Flipping for competition

Aerobatic Team aims to reclaim dominance over skies after falling just short of national championship for first time in decade

UND Aerobatic Team

UND Aerobatic Team: (left to right) Mike Lents, Elise Wheelock, Jarrett Croy, Liz Birch, Alex Tally, Dustin Lenz, Alex Hunt, James Jacobson, Jacob Githens, Mitch Oswald. Image courtesy of Mike Lents.

Every team has its keys to victory. Maybe it’s a good night’s sleep or a hearty, protein-rich breakfast.

University of North Dakota Aerobatic Team pilot Elise Wheelock’s sources of success are more nontraditional.

“Luck and lots of cartwheels,” the junior flight education major said with a giggle. “I’m very hyperactive, so it helps me focus better to do cartwheels beforehand.”

Wheelock’s ritual of pre-flight tumbling did the trick at the 2017 International Aerobatic Club (IAC) U.S. National Championships held this September in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Wheelock placed first in the primary flight contest, but she was just one of a team of leaders in action celebrating another year of airborne success.

Senior Commercial Aviation major Jarrett Croy joined Wheelock on the Primary podium with a second-place finish – both in their first year on the team. UND flight instructor Alex Tally, a commercial aviation graduate, earned a second-place ranking in the Sportsman category. Six other team members also brought heavyweight competition to the Wisconsin sky.

The pilots compete individually in a sequence of three flights, flying a Super Decathlon aircraft – one of two generously donated by late UND benefactor James C. Ray – through a flight plan of pitches, spins and loops. The flights are judged and then averaged for a final score.

“The judges give you a grade, and they also give comments on why they downgraded you. So when you make improvements, and you know you did better, it feels good,” Tally said. “You’re kind of competing against yourself, trying to improve after every flight.”

New obstacles

The aviators enjoy personal trophies, but Head Coach Mike Lents knows that’s not all they’re after.

“It’s not just that they want to score the best – they want to all score better as a team,” Lents explained. “It’s great seeing everyone so driven toward not only their own goals and professional goals, but also helping each other achieve those things.”

The UND Aerobatic Team was coming off of nine consecutive IAC Collegiate National Championship Team Awards when they entered competition this fall. This year, they’re set to finish the season as runners-up. Although there’s a stitch of frustration there, the team is focused on the upsides.

“It’s a little disappointing, but it’s also exciting that MSU (Metropolitan State University) of Denver did better than us,” Wheelock said, referring to one of UND’s top opponents, “because we want to encourage other teams to grow.”

“It’s just going to double our resolve for next year,” added Mitch Oswald, a UND flight instructor who flew the Sportsman category this year. “Having a good competitor, we’re going to push each other to do better and better.”

It’s a team of optimists, but they’re also realists. When asked how they’ll come back out on top in 2018, the answer was collective: practice.

Elise Wheelock and Alex Tally

Pilot Elise Wheelock (right) is joined by flight instructor and teammate Alex Tally (left). Wheelock captured first place in the Primary category of the 2017 IAC Competition. Tally brought home a second place finish in the Sportsman category. Photo courtesy of Mike Lents.

Flight connections

The multi-day IAC Nationals put UND student and staff pilots in the same airspace as airline, corporate and military pilots, as well as talented hobby pilots from diverse fields. As UND’s student pilots hunt for trophies, they’re also hunting for business cards.

“It’s kind of cliché, but true – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Croy said. “If you’re able to connect with all of these people in aerobatics, it makes it that much easier to network with them in a more professional setting.”

Wheelock added that beyond networking, there is simply a lot of knowledge to be shared. “You meet people who are thousands of hours more experienced than you are, and they’re really excited about the same things you are,” she said.

Many professionals at Nationals tell Lents that they steer aspiring pilots to attend UND because of the talent and integrity they witness. They see young people driven with a mission towards something, rather than just doing it “because they’re supposed to.”

That’s the thread that connects the pilots of the UND Aerobatic Team – this isn’t something to tick off the aviation requirement list, or another bullet for their résumés.

This is a lifestyle.

“It’s what gets me up in the morning, is being able to do something that not every other pilot here at UND does,” Oswald said.

“It doesn’t feel like work when you’re actually in the airplane,” Wheelock agreed. “It’s always the highlight of my day to get to go up and go upside down and backward. I mean, who wouldn’t like that?”

UND Aerobatic Team

The UND Aerobatic Team flies a Super Decathlon plane in competition, donated by benefactor James C. Ray. Photo courtesy of Mike Lents.

Coach soars

Coach Lents had his own triumph at Nationals. With a third place finish in the Advanced Category Free Program, he earned his first-ever spot on the U.S. team that will compete at the World Advanced Aerobatic Championships in Romania next year.

Lents will face dozens of international contenders in flight sequences of increasing difficulty.

“This will be a new adventure,” he said. “It will be a neat experience to see all of the different pilots come together. In the aerobatic community, it doesn’t matter where you’re from – you’re still a pilot, and you have that connection.”

Back home, a personal fan club will cheer on the man who has been cheering them on all year.

“He made the U.S. team while leading our team,” Croy said, a smidge of pride in his voice. “Everybody else has the benefit of just being able to focus on themselves, while he’s able to multitask and not only focus on helping us along, but also making the World Advanced competition.”

If you would like to support the UND Aerobatic Team, please contribute to its crowdfunding campaign.