Reach for the sky: Embry-Riddle fields one of nation’s top collegiate flight teams

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has access to several simulators that allow students to be more engaged during training sessions. This is a Frasca C172S TruFlite AATD Simulator. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

Shaun Shephard graduated from the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2003 and now is head coach of the Golden Eagles Flight Team. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

The Golden Eagles Flight Team at Embry-Riddle has won 35 regional championships and 13 national championships. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

PRESCOTT – In the heart of a city nicknamed “Everybody’s Hometown,” future pilots train under some of the top minds in the aviation industry.

For more than 40 years, Prescott has been home to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, widely regarded as one of the most prestigious flight schools in the country. Yet it is more than an aeronautical think tank. It also fields one of the top collegiate flight teams in the nation.

The program has won 35 consecutive regional championships and 13 national championships, including last summer, when coach Shaun Shephard was still an interim coach.

“One of the biggest thrills of my life,” said Shephard, who graduated from Embry-Riddle in 2003.

Each fall, dozens of students try out for the flight team. Over the course of a few weeks, the field is narrowed down. Pilots are selected as well as those who will focus on specific ground events.

Competition events include flight mapping and planning. Pilots must plot a route to get from Point A to Point B in a set amount of time using a specific amount of fuel. One flying event includes landing on the runway in a marked spot.

Embry-Riddle senior Douglas Niemela, who earned his spot on the team as a freshman, now is a team captain. He wasn’t even planning on becoming a pilot when he first came to Embry-Riddle, but now he’s an instructor pilot and “is more comfortable in a plane than in his own truck.”

Niemela values the relationships he has with those in the program, and finds it rewarding to see younger students grow and get excited about flying. He’s grateful for the unique experience the school offers.

Each fall, dozens of students try out for the flight team, and over the next few weeks, the field is narrowed down. Pilots are selected as well as those who will focus on specific ground events. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

“I get to fly over Sedona, Arizona, and that’s my classroom,” he said. “That’s my homework. It’s really cool.”

Niemela was a part of the team’s 2021 championship last summer, and he understands what it takes to build a program as successful as Embry-Riddle’s. He compared it to Alabama’s title runs in football. Shephard compared it to Duke basketball.

For younger students like Eric Tran, Niemela has set the standard for the incoming students on the team. Their kindness and genuineness, however, also shows Tran that the team is truly a family.

“You have a bunch of caring team members who are very hard working, they are very smart, and they’re willing to help you in every way possible,” Tran said. “It’s another home away from home.”

Support is welcome at this academically challenging private school.

Over the course of four years, students participate in a four-year program accredited by the Federal Aviation Administration. With the hours needed and the certificates granted over the course of the four years, some at Embry-Riddle refer to themselves as the “Harvard of the Skies.” Students earn the highest level of certification possible in aviation.

They begin on the ground, developing flight plans and attending ground school before working up to advanced simulator training. While just simulators, these are specifically designed to feel and operate the same way an aircraft would in the air, so while on the ground, a student can get a feel for what it is like to be in the air in a safe learning environment.

These simulators are developed and advanced enough to where the FAA counts hours in a simulator towards the amount of hours needed for certification. Eventually, of course, students take flight themselves.

Embry-Riddle offers several programs, including air traffic management, aerospace and electrical engineering, cyber intelligence and security, and aircraft dispatcher. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

Parker Northrup has been Chair of the Flight Department since the summer of 2018. He has seen tremendous growth within the program and makes sure that everyone can get in the air time needed, as well as keep maintenance up on each aircraft.

Northrup referred to the operations of the flight school as similar to that of a small airline. Operating over 100 flights a day, there is a schedule planned out to the minute of which students go out, when they come back in, what planes go in for maintenance and more.

As a retired military pilot, Northrup knows the importance of teaching the next generation of pilots safe and effective flight. With Boeing predicting a need for pilots and the school only becoming more popular, Northrup is seeing tremendous growth.

Over the last four years, enrollment has increased 15-20% each year, doubling from when he became the program chair in 2018, Northrup said.

He is working on expanding the space Embry-Riddle has on the airfield to accommodate the increase in students and planes expected in the coming years. They currently share airfield space with Prescott Regional Airport.

The location has its advantages, as Prescott Regional is the only airport within miles of the campus. The airspace around is more clear than it would be if the school were in Phoenix or its sister campus in Daytona Beach, Florida.

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The weather is also an advantage to students in Prescott, where conditions are often prime for 330 days or more a year.

The university offers a degree in Aerospace Engineering, and just as future pilots get experience in the air, future engineers get experience fixing planes as they come in for maintenance.

Northrup compared it to making a cake. You have all of your ingredients: students, instructors, mechanics and planes. Take one out, it doesn’t work. The cake wouldn’t be complete. But with all working together, they are able to operate and excel at paving the path for the next generation of pilots.

The Prescott community has embraced the flight school as well. Last summer, the flight team was a part of the Whiskey Row July 4th parade in downtown Prescott.

“We talked about the school being behind us, our community is behind us,” Shephard said. “I pride myself (by) wearing Embry-Riddle apparel.”

The community support and the community itself has earned a special place in Northrup’s heart since he moved to the area. Shephard shares a similar sentiment for the school and city they call home.

“Embry is the best place in the world,” Shephard said.

“I am always happiest if I am flying, if I am teaching, and if I’m leading. And as the chair of this flight department, I get to do all of those things every day,” Northrup said. “I can’t imagine being any other place.”

Dylan Wilhelm DIL-lun WIL-helm (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Dylan Wilhelm expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Wilhelm, who has worked for The State Press, is working for the Phoenix news bureau.

Mary Grace Grabill meh-ree grays grey-bull (she/her)
Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Mary Grace Grabill expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in film production. Grabill has interned as a photographer with McGaw YMCA Camp Echo and Phoenix Magazine.