Tuesday, February 28, 2012

NIFA Aircraft Recognition - How it Works Behind the Scenes

Many readers of this blog (I estimate there to be as many as 4 of you) know me through the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA). I competed in three Regional SAFECONs, four National SAFECONs (1998-2002), and I've judged both for many years. I've also been known to write an Aircraft Recognition test or two, and I hope to stay involved for many years to come.

When I was a competitor, I had a lot of questions about how Rec tests are made, and what guidelines are followed by the test authors. For example, at what age is an aircraft model too old to be included in a test? Can WWI-era aircraft be included? Can unmanned aircraft be used? Are the aircraft types limited to production models? If so, how many examples must be produced for a given model to be considered "production"? In short, what guidelines are in place to control what aircraft types appear in a NIFA Rec test?

Having been involved in judging for several years now, I can tell you - there are none!

According to the rules, an author of a Rec test may include any and all flying contraptions. Technically, he or she may include autogyros, gliders, hot-air balloons, Zeppelins, ultralights, and spacecraft. Fortunately for competitors, such madness is reined in by two values held dear to the test authors - tradition and consistency.

NIFA is rooted in tradition (In more ways than one - browse this link when you have some free time). Those of us who write tests generally want to honor the past by continuing long-standing tradition. And we also want to be fair. If a change is determined to be prudent, we will do what we can to institute it in a gradual manner. This prevents confusion, and it enables teams to utilize the knowledge and experience gained from competition.

The latter point cannot be emphasized strongly enough. NIFA could quite easily introduce strict, detailed guidelines for test authors to follow. A thick, detailed volume resembling a Gleim study guide could be distributed so competitors would know precisely what can and cannot be included in a Rec test. While this would undoubtedly eliminate much uncertainty among the competitors, I am against the idea.

Here's why:

If we were to create and communicate specific guidelines for tests, a school could recruit a knowledgeable competitor off the street, bring them to the National SAFECON, and instantly produce solid results in a "turn-key" fashion.

I don't want to reward teams for doing this. And I don't want Aircraft Rec competitors to be able to excel by locking themselves in separate rooms and studying independently for months at a time.

Instead, I want to reward the teams that make the effort to A) learn knowledge and tradition from their senior members, and B) actively pass it down to new recruits. I want these new recruits to learn from books and online sources, but I also want them to learn from more senior team members who have been around the block a few times. This builds team spirit, cooperation, and cohesion. And it creates a much more fulfilling and memorable experience. In my opinion, this is the essence of what it means to be on a NIFA Flight Team.

Now, it should be stressed that this outlook is my own. Other test authors and judges will likely have varying opinions and different perspectives on the matter. But my approach seems to be appreciated by many, and I think it reflects values held dear to NIFA.

So in response to the questions at the beginning of this article, I would expect to see the same aircraft categories you're accustomed to seeing. If you and your senior team mates have never seen a spacecraft or a WWI-era aircraft on a Rec test, it's doubtful you will see any in future tests. If anything new is introduced, expect it to be introduced gradually. For example, if I decided to introduce gliders to Rec tests, I would start by including one or two on a test. Not by dumping 15 of them into a single test at once. And no, I have no plans to add gliders to any future test!

So that's a snapshot into the creation of Rec tests.

As a judge who is somewhat active on the social media scene, I also receive questions about the official model name and/or designation of certain aircraft. Whether "Dreamliner" the official name of the Boeing 787. Whether the manufacturer of certain ELINT types should be that of the original airframe manufacturer, or that of the modifying entity. What differentiates one type of GA single from another.

To this, I like to remind competitors that as much as I'd like to help, I am a judge and not a coach! I go by what is printed in the official NIFA source - Jane's All the World's Aircraft. To be specific, I interpret this as the Jane's "yearbook" series. One is published every year, and each edition lists two years on the cover, as such:

These books are heavy, fabric-bound, and can be very expensive. Generally, editions from the 1970s and 1980s are the least expensive, fetching $15-30 on Amazon (tip - create an Amazon "Wish List", add these books, and circulate the link among your family and friends). As they become newer or older, they also become more expensive. Editions from the 1940s or 1950s are often in the hundreds of dollars, and editions younger than ten years old can be several hundred dollars each. This reality forces those of us with limited funds to pry ourselves away from Google and visit *gasp* a physical library! Look at it as a team-building field trip and have fun perusing the pinnacle of aircraft knowledge together with your team mates. You will be amazed at what you discover, I assure you.

Hopefully this sheds some light on the inner workings of the NIFA Aircraft Recognition event. By all means, throw questions my way. Depending on the topic, I'll either refer you to the aforementioned Jane's, or I'll do my best to answer them.

Here's to the greatest NIFA event, and here's to the good times and good friends we encounter in the pursuit of it's mastery!