If you keep tabs on current aviation news and social media, you’ve noticed this thing called “STOL” has become popular. Not a day goes by that you don’t see a reference to STOL, a reminder of an upcoming STOL event, or even an image or video of a STOL airplane approaching a gravel bar or a makeshift dirt strip. I believe just about every major general aviation publication has featured a STOL-related article or image on its cover in recent months. What is STOL, why is it growing like a wildfire, and how can you learn more about it?
As a kid growing up in the aviation world of the 1980s, I’d occasionally see something about STOL. Most often, the acronym was emblazoned on the side of a Cessna 182 that taxied up to the fuel pump at my family’s FBO, or it was written on the tail of a Maule parked overnight in transient parking. Occasionally, I’d even see “Robertson STOL” proudly displayed on a twin Cessna. I never gave it much thought, other than wanting to know what the acronym STOL meant. I concluded, in my teenage mind, that STOL simply had something to do with daredevils who flew out in the sticks, in Alaska and Idaho. That wasn’t the truth, though.
“STOL” is an acronym for “Short TakeOff and Landing.” Simply put, it is the capability of an aircraft to take off and land in a distance which is shorter than typical for that aircraft’s class. This capability is important to pilots who operate in the backcountry, those remote areas which often present short, or nearly non-existent, airstrips with the inherent challenges brought on by canyons, trees, water, and poor landing surfaces, to name a few.
I’m certain that the Wright brothers, and everyone after them, have at some point concerned themselves with how short of a landing they can make, or how quickly they can get off the ground during takeoff. In fact, it is an integral part of pilot training, and required by FAA regulation, to concern yourself with whether your aircraft (and you) have sufficient ability to accommodate a short runway. So, in a sense, pilots are already tuned into STOL from the beginning. But, why the recent growth of interest in STOL?
“I think the simple fact that social media is a huge platform and people start noticing the available access outside the standard paved environment,” says opinion leader Kevin Quinn, founder of STOL Drag and the rapidly growing annual High Sierra Fly-In. “People see others doing it and realize the fun they can have too,” he says.
There’s a lot to what Kevin is saying. In recent years, YouTube has exploded with channels focused on backcountry and STOL flying. Arguably, Trent Palmer has been one of the most successful YouTube personalities to introduce thousands of aviators to economical and fun STOL activity. Pandemic-induced social distancing and isolation, particularly in 2020, led many a pilot to watching these videos even more and participating in social media groups focused on STOL.
Another reason for the explosive popularity of STOL: it is an opportunity to become a better pilot. “More and more pilots are realizing it is fun to get out and see the backcountry; landing off-airport is the next step they take,” says Doug Jackson, founder of National STOL Series. “STOL competitions are a natural progression of this activity and serve to hone the skills of the pilots.” Many pilots are recognizing STOL as a viable next step in their training.
In most motorsports, it’s all about going fast… here in aviation, there’s arguably even more skill required from the pilot to go slowly. And, it’s not necessarily a natural skill – it’s one that takes full comprehension of aircraft and pilot limitations and capabilities, and lots of practice. These are skills not usually taught during primary pilot training.
What kind of airplane do you need to do STOL flying? While many pilots imagine something with a tailwheel, it goes well beyond tailwheels. Some of the most capable STOL aircraft you’ll see in action are the high-winged, fixed tricycle gear-equipped aircraft such as a Cessna 182, and the experimental, tricycle geared (and very affordable) Zenith STOL aircraft. And, of course, there is a strong presence of tailwheel aircraft consisting of a mix of experimental and certified aircraft such as Just Aircraft Highlanders, Kitfoxes, Super Cubs, and the venerable Cessna 170s, 180s, and 185s.
However, you do not have to have one of those aircraft to learn and exhibit STOL skills. At STOL competitions, it is common to see aircraft competing which you would not consider to be a traditional STOL airplane. Among these I’ve seen recently on the circuit include Beechcraft Bonanzas, Cessna 172s, and Piper PA-28 Cherokees. While some of these models may not be well suited for extreme backcountry operation, they are adequate platforms upon which to sharpen your slow flight and spot landing skills, both which are key to effective STOL operations.
