2019 Valdez Fly In and STOL Competition
Every May in Valdez, Alaska there is a fantastic aviation competition which requires astounding performance and precision from both from the aircraft and from the pilot. The Valdez STOL competition attracts bush planes from around the world to show off their Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) capabilities.
A typical pilot in a small single engine aircraft needs 1,000 to 1,500 feet to land on a paved runway; personally in the Piper Saratoga, I was unhappy with anything less than 3,500 feet! But take off and landings at Valdez are measured in feet in tens, not in hundreds.
Here’s an example of an Alaskan “short field” take-off that had me covering my face with my hands the first time I saw it:
The Valdez STOL competition is a more formal version of bush flying. The aircraft taxies to the starting line where every inch counts. The pilot applies brakes until the engine is at full power and then attempts to lift off immediately, with as little roll as possible.
And here’s an example of an amazing (and slightly less frightening) landing:
Although the Alaskan scenery at Valdez is beautiful, the STOL competition is not quite as dramatic, as it is held on a tarmac runway where the judges can see exactly how much space the pilot needed to take off and land.
When it comes to landing, the main wheels cannot touch down before the line and the distance is measured from the line to where the main wheels stop.
The full event, known as the Valdez Fly In lasts three days. In addition to the STOL competition, there is a Friday Evening Beach Landing, a Flour Bombing and Balloon Bust Competition, a Poker Run Beach Landing and an airshow with aerobatic performances. The local station, KTUU, says that the event started as a way to jump-start the city’s tourist season. It seems to be working; this was the 16th event and Valdez hosts an estimated 2,000 spectators every year in addition to the 70-150 aircraft that take part.
The coastal town of Valdez is particularly suited for the STOL competition: it’s located at sea-level (which offers the aircraft best possible performance) and the airfield has a steady sea breeze.
The world record for STOL was set in Valdez in 2017 by Frank Knapp in a light sport aircraft, who took off in just 13 feet and landed in 10!
You can see the effect of the wind there; 2017 was a particularly good year for the competition with a steady 15-knot wind.
The official FAQ for the Valdez Fly In helps to give a taste of the event.
“Can I camp under the wing of my airplane?”
Yes, as long as you don’t cook with an open flame.
Who would light a fire under the wing of his own aircraft?
“Do I need wing walkers when parking my aircraft?”
Yes, you need to use wing walkers when parking because we need to maximize our available parking space PLEASE PARK AS CLOSE AS CLOSE TOGETHER AS YOU CAN BUT PLEASE DO NOT cause hangar rash.
I don’t know what hangar rash is and I don’t think I want to know…
The STOL competition was broadcast live and you can watch the full four hours of the event on YouTube. I don’t have that kind of patience but I did want to see DRACO, the crowd favourite, a single engine aircraft modified to use a turbine engine. That’s right, it runs on jet fuel.
DRACO appears on the event video at about one hour and eleven minutes in but, luckily for the impatient, someone clipped together the highlights in this one-minute video:
His 750 horsepower engine set him up for a climb at 4,500 feet per minute.
Each aircraft gets two chances, where the better (shorter) distance is the one to count. DRACO failed on the first attempt but, on the second try, he took off in just 78 feet and landed in 121 feet.
As the only turbine class aircraft in the competition, DRACO was guaranteed a first place showing, but his distance was also just ahead of the first place winner of the Bush Plane category: a PA-18 flown by Dennie Serle which took off in 78 feet but needed 123 feet to land.
DRACO is a bush plane designed by Mike Patey with a turbine engine as opposed to the traditional piston engine used by small aircraft. When the engine blew in Patey’s Wilga 2000, he replaced it with a Pratt and Whitney turbine, with twice the power and half the weight of the original piston engine. After the conversion, the aircraft could no longer fly as a Wilga 2000 and the FAA approved it as an experimental exhibition aircraft.
Before its conversion, the Wilga took off in 400 feet, landed in 280 feet, and stalled at 57mph (92km/h). Like most bush planes, it wasn’t optimized for high-altitude flying. But DRACO can fly high. In fact, Patey designed and installed a four-passenger oxygen system that allows him to take advantage of PT6’s performance at altitude. DRACO will climb at 4,000 feet-per-minute (FPM) and cruise at 180mph (290km/h) at 16,000 feet. A Carbon Cub climbs at 2,000 FPM and cruises at about 115mph (185km/h) around 5,000 feet.
A few have questioned whether DRACO—which cost around $1 million to build not counting Patey’s time and which runs on jet fuel rather than more common 100 octane gasoline—can even really be considered a bush plane?
Patey points out that he can find jet fuel at most airports in the US and that, in other parts of the world, it is far easier to find than aviation gasoline. DRACO’s PT6 will also run on diesel and other fuel mixes, which potentially makes it more of a bush plane. He acknowledges that it’s expensive, but it’s what he dreamed of. “I have a plane that can go to 28,000 feet and do 180mph cross-country with four people and gear. Yet I can take it where a Carbon Cub can go,” he told Ars. “To me, that makes it the ultimate bush plane.”
The competition classes are defined by model. For example, the Light Touring Class includes Cessna 150, 152, 170, 172, 175 and 177, as well as the Stinson 108-2; Maule M-4, M-5, M-6, and M-7. The Heavy Touring Class includes the Cessna 180, 182, 185, 206 and 210 as well the Maule M-9-230. The Bush Class includes PA 12, 14, 18, 22, the Stinson 105, Citrabra, Huskies, Tern and Sout aircraft. Experimental single engine aircraft are in the Alternate Bush Class. If the model isn’t listed, then the aircraft is classed by the gross weight on the aircraft’s airworthiness certificate.
Here are the full results from 2019:
Turbine Class – Mike Patey – 78′ Take off 121′ Landing
Heavy Touring – James Spikes – 130′ Take off 164′ Landing
Light Touring – CC Pocock – 112′ Take off 106′ Landing
Bush Class – Denny Serie – 78′ Take off 123′ Landing
Alt Bush Class – Tom Hudzinski – 71′ Take off 61′ Landing
Light Sport – Frank Knapp – 22′ 8″ Take off 40′ 8″ Landing
Notice Frank Knapp in first place for his class once again although he didn’t come close to his world record this time. Luckily, there’s always 2020. I just wish I could afford the airfare to attend myself!