Great ideas sometimes take on a life of their own, and make no mistake: The High Sierra Fly-In is a great idea. The three-day event, which takes place annually on a remote dry lake bed in Nevada called Dead Cow Lake (we kid you not), got done with its long weekend of shared aviation insanity in late October, and it was the biggest High Sierra Fly-In yet. Though next year’s will be bigger, as will the one the year after that, and so on.
What exactly the High Sierra Fly-In is, is hard to say. Big picture: It’s an informal gathering of like-minded pilots, many of them old friends, who get together to fly, to enjoy each others’ company and to celebrate the magic that’s created when you combine friends and family, airplanes and the great outdoors. At this year’s event, there was flying, of course, live music, barbeque and a lot of hangar flying (sans hangars, of course), and it’s a fair guess that during evening hours, a few beers were consumed.
That said, the culture of safety at HSF is strong. There are mandatory safety briefings at 7 a.m. each day, there are established, regular procedures, and there is a Unicom operator on duty at all times. The founder of the event, Kevin Quinn, emphasizes how critical an element this is to the event, from the general fly in procedures to the rules of the STOL competition. Quinn is an instructor and outdoor enthusiast who divides his time between Alaska, Tahoe and Hawaii. For a day job, if you can call it that, Quinn operates a heli-skiing operation during snowy times and spends his off time beating up the bush in his highly modified Super Cub.
HSF got started as an informal gathering on a different dry lakebed back in 2010. Since then it’s grown into a bigger—a much bigger—event. This year an estimated 200 airplanes showed up, and hundreds more people drove in, in RVs and pickups, many of them pitching tents on the dry lakebed and camping. The site is remote, but it’s home to Quinn, who, along with several Flying Cowboy friends, bought a sizable chunk of the property at Dead Cow to cut down on the governmental red tape associated with holding an event on Bureau of Land Management property.
The centerpiece of the fly-in is arguably the STOL Drag Race, a tournament-style event that pits pilots one-on-one in a side-by-side contest to fly a short, back-and-forth course, landing at the turnaround, getting pointed in the other direction and then hightailing it back to the start/finish line. Around 70 planes were entered in this year’s event, and the 2017 champ, Mark Patey, from Mapleton, Utah, flew his Carbon Cub to victory, beating out Steve Henry in his Just Aircraft Highlander. The finish was so close that judges had to analyze tail movement and tire rotation to see who got stopped first.
Speaking of the planes, while the event got started with a collection of big tire taildraggers, planes of just about every description are welcome. The surface of a dry lake is hard enough for NASA to use as runways, and while no X-planes stopped by for the festivities, there were many different kinds of aircraft in attendance, including a Grumman Mallard, which didn’t seem to mind the lack of water in this lake.
As you might have guessed already, there’s no shortage of opinions among those gathered for HSF, and, surprisingly, one of the most controversial topics is the weather. This year the weather was too cold and too windy for some attendees, and Quinn confirmed with us that, yes, people frequently want to know why the event is scheduled for so late in the month and the year. Quinn’s unapologetic answer is, “Because the weather is awesome. It’s the best time of year in the high country.” Besides, with many of the attendees making a living flying crop dusters or, in Quinn’s case, carrying powder-crazed skiers to their alpine nirvana, the spot on the calendar is a perfect fit.
This year’s HSF started with high winds and frosty temps, which then by Thursday night turned into very high winds (how high remains a controversial subject among HSF goers, but most agree that they topped out at least in the high 60s). One plane was damaged after a tie-down rope failed. The subject of how to suitably secure a light plane on the dry lake bed is another topic members of the group discuss with great enthusiasm, a quality not in short supply at HSF.
Luckily, the weather relented during the daylight hours, and so a lot of flying took place, which is a big part of what HSF is all about: flying, nature and community. It’s a formula that has captured the imagination of thousands of pilots already, hundreds of whom attended the get-together and nearly all of whom can’t stop telling everyone about it. This event is a big deal about to get way bigger. Good thing that Dead Cow Dry Lake is a big chunk of playa. After eight years, this thing might just be getting started.