Landing Short, Taking Off Again—and Loving It

STOL Drag pilot Jake Bunting talks about his flying origins and how STOL Drag attracts new pilots.

When he’s not competing, Bunting works as a construction contractor in far Northern California. [Courtesy: Jake Bunting]

As a pilot, when you can’t fly, you feel like you’re chained to the ground with clipped wings.

We’ve all felt that way, when for one reason or another we’re not able to get into the air. STOL Drag pilot and competitor Jake Bunting recently returned to the skies after a year-long hiatus induced by a serious illness and treatment—and the renewed taste of flight was extra sweet.

Beginnings in Ranch Life

Bunting works as a construction contractor in far Northern California, building bridges, towers, and roads, primarily. He was introduced to flying by his grandfather, who used his piloting skills to support his enterprise auctioning cattle in the Western U.S. 

“He flew from state to state,” Bunting says. “I was impressed by the ability he had to land on a ranch to see the cattle.”

So, he purchased a 1956 Cessna 172 to learn to fly in, and once he had his certificate, he began landing on gravel roads and “shorter spots” with the Skyhawk.

He learned quickly that the 172 wasn’t the best mount for the flying he wanted to do—with the tricycle-gear airplane prone to attracting nicks on the prop from the unimproved strips he favored. He found a better option—a Piper Super Cub—and developed his proficiency “getting shorter and shorter on my landings.”

This was more than 10 years ago, and Bunting says, “there wasn’t yet a whole lot of people doing this kind of flying.”

Jake Bunting's Super Cub taking a breather from shooting air-to-air at the High Sierra Fly-In 2021. [Photo: Leonardo Correa Luna]

STOL Companions

Bunting met up with a fellow Super Cub pilot Mike Sue. “He said, ‘It’s nice to see another Cub!’” And he ended up invited to the early incarnations of the High Sierra Fly-In north of Reno, Nevada.

He began to compete, never scoring too high—“20th place two years in a row”—but having a blast and enjoying the camaraderie and growing proficiency gained by participating in the first STOL Drag contests. Now in his black Cub with the “hot-rod motor” he does a lot to encourage other pilots, including taking the Bottle Cap Challenge to a whole new level.

“You fly like a pack of wolves and you learn a lot,” he says of the times spent meeting up in the backcountry with other pilots in the STOL community. He loves lending a hand—and he was even behind the scenes for the cover image on the first edition of the new FLYING magazine, which features STOL Drag’s contests, pilots, and airplanes.

And there’s a definitive eye to safety that has run throughout his experience with the pack. 

“I have two examiner buddies—they always side on the safety side. They won’t sign you off if they know you’re going to have trouble.”

“I love giving flights to people,” Bunting says. Maybe they’ve never been in an airplane before—or they’re an airline captain that hasn’t flown GA since initial training—and he introduces them to a new world. He credits the STOL movement with inspiring young pilots. 

“It’s getting a different class of people involved.”

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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