The Liberty Gazette
May 16, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Amid the backdrop of the snow-covered slopes of Pike’s Peak and the Rocky Mountains, a white and blue plane made a descending left turn. This was the final airplane in the last group of planes to take their turn in the spot landing segment of the competition. There would be plenty more action to come in the annual National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s Safety Conference. My peers and I, the spotters and judges, kept our eyes on it from our assigned positions several feet apart, on both sides of the runway.
I had done this before. A previous year I performed these same watchful tasks alongside a runway in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where, because of unexpected rain, everyone there sported stylish trash bags to serve as raincoats. This time I kept the collar of my jacket turned up, my wool cap pulled down snuggly, and my hands tucked into my pockets. Out there by the runway at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs the chilling winds cut right through all my layers.
As the plane made its final approach we anticipated its touchdown point would be somewhere within the 300-foot long box, each side of which the spotters stood. Each pilot would aim for the target line drawn 100 feet inside that box. Depending on where it actually touched ground, the closest spotter would mark the landing. I stayed focused in case it would land in front of me.
White stripes were painted on the tires so that we could tell the exact point the tires touched the pavement. The wheels would begin to roll when the plane touched down, which they did not do in the air. When the wheels landed and started moving that white stripe would, too, indicating the landing spot.
As with the other planes before it, the tires’ rubber made a chirp sound when they touched the ground. The spotter marked the distance from the landing point to the target line was their distance score for the spot landing contest. Penalty points could be assessed for landing entirely outside the box, and in this contest, a perfect score is zero.
It all began May 7, 1920 when nine schools competed at Mitchel Field in Long Island, New York for the first contest held by the Intercollegiate Flying Association. Yale University took first place. On their team was a naval aviator who would later found Pan American Airways, Juan Trippe, flying in a Curtis Jenny scrounged up from war surplus.
Today, the top 20 college and university flying teams, totaling about 50 pilots from around the country arrived in their school-owned airplanes. In addition to spot landings, their mettle was tested in precision flying events such as navigation and instrument flying skills, and timed written tests on regulations, flight planning, and aircraft recognition.
With the final contestant on the ground and taxiing to the staging area, we retreated to the heated motorhome where we sipped hot chocolate, coffee or tea and discussed the landings. The winners would be announced at a banquet at the end of the four day safety conference and they would proudly accept the prestigious trophies and titles. These are the best of the best collegiate pilots.