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STOL Pilots: Practice Makes Perfect

By Barbara A. Schmitz

July 25, 2016 - It doesn’t seem like it should be possible. Perhaps that’s why the pilots and the specially modified short takeoff/landing (STOL) airplanes they fly have been a popular addition to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh since they first came in 2014.

Thirteen pilots who fly these aircraft, all competitors at the annual Valdez, Alaska, fly-in and air show in May, told how they do things and shared some secrets during a Monday forum.

The group said they got interested in doing short takeoffs and landings for various reasons.

Some were bush pilots, and the STOL competition was a natural extension. Others come from a background of racing cars and motorcycles, and wanted something that would cause an adrenaline rush. “Landing on runways isn’t that exciting,” said Steve Henry. “But landing when you have to get it just right is much more exciting.”

But perhaps the best reason came from Joe Dory Sr., better known as Pops. “The reason I got into STOL is because I have a 45-minute bladder,” he said. “It taught me a lot of neat techniques.”

The pilots learned the various techniques by talking to each other and watching each other. And practice is a big part of their success, too.

So how do you become a good STOL pilot?

There is no big secret or technique to land on the same spot every time, said Doug Wilson. “Just arrive at a pre-determined space at a pre-determined speed.”

 “You need to be really good at all the basics and be able to fly your airplane the best you can,” added Joe Dory Jr. “A lot of people spend a lot of money on trinkets (for their plane), but the best money is probably spent on Avgas so you can get very good at what you are dong.” It also helps to have the lightest possible plane you can have, with the most powerful engine, he said. 

A well-balanced airplane is also very important, said Dan Dufault. “If your nose is too heavy, you’ll have to add weight to the tail. Balance to the plane is key to making the plane work well.”

Hal Stockman added, “The lighter the airplane, the easier it is to put it down where you want it.”

Joe Prax stressed that while the pilots make it sound simple to fly STOL, it has taken thousands of hours of practice for them to get to this level. “I don’t want people to think it’s easy, try it, and crash tomorrow.”

Pilots interested in flying STOL need to check out websites to learn about techniques, talk to other STOL pilots to determine how they apply those techniques, and then practice, practice, and practice, he said. “Whatever we do, we want to still use the airplane tomorrow.”

The Valdez competition started in 2003 as a reason for people to have fun and fly, Prax said. But just as important as the competition, is the friendships that are created there. “It is the central spot for pilots in Alaska and the lower 48 to meet old friends and make new ones,” he said.

Eddie Doyle said Valdez was the first, and still is the premiere STOL competition in the world. “A lot of us have to fly 3,500 miles to get there and compete. It’s a big deal.”

However, STOL competitions are becoming more common throughout the U.S., making it easier for others to compete. “The whole thing is really snowballing,” Doyle said. “I thought it was just a handful of crazies trying to take off and land short. But it is more.”

STOL Schedule


  • Valdez STOL demonstration, 7:45-8:30 p.m., Ultralights


  • STOL Tips, 9-10 a.m., EAA Pilot Proficiency Center
  • Just Aircraft SuperSTOL, 10-11:15 a.m., Forum Stage 4


  • Valdez STOL demonstration, 11 a.m.-noon, Ultralights


  • STOL Tips, 9-10 a.m., EAA Pilot Proficiency Center
  • Valdez STOL demonstration, 7:30-8:30 p.m., Ultralights


  • Valdez STOL demonstration, 11 a.m.-noon, Ultralights
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