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New heights: OSU's flight team allows students to live their pilot dreams

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Flying Aggies Fly-In-0356.jpg

A seaplane on display during the Oklahoma State University Flying Aggies Fly-In at Stillwater Regional Airport in Stillwater on April 13, 2019.

Oklahoma State University’s flight team might not attract the same fanfare as the school’s football team, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t reaching new heights.

The team consists of aviation students and is a subsection of the school’s aviation group, The Flying Aggies. The flight team’s abilities were never more present than last year when they placed first at NIFA’s regional competition, beating 29 other schools.

The team itself is what drew current coach Matt Vance to the school.

“The Oklahoma State team caught my eye when I went to a flight team competition and they were all dressed in orange flight suits and cowboy boots,” he said. “I mean, they looked kind of like a perverted prison gang. But it was amazing because they were having such a good time and they did well.” 

Vance said that their performance as a team compelled him to take a coaching position in Oklahoma. He has now been coaching OSU’s flight team for six years.

The unity that the uniforms represent contrasts with the competitive attitude of the aviation program. Due to limited enrollment and equipment, there has been a sense of quiet competition among the students to do well and earn their spot in the program. However, on the flight team, that rivalry dissipates and is replaced by a strong support system.

One member of that team is professional pilot senior KD McCloy, a member of the team since 2018.

“We’re like a family,” McCloy said of the team’s dynamic. 

Different bonding activities the team does outside of flying and competing, including bowling and breakfast.

However, most time can’t be spent on fun. The team has to start preparing for the regionals months in advance. 

However, many flight team members said that they try not to practice too much to avoid getting too in their heads. They also said that repetitive practice can start to hurt their ability to retain the information.

Despite that sentiment, Coach Matt Vance stresses the importance of their “secret sauce” methodology. 

“We have documented methods now for every single event [at the competition],” Vance said. “I don’t have to do a whole lot of coaching, I just say, ‘Have you read the method and are you following it?’…We can all see when someone’s not following the methods.”

Vance said that studying and utilizing these methods is vital to the success of the team at competitions.

Another crucial aspect of the flight team is the ability to handle the intense workload. Tryouts are coming up for potential new flight team members and McCloy said that they’ll be looking for this skill in the team hopefuls.

“People that are trying out need a hard work ethic,” McCloy said. “We’re all busy, we’re all trying to divide our time into different organizations on campus. So, if you’re not passionate about it and willing to work hard at your event you can’t succeed in this team.”

This notion of a unified team may not seem important at first glance at what the competition entails. The NIFA competition is less like a football game and more like a track and field meet. There are different events over a few days, with no event involving a large team, but rather individual events and a few small group events. 

However, it’s still important to be able to work with your team. Professional pilot sophomore Hunter Broughton said that teamwork is an integral part of flying.

“One event of the competition, I’m by myself,” Broughton said. “But on another one, I’m with a group, so a strong connection is really important.”

Once all the events have ended, all the competitors attended a banquet where their total points are calculated. The flight team sat anxiously as they watched their numbers add up.

The team was in disbelief when they were announced as the first-place winners. Though their celebration was less of a party and more of an exhausted drive back from Norman, it will undoubtedly be a highlight of their college careers. 

Unfortunately, the team was unable to compete in nationals due to COVID-19, and the regional competition for this year will look a lot different. Instead of traveling to compete, the events will be held via teleconference, and you qualify for nationals simply by showing up.

Though some worry this may take away the spirit of competition in the flight team, professional pilot sophomore Preston Shoemaker still has hope.

“We’re going to compare our numbers to OU’s,” Shoemaker said. “That way there will still be some competition.”

Regionals are still set to happen this spring. Even with the changes, OSU’s flight team is sure to still give it everything they’ve got.