Take Off in 50 Feet

THE BUSH­PLANE OLYMPICS IN VALDEZ, ALASKA.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY PRESTON LERNER

Pi­lots com­pete for a bush­plane ti­tle: Best in STOL.

AN OR­ANGE AND WHITE Piper Su­per Cub sits in the mid­dle of the taxi­way at Pi­o­neer Field in Valdez, dwarfed by moun­tains still frosted with snow de­spite this un­sea­son­ably mild early May in Alaska. With its high-lift high wing, car­toon­ishly fat tires, and tiny tail wheel, the stubby Piper PA-18 is the quin­tes­sen­tial bush air­plane. It’s about to show why in the next act of this unique bush-fly­ing event.

The Valdez STOL Com­pe­ti­tion is the ul­ti­mate test of a pi­lot’s abil­ity to ex­e­cute short take­offs and land­ings—the stickand-rud­der skill that has come to de­fine bush fly­ing. As a re­sult, any­body who is or as­pires to be part of the Alaska bush pi­lot com­mu­nity is here this week­end, from 18-year-old young gun Ja­cob Wil­liams to sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion stal­warts Paul Claus and the El­lis broth­ers to Alaskan aviation leg­ends Richard Wien and Vern Kings­ford.

This year, 36 air­planes are en­tered in four classes—light tour­ing, heavy tour­ing, bush, and al­ter­nate bush—the last, a com­pe­ti­tion among highly mod­i­fied or built-from-scratch ex­per­i­men­tals. At the mo­ment, all eyes are on Bobby Bree­den, de­fend­ing cham­pion in the bush class. With his foot hold­ing the brake, he gives his Su­per Cub full throt­tle. The tail rises un­til the nose of the air­plane is pointed

at the ground. Bree­den re­leases the brake. Al­most as soon as the wheels start rolling, he yanks the stick back and de­ploys the flaps. The tail­wheel bangs down on the pave­ment, and the Su­per Cub leaps into the air like a deer jump­ing a fence.

“Holy jeez!” one of the thou­sands of spec­ta­tors mut­ters, and the crowd buzzes when the take­off dis­tance is an­nounced: 61 feet. But this is the easy part, or at least the eas­ier part. The real chal­lenge is the land­ing.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to the field, Bree­den brings the air­plane in low and im­pos­si­bly slow. On his first run, he’d landed so hard that the PA an­nouncer joked, “Bobby no longer has a spine.” On this, his sec­ond and fi­nal try, he again bounces the land­ing, then feath­ers the brake so deftly that the tail re­mains raised un­til the air­plane comes to a full stop. To­tal dis­tance: 55 feet. “I once landed shorter than that,” an old-timer says. “In a he­li­copter.”

With a com­bined dis­tance for the take­off and land­ing of 116 feet—116 feet!— Bree­den re­tains his ti­tle, beat­ing a num­ber of skill­ful pi­lots who are also fly­ing Su­per Cubs. But un­like most of his com­peti­tors, Bree­den doesn’t have tens of thou­sands of hours in his log­book and griz­zly bear tro­phies on his wall. He’s a baby-faced 20-year-old col­lege ju­nior study­ing drone tech­nol­ogy at Em­bry-rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Univer­sity in Day­tona Beach, Florida.

“I quit sports in high school, and ev­ery day af­ter school I would go out and fly,” he says. “Af­ter I saw the STOL com­pe­ti­tion video in 2010, I got hooked on bush fly­ing.” He honed his skills not by land­ing on skis on treach­er­ous glaciers or tak­ing off in air­planes over­loaded with freshly slaugh­tered moose but by prac­tic­ing short take­offs and land­ings on a grass field in Virginia with lines marked in paint.

His par­tic­i­pa­tion demon­strates that the Valdez com­pe­ti­tion is not just an an­nual re­union for mem­bers of the small but far-flung com­mu­nity of bush pi­lots, but also an ex­per­i­ment that tests the lat­est bush-fly­ing tech­nol­ogy. In ad­di­tion, the get-to­gether gives com­mer­cial pi­lots a chance to net­work in search of op­por­tu­ni­ties, and gives am­a­teurs a class­room where they can hear po­ten­tially life­sav­ing tips from pros with decades of ex­pe­ri­ence.

