Together, the University of Florida athletic association’s two Embraer Phenoms average nearly 500 flight hours annually – and about 30% of that flying happens during just four weeks in December and January. That timing, when football coaches are allowed to meet in-person with prospective student athletes, is set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
The NCAA’s football contact period traditionally starts the Sunday after Thanksgiving, setting off a two-week sprint. Coaches from hundreds of colleges travel to meet the most promising high school football players across the country. After the holidays, the travel window opens again in the last part of January.
“We want to maximize those opportunities, those certain times a year when we go on the road to recruit,” said Mike Spiegler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Florida. “The coaches are out for two solid weeks, to be in as many places as they can.”
“Having our own planes gives us so much freedom, to get to places we need to as fast as possible.”
Mike Spiegler Senior Associate Athletics Director, University of Florida
Based at Gainesville Regional Airport (GNV), the flight operation for the University Athletic Association (UAA) also sees activity peak during the fall and spring basketball recruiting periods. The rest of the year, the aircraft regularly fly university officials to satellite campuses across Florida, academic conferences, the state capital in Tallahassee and other important meetings.
“We used to have slow periods the rest of the year, but we don’t anymore,” said Kim Adams, administrative associate for the flight team. With reduced airline schedules since the COVID-19 pandemic, flying on the Phenoms is up 20% year-round since 2019. “During recruiting, though, it’s nonstop. Those few weeks, we don’t take time off. It’s all hands on deck.”
Five States in One Day
The sprint starts in late November, when athletic department staff call Adams with a list of recruits. From there, she starts building a flight schedule that is sure to change many times.
For each prospective student-athlete, “Kim just gets an address. She takes that, plugs in airports within our safety limitations, and we start looking at weather around the country,” said Clint Wilde, director of aviation. “Then, the next two weeks, we’re flying every single day, both airplanes. Our record: We hit five
states in one day.”
Often, the coaches are flying from Gainesville to a small town. The airlines mainly serve Gainesville through Charlotte, NC, and Atlanta, with only a handful of flights a day. Reaching even neighboring states can take over five hours by car or airline – and often an entire day traveling to the rest of the country.
“Having our own planes gives us so much freedom to get places we need to as fast as possible,” said Spiegler.
In two days, the Phenom 300 might take coaches to visit players in New York, Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas. Or they may fill its eight seats, dropping off coaches at half a dozen destinations, then picking up each coach later the same day on the return to Gainesville. The Phenom 100 usually flies out-and-back to nearer destinations.
“We don’t want to delay anything for maintenance. If something happens, we’re here.”
Tim Ryan Director of Aviation Maintenance, University Athletic Association
During recruiting, flights may leave as early as 5:30 a.m., and a technician is on hand for every departure and arrival.
“We don’t want to delay anything for maintenance. If something happens, we’re here,” said Director of Aviation Maintenance Tim Ryan. “And we meet every arrival, because we don’t know when that next flight is, the schedule changes so much. We do our checks, and within an hour, we get the plane ready to go out again.”
Just as coaches are limited to traveling during the contact period, players have limits on how many coaches they can meet with. They may commit to a different school, or de-commit and suddenly become available. As a result, the flight schedule often changes with less than 24 hours’ notice.
“Sometimes, the schedule changes the same day,” said Adams, “Sometimes, the coaches will arrive at a scheduled stop, call us from the airport, and tell us that visit just cancelled, and they need go onto the next one.”
The team is in constant contact, with a group text message confirming every arrival, departure and schedule change. Any change in the recruit visitation schedule sets off a cascade of updates to rental car reservations and every other flight – as many as 11 legs in a day.
“Where we really shine is our flexibility. We operate as a team, with full transparency to tackle each day’s aircraft movements,” said Wilde. “I try to keep the same flight crew on each flight because they’re familiar with it. They’ve been studying the weather; they’ve been looking at the airports. Safety is our number one priority.”
Although UAA is a Part 91 operator, the team holds itself to many more stringent Part 135 procedures, including a limit of 10 flying hours within a 16-hour duty day. Adams ensures each of the five pilots gets the required rest, especially during the hectic recruiting schedule.
Managing fatigue is also a team effort. “Staying sharp on the road starts the day before the trip, with getting enough sleep,” said Assistant Chief Pilot Joseph Piazza. “At FBOs, I use the quiet room and put my phone down to get real rest. And communication is so important. As the end of a long duty day nears, we ask each other how we’re doing and watch ourselves more closely.”
Both Phenoms are always flown two-pilot – an insurance requirement. It was at a safety seminar hosted by the company’s insurer that the team learned their policy offered a credit to purchase technology for a safety management system (SMS).
“I talked to some other university aviation directors for recommendations, and we chose the VOCUS app from Polaris Aero,” said Wilde. The flight team then implemented its first formal SMS, using the cloud-based platform.
“We build a trip with the city pairing and duty start times. The app pulls in airport data and NOTAMs, then generates an alert or a stop,” said Scott Bailey, a captain. “There’s a self-reporting aspect. For example, if we landed one night with a quartering tailwind, and put in comments about that, we get an alert when the same conditions occur.”
“We always strive to increase our awareness and adaptation in our aviation environment.”
Clint WIlde Director of Aviation, University Athletic Association
Ready for Anything
The team is still learning the app and adjusting their SMS. They plan to tie it into new scheduling software, making Adams’ job easier and enhancing safety.
“One of the great things about our folks is they’re very open to change,” said Wilde. “They’re open to learning. Whenever we run into issues, we talk about it. We always strive to increase our awareness and adaptation in our aviation environment.”
Working to ensure safety, service and aircraft availability is how UAA aviation keeps passengers’ trust.
“It takes years to build that level of trust, and just 10 minutes to destroy it,” said Wilde. “So, there may be a storm coming in during our busiest time. We’re already communicating with our passengers, offering to leave the night before or the day after. That’s the level of trust they get from us.”
For more about the University of Florida athletic association, visit floridagators.com.
‘Something Bigger Than Yourself’
Like many flight operations, the team flying for the University of Florida’s athletic association has dealt with its share of workforce challenges in the last year – but that has not dampened their support for each other.
The demand for pilots has placed increasing demand on flight training centers. “You end up on a waitlist to get into recurrent training,” said Director of Aviation Clint Wilde. “So, we have to book two years out. We recently hired a copilot, which we’d never had in the past. It’s really difficult to get folks into school for a type rating.”
Although hiring is a challenge, UAA has no issues with retention. In fact, pilots, technicians and administrative staff all say the department is where they would like to retire, many years from now.
“The most rewarding part of flying for the University of Florida is being part of something bigger than yourself,” said Capt. Scott Bailey, “helping recruit for the teams and seeing the growth of the university.”
After a career at Part 91 and 135 operations, Capt. Greg Ramachandra loves the sense of family and community working in his hometown. “It truly is great to be a Florida Gator,” said Ramachandra. “As pilots, we’re exposed to hefty salary offers and told the benefits of multiple type ratings. I’m done chasing bigger iron and more money. Clint and the team make this exactly where I want to be.”
Aircraft: One Embraer Phenom 300 and one Phenom 100
Base: Headquartered at Gainesville Regional Airport (GNV)
Personnel: Five pilots (including the director), two maintenance technicians and one administrative associate