May was supposed to be a time of intense activity for the OU Flying Sooners flight team. Not only should they have been wrapping up a busy semester writing papers and taking finals, their lives were to be consumed with preparing for the biggest flying competition of their lives as part of a 30-team field in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in May 2020 at NIFA’s 100th Anniversary SAFECON.
The 2019-20 OU Flying Sooners
Scott Rourke (co-captain), Bradley Burgess (co-captain), Brandon Albert, Brayden Butcher, Eldon Hesselius, Brandon Kincade, Billy Kreikmeier, Reid Lohmann, Ryan O’Leary, Brendan O’Toole, Field Parsons, Austin Scheets, Sean Connor Shanks, Andrew Wertheimer and Nick Zahn.
The fact that they had qualified for nationals at all was a monumental feat for the team, which hadn’t qualified to compete on the national stage in more than three decades before earning their place among the elite teams of collegiate aviation last fall.
“When me and Scott took over in Spring of 2019, we had a fire lit under us and set our sights higher,” said Flying Sooners co-captain and Aviation Management – Flying senior Bradley Burgess. “We wanted to go to nationals and have our team recognized on the national stage.”
While the unexpected arrival of the COVID-19 virus in March derailed their ability to compete against other top collegiate pilots from across the nation, Burgess believes that the qualification was proof that the hard work and training that the team had put into preparing for their regional competition had been worth it.
He also believes that the OU Flying Sooners team will to continue to show the world just how good the pilots from the OU School of Aviation Studies are for a long time to come.
Winning the Region
In recent years, the Flying Sooners hadn’t seen much success in competition. Prepping for regionals consisted of practicing for four weeks before the event, then the team showing up for competition and performing as well as they could with the limited prep time. This routinely led to the team finishing dead last in its region.
“Being part of the team meant we would go out compete once a year and have a good time, and it would kind of end at regionals,” Burgess said. “Our previous captains wanted to change that mentality, and in 2018, we came within two points of qualifying for nationals.”
That near taste of success spurred Burgess and fellow co-captain Scott Rourke to push for a more considered and consistent approach to preparing the team for competition in 2019 and beyond.
In Spring 2019, the team started conducting regular, once-a-month practices. They increased the frequency to once a week during the summer and continued that pace through the start of the Fall semester. In September—the month leading into the Region IV SAFECON—the members of the competition team were selected and the practice schedule ramped up, consisting of three 1.5 hour practices per week where team members would work on practice versions of the various in-depth ground tests. The team also held three flight practices in the weeks leading up to the event.
“A week before the competition, we rallied together and had a team dinner like the football team would do,” Burgess said. “Everything was about building team chemistry.”
OU’s third-place overall finish earned the 15-member team a trip to nationals on the strength of seven Top 5 finishes and 19 Top 10 finishes across nine events during the three-day competition. The team placed second overall in combined ground event scoring and fifth overall in the flight events. Rourke also earned Top Pilot honors, the highest individual award presented for all-around excellence throughout the competition.
The team’s elation at their outstanding showing was apparent when they learned they had qualified for nationals.
“One of the comments we got from other advisors and the judges was that we were the team that cheered the loudest out of anybody there,” said Rourke, and Aviation Management – Flying senior. “Even though we didn’t get first place, we did something major by qualifying for nationals, when two years prior, we were dead last, and consistently dead last.
“I haven’t felt that much energy in a group of people in a long time.”
A Solid Ground Game
Developing a team with an excellent foundation in the ground events was a primary focus for Rourke and Burgess as they began to brainstorm how best to lead the team toward their scheduled nationals appearance this spring.
Half of the competition is based on ground skills and the other half on flying skills, Burgess said. Flight time is expensive, so the team focused on winning the ground events, since they could practice those events for free as often as they liked.
“You can take an exam over and over again until you begin to see all the secrets, the methods and shortcuts,” Rourke said. “The ground events are definitely the core of the team’s strength. When you have a limited budget to train for the flying events, that’s where you really need to make sure you’re doing everything you can to prepare.”
With the plan in place, they began deconstructing the lessons they had learned at regionals and implementing new training methods to better prepare the team for success on the national stage.
“We had to come up with a strategy to keep everyone engaged and learning more and more, while not burning anyone out or having them become disengaged,” Rourke said. “It took a few meetings this spring for us to find a way forward that everyone could buy into.”
