Sun ‘n Fun STOL Invitational Draws Fans into the Corral

Steve Henry’s “Yee-Haw” took top position again in the STOL demonstration. [Credit: Bryan Weathers]

Sun n’ Fun’s Paradise City is home to Lakeland-Linder International Airport’s grass strip where homebuilts, ultralights, gyrocopters, LSAs, and the like make their base camp during the week of the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo’s displays, demos, and flying. It is also the home of the STOL Corral, which this year was open to the public. A significant number of the normal STOL performers were MIA as they were experiencing snow and no-go weather conditions elsewhere around the U.S. preventing them from attending. Lakeland (KLAL), however, had beautiful weather all week allowing unrestricted flights all day.

As the sun approached the horizon, the crowds began gathering while the crews and pilots of the STOL Demonstration quickly took the field setting up cones, flags, chalk, and tape measures in a well-orchestrated nexus of skilled individuals volunteering their time to facilitate this impressive show. While technically not a competition, some of the best in the world traveled great distances to demonstrate their aircraft and skill and were not to be outdone.

The STOL Contenders

With the legendary STOL pilot Frank Knapp and his wife Kris—alongside Anitra “STOL Queen” Goddard—at the helm of this year’s event, it went off without a hitch. Moved back two hours from previous years, the new start time put the setting sun directly in the windscreen of pilots on day one. However, this would be the last instance of this set up, as winds shifted in favor of the sun behind the pilots for the following two days. 

Steve Henry's "Yee-Haw" took top position again in the STOL demonstration. [Credit: Bryan Weathers]

Although the event was spread over three days with Steve Henry in his Wild West Highlander winning days one and three, day two proved to be the only day that mattered as winds were most favorable on this day allowing Dan Reynolds to take full advantage of this steady wind in his custom-built, nitrous-oxide-assisted two-stroke fat ultralight he calls the “Valdez Special” Chinook. 

The "Valdez Special" Chinook performed well in the STOL demos. [Credit: Bryan Weathers]

Reynolds was able to stick the most amazing landing—at an approach angle reminiscent of that of a lawn dart—driving his tires into the sand of the beaten grass strip stopping his forward momentum. It was as though he had dropped a tail hook and caught an arresting wire on an aircraft carrier for the landing that left his tail still remaining over the line for the win in the lights class. Jay Stanford flew his nitrous-powered Exp Super Cub extremely well to fill the third spot against these much lighter aircraft.

Jay Stanford did well in his nitrous-powered Exp Super Cub. [Credit: Bryan Weathers]

In the heavies it was Ross Harwell taking the number 1 spot in his husky followed by hometown favorite Warren Grobbelaar in his Cessna 180.

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

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