Cadets soar into record books

A sailplane towed by a T-41 Mescalero soars above Colorado Springs in the direction of Pikes Peak. The U.S. Air Force Academy's soaring program gives cadets their first hands-on experience with flying aircraft. The 94th Flying Training Squadron conducts the training, flying more than 30,000 sorties per year. (U.S. Air Force photo/David Armer)

An Air Force Academy sailplane towed by a T-41 Mescalero soars above Colorado Springs, Colo., in the direction of Pikes Peak, in this file photo. Cadets with the Academy's cross-country soaring team collected 26 Soaring Society of America badges in 2011 to win the Robert B. Evans Trophy for the seventh-straight year. (U.S. Air Force photo/David Armer)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The cadet cross-country soaring team here earned 26 Soaring Society of America flight badges in 2011 to capture the Robert B. Evans Trophy, beating Penn State University and Embry-Riddle University, which placed second and third, the SSA announced Dec. 30.

This is the Academy's seventh-straight trophy and its 13th since 1995, said Mark Matticola, the soaring team head coach and instructor of advanced soaring for the 94th Flying Training Squadron here.

While clubs with large fleets of gliders tend to perform better, the Academy soaring team reached its milestones with only four aircraft, said Maj. Aaron Dripps, the advanced soaring program director. Their total fleet is five gliders, but one was in maintenance for most of the season.

Cadets flew 17,203 miles -- the second most in the soaring program's history -- en route to earning the badges, Matticola said. That places the team in the top fifth of soaring teams around the world, according to statistics compiled by the Soaring Society Online Community. The Academy team's record, set in 2010, was 20,281 miles.

Cadets' 2011 SSA badges consist of seven A-badges, seven B-badges, seven C-badges and five bronze badges, Matticola said. A-badges require a solo flight; B-badges require 30 minutes off tow, and C-badges require an hour off tow. Bronze badges represent two two-hour solo flights and passing a written exam that covers soaring knowledge.

Staff members with the 94th earned three A-badges, three B-badges, three C-badges and two bronze badges, Matticola said.

In addition to the SSA badges, cadets earned three silver badges and one gold badge through the International Air Sports Federation, or FAI, to set a program record for the most FAI badges earned in a single season, Dripps said. Staff members with the squadron also earned three silver FAI badges.

Silver FAI badges require an altitude gain of 1,000 meters after tow cable release and a flight distance of 50 kilometers. Each of the altitude, distance or time legs can be earned at any time, but all must be flown solo, and the duration is often challenging because of cadets' time requirements.

"To get a five-hour flight, they'll launch, rush to find lift, then land just before official sunset," Dripps said. Most competitions also don't afford the opportunity, as cadets are usually aloft no more than three or four hours.

Gold badges also require flights of five hours or longer, but a soaring pilot must fly 300 kilometers and gain 3,000 meters of altitude from tow cable release. That makes altitude a limiting factor, as the altitude gain plus the base flying altitude in Colorado Springs would place a glider in airspace restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration for aircraft flying under instrument flight rules, Dripps said. However, flights starting at lower altitudes, such as flights at soaring competitions, allow cadets to hit the gold badge altitude leg.

Cadets also earned two diamond goal badges, which they met by flying 300 kilometers to a preset goal, Matticola said.