Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Video: Bush Pilot Competition – How Slow Can You Go?

Video: Bush Pilot Competition – How Slow Can You Go?: "

The crowd at the Valdez Fly-In begins to rumble as pilot Josh Pepperd approaches a set of cones and a white line on the pavement in front of them. Flying slower and slower, the nose on his highly modified blue and silver Piper rises higher and higher. With a final few bursts of power, the crowd is cheering louder until Pepperd crosses the white line, pulls back his throttle and drops the final few feet to the pavement.

Hard on the brakes and with a couple of bounces on the large balloon-like tires, the tail on Pepperd’s airplane rises precariously and he comes to a stop. The crowd erupts in applause. He has come to a stop just 30 feet past the line, the shortest landing of the day. Unfortunately his take-off on this round was 59 feet, and the combined 89 feet is only good enough for third place. Most pilots of small planes are proud if they can just land their airplane in 890 feet.

The Valdez Fly-In and Airshow held each May is unusual in many ways. First off, being in Alaska it is normal to have a fresh dusting of snow on the mountains adjacent to the airport, and spectators casually point to the black bears and Dall sheep on the slopes while watching the airplanes. But perhaps the biggest difference is the airplanes.

Most airshows are all about fast airplanes and aerobatics. But here in Valdez the airshow reflects the kind of flying that is common in the state, short take-off and landing, or STOL. And the STOL competition is what draws the crowds.

“Precision landing and landing as slow as you can is what we do” says defending champion Paul Claus. Fifty-three year old Claus has been flying in Alaska his whole life with more than 27,000 hours of bush flying experience. He points out that the flying he does every day may prepare him for the competition, but the flying he does for work is much more serious, “it’s not on pavement and the consequences where we land normally are a bit life and death.”

Like many of the airplanes at other airshows, the most impressive airplanes in Valdez sport a wide variety of modifications for maximum performance. Performance in Alaska means flying as slow as possible. This allows pilots like Claus to land their airplanes just about anywhere from a boulder strewn river bar, to a small clearing on a mountain side. And having the power to take off again.

At the STOL competition, pilots get the extra performance with modifications including nitrous oxide systems for some extra horsepower and wings that stall at less than 20 miles per hour.

There are four categories for competitors in Valdez. The light touring, heavy touring and stock bush classes all feature production certified aircraft. Modifications can be made to the Cessna 170s, 185s and Piper Super Cubs that dominate the respective classes, but they must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for use on a production aircraft.

In the alternate bush category, anything goes. Well almost anything. The airplanes flown in this category are built under the FAA’s experimental category. This means pilots are free to modify existing airplanes if they want, or simply start from scratch with their own design. The Wayne Mackey designed SQ2 (the tan and brown airplane in the video below) is an example of an airplane that was designed from the ground up to fly slow and safe.

For the STOL competition, most competitors in the experimental category start with a Piper Super Cub (exceptions included Josh Pepperd who goes against the trend with his Piper Pacer based “Producer”). The venerable design is the airplane of choice for many bush pilots.

This year the experimental category was open for a new champion as Paul Claus would not be defending his title he won last year in a CubCrafters Carbon Cub – an airplane loosely derived from a Super Cub. He did defend his titles in the heavy touring (Cessna 185) and stock bush (Piper Super Cub) classes. Last year he won all three categories.

Paul Claus brought his STOL fleet to Valdez. From left to right: DeHavilland Turbine Otter, Piper Super Cub, Cessna 185.

Newcomer Bobby Breeden, the 17 year old student pilot from Virginia, was seen practicing much of the day Friday to get ready for his first competition. Breeden faced several road blocks that would have sent many people packing. A broken ignition was easily replaced on Friday evening. But after an unexpected “ramp check” from the FAA on the morning of the competition, the high school junior spent much of the day thinking his many months of preparation were going down the drain.

During a ramp check, which are almost always spontaneous from the pilot’s point of view, the proper paperwork including registration and an airworthiness certificate for the airplane must be shown. In the busy weeks leading to Valdez, the certificate had been accidentally left at home.

After several frenzy hours, Breeden and his dad were able to locate the valuable piece of paper back in Virginia, a picture was taken of it and Bobby was able to show it to the FAA representative on his iPad. The FAA said as long as the iPad was on board the airplane, he would be allowed to fly. Breeden later managed to get a paper print out hoping every ounce saved would help his performance.

The rookie managed to tie for the shortest take-off of the day with 36 feet. But the competition is based on the best combined take-off and landing set from two attempts and Breeden’s best pair was a 50 foot take-off and 51 foot landing giving him fourth place.

Veteran bush pilot Kirk Ellis from nearby Nabesna (at 120 miles, it’s close by Alaska standards) attracted a lot of attention with his biplane Super Cub. The extra set of wings were originally built for a crop dusting Super Cub, but Ellis admits it probably won’t help him win.

“It’s just a fun thing” he says, “it does pretty good.”

Veteran bush pilot Kirk Ellis makes some last minute adjustments to his biplane Super Cub.

Ellis and his brother Cole have always been top competitors at the STOL competitions since the early years. Even in the beginning back in the early 1980s, Ellis says the competition was pretty serious. Many of the modifications that are common today were brought about by those early competitions.

But Ellis says Valdez is more about seeing friends and getting together. Many of the pilots work in isolated areas where neighbors are not exactly close.

“It’s the only time we see each other” he says of the other bush pilots. “In the summer we’re working and in the winter we don’t do a lot of traveling, [here] I see all my neighbors that are 60 miles away that I haven’t seen all year.”

Ellis knew his biplane wasn’t going to win, but with a 46 foot take off and a 71 foot landing, he still managed to place fifth.

In the end, this year’s competition was won by a farmer from Kansas. Ed Doyle (pictured at top) has been competing in Valdez for the past four years. He started competing after another competitor asked him to fly his airplane from Washington state to Valdez (designed to fly slow, long flights in a Super Cub can take an extra long time).

The baggage compartment of Cuzoom is sparse to save weight, except for the bottle of nitrous oxide.

This year Doyle was able to fly Mike Olson’s Cuzoom into first place with a 43 foot take-off and a 35 foot landing. A very happy Doyle admitted the lightweight, nitrous boosted airplane producing 308 horsepower, and with a just about every STOL modification available (including flaps that deploy to 80 degrees), helped with the win.

But when asked about his piloting skills and what else contributed to the 78 foot combined score, he had a simple, humble reply.


Photos: Jason Paur/Wired.com, Video: StickAndRudderPilot


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