation department chair Jim Higgins highlighted a larger team effort behind the Flying Team, when considering the University’s resources and dedication to success. Students practicing can easily put in 40-hour weeks, and many staffers make the extra effort to give them quality preparation.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the team,” he said. “Very balanced scoring indicates that everyone put in a lot of work, and it was a true team effort. The support of everyone involved at the Odegard School—the flight instructors, operators, maintenance staff, faculty and dean’s office—is an indicator of the quality we have at UND.”
In winning Coach of the Year, Liang says it was a humbling surprise.
“It was extremely unexpected, but I’m humbled,” he said. “My biggest concern was having it take away from the team focus. This event wasn’t about me; it was about the team.”
Kent Lovelace, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor and director of aviation industry relations, said there’s nobody more deserving than Liang to receive the distinction. Lovelace knows the Flying Team’s winning tradition better than most, having coached UND through part of its seven consecutive championships from 1985-1991. He also served on the NIFA Council from 1985 through 2013, where he now serves as a non-voting committee member. He continues to judge at SAFECON competitions.
“Lewis worked tirelessly,” Lovelace said of the NIFA Coach of the Year. “He’s known as a gentleman among the coaches of the organization, and team members enjoy his guidance and mentorship – he’s so deserving of the
distinction. It continues another tradition, as Ryan Guthridge won it last year, Jim Higgins won it in 2010, and I’ve had the privilege of it, too – there isn’t another team that’s had this many ex-competitors earn that title.”
Guthridge first experienced Liang as a coach when he placed as Top Pilot at 2009’s SAFECON, winning UND its 15th championship title. He was excited to work alongside him on the coaching side ten years later.
“It was seamless,” Guthridge said of his transition to UND’s program. “Lewis is a phenomenal coach and leader. He takes it one day at a time, making sure the students have what they need. You couldn’t ask for more out of a head coach.”
Led by Liang and Guthridge, the following students earned UND’s 17th national championship: Steven Roche (Co-Captain), Adam Douville (Co-Captain), Damien Gheler, Kaitlyn McGowan, Ben Eidem, Ryan Fitzgerald, Brendan Korinnga, Joseph Taylor, Alexis Hesse, Kunal Sujanani, Jason Preston, Brian Shamblen, Joseph Sorrentino and Garret Turco.