How, then, might a pilot develop and refine slow flying and STOL skills? There’s a plethora of opportunities nowadays. First, though, a pilot should seek training from a qualified and highly experienced backcountry CFI. Many CFIs do not have the skills for STOL training, so choose your CFI wisely. Such training will help the pilot understand how to expand one’s comfort zone into slower landing approaches, know what to expect of the aircraft at these slower speeds, and learn to effectively shorten takeoff and landing distances.
After bolstering your STOL skills with a qualified CFI, the freedom to explore shorter and often remote airstrips, or to compete against your friends for the shortest takeoff, is exhilarating. “Once a pilot experiences this type of flying, often times it becomes that pilot’s ‘everyday flying,’” says Collin Caneva, an active STOL pilot and STOL competition participant. After buying a Cub, Caneva says he was told, “this Cub will become your everyday flying machine: if you have an hour to fly, you’ll jump in the Cub.” He says that is certainly the case for him.
With the exponential rise in interest in STOL flying, famous STOL competitions such as the annual Valdez Fly-In aren’t the only gig in town. In addition to many independent STOL events popping up throughout the US, organized STOL competition series have emerged, giving new and experienced STOL pilots alike the opportunity to exercise their skills in a safety-conscious environment.
The National STOL Series, founded by Doug Jackson and Tom Flanary, invites pilots of all skill levels to test their traditional STOL skills by competing for the shortest takeoff and landing. The group travels throughout the US on a scheduled tour, giving everyone the opportunity to get involved. National STOL has eight competitions planned for 2022. Having served on staff with the group, I’ve seen cases where a recently-minted pilot brings his Piper Cherokee to the competition, qualifies, and then runs competitively in his class. Don’t think that just because you don’t have a highly modded tailwheel aircraft with huge tires, you can’t get involved with STOL. Competing is an outstanding opportunity to exercise STOL skills in most any basic general aviation airplane and have a darn good time while you’re at it.
STOL Drag, another revered and highly respected STOL competition series, puts a twist on STOL flying by running a drag racing format. Imagine two aircraft, side by side with ample separation, at the start line. On “GO,” each aircraft takes off, stays only a dozen or so feet off the ground, flies 2,000 feet, then lands to a complete stop, does a 180-degree turn, and races back to the start line for a finish. This format allows pilots to take their traditional STOL skills to another level and the exhilaration of the watching crowd is addicting.
Again, this competition is not just for highly capable STOL aircraft. At the most recent High Sierra Fly-In, one of STOL Drag’s annual racing events, a Beechcraft Bonanza qualified and, frankly, did quite well out on the strip (see left-most aircraft in the picture at right). STOL Drag’s motto is “making good pilots better” and their STOL Drag school, held prior to most of the competitions, is doing exactly that. Not everyone who goes through the school qualifies to race, but if the pilot pays attention to the training, he or she will certainly walk away a better pilot. STOL Drag travels across the US with regularly scheduled competition events where being in the crowd is nearly as exciting as being out on the strip.
“The biggest barrier to entry for anyone wanting to try STOL [competitions] is fear or intimidation,” says Collin Caneva. However, he goes on to explain that, “once you try it and see how fun it is to fly with, learn from, and create lasting friendships [with others],” that barrier breaks down. Moreso now than ever, entry-level STOL pilots are jumping in, joining a competition, and making a lot of new friends at the same time. There are a lot of experienced STOL pilots who enjoy helping the entry-level pilots learn how to effectively compete.
How can you learn more?
- On YouTube, search for terms such as “STOL flying,” “backcountry flying,” and for the competitions “National STOL Series” and “STOL Drag.”
- Join enthusiast groups on Facebook and ask around about backcountry-qualified CFIs in your area.
- Read a good book on backcountry flying. My favorite author is R. K. “Dick” Williams, who shares a lifetime of incredible Idaho backcountry flying experience through his well-written books.
- Practice, practice, practice. Then, practice some more. Seek off-pavement strips in your area which are within your comfort zone and practice. With permission from the property owner, consider adding markers alongside the strip so you can monitor your progress by measuring your takeoff and landing distances.
If you’re like me, then once you begin to learn STOL skills, you’ll realize that this is what flying is really all about. Understanding aircraft behavior at the lower end of the envelope, knowing your personal limits, knowing what’s safe and what’s not, and embracing the full capabilities of your airplane, is the ultimate skill builder. This is why STOL has grown to prominence in general aviation.