“You have to stay a lit­tle bit scared,” renowned sea­plane pi­lot Vern Kings­ford told a rapt au­di­ence dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion the morn­ing be­fore the STOL com­pe­ti­tion. When Kings­ford moved to Alaska in 1975, he sought ad­vice from old-timers who’d sur­vived a life­time of bush fly­ing. (“The oth­ers weren’t avail- able,” he says dryly.) His first stop was the home of fa­bled flier Bill El­lis. El­lis, a pi­lot and hunt­ing guide in the Alaska wilder­ness in the 1950s, is gone now, but his rugged-look­ing sons Cole and Kirk are com­pet­ing here at Valdez.

“We were lucky be­cause we had Dad,” Kirk says. “He made a lot of mis­takes, so

he was able to beat them out of us.” His brother Cole chuck­les, then adds: “We’re here to pro­mote safety. We tell peo­ple what not to do. I tell them, ‘I’m only 20 years old. The white hair comes from fly­ing around these moun­tains all my life.’ ”

Be­sides the panel dis­cus­sions, the event in­cludes a fly-in and an air­show—even a flour-bomb­ing con­test. But the big draw is the STOL com­pe­ti­tion. “You won’t find another event like this in the world,” says John Davis, an Aussie who moved to Alaska 20 years ago to work as an air­line flight en­gi­neer and never left.

A gen­er­a­tion ago, in­for­mal STOL com­pe­ti­tions were held in small towns all over the state, but they fell vic­tim to li­a­bil­ity con­cerns. When the last of the shows, in the small down of Gulkana, called it quits, it ap­peared that an era had ended. But in 2004, civic lead­ers in Valdez res­ur­rected the STOL-OFF in an ef­fort to pro­mote tourism be­fore the sum­mer sea­son be­gan. Be­cause it was the only game in town, and be­cause bush pi­lots weren’t busy in early May with fish­ing and hunt­ing char­ters, most of the ma­jor play­ers in the bush fly­ing com­mu­nity be­gan show­ing up, and the Valdez Fly-in de­vel­oped its rep­u­ta­tion for off­beat fam­ily fun.

Brady Lane, a videog­ra­pher with the Ex­per­i­men­tal Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion, came here for the first time in 2010 to pro­duce a video for the EAA web­site—the video that hooked Bree­den on STOL. On Youtube, it’s at­tracted al­most 300,000 views. Lane was so im­pressed by the event that he en­cour­aged EAA to in­vite the STOL com­peti­tors to the group’s an­nual Oshkosh, Wis­con­sin fly-in. So this year, sev­eral Valdez reg­u­lars—led by Frank Knapp, the reign­ing champ in the al­ter­nate (read: ex­per­i­men­tal) bush class—flew their air­planes at EAA’S Airven­ture. “We want to show­case this kind of fly­ing be­cause it’s so hard to get to Valdez,” Lane says.

Even by Alaskan stan­dards, Valdez is off the beaten track. With a pop­u­la­tion of about 4,000, it isn’t even among the state’s 10 largest cities, though its lo­ca­tion at the south­ern ter­mi­nus of the Trans-alaska Pipe­line makes it one of the most im­por­tant ports. The city oc­cu­pies an idyl­lic spot on south­ern Prince Wil­liam Sound, nes­tled be­tween glaciers and moun­tains so ma­jes­tic that they ap­pear to have been Pho­to­shopped into the land­scape. Yet it’s best known for a pair of dis­as­ters. In 1964, the town was de­stroyed by the largest earth­quake in Amer­i­can his­tory. (The city was re­built a few miles from the orig­i­nal site.) And in 1989, it was the near­est site of the rup­ture of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, which hit a reef about 27 miles offshore.

Valdez has a rich aviation his­tory dat­ing back to 1928, when Owen Meals—for whom one of the city’s ma­jor streets is named—started of­fer­ing air­plane rides for $10 a pop. Of course, fly­ing comes with the ter­ri­tory in Alaska, which was trans­formed dur­ing the 1920s and ’30s when the dogsled teams that had been the ma­jor source of sup­ply to re­mote towns and cities were re­placed by air­planes (see “Alaska and the Air­plane,” June/july 2013). To this day, great swaths of the largest state are ac­ces­si­ble only by air­craft.

