As a longtime contributor to Flying, I have been blessed with the good fortune of attending many events, including airshows. Having spent a career mostly mastering the art of straight-and-level flight in the stratosphere, I have tremendous admiration for the aviators that perform physics-defying maneuvers at stepladder altitudes. I am awed by the skills involved.
That being said, it was refreshing to observe a new type of event that didn’t involve a smoke-infused outside loop or an eardrum-shattering fly-by. On Friday, December 4, 2020, at the Sun ‘n Fun Holiday Flying Festival and Car Show in Lakeland, Florida, I was introduced to the National STOL Competition. It is an event that only reaffirms what pilots already know: Takeoffs and landings are a spectator sport.
Fast-forward to Saturday, the final day of the event, I awaited the morning arrival of a lone Blue Angel F/A-18 Hornet. The airplane’s presence was to promote the US Navy’s Blue Angels performance at the 2021 Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo. Though it was disappointing that the touted new Super Hornet—just added to the fleet—was not parked on the ramp, I was pleased to witness military diversity as Lt. Julius Bratton (No. 7) and Lt. Katlin Forster (No. 8) opened their respective canopies.
The two fighter pilots answered questions for the media and, more important, the crowd of local students attending Lakeland’s Aerospace Center for Excellence. I smirked, with my airline-pilot brain wondering how it’s determined who flies which leg for these PR missions. Seniority? Time in equipment? Who bought the last round of beers? Not important.
Next on the agenda was a town-hall meeting. John Leenhouts, the CEO and president of Sun ‘n Fun, mediated between Mark Baker, the president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and Jack Pelton, the president of EAA. A little mediating became necessary because the two leaders of the popular aviation organizations sparred briefly over their respective subscription rates—all in good humor, of course.
Both organizations maintained positive outlooks for the future despite the pandemic environment, with Baker claiming more Cessna 172s were in the sky than Boeings. AOPA would begin promoting smaller air-tour venues. Pelton indicated that experimental-airplane activity had increased, mostly as a result of participants having more time at home. He also said AirVenture Oshkosh is still planned for 2021 in Wisconsin—but with new COVID-19 protocols.
Leenhouts painted a slightly bleaker picture in regard to the Sun ‘n Fun organization. A lot of financial trimming had occurred involving the sale of assets. The good news was that the revenue stream from the relatively new Amazon facility on the northwest end of Sun ‘n Fun’s home base of Lakeland Linder International Airport (KLAL) had allowed for the complete elimination of a $335,000 annual lease payment. The annual Aerospace Expo, which took place from April 13 through April 18, would be considered a combination of 2020 and 2021.
Both Pelton and Baker reinforced general aviation as the viable alternative to airline travel, claiming that corporate airplane activity had also increased over the past several months. I felt a sense of irony from that statement, aware that the livelihoods of many of the event’s passionate participants and attendees were airline pilots. Case in point: My casual visit with the Geico Skytypers was actually a reunion with former colleagues from the airline I retired from, notwithstanding that the owner and flight lead is a Boeing 737 captain who co-owns a Daher TBM 850.
Additionally, I was fortunate to be accompanied by my friend and JetBlue captain Mike Strauss, who is a Cessna 180 owner with hours of corporate jet and propeller experience. In his past life, he sold Rockwell Commanders and then worked for a jet-charter company that flew Hollywood celebrities. More important, Mike is a vintage-car aficionado, and the car show—located in the grass area off to the side of the main entrance path to the exhibits—required his expertise. I have quietly expressed an interest in a ‘57 Chevy. Time—and my wife—will tell.
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So, back to the National STOL Competition. I was fortunate to have inside information on the event in the form of a friend who entered the contest with his Legend Cub. Daryl Hickman, who has close ties with the owner of Legend, hoped to win some cash for his charity, kidsflycubs.org. Though it was helpful to ask Daryl stupid questions without embarrassment, inquiries to other competitors were always met with a willingness to respond and a good-natured smile.
The basic gist of the STOL competition is like a golf game. The lowest score wins by adding the takeoff roll to the subsequent landing roll using the best of three cycles. Five airplane categories were used at this particular event based on weight: heavy-touring (Cessna 182s), light-touring (Cessna 172s), bush (Huskys and Super Cubs), experimental (Legend Cubs and CubCrafters) and light-sport aircraft. On qualifying day, the top six advanced to the finals within each category.
The fact that engine sizes differed, a reversible pitch prop was involved, and that one airplane was burning nitrox made no difference as to category classification. Shouldn’t a handicap be involved? Not surprising, no one asked for my advice.
In my former life, takeoffs were complicated with nuisance items such as weight, temperature, wind, runway slope, visibility and runway contamination. Landing precision was complicated by the requirement to touchdown within the first third of the runway or 3,000 feet, whichever was less. We were further challenged by peer and passenger pressure to kiss the ground like a butterfly, so a couple hundred feet of finesse was not uncommon. Needless to say, takeoffs or landings were never accomplished on a 2,200-foot grass strip.
Witnessing some of the aerodynamics-defying takeoffs brought a smile to my face. A 43-foot takeoff roll? Really? The landings were oftentimes hold-your-breath moments. Some attempted to drag in their approaches, quickly pulling back the throttle just before the scoring line. It seemed that the most successful entrants used the old-fashioned technique of a well-planned approach. Airplane performance aside, pilot stick-and-rudder skill prevailed.
Overall, the National STOL Competition was a safe, well-executed and well-planned event. I would certainly take the opportunity to watch another one. No doubt, takeoffs and landings are a spectator sport.
My only concern is that although a safe, COVID-conscious event was advertised, I found protocols lacking. No social distancing was actively encouraged in the long lines at the food vendors. Mask-wearing was sparse, even indoors. The supply of hand sanitizer in port-a-potties and elsewhere was not maintained.
We all want to bring our aviation enthusiasm back to normal economic levels, but Sun ‘n Fun 2021 would have had to step up the game in order to provide a truly safe environment. It will take all of us working together in order to make that happen, so we can really put 2020 in the rearview mirror.
This story appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of Flying Magazine