BOULDER – An Aviat Husky A-1C-200 banks before straightening its wings above a makeshift runway at Ralph Wenz Field on Friday, Aug. 12. The propeller slows and the plane drops.
Hovering inches above the ground, the pilot guns the engine, pushing the small aircraft over a white line pained 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.
“These pilots are outstanding,” Peterson said. “If they land within a foot of the line, that’s topnotch stuff right there.”
The wind suddenly shifts, gusting in from the east. A strong tailwind plays havoc with the small, lightweight aircraft. Organizers ground the planes, bringing practice runs for the Rocky Mountain STOL Competition to a temporary halt.
Seventeen-year-old Andy Jones, a senior at Pinedale High School, waited by his Aviat Husky for the air boss advisors to give the all clear for practice to resume again. Jones was the youngest pilot competing at the debut Rocky Mountain STOL Competition, hosted by Emblem Aviation and the Town of Pinedale.
The two practice runs went off without a hitch, Jones said. The competition on Saturday remained up in the air.
“Hopefully I will win,” Jones said. “It’s my first (STOL) event, so I don’t expect to do unbelievably well. There are three, four planes in my bush class, so I will have some competition for sure. Hopefully I won’t scratch on all of them.”
If a pilot touches down before crossing the white line on the runway, they scratch and fail to earn points for a landing.
On Saturday, Jones performed flawlessly, capturing first place in the bush plane division, beating pilots with many more years of experience under their belts.
Jones’ performance also earned him an invitation to the National STOL Competition in Gainesville, Texas on Oct. 29.
Pushing pilots to the limits
Pilots venturing into the backcountry gave rise to STOL competitions, explained Utah aviator Bret Kobe during the break in rehearsal flights on Friday.
Bush pilots in Alaska flew to and from remote landing strips, forced to put down 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.
Sublette County provided the perfect backcountry setting for the Rocky Mountain STOL Competition. The towering Wind River Range, Gros Ventre and Wyoming ranges can create difficult weather conditions similar to the Alaskan bush.
Ralph Wenz Field also added an additional twist – a high elevation. For the first time in STOL history, aircraft took off and landed at 7,096 feet, pushing aviators to the limits of their experience.
Pinedale’s 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.
A new opportunity
Growing up in Sublette County, Jones is no stranger to backcountry flying.
“We’ve landed on some of those (rural) airstrips,” he said. “We fly in the mountains a lot. We don’t do a ton of short landings, but you still practice them in case you have to do a short landing.”
Jones first took control of a cockpit when he was 12. He and his father, Bob Jones, fly a tail-wheel, high performance Aviat Husky, “the big horsepower model of the Husky line” suited for the backcountry.
Jones is passionate about flying. When asked what he liked the most about flying, the PHS senior responded, “All of it.”
Jones 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 can be intimidating. The camaraderie among fellow fliers made Jones feel like he was part of the group.
“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. This is a helpful trait for a pilot ferrying nervous people in the cabin of small planes described by a STOL air boss advisor as “more like a kite” than a jumbo jet.
“It’s not a stressful environment, because the whole point is for the pilot not to be stressed,” Jones 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 has yet to settle on a single path. Regardless of where Jones goes, he can add an item to his resume very few fellow seniors in the nation can claim – the ability to land a complex, fixed-wing plane in the span of a few hundred feet at high elevation.
More than a dozen pilots participated in the first Rocky Mountain STOL Competition, hailing from as close to home as Pinedale and as far away as Sitka, Alaska, said Angela Douglas, part owner of Emblem Aviation.
Douglas estimated more than 550 spectators at Saturday’s event. The competition went off safely.
“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 and her husband, Bruce Wachter, spent months preparing for the competition.
“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.”
The Rocky Mountain STOL Competition may not have the attendance found at larger more established events. Organizers hope this is just the beginning.
Col. Peterson, the line judge, organizes an 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. These fly-ins are a great place for people to come and see airplanes perform at their peak and meet people who can teach them how to fly the backcountry safely.”