I had been out of touch with the university and the flight team for many years, mainly because I was busy being a husband and father to my two daughters, now 26 and 23. Meeting this team at the National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s National Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference (NIFA SAFECON) in May 2017 changed that.
The last two nationals were held in Columbus, Ohio, very close to Cincinnati, where I live. In 2016 while in Columbus with my youngest daughter visiting some of her friends, I realized that the nationals were going on. We took a chance and drove by the airport, and I saw the Embry-Riddle airplanes taxiing out. I spoke to the parents of a team member and they told us the airplanes were on their way to Lunken Airport in Cincinnati to see where Embry-Riddle began. That is also where I am based with the Cintas Corporate Flight department.
Timing is everything and I missed them here and I missed them there. I planned better in 2017. I drove up to the competition, which was held in Columbus, Ohio, that year, and looked for anyone Embry-Riddle. I ended up meeting several team members and I was even invited to their team dinner that night. Before I left, Head Coach Sam Morris floated the idea that I should come help judge the regional competition in Prescott in November. My wife, Claudette, and I ended up making a vacation out of it. It was a great time and in the weeks that followed, we started talking about putting together a 40th reunion for the team, which we held on Feb. 23, 2018.
A Magical Place
In high school, I was the kid that kept to myself. The most “out there” thing I did in high school was to be part of the light and sound crew for our theater department. Being on a flight team or helping start and run one wasn’t part of who the “high school me” was. But the Prescott Campus was a magical place. We were all new students, all 256 of us. There were no upperclassmen, no one knew me to bother me, judge me or pick on me. I was a brand new me, in a brand new place. We all were at that time. I knew this was a new start for me, and a time to take on new challenges.
Before I get into the early days of the flight team, I want to give you a little perspective on Embry-Riddle Prescott in 1978. Embry-Riddle acquired the campus from the defunct Prescott College. Prescott College had abandoned the campus several years earlier. It must have happened fast, because the story is that when Embry-Riddle officials came on campus for the first time, they found classrooms and offices that, minus all of the dust, looked like people had just stepped away for a bit and would be returning shortly.
The Wild West
Most of what you see on campus and at the airport today didn’t exist in 1978. All of the classrooms and dorm buildings were like classroom No. 52, which happened to be my dorm. The first orientation was a bit like the Wild West. Not much structure; one pay phone; one security person, “Andy.” The protocol for an emergency was to make your way to the pay phone and call someone. No cell phones. My parents left me here, so they must have been OK with it.
There wasn’t much to do in those days so we made our own entertainment and coined a question with a response: “What’s the best thing to do in Prescott on the weekend?” It was a unique time for us, never to be repeated here, because we were the first!
During the fall of 1978, then Dean of Students Dan Reece attempted to start a flight team. Dan was retired Air Force and had a lot of experience with the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA). He knew that Embry-Riddle Prescott should be a part of NIFA. Being a small campus, I got to know Dan early in my time here, so it was natural that I would be involved in the flight team. When Dan asked me to help run it, I was a bit intimidated, but I said, “Yes.”
We had our initial meetings to get people to join but we also recruited some people who we knew were talented in certain areas like aircraft identification, computer accuracy and flying the simulator. With Dan’s help, we learned the events and started practicing.
Other Duties as Assigned
Being the first and only organization on campus at the time, we were in an interesting position. We were called on by the Admissions Office and others to help out with things like giving campus tours for prospective students, and helping with guest speakers and safety seminars. Although it wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing, we really liked helping and being in that position.
We quickly became the “go to” group for the campus administration.
There are bits of our history that may not sound good, but it’s important to remember it. The team is what it is today, because of the things it’s gone through, the decisions it made and the influences and pressures it experienced.
We soon learned that the university wasn’t going to support us financially, not even with airplanes. I met with Wilbur Middleton, then provost, and Jack Hunt, then university president. I explained to them that at competitions we were the face of the university. I added that when the other teams saw the aircraft we flew, the Grumman Tiger, they would want to come to Prescott; and that if one student came to Prescott because of our being at a flight meet, then the university’s support would be worth it. They still would not support us. We were considered to be “unprofessional” and “weekend warriors.” Those were Jack Hunt’s exact words. Of course, we were unhappy and upset about it, but there were only two choices: figure it out, or fold. You know the choice we made. We were now even more determined to survive and succeed.
We had many conversations about money and how we were going to get it. This included self-funding, asking, begging and borrowing, fundraising and looking for an outside sponsorship. We sold donuts at the flight line, held car washes and cut wood. We held the first dance on campus and many more after that.
We found an old mirror ball on campus with many mirrors missing. Our solution was to break mirrors that we “found” around campus and glue the shards of glass to the ball.
Our dances had 30-plus kegs and some university oversight. We held dances in the fieldhouse, over by the new gym, and in the old cafeteria, which was one-third its current size. The mirror ball hung proudly from the celling at all of our dances. My roommate and the team’s vice president, Rob Sproc, did the music at a few of them. Since the ratio of men to women was so bad, 250-6, we advertised in town, specifically at Yavapai College. The attendance was very good, of course we had 30-plus kegs, remember? Oh, and the drinking age then was 19. We were so successful that in our second or third year of doing dances, I received my own personal death threat. The Yavapai men didn’t like us advertising on their campus.
