The high country of the American West in late fall is the setting of what’s arguably the coolest aviation gathering—the High Sierra Fly-In (HSF). Started as an informal get together of a handful of friends with backcountry planes who took the opportunity to get together and go fly low and slow, the event has grown, improbably, into one of the largest fly-ins in the country.
It’s held in a challenging locale at a time of year when the weather is predictably unpredictable, and in this part of the world, the weather has the final word on all things aeronautical. So while one day will have the wild blue stretched clear across the basins from range to range, other days much of the landscape seems to go airborne, shrouding all of that beauty in a literal atmosphere of howling brown particulate. At least until things die down again. Though you’re then left with the dust, always with the dust.
There was more than a little dust at HSF this year, especially toward the end. On Saturday, at Dead Cow Lake, the remote dry lake in southeast Nevada HSF calls home, the wind was absolutely ripping through the site. Streams of blowing sand and caliche, which until recently had been the very surface of the dry lake, were blowing through the alleyways between RVs swaying, taildraggers bucking against their tie downs and wall tents hanging on for dear life. Make no mistake about it: Once the wind starts blowing in earnest, it’s flying weather no more. And in late October, it’s cold. It all just kind of sucks.
Yet to the couple thousand pilots and enthusiasts and, okay, maybe a few wannabes, this is precisely what heaven looks like, at least on a bad day. Luckily, there were good days, too, at HSF 2019. Great days, in fact. Days in which the spirit of the place seemed to animate the people into extreme acts of crazy fun, racing one-wheeled scooters, overloading bicycles, flying ultralights, setting off fireworks, though not all at the same time, though not necessarily not at the same time. At HSF, there are few rules, though safety and consideration are both unbreakable ones.
The first few days of the event were pretty close to ideal. It was cold, sure, but there was lots of sun, flyable winds—they moved the STOL Drag contest up a day, to Friday, in anticipation of the winds forecast for Saturday—and gorgeous views, all of which you should expect in the high desert. It was beautiful, and the flying was amazing.
You’ve probably heard of HSF. It has been around for 10 years now, and in recent years it has gotten a little bigger with every telling. This year? Well, it exploded—with more people, more airplanes and more campers than ever before, and by a lot. The gathering was epic, and those who attended, of whom we spoke with many, are still alive with the memories of it.
If you’ve never been, you might have a sense of what HSF is like, but outsiders have literally no idea. When a friend, a non-pilot, asked me what this HSF I was writing about was, I described it in broad terms—you know, dry lake bed, people gathering with planes and bonfires, etc. He replied, “Oh, so it’s like Burning Man but with airplanes.” Not. I said, “Well, kind of, but without the hippies, way more cowboys and cowgirls, and lots of really cool airplanes, you know, taildraggers with giant tires. In short, better in just about every way.” He nodded blankly.
Kevin Quinn, the founder, organizer and chief flag waver for HSF, told us that the attendance was around 2,500, with an estimated 600 airplanes stopping by at some point in the show and staying for a while. He’s not really sure. The preregistration had been capped at 500 planes, so how it got to be 600, who knows. Kevin is busy running the event, not counting things. And it’s not really the point, anyway. The event is about the experience, not the quantifying of it. Suffice it to say, there were a lot of airplanes there, way more than at any previous gathering.
But it’s not just for pilots and planes, though they’re the central focus of the thing. Not every pilot who wanted a taste of HSF could fly in. To whit, there were hundreds of campers and tents galore and a semi-truckload of bonfire wood that got put to roaring good use. There was lots of fleece, music blaring through the whine of the wind, wheels of every description carving their way around the lakebed—don’t worry, nature will make more—plenty of beer in the evenings, and amazed faces everywhere you looked.
The event is expressly not a political one, though it’s run in a really decentralized fashion, that is, with a mix of free rein and high expectations, which works like a charm. There was, for instance, no NOTAM but instead a STOLtam, which outlined the fly-in procedures and rules. It wasn’t an official FAA anything. It didn’t need to be. The people would take care of it. And they did.
