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UND aerobatics team soars to success

The American Champion Decathlon is a common beginners plane for training and acrobatic flight at the Grand Forks International Airport in Grand Forks, ND on Tuesday, August 4, 2015. (Grand Forks Herald/ Joshua Komer)2 / 7
Michael Lents prepares the Decathlon for flight at the Grand Forks International Airport in Grand Forks, ND on Tuesday, August 4, 2015. (Grand Forks Herald/ Joshua Komer)3 / 7
Michael Lents does a final check before flight in the Decathlon at the Grand Forks International Airport in Grand Forks, ND on Tuesday, August 4, 2015. (Grand Forks Herald/ Joshua Komer)4 / 7
A Decathlon in flight. Submitted photo by Michael VanderMeulen.5 / 7
A Decathlon in flight. Submitted photo by Aj Volberding.6 / 7
A Decathlon in flight. Submitted photo by Aj Volberding.7 / 7

Michael Lents was completely at ease flying upside down 3,500 feet in the air.

"Do you want to do a hammerhead?" he asked inside one of two UND aerobatic flying airplanes one morning in early August.

Seconds later he nosed the bright red aircraft vertically into the sky until it slowed nearly to a stop and then deftly flipped straight back down again toward the green farmland below.

Lents leads the UND Aerobatic Team, which will compete in Iowa Saturday. Last year, the team was ranked No. 1 for the seventh year in a row by the International Aerobatic Club, beating out other institutions, including the United States Air Force Academy.

"I don't have a job, I just have fun," Lents said.

The team spends practices critiquing each other's moves from the ground and sometimes perfecting them from inside the plane with Lents.

"You have a handheld radio and tell them 'That loop looked a little pinched on top, try it again,'" team member and senior Christiaan Schrimpf said.

Two Super Decathlon planes, one dark green and one bright red, serve as the team's aircraft. Lents said he encourages students to try new things once they're comfortable flying, always keeping safety in mind.

"It's neat to kind of see them explore the full-flight scope of what an aircraft can do," he said.

Experience with that kind of unconventional flight is attractive to potential employers, as knowing how to get an airplane out of an uncontrolled spin or dive is always beneficial.

"It's not that you're going to take that type of aircraft upside down, but it instills a sense of safety and confidence in the aerodynamics of the aircraft as well as the pilot's skill level so they're comfortable with flying and can handle situations other pilots might not be as up on," Lents said.

While the team is working to get better scores than other teams and even each other, competitions aren't cutthroat, and the upcoming small competition over a field in Iowa is no exception.

"Everyone is kind of helping each other out and keeping each other safe, so it's a competition, but everybody is kind of pulling for everybody to do well, which is kind of nice to see," team member and Aerobatic Club President Alex Volberding said.

Flying high

What look like loops, spins and flips to the untrained eye actually vary widely based on whether they're being flown for a competition or an air show.

Lents said competitions have preset sequences of maneuvers fliers usually have to complete within a half mile by half mile square marked on the ground in white. Airshow moves are more about what looks pleasing to the crowd, not precision.

"Airshow flying is more creative, but you have to really know your aircraft at that point and practice it at a higher altitude hundreds of times before you bring it closer to the ground," Recent graduate and aerobatic team member Cameron Jaxheimer said.

One G is the amount of gravitational force a person feels on their body, and Lents said most maneuvers in the aircraft involve between four and six Gs. After that, the force can cause a person to pass out briefly if they aren't used to it.

The team trains at about 3,500 feet in the air, but for most air shows, maneuvers are performed closer to 1,500 feet in the air.

"There's a lot of room to mess up, mess up some more, laugh a little bit and then recover," Lents said. "It adds a level of safety and keeps us separated from traffic trying to move between the Air Force Base and here."

The team flies its planes to competition; the Super Decathlons are constructed with a steel frame and wooden tail for aerodynamic reasons. While the covering looks like painted metal, it's actually a strong cloth coated with shiny paint.

"It'll fly upside down almost as good as it will fly upright," Lents said.


Introduction to aerobatic flight is an elective class for students that Lents pulls team members from. He attended UND as a student and has taught for about a decade.

"That's where I kind of teach students the basics of loops, rolls, flying the aircraft upside down, spins," Lents said. "They get all attitude (the angle at which a pilots flies a plane) training so that way any aircraft they're flying they can safely recover from, whatever situation they're flying in."

That's how senior Michael Vandermeuler ended up on the team after noticing the class was offered when he was a sophomore.

"I thought it would be fun," he said.

And he was right.

Jaxheimer glossed over the fact that stunt pilots are more likely to die at work than commercial pilots before talking about his dream to compete on the nationally representative U.S. team. He plans to try out this fall at the National Aerobatic Championships in Texas.

"It's always difficult doing well because you're never going to be perfect, but there is always a new challenge," Jaxheimer said. "The winds might be up one day, or maybe it's 110 degrees and you're sitting in that airplane and you have that hot air blowing on you for ventilation."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't list pilot types, but it released data showing in 2013 aircraft pilots and flight engineers saw the third highest rate of fatal work injuries, coming in behind fishermen and logging workers.

Team member Estin Johnson said every time he puts on the safety parachute to fly, "I'm always thinking it'd be really fun to jump out of the airplane."

And yet, most of the team said they blend in with the rest of the future pilots attending the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, which had a total enrollment of 1,464 for the fall of 2014.

"A lot of people think it's cool especially back home, but at UND there are so many pilots in Grand Forks it gets a little watered down," Volberding said.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.