The National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA) exists today as a forum for collegiate aviators to expand their studies and further their careers by participating in competitive and non-competitive events, networking with industry and contemporaries, and applying themselves to go above-and-beyond their ordinary curriculum. But, its history began over a century ago.
NIFA traces its roots to early post-World War I powered flight. Young aviators, returning from the war to their collegiate studies, sought to expand upon and use their training and experience to further the nascent cause of civil aviation. “We, students of Columbia University, being ex-army and navy aviators, have organized the Aero Club of Columbia University,” twelve students declared in their May 1, 1919 petition to the University Secretary. Similar clubs were born in the early days of flight at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Lehigh, and other universities and colleges across the United States. On May 7, 1920, nine schools competed at Mitchel Field in the first contest held by the Intercollegiate Flying Association. They charged a small admission fee and a huge crowd contributed a net of $5,000 to see the show. Yale took first place, assisted by naval aviator and future founder of Pan American Airways, Juan Trippe in a war-surplus Curtis Jenny.
No permanent organization resulted from these early efforts and it was not until 1928 that things began to move. The National Intercollegiate Flying Club (NIFC) was formed at Yale that year by representatives from ten colleges.
In 1929, Grover C. Loening of the Loening Aeronautical Engineering company, who had been America’s first candidate for an aeronautics degree just seven years after the Wright Brothers historic flight, established the Loening Intercollegiate Flying Trophy. His wish was to encourage flying and exceptional achievements among the now many collegiate aviation programs nationwide. The award was judged that first year by Loening and his friends, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Navy Commander John Towers. The pure silver, Tiffany-designed trophy is still judged and bestowed today at the annual SAFECON.
In December of 1934, twenty three colleges and universities met in Washington, D. C. to broaden the competition beyond what had been mainly Ivy League schools. They elected officers, chose an airmeet location for the following June, and, under sponsorship of the National Aeronautic Association (NAA), formally declared the National Intercollegiate Flying Club (NIFC) a going concern. Bill Strohmeier of Amherst was NIFC’s first president and Purdue hosted the first National Air Meet taking top honors. Competitive events included spot landings, navigation, and “bomb” dropping.
During World War II, national meets were held at the University of Michigan, Hicksville Aviation Country Club on Long Island, the University of Akron, Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and Lock Haven State Teachers College at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.
The NIFC was revived after the war at an airmeet in May, 1947, at Willow Run Airport in Michigan. Schools from as far away as Mississippi and British Columbia attended. Wayne E. Westra of Detroit took individual honors and Western Michigan College won the team prize. However, the 1948 airmeet at Ann Arbor, Michigan, signaled a change for the NIFC. The National Aeronautic Association was demanding a $500 deposit at the beginning of each year from the NIFC for continued sponsorship and recognition of NIFC as an associate organization of NAA. The NIFC membership voted to turn down NAA recognition and, at the suggestion of Professor Troy A. Stimson of Texas Christian University, changed the organization’s name to the National Intercollegiate Flying Association.
In November, 1948, Professor Stimson called a meeting of the NIFA at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas, to draw up a constitution. Prior to that, Professor Stimson borrowed $250 from the Fort Worth National Bank so he could travel by train to Kansas City to enlist support for the new organization. Collegiate aviation by students from TCU, the University of Arkansas, University of Denver, Purdue, Colorado Women’s College, Michigan, and Western Michigan State. Dr. Hal C. Mehrens, educational consultant to the (FAA-predecessor) Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), John Patterson, Kansas City CAA regional office, and Frank Traumbauer, CAA regional Safety Board member attended and lent their support to the reorganization. The newly formed University Aviation Association was asked to serve as the sponsoring organization for the NIFA and Troy Stimson was elected to serve as NIFA’s first Executive Director. The NIFA adopted the motto, “Competition in the Spirit of Safety and Excellence,” and the regional and national competitions became known as SAFECONs (Safety and Flight Evaluation Conferences).
The Texas Christian University Flying Frogs hosted the 1949 National Airmeet. Supporters of the event included the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, local aviation operators, Southern Flight and Flying magazines, United Airlines, and Continental Airlines. Fourteen college and university clubs participated with UCLA taking top honors and Western Michigan placing second. Bill Padon was NIFA’s first President and Mary Helen Rattikin served as the first Secretary.
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We urge teams, former competitors, judges, historians, and anyone interested to search school library archives and newspapers, yearbooks, newsletters, magazines, and other publications for items relating to NIFA’s past to help us build a written history. Personal written accounts are accepted, too. Please submit those items and details pertaining to them to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Collected History of the NIFA
Popular Aviation magazine, May 1935: “A NATIONAL intercollegiate aviation association was organized at Washington, D. C., in December to put competitive flying activities between colleges in a class with football, […]