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UND Flying Team takes honors at 2022 National SAFECON competition

UND student pilots win second place, earn multiple trophies at national event

Image courtesy of UND Flying Team.

The University of North Dakota Flying Team took second place overall at the 2022 National Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference (SAFECON) contest – the first in-person event since UND’s championship run in 2019.

This year’s meet was hosted by The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. At SAFECON, UND has placed first or second 32 times in the past 38 years and took home a number of top marks in 2022. The Flying Team has a similar record of excellence at the regional level, including a first-place finish in October at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

The team took first place in the ground-based events at Columbus, based on total points, and had first-place finishes in four separate events.

“The team did amazingly well,” said Lewis Liang, longtime head coach and winner of multiple Coach of the Year awards at previous national SAFECON meets. “Our goal was to win nationals, but we had a strong showing in many events with many individuals doing exactly what we trained so hard to do.”

Liang added that of UND’s 14 students that competed at 2022 SAFECON, only two had previously been to a national-level event. The exceptional performance from all members of the team was a testament to the character of the team, its leadership and captains, as well as the coaching staff’s dedication, Liang said.

“They did a great job handling a competition of that caliber,” he remarked.

Top marks for UND pilots

Joe Taylor, co-captain of UND’s Flying Team, earned the distinction of Top Pilot as the top scorer among hundreds of competitors.

The team also earned the Judges Trophy for the 2022 competition.

Both the winner of the competition, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – Prescott, and UND scored more than 500 total points this year, which was thought to be an unobtainable goal only a short time ago, according to Liang. Embry-Riddle ended the week with 592 to UND’s 536. By comparison, the third-place team scored 272.

Full results for the week-long competition can be found on the National Intercollegiate Flying Association website.

“The Odegard School is extremely proud of how well our UND Flying Team performed at SAFECON, and how hard they worked during the entire school year to compete at the highest level,” said Elizabeth Bjerke, associate dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “It used to be unheard of to score over 500 points at the national competition, and to score 536 is truly remarkable.”

‘Battle of two heavyweights’

Established by NIFA, SAFECON regional and national competitions test pilots in comprehensive fashion. From pen-and-paper navigation to powerless landing accuracy, the event’s 12 contests bring all flight skills to bear.

“This was a young team that acted and performed like a veteran group of competitors,” said Ryan Guthridge, assistant coach. “They represented the University of North Dakota with an extremely high level of pride and honor. This year’s competition was a battle of two heavyweights, both scoring a record total of team points. While we won ground events and the Judges Trophy, we narrowly fell short in earning the National Championship.”

Last year, the national competition was held virtually – featuring only ground-based events that could be judged from a distance. In 2020, the event was cancelled outright due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Liang credited NIFA and event organizers for doing everything possible to bring the event “back to normal” as much as possible in 2022.

The fact that the event was back in full swing this year gave Liang and his team motivation to work hard and put as much energy as possible into doing well in their events. “It’s one of those things where they’ll put in the effort for the carrot, which in this case is going to nationals and competing against nearly 30 schools and more than 400 of their peers,” Liang remarked.

And the benefits of returning to the national stage go farther than bragging rights, Liang added. The camaraderie and potential for networking is something invaluable for UND’s pilots, as they’re meeting and competing against people with whom they’ll work side-by-side once they’re in the aviation industry. It’s an aspect that’s sorely missed in remote competition, and everyone feels the impact, Liang said.

Also, for the students, taking home titles such as “Top Pilot” and “#1 in Navigation,” are big points on resumes. People in the industry know what it takes to achieve those accolades, Liang said, and it serves pilots well to be recognized at the NIFA level.

“Earning 500 points used to be like the four-minute mile: people thought it couldn’t be done,” said Liang. “Now that it’s been broken, we’ve had to raise the bar. I’m extremely proud of this team, who did exactly what they needed to do to succeed.”


Members of the 2022 SAFECON UND Flying Team are Matthew Cleveland (Sycamore, Ill.), Nathaniel Dietz (Chatfield, Minn.), Ryan Fitzgerald (Albuquerque, N.M.), Bailey Harris (Bemidji, Minn.), Caroline Kelley (Lakeville, Minn.), Max Langerud (Worthington, Minn.), Blake Nahin (Los Angeles, Calif.), Cobi Pimental (Kailua, Hawaii), Aaron Schwartz (Buffalo Grove, Minn.), Jebadiah Sussenbach (Edina, Minn.), Joe Taylor (New Prague, Minn.), Mikayla Weiss (Grand Forks, N.D.), Carson Wells (Bristol, Ind.). and Cole Yokoyama (Kaneohe, Hawaii).