Sky’s the limit
First STOL event at 7,096 feet
BOULDER – A 1952 Cessna 170 banks before straightening its wings above a makeshift runway at Ralph Wenz Field. The propeller slows, comes to a stop and the plane drops.
Hovering inches above the ground, the pilot guns the engine, pushing the small aircraft over a white line painted in the grass. Dust flies as the wheels hit the ground.
Col. Matthew Peterson, the line judge, gives the pilot two thumbs up, signaling a successful landing. The engine cuts and the plane slides to a stop several hundred feet down the runway.
Volunteers measure the space between the white line and where the plane came to rest. They combine the landing and takeoff distances to determine a pilot’s final score at STOL (short takeoff and landing) events, Peterson explained.
The pilot with the lowest score wins, “just like golf,” he said.
“These pilots are outstanding,” Peterson said. “If they land within a foot of the line, that’s topnotch stuff right there.”
Another plane hovers on the horizon and the pilot dives for the white line.
Other aircraft wait their turn during practice runs on Friday, Aug. 12, preparing for the Rocky Mountain STOL Competition on Saturday.
Pilots gather for annual STOL tournaments across the United States. The debut Rocky Mountain STOL Competition, hosted by Emblem Aviation and the Town of Pinedale, stood apart from the rest. For the first time in STOL history, aircraft took off and landed at 7,096 feet, pushing aviators to the limits of their abilities.
More than a dozen pilots participated in the event with at least 550 spectators attending the competition on Saturday, said Angela Douglas, part owner of Emblem Aviation.
Pilots hailed from as close to home as Pinedale and as far away as Sitka, AK.
Saturday’s event went off safely and without a hitch.
“We are so grateful the Lord held off the rain and we were able to fly,” said Cathy Wachter, event coordinator for Emblem Aviation.
Douglas said Cathy Wachter and her husband, Bruce Wachter, spent months of hard work to make the competition come together.
“It’s one thing to have a dream,” Douglas said. “Having people make the dream come to fruition was such a treasure. Cathy and Bruce worked so hard this summer.”
All about altitude
Bret Kobe, owner of Scud Air Solutions in Utah, checks over his Cesna 170 during a break in rehearsal flights on Friday.
“I probably have the smallest horsepower engine here,” he said. “It’s a 145-horsepower plane at sea level, but at the air density we’re at, the engine is probably only producing 80 horsepower. So I’m at almost half the horsepower that the engine’s rated for at this altitude. That’s where you see that real long takeoff roll that we have to go through.”
Kobe’s piloting experience is extensive. He teaches backcountry flying at Scud Air Solutions.
The elevation at Ralph Wenz Field posed a challenge for the seasoned aviator. The altitude doubled, even tripled, takeoff and landing distances, Kobe explained.
“There is less air for the engine to perform and for the wing to produce lift,” he said.
Kobe looked forward to flying in the first Rocky Mountain STOL Competition on Saturday and the opportunity to test his aviation expertise at 7,096 feet.
“It provides a neat opportunity for us to come to a higher elevation and really practice our skills, because a lot of the backcountry flying we do is up in the mountains,” he said.
Backcountry aviation gave rise to STOL competitions, according to Kobe.
Bush pilots in Alaska flew to and from remote, makeshift runways, forced to land and take off in “really small, tight spaces,” Kobe said. The pilots began to gather at events to practice their technique and soon “friendly competition” developed between backcountry fliers at local airports in Alaska, Kobe added.
Short takeoff and landing tournaments quickly filtered down to the lower 48.
“We used (the competitions) as a way to transfer that backcountry knowledge to the new and upcoming pilots so they could learn how to fly in a safe environment instead of being way out there, hundreds and hundreds of miles from civilization,” Kobe said.
The Federal Aviation Administration mandates that all air-traffic controllers retire at the age of 56. Following a career guiding countless aircraft to safety, retired air-traffic controller John Moore devotes his time to volunteering at STOL events.
