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Imagine a place where every stretch of flat land presents an opportunity. Where Public Land is a free game, and the only thing that limits you is your plane’s capacity. “The Promised Land” and “The Flying Mecca” are just a few terms used to describe eastern California which stretches all the way to Utah. For some, landing on mountain peaks, dry lake beds and meadows hidden among forests is nothing new. Aviators have found new places outside the airport to land for decades, and will continue to do so across this vast continent. However, with the growing popularity of sharing experiences on social media, backcountry flying is exploding. Big things can’t be kept a secret for long, and with aviation influencers like Trent Palmer and Kevin Quinn drawing mass attention to this type of flight, everyone wants to be a part of the magic.
Whispers in the Desert
Amidst all the buzz surrounding off-airport flying, those who pay attention can’t help hearing about a “little” backcountry flight that takes place in the High Sierra Desert. What started as a little birthday party in 2010 has grown into one of the hottest aviation events of the year.
The High Sierra Fly-in (HSF), also known as “Burning Man for Pilots” – now in its 11th year – has hosted nearly 2,000 people and 500 planes. With all the attention it gets, many people ask, “What’s so special about it?” To that, we respond with two words, “STOL Drag”. A concept that came about when pilot Kevin Quinn thought about how he could make traditional Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) competitions more fun.
“I was sitting in the think tank one morning,” he said with a laugh. “Traditional STOL is cool, but our off-road flight is traditional everyday STOL. To be completely honest it’s fun, but if you’re not 200 feet from the start or the finish line, it’s like watching the paint dry.
With that question in mind, Quinn came up with the idea of racing airplanes. He thought to himself, “Let’s line them up side by side in the desert and go down and back a mile.” And all of a sudden, Kevin Quinn changed the High Sierra Fly-in forever.
The birth of STOL Drag
STOL Drag is a race between backcountry planes. Two planes fly over a course of 2,000 feet with overtaking of 1,000 feet on each side. You start on a line, take off and fly 1000 feet before sliding the plane to slow the plane down. The pilot must land on or over the line on the opposite side of the course. Once on the ground, they dissipate speed using mechanical braking, come to a complete stop on the heading, turn 180 degrees, take off and descend the course. The first plane to fly over the start line and come to a complete stop wins.
STOL drag races incorporate many different skills, such as power and energy management, direction and altitude control, and spot landing techniques; the psychological aspect of flying next to another plane is also taken into account.
This exciting new form of racing is gaining the attention of general aviation pilots across North America. When asked why he thought the High Sierra Fly-in connected with so many people and racked up so many followers, Quinn said, “We fly planes that ordinary people all fly. days are relevant. “
Uncle Bryan’s Blue Book
In its early days, the concept was simple: “Fly down, turn around, come back fast. But that has changed so much since then, ”said Bryan Forsyth, one of the first participants of the High Sierra Fly-in. Now timekeeper and judge you will see Forsyth strolling with a blue book pressed to his chest. The mysticism around this book is real. It contains the race times of each driver who has already participated in STOL Drag. The meticulous nature of the event organizers is a common theme. Those who think that the pilots involved in STOL drag races are reckless outlaw cowboys, will be surprised to find that they are laser-focused when it comes to safety.
Over the years they have built a strong relationship with the FAA and are now a nationally accredited racing event. That’s right, this group of perceived intrepid off-road pilots took an enormous amount of time to create procedure manuals, a pilot safety course, and more. Under this national accreditation, the FAA has given them the authority to issue race cards that give pilots the ability to fly at any of their STOL Drag events. This is the most recent racing class to join the Reno Air Races in 21 years, and the only nationally accredited racing class, so they can take their show on the road.
Improve good pilots
STOL Drag improves good pilots, according to pit boss and A&P Kyle Bushman.
“It’s teaching someone to fly the plane beyond the basic level of private pilot. It teaches you how to have too much energy, how to dissipate the energy, and how to land the plane in a place that in an emergency is king.
The evolution of STOL Drag and the revival of off-road flying have been a natural progression. “We clung to a tiger’s tail and we hold on; [we] have no idea where this is going, but we strongly believe it is in the right direction for aviation, ”Bushman continued.
When asked if the organizers missed the good old days when HSF started, everyone agreed that they were happy to have been a part of it, but were excited for the future.
In addition to improving good pilots, STOL drag racing also contributes to the growth of the aviation industry. “Racing is the lifeblood of the industry, and in doing so, we are advancing technologies in general aviation,” said Bushman. Currently, a majority of experimental aircraft manufacturers have, on average, a two-year waiting list for their bush planes. The revival of off-road flying is real, and it’s all thanks to STOL Drag racing and the aviation influencers who support it.
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With so many planes bound for the High Sierra Fly-in, safety is always a top concern for event organizers. A special NOTAM called “STOLtam” is issued each year, which includes the specialized approach procedures. Created by professional air traffic controllers, STOLtam includes waypoints, entry and departure procedures, mandatory reporting points, radio frequencies, go-around procedures, holding procedures, operations on the ground, etc. Compliance with these procedures is taken very seriously and any deviation may lead controllers to close the airspace until the departure of the obstructing aircraft.
The men and women of STOL Drag
Although STOL Drag is a competition, the ultimate goal – besides safety – is to have fun. HSF was a grassroots movement with the intention of building a community in the backcountry of California and Nevada, and continues to be so today.
When you talk to its founding members, you can see how much it means to them; they all support the idea that HSF and STOL Drag races are for everyone. This is not an exclusive event, but a gathering meant to connect and inspire aviators. With a massive, dry lake bed, they are able to accommodate planes of all sizes, from small RVs to PC-24s. Skies looks forward to seeing the progress of STOL Drag racing. It reinvigorates general aviation, and it’s arguably the best thing GA has to offer right now.