Friday, May 6, 2011

Video: Young Pilot Prepares For STOL Competition

Video: Young Pilot Prepares For STOL Competition: "

KNIK RIVER, ALASKA – This weekend pilots from around Alaska and elsewhere in North America who like to fly slow will be converging on the coastal town of Valdez for the annual Fly-In & Air Show. But here in Alaska, “Valdez” means much more than an airshow. The big event for the pilots is the STOL competition held on Saturday.

STOL stands for Short Take-Off and Landing. And in Alaska STOL is synonymous with how flying is done up here. Unlike other places where speed may dominate pilot discussions, in Alaska it’s all about how slow you can go. Because how slow you can go is related to how quickly you can get off the ground and how little room you need to land.

Where a typical pilot of a small single engine airplane might use 1,000 or 1,500 feet to land on a paved runway, bush pilots commonly require just a few hundred feet. Some times much less. And most of the time they’re not landing on a runway or anywhere close to one.

At the STOL competition in Valdez, take offs and landings are measured in tens of feet. Pilots pull up to a line and try to get off the ground with as little ground roll as possible. They also try to touch down as soon as they pass a line on the ground in the shortest possible distance.

For many years Alaskan bush pilots with their thousands of hours of experience in Piper Super Cubs and similar aircraft dominate the competition. But this year a young pilot is hoping to give them a run for their money. And he’s not even from Alaska. Bobby Breeden hails from Virginia and in fact, he’s still a student pilot.

“I’m taking five AP classes and haven’t had the time yet” Breeden says about his lack of a license, “I just turned 17 a few weeks ago” .

But Breeden isn’t like most student pilots. He says he has more than 200 hours in his logbook and 99 percent of it in Super Cubs. That’s not a lot of experience by Alaska standards, but he’s excited to compete. His secret weapon for the STOL competition is a custom Super Cub that was built from the ground up to be competitive in Valdez. A sign that he’s serious about his efforts, is a measuring wheel in the back of the airplane for practice sessions. There’s a physics textbook back there too.

“I’ve been practicing for Valdez, I got signed off for it and everything” Breeden says referring to a signature from his flight instructor. Usually the signature is required to just fly solo somewhere as a student. Not to compete in a STOL competition.

The airplane he and his dad have been building has numerous modifications to dramatically improve the performance. And if some practice sessions on gravel bars along the Knik River northwest of Anchorage are any indicator (video above), Breeden and his custom Super Cub are looking very competitive.

Large, soft tires allow pilots to land on very rough surfaces. Often landings are done on surfaces with softball to basketball sized rocks.

The massive 35 inch tires are inflated to less than three pounds per square inch to absorb the impact from rocks and other debris encountered during off airport landings. They also give the wing a high angle of attack to aid in decreasing the take off and lading distances. The engine has been stroked out an additional 15 cubic inches (375 total) and puts out around 210 horsepower. To help balance the heavier engine, the composite propeller weighs just 14 pounds.

The result is helicopter like performance.

“It’s just full power with the brakes locked and you get the tail up” Breeden says, “you just rotate immediately as you release the brakes and it just lifts off the ground.”

Small vortex generators on the leading edge of the wing improve control at very low speeds and high angles of attack.

Of course if there’s one thing every bush pilot knows it’s that experience usually counts for more than a fancy airplane. And there will be many pilots in Valdez with as much experience flying Super Cubs as Breeden has with breathing. It should be an exciting weekend.

The competition gets underway Saturday afternoon and we’ll have a full report with more video and the results on Monday.

Photos: Jason Paur/, Video: Bobby Breeden/YouTube


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