“Where I am, it’s true wilder­ness,” says Paul Claus. “You can­not get to where we live with­out an air­plane. You’ve got to fly just to pick up the mail. I go daily to places no hu­man has ever been be­fore.” He adds wryly: “In fact, this is the only time all year I land on pave­ment—for a ‘bush’ com­pe­ti­tion.”

Pro­fes­sional bush pi­lots spend much

of their time fly­ing hunters and fish­er­men to lo­ca­tions that don’t have roads, much less air­ports. And they do it over and over and over, rack­ing up count­less short-field op­er­a­tions. “We might make 50 take­offs and land­ings in one day,” says Kirk El­lis. With­out their log­books handy, Cole El­lis es­ti­mates that they’ve each got 20,000 hours un­der their belts.

Claus says those hours are not like flight time logged in an air­liner. “That flight you took to get here from L.A.— that was num­bers fly­ing,” Claus says. “The next guy to get into that 737 will fly it the same way the guy be­fore him did.” A bush pi­lot rarely makes the same flight twice; mis­sions and con­di­tions change, and the bush pi­lot adapts and im­pro­vises. “That is some­thing the FAA doesn’t like—right­fully so—be­cause it’s some­thing you have to learn on your own,” says Claus.

A lot of that learn­ing took place in a Su­per Cub. Although the type de­buted in 1949—con­cep­tu­ally, it dates back to the Tay­lor E-2 Cub of 1930 and Piper J-3 Cub of 1937—its un­ri­valed agility, sim­plic­ity, and rugged­ness keep it pop­u­lar. Su­per Cubs ac­count for 11 of the 13 en­tries in the bush class. “Piper made ’em right, I guess,” Kirk El­lis says as he stands next to his brother’s black 1968 Su­per Cub. Claus, mean­while, is com­pet­ing in a bright red 1953 model that he first flew when he was 16. “If I had all the money in the world and I could buy any­thing from a 747 to an A-star he­li­copter, I’d choose a Su­per Cub,” says Claus. “They’re so much fun to fly. It’s like strap­ping on a pair of wings. My wife says that when I climb into it, I be­come a bird.”

But with only two seats and lim­ited cargo area, Su­per Cubs aren’t fam­ily-friendly. So the vast ma­jor­ity of the 250 or so air­planes parked on the ramp are more pro­saic Piper Chero­kees, Beechcraft Bo­nan­zas, and sin­gle-en­gine Cess­nas of all de­scrip­tions.

“This is our mini­van,” Jessica Mad­den says of the Piper Saratoga (a Chero­kee de­riv­a­tive) flown by her hus­band, Peter, an air­craft me­chanic. With them are their two daugh­ters, three and five years old. Oth­ers have ar­rived in equally or­di­nary air­planes with new­born in­fants, dogs large and small, tents of all di­men­sions, and plenty of camp­ing gear. Each morn­ing the smell of ba­con siz­zling in cast-iron skil­lets wafts over the field. (Those who aren’t cook­ing for them­selves can check out the ven­dors at the air­port and buy lo­cal del­i­ca­cies, in­clud­ing rein­deer dogs and salmon jerky.)

When the ac­tion be­gins, a crowd of about 2,500 as­sem­bles be­side the run­way. The rules for the com­pe­ti­tion are re­fresh­ingly sim­ple. Air­planes take off from a line in the mid­dle of the taxi­way. A hand­ful of of­fi­cials us­ing noth­ing but their best judg­ment de­cide at what point the main wheels leave the ground on take­off. Says fly-in pres­i­dent Joe Prax: “The judges’ qual­i­fi­ca­tions are quick feet and good eye­balls.” Although white lines mark 50-foot in­ter­vals, the judg­ing looks some­what less than pre­cise, but the judges are all pi­lots who have sev­eral years ex­pe­ri­ence in the job.

For land­ings, the process is re­versed— judges de­cide where the wheels touch—

and if the mains touch down be­fore the line, the run is in­val­i­dated. Each pi­lot gets two take­offs and land­ings, and the low­est com­bined tally is his fi­nal score.

The morn­ing of the STOL com­pe­ti­tion, the sky is bril­liant blue and the weather is pleas­antly tem­per­ate, but high, gusty winds make short land­ings tricky. Af­ter an Aeronca Champ ground-loops dur­ing morn­ing prac­tice, the or­ga­niz­ers post­pone the con­test. “This isn’t the World Se­ries,” Prax an­nounces. “We want to fly safely.”

