July 29, 2014 - It’s promoted as a flight demonstration, but the pilots flying during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2014 and the fly-in's first Valdez STOL (short takeoff and landing) events admit it’s a competition each would be proud to win.
“On the surface, they’ll pat you on the back,” says Frank Knapp, EAA 1111767, from Palmer, Alaska, of the other STOL pilots. “I won’t say they’ll let the air out of your tires when you’re not looking, but we’re a pretty competitive group.”
Thirteen pilots competed Monday and Tuesday in heats to qualify for Wednesday’s final contest after the air show. The STOL pilots will also perform flight demonstrations later this week off the grass strip in the Ultralight area.
The planes in the competition vary greatly, with some having no modifications and others having many. And sometimes the “sleepers” are the winners.
“It’s like track and field competitions, or amateurs and Olympic class,” says STOL pilot Doug Wilson, EAA 259212, of Emporia, Kansas. “But here everyone gets a chance to compete.”
While some pilots are favorites in the competition because of their lightweight planes or experience, anything can happen with this competitive group who lives to kid and joke with each other.
To prepare, however, you should try to make your airplane as light as possible, said Ed Doyle. “That’s something that Frank has perfected,” he adds with a laugh. Knapp, main organizer of the AirVenture STOL demonstration, won the 2014 Alternate Bush Class A competition at Valdez in May with 76 feet. And that was with a new airplane after his former one was destroyed in a hangar.
“It was very long days building to be ready,” says Kris Knapp, Frank’s wife. “It was one step at a time. We had this as a goal, and we had to get done. It worked out that we were able to fly in Valdez, but that was really just a bonus.”
While the group likes competition, they also say STOL is fun.
“It’s one of the few places where you can really pit your airplane and aviation skills against other pilots,” Wilson says. “There’s also a lot of camaraderie involved. So much of flying is done alone, so it’s fun to do something like this.”
It’s also the camaraderie that keeps STOL pilot Ed Doyle of Manhattan, Kansas, competing. “It’s like a brotherhood,” he explains.
Steve Henry of Nampa, Idaho, says he competes as a way to show off his airplane. “It’s unique. It’s fun to be able to show-off what it can do.” Henry, in fact, took third place in Valdez with 120 feet in the Alternate Bush Class A division.
While scoring is done in Oshkosh just as it is in Valdez, there is one big difference between the two. “We are used to flying with hardly no one watching us,” says STOL pilot Mike Olson of Yakima, Washington. “It’s very different to be front and center at a sizable air show.”
Knapp says the reception at AirVenture has been welcoming. “In talking to people, they’re very interested in seeing these grassroots airplanes. But the real value of Oshkosh is to generate more interest in the little guy.”