HSF is sponsored by a loose-knit group of backcountry flyers called the Flying Cowboys, who bond over their love of backcountry goodness, landing on gravel bars, remote mountain tops and dirt strips shoehorned into high-country notches in the big rocks. Much of the nuts and bolts operations at the fly-in, however, are done by another group of backcountry enthusiasts, the STOL Rats, who put in long hours to make the event the smooth running success it is.
Quinn is so committed to the Fly-In that he bought a big chunk of the Dead Cow, which is approximately really, really far away from anywhere in any direction, and much of that way via dirt roads carved with washboard ridges for an extra-rough ride in. You’re welcome. The organizers suggest you fly instead, but to each their own. The remote location is for sure a big part of the appeal, a spot in the high desert of southeastern Nevada that’s as unforgiving as it is severe, not to mention staggeringly beautiful. It’s a place of contrasts, as is HSF itself. When you think about it, you’ve got a bunch of planes and airplane nuts gathered on the playa having fun, for apparent or actual reason while surrounded by millions of acres of nothing but desert. It’s simultanesouly completely out of place and perfectly situated.
And the fear that many core members have had, that a more popular HSF would lose its spontaneous charm in the need to organize and keep airplanes from running into each other…well, it didn’t happen. It’s just as hard to find anyone who didn’t have a great, not good, time as it is to find someone who didn’t complain about the dust.
The first couple of days were, well, not quite perfect, but totally flyable, which makes everything better. The variety of flying contrivances that flit to and fro against a backdrop of granite crags was stunning. There was a Grumman Albatross, an Extra 300 aerobatic plane—hey, it’s a taildragger! There was a French Broussard (yeah, we had to look it up, too), a few museum-quality Cessna 185s, and no shortage of Super Cubs, Kitfoxes, Taylorcrafts, almost all of them modified for banging around the bush.
To many, the highlight of the gathering is the STOL Drag Contest, an elimination race that pits one extraordinary backcountry flying machine against another in a competition many entrants spend the previous year preparing for.
The STOL Drag Contest is brilliant, in that it’s not just a STOL contest, which everyone agrees is kind of same old, same old after awhile. HSF’s contest is a race. Both planes take off from a standing start, race to one end of the straight-line course, get turned around and stopped, and then immediately race again back to the other side. The first one down and stopped past the finish line wins. It’s fun to watch. The champion this year in a close final was Toby Ashley, flying his olive drab, highly modified Carbon Cub. Toby edged out perennial top-five STOL racer Steve Henry by a whisker.
Let’s face it. The airplanes themselves are the main attraction. And since many of the planes are homebuilts, or otherwise heavily modifiable, the mods are sometimes extreme, and usually extremely cool, and attendees spend a lot of time gawking at each other’s planes. One plane that was missed was Draco, Mike Patey’s remarkable reimagining of a Wilga, with a PT-6 to add some spark to the affair. Mike created it for the STOL Drag contest, which Patey won flying it last year. This year there was a lot of reminiscing about the plane, which was heavily damaged in a takeoff accident at Reno a few weeks before HSF. Word is that Draco might be back at some point. Here’s hoping.
With the growth at HSF, there were more people, and it was a more diverse crowd than ever. There were many women pilots, including some who competed in the STOL Drag Contest, and while there were a few tourists, the vibe was all about flying, about being happy winging around in places few people ever go, in machines designed to get there, when flown skillfully, of course, and to get back out again.
HSF isn’t exactly a backcountry experience. After all, it’s a big event. But it is about celebrating the palpable love of backcountry flying, a passion that binds these people together in sheer astonishment at the amazing high country they get to explore and the incredible machines they get to do it in, eyes wide open as they fly, and hearts the same.
HSF first-timers physician, pilot and photographer Sonia Sani (right) and STOL Drag quarterfinalist Natalie Esser, an airline pilot. Photo by Sonia Sani