High Sierra Fly-In 2021 Brings In New Competitors

The STOL Drag competition adds classes for the first time. Crew chief Josh Richling fills us in.

With beautiful weather, the world’s largest backcountry event, the High Sierra Fly-In was back in the swing of things last week, appearing as though nothing ever happened after taking 2020 off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The airplanes returned from all over the world to join in and celebrate this amazing event: Landing on surrounding mountain tops—and the Dead Cow dry lake bed in Nevada—by day and rekindling distant friendships as well as making new ones around aviation’s largest campfire each night.

The STOL Drag event was as exciting as ever, with many newcomers competing as well. In fact, new competitor Jon Hakala, of McMinnville, Oregon, took home first place in the Bronze class in his Zenith CH701, having never raced a STOL Drag event before.

FLYING caught up with Hakala after the races to find out a little bit about him. He’s a 25-year-old aircraft technician who obtained his pilot certificate just two years ago.

FLYING: How long have you been flying?

Hakala: I’ve had my license for two years, and I’m at just under 300 total hours.

FLYING: How did you get started flying?

Hakala: My dad and some other family members were pilots, so I was exposed to it from early on. We’d take family trips to fly-ins and airshows, it was a big part of my childhood. Given I was always around aviation, I knew from a young age I wanted to be a pilot.

FLYING: What aircraft are you currently flying?

Hakala: Lately, most of my time is in my Zenith CH701, as well as a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser.

FLYING: How did you get started in STOL Drag?

Hakala: I first saw it on YouTube and thought “That looks fun!” Here’s an event where you get to push your airplane as well as your piloting skills in STOL, all while racing someone in the lane next to you. I knew it was something I wanted to try. When I heard that Kevin Quinn would be hosting a training course at HSF this year, I had to sign up and give it a shot.

FLYING: What’s your favorite part of STOL Drag?

Hakala: There are a couple things that really stand out to me about it. I love the fact that it’s an event that really pushes you to go out and learn how to be comfortable with your airplane in all different phases of flight. It gives you a reason to go practice your slips, spot landings, slow flight, etc. The way it encourages skill development is huge. Another aspect that stands out is the people involved with it. I was brand new to STOL Drag, and I was able to go and talk with the veteran racers about flying. You could really tell that they loved the event and aviation by their willingness to chat.

FLYING: What advice do you have for someone thinking about getting in to the sport?

Hakala: Go out and really get to know your airplane and how it behaves in all different flight envelopes. You’ll use it all here. Going in with the right attitude is important as well, there’s a lot to learn, so having that willingness to learn is the right move. Another thing to consider is don’t feel like there’s a barrier to what airplane you can compete with. Anyone can race, and that’s probably one of the best things about it… You could be side by side with a J-3 in one heat, then a Bonanza in the next. It’s all fun!

Auston Clemens dusts it up in the turnaround in his Aviat Husky with a beta MT prop.
Auston Clemens dusts it up in the turnaround in his Aviat Husky with a beta MT prop. Leonardo Correa Luna

The Silver Class

In the Silver class, 18-year-old Austin Clemens was able to take first place with his impressive flying skill, experience, and a little help from his “not-so-secret weapon”: the MT prop, which offers him a beta mode (reverse thrust) for those short landings in his otherwise heavier aircraft.

Here’s a little more about the youngest pilot in STOL Drag, who is based in Benton, Kansas, and is sponsored by Aviat Aircraft.

FLYING: How long have you been flying?

Clemens: About six years, and 1,800 hours logged.

FLYING: How did you get started flying?

Clemens: My whole family flies!

FLYING: What aircraft are you currently flying?

Clemens: Aviat Husky, the Stearman, Beechcraft Baron, and the Beechjet.

FLYING: How did you get started in STOL Drag?

Clemens: The May Day STOL Drag was my first competition.

FLYING: What’s your favorite part of STOL Drag?

Clemens: I love drag-racing airplanes!

FLYING: What advice do you have for someone thinking about getting into the sport?

Clemens: Know what your limits—and your equipment limits—are!

Newcomer Jon Hakala flew his Zenith CH701 to a Bronze win at HSF2021.
“Sarge” is flown by top contender Toby Ashley and this highly modified Carbon Cub took the Gold Class again. Leonardo Correa Luna

The Gold Class

In the Gold class, Toby Ashley narrowly defeated Steve Henry with his fire-breathing, top-fuel-dragster-style CubCrafters Carbon Cub pushing somewhere over 400 hp (though the exact number remains a secret) to take the gold in what was one of the most exciting races of the year.

The sounds that Toby’s and Steve’s airplanes made together as they screamed down the course were something spectators would never forget. Toby’s one-off, ground-up, purpose-built, Kawasaki-powered, super-charged, nitrous-assisted dragon that he calls “Sarge” was an incredible sight to see.

“I’ve been married 30 years, and I have a great team of buddies behind me that work really hard, are super smart, and thrive on competing to win!” said Ashley. “I’m grateful to God for all the blessings.”

Here’s some more info about Toby, who lives in Meridian, Idaho, and is sponsored by CubCrafters, Tac Aero, Acme Aero, 2A Armament, Better Aircraft Fabric, Ashley Heating, Carl’s Cycles, and Rogers Motors.

FLYING: How long have you been flying?

Ashley: For 22 years, and 7,000 hours.

FLYING: How did you get started?

Ashley: I fell in love with flying while in Alaska flying with my cousin Curt.

FLYING: What aircraft are you currently flying?

Ashley: A CubCrafters EX.

FLYING: How did you get started in STOL Drag?

Ashley: I’ve been a long-time STOL competitor and decided to try it at High Sierra a few years ago.

FLYING: What’s your favorite part of STOL Drag?

Ashley: The level of pilot intensity for the whole course.

FLYING: What advice do you have for someone thinking about getting into the sport?

Ashley: Practice STOL, then come out and try STOL Drag.

Learn More About It

For more information about the High Sierra Fly-in or STOL Drag, go to the event website or to the competition site.

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