By mid-af­ter­noon, the winds have died down enough to per­mit the event to get, well, off the ground. First up are the heats for the light and heavy tour­ing air­planes, mostly Cessna 170- and 180-se­ries work­horses, some with tri­cy­cle gear rather than tail wheels. Win­ners clock in at 219 feet and 242 feet, re­spec­tively, both of which are plenty im­pres­sive. But the two bush classes are what ev­ery­body is wait­ing for.

Iron­i­cally, the pro­fes­sional pi­lots agree that the STOL com­pe­ti­tion doesn’t have much to do with their real-world fly­ing. Ob­vi­ously, stick-and-rud­der skills are im­por­tant, but no­body car­ry­ing a pas­sen­ger and cargo is ever go­ing to take off in 19 feet—yes, 19 feet, which Claus once man­aged while tak­ing off into a stiff head­wind at Valdez. Ev­ery bush pi­lot will tell you: The ma­jor chal­lenge in their kind of fly­ing is mit­i­gat­ing risk, whether from the weather or haz­ardous ter­rain or pushy clients.

Like rodeos, STOL com­pe­ti­tions be­gan as in­for­mal con­tests for brag­ging rights. But in time, the com­pe­ti­tion be­came an end in it­self. Bobby Bree­den and his fa­ther, Bob—two ex­tremely tal­ented am­a­teurs— show up with a shared Su­per Cub that’s been op­ti­mized for Valdez, and they’ve been prac­tic­ing short take­offs and land­ings for weeks. The Bree­dens fin­ish 1-2, with Claus 3rd in an air­plane that doesn’t carry a sin­gle elec­tri­cal com­po­nent.

But the cli­max of the event is the al­ter­nate bush class, fea­tur­ing air­planes built specif­i­cally for STOL op­er­a­tions. First up is Steve Henry in a Just Air­craft Su­per STOL, a kit­plane with lead­ing edge slots and ex­tra-heavy-duty land­ing gear. Henry, a Valdez rookie, lost an ex­haust pipe on the flight from Idaho, and when the fuse­lage started burn­ing, he was forced to land on an Alaskan high­way. No prob­lem, he says: “Even if I hit the ground at 500 feet a minute, it feels like I greased the land­ing.”

On the start line, when Henry lifts the tail, the air­plane ro­tates so far for­ward that the crowd col­lec­tively gasps. Then he vaults into the air in 71 feet. Good but not great.

Next up is de­fend­ing champ Frank Knapp, whose air­plane—re­built in three months af­ter be­ing largely de­stroyed in a hangar fire—fea­tures the fun­da­men­tal ar­chi­tec­ture of a Su­per Cub, scads of weight-sav­ing car­bon-fiber com­po­nents, and a fully ex­posed en­gine and rear fuse­lage. “It’s the slow­est thing I’ve ever seen,” Henry says wist­fully. Cruise speed is 62 mph. “It’s just a mo­tor scooter,” Knapp says with a con­tented smile.

Knapp scoots into the air in a mere 48 feet—the short­est take­off of the day. But then Josh Pep­pered rolls to the line in an SQ-2, another highly mod­i­fied, but much larger, mod­ern take on the Su­per Cub. As he be­gins his take­off roll, the en­gine thrum sud­denly deep­ens from a squirt of ni­trous ox­ide, and the ex­tra 100 horse­power boosts him into the air in 43 feet. “That’s crazy!” some­body shouts over the crowd’s ap­plause. “I don’t think his wheels even turned!”

But as usual, the com­pe­ti­tion comes down to the land­ing. On his fi­nal pass, Knapp brings his bright yel­low scooter down so slowly it looks less like an air­plane than an in­sect hov­er­ing in midair. “I’ve seen par­ents rolling their baby strollers faster than that,” the an­nouncer de­clares. When he reaches the line, Knapp slams his air­plane down to the ground and whoa’s it to a halt in 35 feet. A minute later, Pep­pered man­ages an im­pres­sive land­ing of his own—46 feet—but in the fi­nal stand­ings, he comes up a bit short— or long, in this case.

When he climbs out of his air­plane, the ebul­lient Knapp throws back his head and roars like a quar­ter­back who’s just won the Su­per Bowl. As far as the com­peti­tors and spec­ta­tors in Valdez are con­cerned, that’s ex­actly what he’s done.

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