Whether you’ve seen it on Facebook or YouTube (or 20 other online places), you’re doubtless aware of the Valdez STOL competition. It’s nothing short of an online sensation. For over a decade, pilots from across the globe have been able to witness some amazing examples of bush plane piloting skills while sitting in front of their home computers.
Looking exclusively at the Valdez STOL competition videos, you might think that this is a large event with thousands of spectators and hundreds of competitors. Such is not the case. This isn’t AirVenture or Sun ’n Fun-Alaska Version. This is a small event. For 2019, about 60 planes (of which 27 were competitors) made the journey to Valdez, Alaska. Organizers estimated the crowd size at close to 2,000. While numbers of airplanes flying in and spectators were held down by poor weather this year, estimates of both planes and people were only slightly higher in the 2017 and 2018 editions. In years past, there have been as many as 400 planes flying in.
While most of the footage you’ve seen illustrates remarkable aircraft making even more remarkably short takeoffs and landings, there have been occasional mishaps. In fact, the single most popular video was captured at the 2009 competition and shows two misadventures that year—one a prop strike on takeoff and another showing some overly enthusiastic braking that resulted in a nose-over. For the latter one, the airplane was bent, but the damage to the pilot was mainly a bruised ego. This video has been viewed nearly 2 million times.
If the videos are a little deceiving, then what is it really like to attend the event in person? First, the Valdez STOL competition is only part of the fun. It’s officially part of the Valdez Fly-In and Airshow, a three-day event that takes place on the second weekend of May. It includes not only the STOL competition (on the afternoon of the second day) but also a flyout for a beach landing, an airshow and other competitions, including flour bombing and balloon busting, and there are vendors and food trucks. Most of the competitors and attendees are Alaskans. However, over the years, the Valdez Fly-In has become a bucket list item for many across the globe, resulting in an eclectic group who hail from many of the Lower 48, Canada, Europe and even other continents.
Beyond the competitions and performances at the Valdez Fly-In, the assembled crowd is part of what makes the event special. Alaskans you meet there make it obvious how much more tightly aviation is woven into the state’s cultural fabric than in the Lower 48. In fact, if you attend as a pilot from anywhere, many seem happy to adopt you as an honorary Alaskan simply because you fly. As for the non-Alaskans you may meet, don’t be surprised to say hi to a South African float plane pilot from the Caribbean, a doctoral candidate in wildlife biology from Utah or a 57-year-old retired submariner and student pilot from northern California.
While it seems like it has been here for decades, Valdez is fairly new. The first fly-in happened in 2003, launched as a way to help boost business as winter ended and the spring and summer tourism season started to blossom. And make no mistake: The setting for this event is a large part of what makes it special. The name “Valdez” may be best known to those outside Alaska for famous earthquakes, avalanches and that big oil spill, but none of that does the place justice.
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Valdez is surrounded by the heavily glaciated Chugach Mountains, making for a breathtakingly beautiful location. Despite the proximity of the mountains, Valdez Pioneer Field has a near-sea-level elevation (121feet MSL), a steady sea breeze (usually) and, by May, cool but not cold temperatures. The average daily high and low temperatures of 52/36 degrees Fahrenheit are better than some places in the Lower 48 at that time of year. In short, Valdez in May has conditions that are excellent for the marquee STOL competition.
Location aside, what makes the Valdez Fly-In unique are the attendees, both competitors and performers, and the spectators. A quick glance around the briefing room for the 2019 Valdez STOL competition tells you that the folks assembled aren’t your typical airshow pilots. Rather than neatly pressed flight suits, the pilot uniform of the day is more likely to be flannel shirts or jackets, jeans, baseball caps, a smattering of cowboy hats. You easily can spot airport officials scattered throughout the crowd in their optic-yellow reflective vests. Most of the folks assembled are middle-aged men, although women and young children are there as well. It’s evident that this is a family event, and anybody in the room is considered part of that extended aviation family. Many of the pilots attend “Valdez,” as everyone refers to it, less for the competition and more for the chance to catch up with friends they might see only once a year.
Joe Prax presents the pilot briefing in his easy, folksy style that starts, despite the seeming informality, with serious safety and weather briefings. It’s also evident that this is a very well-run event that requires close coordination between the volunteer event staff, airport workers, STOL competitors and airshow performers. To the casual observer, it all seems to come together beautifully, with no muss and no fuss.
Although few of the pilots assembled in the briefing room would consider themselves airshow performers, and their personal appearance might seem unremarkable, their backgrounds are anything but. One of them is Gary Green, who’s now retired but who established McCarthy Air in McCarthy, Alaska, in 1988. In addition to running McCarthy Air, Gary also appeared in six episodes of the reality program “Edge of Alaska.”
Another competitor is CC Pocock, who wrote the book on bush flying technique. His nickname, “CC,” stands for “Captain Crash” because he’s walked away from two crashes. Despite those mishaps, Pocock has trained many pilots in bush flying skills, has spent many years in South Africa doing bush flying and is also a respected stunt pilot. Like Green, Pocock has appeared on reality television and has been featured in numerous publications. Others who have been high-scoring STOL competitors in the past include Shawn Holley, Chuck McMahan and Paul Claus, all of whom have won their classes multiple times.
CC isn’t the only STOL competition pilot who’s walked away from crashes. It’s a risky business. Despite the occupational hazards, many of the competitors have bush piloting in their blood. Frank Knapp’s father was a bush pilot, and Frank first experienced flying in his father’s J-3 cub. Many aviation professionals, pilots, mechanics, airline ground personnel and more participate in STOL, while others are entrepreneurs or work in other occupations, including medicine and forestry. For many in the room, bush flying opens the remote areas of Alaska inaccessible to most people.
