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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Oct. 15, 200812:00 PM EST

Local college aviation team flying high

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by: Mary Kate Roan

by Mary-Kate Roan

Staff Writer

The Jacksonville University Aviation Program celebrated its 25th anniversary in style Friday with the presentation of the Loening Trophy, awarded to the best all-around flight team in the nation.

“It’s the oldest and rarest trophy given to a collegiate aviation program,” said Juan Merkt, director of aeronautics at JU. “It’s normally kept in the Smithsonian Institute, but we worked out a deal.”

The JU Flight Team is the “new kid on the block” as Merkt puts it. Since 2002, the team has competed in the Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference (SAFECON), which began in the 1950s. The competetion is sponsored by the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA).

“It starts with a regional competition,” said Merkt, “and the top three teams from the 11 regions go to nationals in the spring.”

Event competetion consists of two parts: ground events such as pre-flight inspection and comprehensive exams on aviation knowledge; and flight events like precision landing, where the pilot must land a plane on a specific runway marking.

There are also networking opportunities available to flight team members. According to Merkt, major airlines are at the competition to meet the “cream of the crop” and see them in action.

Following the competetion, each team gives a presentation to explain to a panel of judges why their school deserves the Loening Trophy.

“In 2007, the team placed seventh overall and beat the U.S. Air Force’s flight team. They were also voted as the team that made the most progress,” said Merkt. “We were also accredited (in February) by the Aviation Accreditation Board International (AABI), so we had a lot going for us.”

According to Brent Knoblauch, the flight team captain, it was a tough decision for the judges.

“It was a gut instinct from the judges,” said Knoblauch. “It came down to them asking themselves ‘Where would I send my kids to school?’.”

The answer was Jacksonville University.

“This is the oldest and most prestigious of the aviation awards,” said NIFA President Bob Clement, who formally presented the award at the celebration ceremony.

The award was first given to Harvard University by a panel of judges consisting of: Amelia Earhardt, Charles Lindbergh, John Towers and Grover Loening. The trophy is named after Grover Loening, who worked with the Wright brothers and is credited as the first person in the United States to receive a degree in Aeronautical Engineering.

After graduation, the program’s students will find jobs either in the community as a flight instructor or in the region with regional airline companies. And the program’s graduates are in high demand, according to Merkt. Ashish Naram and Jeff Wolf, two members of the 2007 graduating class, walked at their Saturday commencement ceremony before reporting to work as pilots the following Monday.

“There were good memories and then there were ‘other’ memories,” said Bill Slupski, of his years in the JU Aviation Program. “Seventeen years later, I’ve learned to appreciate the ‘other’ memories.”

Slupski, department director of logistics management and integration air systems at the Navy, also added that he would be looking out for an airplane model that he built for an aviation history class.

“If I spot it, I’m walking out with it,” said Slupski.

One former alumna was impressed with what she saw upon returning.

“The campus has undergone a lot of changes,” said Amee Clancey, the aviation program supervisor for New Hampshire and a member of the 2000 JU aviation program’s graduating class.

Clancey later gave some valuable advice to the flight team.

“Have purpose in whatever you do,” she said. “People are the most important resource you have.”

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