Flying circles around the competition
MSU Denver aerobatics club team crowned national champs, defying expectations and gravity.
By Dan Vaccaro
The Aerobatics and Glider Club team at MSU Denver did something extraordinary in 2017 – besides flying single-engine planes in stomach-churning loops thousands of feet in the air.
The team won the national collegiate championship, beating out powerhouses University of North Dakota, which had won the title for nine consecutive years, and the United States Air Force Academy.
The International Aerobatics Club will present the award to the team this summer at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Oshkosh airshow, an event that attracts half a million people.
For Vibeke Gaard, an aviation and aerospace major, the achievement is particularly sweet because the club is less than 2 years old.
“Other schools have been flying for years, have access to fleets of planes and lots of financial support,” said Gaard, who also serves as club president and is a founding member.
In contrast, MSU Denver’s team doesn’t yet have a dedicated plane. Club pilots fly in the coaches’ personal planes. The team also covers its own expenses, particularly the cost of traveling to competitions across the state and region.
In spite of these challenges, the team continues to defy expectations; not to mention, gravity.
At competitions, team pilots perform loops, spins and rolls, moves that are jaw dropping from the ground, but that most people hope never to experience on a holiday flight to see the in-laws.
Judges rate each maneuver of a predetermined sequence on a scale from zero to 10. Scores are tallied and the team with the largest sum wins. Those numbers are tracked throughout the year and the group with the highest overall score is crowned national champion.
This year, MSU Denver’s team included nine flying members and two ground crew. Besides the team award, two of the pilots won individual honors. Sam Robinson ranked as the top performer in the country and Jarod Hulse finished second.
Despite appearances, coach Dagmar Kress says aerobatics is about learning to fly safely.
“It really is safety training,” she said. “When we turn the plane upside down and we fly straight up, and we let the airplane stall and spin, we learn how to recover. It makes us safer pilots.”
Gaard agrees. She will graduate in 2019 with a long-term goal of being a commercial private or airline pilot and says the experience with the club is preparing her for any and all situations.
The Aerobatics and Glider Club was not the only successful aviation team at MSU Denver in 2017. The Precision Flight team finished second in regional competition in the fall and qualified for a trip to nationals in May 2018. The group’s competitions comprise both flight and ground events and are developed to hone basic airmanship to a higher standard, which is both required and desired by the aviation industry. If things go according to plan, there could be another national champ in the family soon.
This summer, the aerobatics team begins the defense of its national championship, and Gaard thinks the environment will be a little different from last season.
“We aren’t the underdogs anymore,” she said. “The top teams will be coming for us full force. But we’ll be ready.”
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