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High Sierra Fly-In: Desert drag racing—with airplanesHigh Sierra Fly-In: Desert drag racing—with airplanes

Once a year, a dry lakebed in the Nevada desert changes overnight from a desolate expanse to a party zone. Is it Burning Man? No—this is way more fun. This is the High Sierra Fly-In, at Dead Cow Lakebed. For one weekend each year, hundreds of pilots gather to celebrate their freedom to fly, to land in seemingly impossible places, and to compete—in airplane drag racing.

  • Kevin Quinn, founder and organizer of the annual High Sierra Fly-In, prepares to signal the start of another heat in the “STOL drag races” that characterize this one-of-a-kind desert fly-in. Photo by Drone Promotions.
  • A competitor approaches the finish line during the STOL Drag Races. Photo by Drone Promotions.
  • A screen shot showing the location of Dead Cow Lakebed, west of Pyramid Lake. Photo courtesy Facebook/High Sierra Fly-In.
  • During the fly-in, pilots fly out to a variety of challenging locations in the remote desert. Photo by Grant Kaye.
  • "Clear prop!” Steve and Nadine Burak are ready to race in their DeHavilland Beaver. Photo by Frank Testa.
  • STOL Drag Racing: Two airplanes line up behind a line literally drawn in the dust, rev their engines, and, at a hand signal, charge off across the playa. They become airborne but remain largely in ground effect and fly 3/4 of a mile straight down the playa. Photo by Frank Testa.
  • After flying 3/4 of a mile, competitors land on, or after, a marked line. They must come to a complete stop before turning around. Photo by Drone Promotions.
  • After landing and stopping, competitors perform (with wheels on the ground) a 180-degree turn and, giving it all they have, fly back down the same flight path, touching down on or after the same marked line that was the starting point. Photo by Emflys, courtesy
  • After touching down on or after the original start line, the first pilot who comes to a complete stop wins the heat. Races are timed, with penalties for landing before either line. The clock starts when your wheels roll and stops when your wheels stop, which helps the trikes since they can brake harder. Photo by Frank Testa.
  • For safety, pilots must land and stop on heading at both ends. A flagger is assigned to each lane for the complete stop check. Officials are also at both ends for line judging. Photo courtesy Facebook/High Sierra Fly-In.
  • Spectators watch as two aircraft approach the finish line. Airplanes from Cubs and Cessnas to Cirruses all participate, and it’s a blast to see how different aircraft types and pilots respond to the challenge. Surprisingly, there’s not a clear favorite aircraft type. Photo by Drone Promotions.
  • An airplane charges toward the first line. For safety, when turning at the halfway mark, all pilots must turn with the tail of their aircraft to the outside, away from the other aircraft. This keeps dust from blowing toward the other pilot, which would reduce visibility. Photo by Drone Promotions.
  • The fastest airplane (determined in qualifying or preheats) gets lane choice. Given the need to turn “tails out” at the halfway mark, the right lane is preferred, due to left-turning tendencies of an aircraft. Photo by Drone Promotions.
  • No city lights here, so participants are treated to star-spangled night skies, bisected by the Milky Way. Bring your telescope! Photo by Grant Kaye.
  • The evening bonfire. Camaraderie runs deep at this fly-in, every year. Photo by Andrea Dodson.

The High Sierra Fly-In takes place each October. Airplanes of all types are encouraged. Pilots bring their kids and friends to give them a taste of the camaraderie that develops so quickly between people here. Many pilots string their airplanes with Christmas lights, adding to the festive nighttime atmosphere. There’s a free barbecue Saturday night and breakfast Sunday morning. Spend the evenings around the large bonfire exchanging stories with your new friends, but make sure you get some sleep, because morning will bring plenty of flying, from STOL contests to fly-outs that can challenge even the most accomplished bush pilot.

The brainchild of Skywagon pilot Kevin Quinn, who lives in Truckee and owns a heli-ski business in Alaska, the High Sierra Fly-In started in 2010 with about five pilots flying in the desert all day and sharing beer and stories around a campfire at night. The fly-in grew exponentially each year and now takes place on the Dead Cow Lakebed, on several hundred acres of land purchased by Quinn after he tired of negotiating with the Bureau of Land Management for an area of sufficient size to accommodate his expanding event. In its seventh year, 2016, some 200 aircraft participated.

Winds or prop wash kick up playa dust, but that’s part of being out in the desert. Not everyone flies in; some people drive in with RVs, pickups, or trailers that also pack golf carts or ATVs. Photo by Nadine Burak.

Dead Cow Lakebed lies 30 nautical miles north of Reno/Stead Airport, halfway between Pyramid Lake and Amedee AAF (AHC) and its co-located Amedee VOR-DME (AHC,109.0 MHz). The landing site is in the northern section of the lakebed at 40° 13' N 119°91' W, or 13 DME on the AHC 111° radial. The approach end of the northeast/southwest 3,000-foot airstrip, composed of hard dirt, is marked by two rows of red flags. You’ll pull your airplane well off to the side and set up camp beside it. Playa dust is a way of life here, so get used to it and wash your airplane when you get home.

Quinn generally conducts an extensive briefing for the day’s activities around the campfire at 7 a.m. Safety is uppermost in his mind. Several years ago, a midair collision marred the event, a circumstance no one cares to repeat. Bring pencil and paper to write down frequencies and procedures for the day’s fly-out. Quinn knows the area like the back of his hand and will lead pilots to a variety of landing spots. While aloft, pilots will be informed if the landing area is suitable for small-wheeled aircraft like a Cirrus. One such example is landing at the site of the annual Burning Man Festival, where you can still see traces of roads traversed a couple of months earlier by tens of thousands of revelers.

Each year a few heavy rains leave standing water on the playa. When the water evaporates it leaves a level surface suitable for nearly all aircraft. Photo courtesy Facebook/High Sierra Fly-In.

Other landing spots are demanding, to say the least. “High Boy” is basically a 400-foot-long trail at a performance-robbing 9,100 feet elevation, uphill, and with a bump big enough to launch you airborne again if you touch down before it. Then there’s “Tailwheel Ridge,” at 7,800 feet, where Quinn blew a few tailwheels before mastering ops here. Bring your swimsuit in case you stop at the hot spring, a short flight from the fly-in (you land on an adjacent dirt road). Other landing sites include grass strips, lake beds, an old gold mine, and dirt roads. Pilots fly in formation between destinations; copilots can watch for traffic in the air and wild horses on the ground. Fuel stops are usually at Nervino or Susanville.

Back at Dead Cow Lakebed, there’s an event you won’t want to miss: STOL drag races. See the photo captions for how these work; they’re a blast! Other events might include a watermelon drop. At night, fireworks and a giant bonfire light up the sky. Many pilots donate cash or via PayPal to Quinn, as the fly-in costs him thousands to put on, with the firewood/works, porta-potties, prizes, food, beer, T-shirts, and other expenses. To get a taste of the fun and energy, go to YouTube and type in High Sierra Fly-In. Better yet, fly out yourself and be part of the fun!

Pilots ready for the next heat in the STOL Drag Races. Photo courtesy Facebook/High Sierra Fly-In.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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