Burgess and Rourke are big believers in momentum, so they focused on building and maintaining the energy and spirit of the flight team this spring. With the team motivated by the challenge of heading into uncharted territory and inspired by their success at regionals, they resumed practicing in January 2020 with a new goal in mind—making a name for the OU Flying Sooners and the university among their peers.
“We didn’t want to just be happy about making it to nationals,” Burgess said. “We wanted to really instill the idea that we can carry our success into nationals and set our spot on the national stage. We all had our sights set high. We wanted to win nationals.”
“Part of our structure with practices was there would be a more advanced group practicing and a beginner group that we could start bringing along, introducing the concepts they needed to know and building them up from there. We’re dedicated to not only developing the people that had that base knowledge, but also building a foundation for the future.”
Rourke said the goal of practices throughout the spring semester were on improving the team’s current skills through studying and applying the lessons learned at the Region IV SAFECON, while learning new skills and techniques that would be relevant to the new events they would encounter at nationals.
“We changed our training schedule up a bit this time,” Burgess said. “We were practicing all of the events at the same time on Thursday nights, so we could get more team building time worked into our practices and build the culture of the team.
“Our focus was to earn the top five positions in the ground events. The flight events are fun, and they’re certainly important, but if you put in the work on the ground, you can increase your chances of doing well.”
Historically, the Flying Sooners team had been made up of juniors and seniors, but Burgess and Rourke focused their efforts on recruiting more freshmen and sophomores onto the squad.
“Part of our structure with practices was there would be a more advanced group practicing and a beginner group that we could start bringing along, introducing the concepts they needed to know and building them up from there,” Rourke said. “We’re dedicated to not only developing the people that had that base knowledge, but also building a foundation for the future.”
The confidence and sense of accomplishment that the team gained from its regionals success played a large part in energizing the team to push for something greater at nationals.
“We were able to see that our hard work prior to regionals paid off in the ground events,” Burgess said. “We were practicing a ton and devoting a lot of time to studying. It inspired us to try to seek out funding to be able to practice more for the flight events heading into nationals, so we could be more prepared in that half of the competition, too.
“We learned a lot of lessons from the regional competition. Even when you succeed, there is still a lot you can learn. I think that’s what propelled us to put in the work preparing for nationals. We were ready to make a name for ourselves.”
Team morale throughout the spring was great.
“We’d have 70-80% of the team showing up to every practice,” Rourke said. “We recruited 10 new members. The camaraderie and spirit was still there. We had a couple of practices where a lot didn’t get done because we all just wanted to hang out. That’s part of the team environment is that you’re all in it together, but you’re all friends. It can’t be all work and no play.”
A Quarantined Resolution
By early March, the team was in the process of developing fundraising efforts to raise money for additional flight practices and help support the team’s trip to nationals, but the arrival of the COVID-19 virus derailed their plans before they could get off the ground.
“I was really looking forward to seeing the team interact at the national competition,” Rourke said. “One of the really cool things about these events is that they bring together all of the pilots from around the nation that are trying to be the best of the best. It’s a fun environment to interact with other pilots who put in the extra time and effort to train that we do. I think our team would have been fairly competitive.
“Anything beyond just competing at nationals would have been the cherry on top. I wanted to see people reap the rewards of all their hard work.”
While missing out on achieving a goal that would have been thought impossible just two short years ago is a bit bittersweet for Burgess, he is pleased with everything the team was able to accomplish this year.
“It certainly is a two-sided thing for me,” he said. “We finally accomplished our goal of qualifying for nationals. For the graduating seniors, we were able to leave on a high note. It was cool to have that taste of victory in our mouths. A lot of the team will really cherish the friendships we’ve made and the memories of all that we’ve done and the experience we’ve had.”
As the chance for one last shot at glory faded with the cancellation of the 2020 SAFECON, Burgess and Rourke turned their attention to ensuring that the success the team had this year lives on after they are gone.
“We’ve written some standard operating procedures and a guideline for how to compete,” Burgess said. “The key is just recruiting a dedicated set of team members who are driven to keep the team practicing and running.”
Their goal in the last weeks of their senior years was to build a foundation for the team that’s long-lasting, so this year’s successes don’t just fade away after a single year of glory.
“I think the next challenge will be getting the team camaraderie back in the post-COVID landscape,” Rourke said. “The success of the team relies on team spirit. Then you need to execute during the events. But you have to have a strong team before you can execute.
“There are some people on the team who are ready take charge and can carry the team to success again next year. And Bradley and I are always just a phone call away, so we’ll be happy to help in any way that we can.”