Moore serves at an “air boss advisor” at these events. His primary task is “organizing and facilitating the efficient flow for the aircraft” and “keeping everything as safe as we can.”
Moore relies on the know-how he picked up in air-traffic towers to monitor the weather, “itinerant aircraft” – planes that are not part of the STOL event – and the aircraft in the STOL event. He and his fellow air boss advisor remain in constant radio contact with pilots the minute they fire up their engines to prevent collisions.
Moore described aviation accidents as a “chain of events.”
“You don’t want to add another link,” he warned.
Weather plays as significant a role as altitude at STOL events, and Wyoming’s unpredictable wind threatened to ground pilots as the practice runs continued on Friday.
Aircraft used for STOL competitions are small, fixed-wing outfits with barely enough cabin room for the pilot and one or two passengers. A sudden wind gust can create far more turbulence for a STOL plane than a big, lumbering commercial jetliner, Moore explained.
“STOL airplanes, by their nature, are build with high lift and light weight,” he said. “So they’re much more like kites.”
The first practice flights early Friday morning went according to plan. Then the wind began to pick up as noon approached.
“The first group did fine,” said Moore. “The second group, it got a little squirrely, because we noticed the winds were turning around. They started blowing out of the east, giving us a tailwind. With the density of altitude factor here, airplanes are already flying at a higher ground speed.”
Moore and the other air boss advisor met with the pilots and decided to keep everyone on the ground until the wind calmed down or shifted back to the usual westerly direction.
A new opportunity
The practice flights “went well” for Andy Jones. At 17 years, the upcoming senior at Pinedale High School was the youngest pilot on the field.
Jones’ stated goal on Friday was not to “scratch,” or miss a landing or takeoff. The PHS student surpassed his own expectations and won the bush plane division. His performance earned him an invitation to National STOL Competition in Gainesville, Texas on Oct. 29.
Jones first took control of a cockpit when he was 12. He and his father fly a tail-wheel, high performance Aviat Husky A-1C-200, “the big horsepower model of the Husky line.”
Jones is passionate about flying, and recently completed his flight instructor certification with a military veteran instructor in Cody.
“I try to fly every day the weather is moderately nice,” he said.
Being the youngest contestant in a field of experienced aviators felt a little intimidating at first, Jones said. The camaraderie among fellow fliers put him at ease.
“We had dinner at Half Moon Lake Lodge last night, and everyone was being really nice and supportive,” he said. “It actually eased my nerves.”
Once he is up in the air, Jones relaxes – helpful for nervous passengers along who tend to feel “claustrophobic” in the small craft.
“It’s not a stressful environment, because the whole point is for the pilot not to be stressed,” he said. “It’s set up so everything is meant to be calming. That passes down to the passengers.”
Jones is considering a career in the U.S. Air Force or commercial flying, although he is still uncertain. Regardless of where Jones’ path takes him, he can confidently say he has the ability to take off and land a plane in the span of a few hundred feet – a talent few pilots possess.
The Rocky Mountain STOL Competition may not have the attendance of larger, more established events like the AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Organizers hope this is just the beginning, though.
Col. Peterson, the line judge, organizes his own event called Swamp-STOL in his hometown in Louisiana.
“It was very small the first year,” he said. “The next year, we had to bring in the Civil Air Patrol just to handle the traffic.”
Backcountry flying is “the fastest-growing segment of general aviation,” Peterson added.
“These fly-ins are a great place for people to come and see airplanes perform at their peak performance and meet people who can teach them how to fly the backcountry safely.”
“We look forward to next year,” said Emblem’s Cathy Wachter.
- Heavy touring division: Clint Saunders in first place.
- Light touring division: Bret Kobe in first place
- Bush plane division: Andy Jones in first place, Bobby Drouin in second and Michael Sisk in third
- Light experimental division: Hal Stockman in first place, Ace Spratt in second and Joel Milloway in third.
- Light sport division: David Reed in first place.