During this time, in spring of 1979, the Student Government Association was formed. We were initially put off that they would be taking our role as the “go-to” group for the administration, but we realized quickly that instead of fighting, we should become friends and ask them for money to help us go to Deer Valley for the 1979 NIFA Regionals. They were very generous but it still didn’t cover the entire cost.
I spoke with Larry Stephan (who was the director of recreational sports in 1979) recently and he recalled how we went to any department or group that we thought might give us some money to compete. We were motivated, read “desperate,” but never gave up.
To make things even more challenging, on March 15, 1979, all of the instructors walked off the job, and Dan Reece, our founding adviser, left the university. It was a very uncertain time for the flight team. I don’t remember how it happened, but Wayne Hanks, in charge of safety at the university, stepped up to be our adviser. He helped us get to regionals that year.
That first competition we expected to camp at a KOA in Phoenix and we used rented airplanes. We didn’t know the KOA was basically paved and wasn’t set up for tents until we got there. After that surprise, we elected to stay at a Best Western near the Deer Valley Airport.
We were competitive and surprised a few teams with how well we did that year. Our success motivated us to work harder. We knew we had what it took.
The next two seasons, 1979-80 and 1980-81, were more of the same. We begged for money, held dances, car washes and sold donuts. In those two seasons, Ben Beagle came on board as our faculty adviser, another pivotal moment in our history. Ben’s calm nature, even temper and wisdom guided us then and future teams for about 10 years.
One new development was the university did allow us to use the Grumman Tigers, which looked great sitting on the ramp at regionals. Those airplanes turned heads and people were talking. It was our first step toward support from the university. We were very competitive, knocking on the door of placing to go to nationals. In our third regionals, spring of 1981, we tied for third but lost the tiebreaker.
I graduated in December 1981, so although I was on the team and involved, I wasn’t president. Jeff Culp was president for the 1981-82 season.
Some highlights from the history of the Golden Eagles:
- We first hosted regionals in 1983 with Mike Lowe as our third president. It was a pretty large undertaking, considering we were only five years old
- Our fourth president Dave Pederson led the team to third place in the regionals and to our first trip to nationals in 1984. We placed 15th out of 27 teams and won the safety award.
- In 1985, under our fifth president Doug Carpenter, we were again third at regionals and 12th at nationals.
- In 1986, with Dave Pederson returning as president, we finally got a score of 152. We missed first place at regionals by 1 point and won the safety award again. At nationals we placed 11th and got a second-place safety award.
- In 1987, the team, led by Pat Verdon, had a sponsor: Del Taco. We talked about this in 1970, and they did it in 1987. That year, we finished third at regionals and 9th at nationals.
I think our continued success and a Del Taco logo on the tail of one of our airplanes got the university’s attention. In 1987-88, the university attempted to form its own team. The administration said it would name the advisers and coaches and re-form the team. This was a critical moment in the life of the Golden Eagles. Pat Verdon was president and he met with Paul Daley, the provost, and talked to him about the advantages of us maintaining our independence v. the university tearing down the existing team and rebuilding. With Ben as our adviser and the determination of the team, the team was able to maintain its independence. Ben told the university that they were welcome to form a team, but that NIFA would not recognize it because we were already recognized as the Embry-Riddle Prescott Golden Eagles Flight Team. The university wisely decided to leave the team alone to govern itself. Its decision had a price, though: The team was required to win regionals — and it did! Due to that team’s hard work and performance, we continue to enjoy the advantages of being self-run today.
‘Long Gold Line’
In the last 40 years, the team has gone from being immediately competitive to a consistent winner or contender. The team built on its success every year, never backsliding. In 1993, the team won nationals for the first time, and since then, it’s won 31 consecutive regional titles and 12 national championships, never going more than three years in between championships. In November 2017, the team was inducted into the San Diego International Air & Space Museum’s Hall of Fame; and in May, it celebrated its first back to back three-peat championship win.
I believe that how we started 40 years ago began the long Gold line that connects us today. That the struggles and challenges we faced made us better. And that without those struggles and challenges, the team wouldn’t be what it is today. It gave us a common cause of survival and success. This thread of motivation and dedication – and maybe a little defiance — has been passed from team to team. The team today has the responsibility to future teams to pass on this spirit as only it can. Your legacy will be written by the teams that come after you are gone, because of what you passed on.
Forever a Golden Eagle!
The above article by Mark Overley was edited and slightly abridged. Overley originally presented it as a speech at the 40th anniversary reunion of the Golden Eagles Flight Team, held Feb. 23, 2018. Overley earned a B.S. in Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle’s Prescott Campus, and was the first president of the Golden Eagles Flight Team (1978-79). Today, he is a senior captain on the Falcon 900EX Easy and Cessna Citation Sovereign, at Cintas Corporation in Cincinnati, Ohio.