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Ryan Weber, a senior aeronautics major at Kent State University, sat at the awards banquet at the National Intercollegiate Flying Association's national SAFECON-2013, the Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference, hoping to hear his name.
As the award for short field approach and landing was announced, Weber listened for his name. He said the wait was agonizing.
They started with 20th place and worked up to first.
"I was just waiting for my name to be called, and they're passing the fifth, fourth, third," Weber said. "I'm like, 'Aww man, I didn't make it.'"
Weber won first place, beating more than 140 students from 28 schools across the country in his first national competition.
"It was like fireworks went off everywhere," he said. "Maybe because my parents were there and it was just really emotional, just top-of-the-world type feeling."
For his event, Weber said he had to take-off, fly a precise rectangular path around the runway and then land. He had two shots, both of which counted toward his score.
Richard Mangrum, assistant professor in flight and air traffic control at KSU and adviser for the KSU flight team, said six judges critique the students based on aspects such as their precision and approach to the runway.
"From take-off to landing, they're being judged by industry professionals, usually airline pilots or other flight educators, and the goal is to place the aircraft as close to the aim line as possible," Mangrum said. "The aim line is really simple. They draw a box on the runway. There's distances marked off, and the goal is to hit the zero, which is the aim line."
Mangrum said the landing event is scored like golf, with competitors aiming for low scores, especially 0, which means students landed on the aim line and received no penalties during their flight.
Weber scored 14.
He said winning comes down to a couple of feet.
"A couple feet in an airplane sounds like 'I won by about 10 feet,' which is quite a bit of distance," Weber said. "But when you're doing 60 or 70 mph, 10 feet is a thousandths of a second or something, so it's a relatively small margin of error."
Weber said it also felt good knowing he won against students from states like California or Arizona that have blue skies almost all the time.
"It puts confidence in my abilities as a pilot just because I had to adapt a little more than some of the other competitors just based on the amount of practice we had," he said.
As for his future, Weber said many employers participate in SAFECON, and his win will help his search for a job after he graduates in December.
"If you walk in there with a championship on your resume or even just participating in it, it gives you a definite leg-up to someone who doesn't have that," he said. "And it kind of breaks the ice that we have something in common."
The KSU team also placed fourth in flight events champions, surpassing the other Ohio universities participating in that event.
"Students did an incredible job considering the horrible weather we had over the winter and very little practice time they had," Mangrum said. "They did an incredible job, and Ryan being able to win the event with such little practice time because of the weather is just extra special. It really showed how good a pilot he is and how good our program is."
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