It’s not just the pilots in the STOL competition who are interesting; it’s also the planes. Much anticipation for this year’s event was due to “Draco,” a million-dollar plane built and flown by Mike Patey from Orem, Utah. Draco was based on a Wilga 2000 and originally powered by a six-cylinder 300hp Lycoming O-540 but now has a PT6A turboprop. (See our feature story on Draco in the March issue of Plane & Pilot). Parked on the ramp with its bright red paint and insect-like stance, Draco is a beautiful airplane. Once its turboprop spins up, it’s exciting to watch, and its STOL characteristics are impressive.
Draco wasn’t the only turboprop to make the journey to Valdez this year, however. Philip Strum spent 42 hours over five days to get to Valdez from Switzerland in his Pilatus Porter PC-6/B2-H2 turboprop. Although turboprops had not previously been included in the STOL competition, a new competition class (Turbine) was created this year for these two planes.
The rules for the competition are simple. Each pilot is allowed two takeoff and landing cycles with other aircraft in the same class. Takeoff and landing distances are measured for each cycle and added to produce the cycle score. The best score from the two cycles is used as the final score.
The other five competition classes remained the same as in previous years. These were: Light Touring Class (gross weight 2,301-2,499 lbs.), Heavy Touring Class (gross weight 2,500-3,600 lbs.), Light Sport/Light Experimental (certified or experimental up to 1,320 lbs. gross weight), Bush Class (ASEL certified from 1,320-2,300 lbs. gross weight), and Alternate Bush (experimental above 1,320 lbs. gross weight).
In the Light Touring Class, the majority of the planes registered for the competition were 170-B’s with three 172s and a 175 also registered. All but one of the planes in the class reported modifications to improve STOL characteristics but were otherwise standard 1950s vintage aircraft. The pilots of these vintage planes seem happy to make the competition more about piloting skills and less about having the most up to-date-bird. For example, in response to a new Maule M7 235 taking first place in Light Touring in 2018, one online poster on www.backcountrypilot.org quipped, “That's what spending $350k plus will get you. The planes that took 2nd through 5th probably add up to $350k combined.”
In the Heavy Touring Class, all three planes registered were vintage Cessna 180s with mods including a seaplane prop, Norton STOL kit and Hoerner Tips. In the Bush Class, all entries were Piper Super Cubs, and all but one reported at least one mod. In Light Sport, Frank Knapp’s home-built Experimental J-3 (Lil Cub) was built in 2012 and won the Light Sport Class in Valdez in 2013 but was destroyed later that year in a hangar fire. Since the re-build, Frank has been the perennial favorite to win the Light Sport Class. Others entered in the Light Sport Class include a Czech-made Zlin Savage Outback Shock, manufactured in 2017, and a Birdman Chinook Ultralight assembled in 1984. Finally, the planes in Alternate Bush Class were a Backcountry Super Cruiser and a Cub Crafters EX-2, both of which were nearly new planes.
Like the STOL competition, the airshow portion of the Fly-In has a local flavor but performance quality on a par with much larger events. This year, as was the case in 2017 and 2018, there were two aerobatic performers, Scott Sexton and Gary Ward. Scott Sexton is 45 years old and lives in the small town of Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula. Scott’s day job is flying a 747 for UPS with most of his routes to and from Pacific Rim destinations such as Shanghai and Hong Kong. Scott started flying when he was 16 and has been flying for UPS for 13 years. In terms of aerobatics, Scott missed the feeling of flying a small plane after making the transition to big iron, so in 2010 he bought a 1976 Citabria. By 2013, Scott had mastered aerobatics enough in his Citabria that he began doing the Valdez airshow. He has performed there every year since.
By comparison, to Sexton, Gary Ward is 76 years old and traveled to Valdez from Lincolnton, Georgia. He started flying in a Piper J-3 Cub when he was 15 but didn’t start doing airshows until he was 57. Initially, he made his airshow appearances in a Pitts S2-B, moved on to a Giles 202 and, in 2006, debuted the MX2 that he now flies. The MX2 is constructed of carbon fiber with a modified six-cylinder Lycoming engine that produces more than 350 HP.
In their performances, both Scott and Gary used the nearby Chugach Mountains as a backdrop for their performances, to great effect. Beyond the aerobatic performers, a demonstration flight that’s one of the stars of the show is a WWII vintage C-46 that’s still used commercially for fuel delivery to remote parts of the state. In a nod to the spirit of the Fly-In, the Everts Air Fuel C-46 did a short field takeoff from a taxiway, directly over the crowd and a row of parked airplanes. Watching this WWII-era beast pass by was thrilling, and its demo flights past the mountains and back were stunning.
As for the STOL competition results, many of the competitors were contest veterans. Also, many of the winners weren’t new to the winner’s circle. The scores for the 2019 contest, while impressive, weren’t quite as good as 2017 and 2018. A major contributing factor for the higher scores was that winds were only 3-6 knots this year by comparison to 12-15 knots in 2018 and 15 knots in 2017.
In a brief recap of other events at the Fly-In, Spencer Wallace from Dawson City, Yukon, won the flour bombing contest, and Rod Hanson from Wasilla won the balloon bust.
In short, the Valdez Fly-In and Airshow makes for a fascinating and memorable experience. Is it worth adding to your bucket list? Absolutely! If the chance to meet real bush pilots, witness some impressive STOL flying and view aerobatics against a beautiful mountain backdrop isn’t enough for you, the chance to eat reindeer hot dogs while witnessing everything else could be the clincher. In fact, after you’ve been to the Valdez Fly-In once, you may find yourself vowing to come back next year to compete.
Gary Ward in his MX2