High Sierra Fly-in Draws STOL Drag Competitors, Pilots, Friends

HSF is one of the largest backcountry fly-ins in the world, according to organizers.

HSF is one of the largest backcountry fly-ins in the world, according to organizers. [Courtesy: Wayne Lederer]

The High Sierra Fly-In (HSF) is not something that you come to by accident or half heartedly. It’s not at an air show or air race, nor is it combined with any other type of event. It’s not “on the way” to anywhere. The patrons of the High Sierra Fly-in traveled far and wide deliberately to be at this location at this exact time. 

Pilots from all branches of our armed forces, military contractors, airlines, wealthy ones and those struggling all came together in the middle of the desert to share a common love of backcountry aviation.

Is it dirty? Yes. But this is not a group of people who complain or let a little dust get in the way of a great time. On their next annual, they’re sure to find reminders of the great time they had at the HSF as remainder of the “playa”—the dry lake bed resembles a beach—still line the interiors of their aircraft. It may be the only time that dirt falling out during an inspection can bring a smile. Veterans of the event know this, and newcomers will soon learn.

On the Playa

Under a microscope, the playa is an accumulation of fine-grained sediment and salt deposits. With the naked eye, you can observe a cracked-mud appearance as the materials separate under evaporation of water. Zoom out yet again, and the playa reveals a confluence of backcountry aviation enthusiasts from every corner of the world at this rendezvous point. 

The affectionately named Dead Cow Dry Lake Bed is home to the largest backcountry gathering in the world, the High Sierra Fly-in, now in its 12th year. The sport of STOL Drag was born here under the watchful eye of its creator, Kevin Quinn. The relaxed atmosphere at this event is always welcoming, because the schedule is accurate to the minute—and not to the second as is the case with the schedule at the Stihl National Championship Air Races at Reno, just a little more than 50 miles to the south. The HSF is as much about the gathering of friends as it is racing.

A Special Place

Many unique activities take place at this event that aren’t observed at any other airshow, fly-in, or race throughout the year. From the bonfire gathering—a great place to meet up with old friends as well as make new ones—to the one-wheel parade, there’s something for all. The one-wheel parade is an informal one, in which Trent Palmer gathers everyone who has an alternative mode of transportation and encourages them to turn a lap or two through the mile of airplanes and campers lining the playa in a motorcade of colossal smiles and laughs. Bicycles, ATVs, UTVs, one wheels and a couple of motorized ice chests were all represented.

Also on the agenda: fly-outs to famous landing spots discovered by the flying cowboys of the area, which are a real attraction to visiting pilots.

Many unique activities take place at this event that aren’t observed at any other airshow, fly-in, or race throughout the year. [Courtesy: Wayne Lederer]

The 2022 Gathering

This year, the HSF took place from October 13 to 17, and it saw some of the best weather conditions that the event has had in years. This unique normalization of deviance took place—as competitors slip just feet off the ground slowing to the finish line—under an FAA waiver this year, which all involved worked hard to obtain. The waiver is needed to “waive” certain FARs involving airspeed, altitude, and others for the event.

Saturday was the event that everyone was waiting for....the STOL Drag competition. With Juan Browne and myself on the mic, opening ceremonies began with formation fly-bys of a Yak-52 and a Nanchang CJ-6A, followed by skydivers and the singing of the national anthem.

A half-dozen new racers completed their training and certification for STOL Drag at HSF, and among them was famous Whelen Aviation Technologies’ airshow pilot and Red Bull Air Racer Michael Goulian. With a very different style of flying from what Michael is used to, there was a learning curve to be sure. Goulian began at another disadvantage too, as he flew a borrowed airplane in which he only had about 30 takeoffs and landings. However, he was able to win his first-ever race, and he will certainly be back for more next year.

Kurt Leaders had an amazing run in his Cessna 185 with a miraculous ability to beat out airplanes nearly half his weight, placing him in the Gold class. He would later be bested by Hal Stockman with the new Beta ability of his Duc prop, which he finally dialed in.

Trent Palmer returned to STOL Drag after a long hiatus, lining up with Steve Henry for the first time in years as the crowd buzzed with excitement seeing two of the largest aviation YouTube stars go head to head. Palmer flew fantastically all week and qualified in the Gold class but barely missed the semifinals by 0.56 seconds as Bo Ellis clawed his way past both Trent and Hal Stockman to line up with Steve Henry in the semi-finals.

Toby Ashley in Sarge, Butch Kingston in Violet, and Tim Schelhorn in Psycho Billy did not brave the desert this year, leaving Steve Henry unopposed in his specific time bracket. In typical Steve Henry fashion—wanting to always do his best—he turned his focus to the 50-second time mark to beat. In practice it looked like he might achieve it by pulling 52-second runs. However, as the Gold class ran later in the day, the temperature warmed up and Henry ran out of the nitrous oxide he uses for reducing turbo lag on the turnaround, combined with a collapsing air filter (which he later discovered), he wouldn’t make the milestone. However, Steve still took home the 2022 World Championship Trophy, Belt, and Skull, as well as setting a new STOL Drag record time at 52 seconds.

Josh Richling is a crew chief in the National STOL Series. He covers STOL competitions for FLYING.

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