Friends Enjoy a Different Kind of ‘Bar Hopping’ in Their Zenith LSAs

Zenith STOL flyers introduce a friend to landing on gravel bars.

One of the main draws to what we know as “sport flying” is just going out and having fun with your airplane. And when that fun involves more friends who also share your love of flying light sport airplanes, the “fun” aspect is multiplied several times. 

So when three LSA pilots from Washington state decided to introduce a fourth sport pilot to the exhilaration that comes from landing on gravel bars in a STOL machine, they named the one-day outing “The Great Gravel Gaggle.”

Zenith CH701 STOL owner/pilot Curt Thompson already knew fellow Zenith owner/pilots John Marzulli (CH701), Walt Cannon (CH701), and Jonathan Fay (CH750) from their involvement in EAA Chapter 84 in Snohomish, Washington, and also the local Zenith builder community. The pilots were instrumental in helping Thompson build his CH701, nicknamed the Clownfish Plane because of its colorful paint scheme that will make you think of Nemo. When they found out Thompson had never landed on the many gravel bars in the area, the Great Gravel Gaggle idea was hatched.

“Jonathan suggested that we get together to introduce me to gravel bar landings,” Thompson said, “and a message was sent out to see if others wanted to join. The weather prediction was very good and the next Saturday looked promising with just a few afternoon cumulus clouds. They all flew in to meet me at my hangar in Arlington [Washington], on Saturday morning and we headed off to the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, only a few miles away. The other three experienced pilots went in first to check the location. Jonathan started his drone to film the other landings, and I had four GoPro cameras on my plane, so the landings were well documented.”

The group also made a second gravel bar landing on a wide spot of the Skagit River nearby.

Walt Cannon on short final to a gravel bar landing in his Zenith CH701 Orange Crush. [Courtesy: Walt Cannon]

Safety First

Thompson was taught that the most important aspect of off-airport landing is making sure that the landing surface is appropriate, and a pilot is not going to bend the airplane with obstructions, like rocks, stumps, and driftwood. “I had overflown this spot a few times and it looked great, but I didn’t want to land when I was by myself because if something [went] wrong, it might be tough to get out,” he said.

The four Zenith builder/pilots of “The Great Gravel Gaggle.” [Courtesy: Jonathan Fay]

On his first gravel bar landing, Thompson said he started further from the landing spot than he needed to, and just did some slow flight along the river until he could see the landing spot on the gravel bar, where the other three pilots were down and parked. “I don’t know my landing speeds so I fly by sound and vibration,” Thompson explained. “The Clownfish Plane has the 100 hp Rotax 912 ULS and has some really good cues about what is going on. On this landing, I went a lot faster than I needed to. This was a very long landing spot so no worries about landing long. I have an angle of attack (AOA) sensor with audible feedback in my headset. On the approach, I just fly so the AOA is just starting to beep in my headset.”

If you want to see exactly what STOL operations onto a gravel bar look like, Thompson has a very good YouTube video of the landing on a gravel bar alongside the North Fork Stillaguamish River.

Building Your STOL LSA

Based at Arlington Airport (KAWO), Thompson holds a private pilot certificate with glider rating and has put about 600 hours in his logbook. He decided to plans-build his CH701 instead of using one of Zenith’s kits, in order to spread the expense over a period of time. He says it did work out to spread out the costs, but it certainly did not save him any money overall. “I generally made each part at least twice before I got one I liked,” Thompson said. “The plans from Zenith are very good, and I was able to lean on the various forums and online sources to answer any questions. I don’t think I ever had to contact Zenith with a question. I spent eight years building the Clownfish plane, but in two of those years, I didn’t touch it. I would not recommend the ‘plan built’ route—just buy the kits from Zenith, because their kits are very good.”

One of the things Thompson loved about working with Zenith on the build was that the company will sell any individual part from the kit. “I tried to oxy-acetylene weld some of the parts, but just did not like my weld quality. I used a couple of parts I welded, but most of the critical ones I bought from Zenith,” he said.

A challenge Thompson had to overcome in the build was getting the bubble doors the way he wanted. “I made an oven from some parts from a scrapped electric range, and ‘slumped’ the doors in the oven by holding them in a frame and heating them slowly to just the right amount. I bought plexiglass from various sources but the stuff I found at Home Depot worked best. The two doors on the Clownfish plane were trial number 21 and 22,” Thompson said.

Gravel Bar Hopping

The Zenith line of high-wing aircraft has a lot of features that fit the mission of landing on short runways, Thompson said, but he added that experience is key to this type of flying. “I know I don’t push the boundaries of the capabilities of the Zenith CH701 as far as others, and I am getting a little more adventurous as I gain more experience and comfort. I spent a lot of time building the Clownfish plane and I don’t want to bend it up. So far, there has not been any place I have shied away from landing, as long as I know others have landed there before,” he said.

Is gravel bar hopping in a STOL LSA fun? Oh yeah, these four pilots will attest, with owner/pilot John Marzulli calling his CH701 “SEVEN-OH-FUN.” That pretty much sums it all up.

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