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Meet the flying cowboysMeet the flying cowboys

A bunch of aviation-crazy friends start a fly-out event and it turns into an industry game changer

Pilots Cory Robin, Wally Brown, and Kevin Quinn had flown their taildraggers to a fly-in event in Idaho. “We were sitting around the campfire laughing and enjoying each other’s company when Wally said we were really just a bunch of flying cowboys.

High Sierra Fly in

  • High Sierra Fly in
    There's nothing like a taildragger to fly into the High Sierra Fly-In.
  • High Sierra Fly in
    Airplanes, jeeps, and RVs—this is a camping paradise.
  • High Sierra Fly in
    The Patey brothers aren't the only twins at High Sierra.
  • High Sierra Fly in
    Aircraft on the Dead Cow lakebed, framed by the desert mountains.
  • High Sierra Fly in
    STOL Drag racers stop and turn on a quarter-mile course.
  • High Sierra Fly in
    Night brings out friends to enjoy hangar stories.
  • High Sierra Fly in
    Aerial view of opening day at the High Sierra Fly-In.
  • High Sierra Fly in
    Aircraft, campers, and RVs line the outside ring of the Dead Cow lakebed.
  • High Sierra Fly in
    Don't like dust? Don't go to the High Sierra STOL Drag.

From there the name stuck and the Flying Cowboys name took off,” says Quinn. “Cory really took the name—in a positive manner—and ran with it, creating what it is now, eight friends who fly often together and do their best at promoting the sport. Honestly, in my opinion, everyone who flies in aviation is just another Flying Cowboy. We just happen to be eight guys who are banded together promoting our sport and sharing the passion of aviation as a brand of its own, hence, the Flying Cowboys.”

Quinn may sound humble about the friends and their efforts to promote aviation, but the Flying Cowboys are more than simply a flying group of friends. Robin has launched a video blog that has more than 21,000 subscribers and 1.5-plus million views; brothers Mike and Mark Patey have designed and flown sensational aircraft that have been the talk of EAA AirVenture two years in a row; Trent Palmer is a drone pilot and filmmaker who delights in flying his Kitfox and sharing his experiences on YouTube; and Quinn started the hottest event in aviation—or should we say coolest? The High Sierra Fly-In and STOL Drag attracts so many pilots and aviation enthusiasts that Quinn has already started telling those interested in attending the 2019 event to register early. And the event is not until October.

“The High Sierra Fly-In was really an idea that just sort of came about. I was flying around a lot solo in the northern Nevada area and posting photos of my flying adventures through various social media platforms [BackcountryPilot.org and Supercub.org], and other pilots started calling and meeting up to go out and fly,” said Quinn. “One thing led to another and suddenly we had a good little crew of pilots from around the area—really northern California area—who started flying a lot together. There were maybe say eight to 10 of us. I put it out there that I was gonna spend a couple nights at that neat little dry lake bed we dubbed ‘Three Shotgun Shells and a Pair of Shoes’—the first time landing there I literally found three shotgun shells and a pair of old shoes laying on the ground—word spread quickly that we were doing this again the following year, and our little gathering turned from 10 airplanes into about 20. Each year grew and doubled and tripled in size. Things started to get serious, and now we have full ATC for pilot advisories, you name it. Safety is paramount now, as it’s not just a gathering of a few friends anymore. Last year we had 1,500-plus people and around 550 airplanes.”

High Sierra Fly In

  • High Sierra Fly In
    Photography by Mike Fizer
  • High Sierra Fly In
    High Sierra organizer Kevin Quinn celebrated his birthday at the 2018 event by doing what he loves best—flying.
  • High Sierra Fly In
    A sense of humor prevails at the event.
  • High Sierra Fly In
    Draco—a Wilga design modified by Mike Patey—takes off like a rocket in the Nevada sky.
  • High Sierra Fly In
    STOL line judges at the runway midpoint.
  • High Sierra Fly In
    RVs, campers, and airplanes share space on the dry lake bed.
  • High Sierra Fly In
    Campers convene each evening around a bonfire.
  • High Sierra Fly In
    Flying Cowboys Jason Sneed, ...
  • High Sierra Fly In
    ...Cory Robin (center) and Mike Patey keep the event organized and provide commentary for the STOL Drag on Friday and Saturday.
  • High Sierra Fly In
    A variety of aircraft, such as this Sherpa, land to join the High Sierra Fly-In and some enjoy the competition of the STOL Drag.
  • High Sierra Fly In
    No, that’s not Steve McQueen but that 1960’s vibe rocks the desert event.
  • High Sierra Fly In
    Fine dust permeates everything—it’s a souvenir participants take home with them.

Three shotgun shells and a pair of shoes

The High Sierra Fly-In rises from nowhere to a big party in the middle of somewhere and after all the fun and flying, disappears back to nowhere. I’d call it the “Brigadoon” effect but no one younger than 40 knows what I’m talking about (a Scottish village only appears once every 100 years and they made a musical of it? Gene Kelly? Oh, never mind). Or maybe a Burning Man? Except the hallmarks of Burning Man are art and freedom and dancing wildly around a big burning sculpture. High Sierra is about flying. That’s it. Flying. Oh, and friendship and fun, too.

When “Three Shotguns” got to be too small for the event, Quinn discovered “Dead Cow” in the Nevada desert. It is also a dry lake bed, five miles long and two and a half miles wide. Roads don’t really exist, although you can get there by car or truck following a circuitous track around the bed. It’s best to fly here. Quinn named the area Dead Cow because, well, there was a dead cow.

“Our slice of pie runs down the entire west half of the lake bed, offering plenty of room for airplanes and people to mingle safely—but I also remind folks it is private property,” said Quinn. “The lake bed is always available to people to fly and land. They need to always remember it’s landing at their own risk. I don’t try to control the area; pilots have been landing and training out there for years.”  

Lost in the desert

Neither photographer Mike Fizer nor I are “cowboys.” He likes martinis and I cherish hair-care products. Rather than camp, we agreed to fly (commercially) into Reno and drive the 40 miles out to Dead Cow each day. How hard could that be? I wore cowboy boots (OK, they came from Macy’s) and Fizer rented us a big Chevy Tahoe. Fizer plotted the directions on the truck’s GPS and on his phone, and before he’d even left home in Wichita, he’d mapped it out with Quinn and sent the route to me via email. I was to be his “navigator.” Oh, Fizer, will you never learn?

Highway 395 North took us to the first turn-off on a narrow, paved road. We crossed into California at an odd Department of Transportation structure that was manned, but no one stopped us. That road became a dirt road circling a small mountain and we crossed into Nevada again. Then there was no longer a road but “tracks,” bone-jarring washboard paths through desert landscape. Quinn had advised Fizer to watch for plumes of dust from other vehicles, indicating that there were others ahead of us and we were on track. Lots of stubby bushes, logs, and tumbleweed and I got the feeling we might be lost. So Fizer followed what looked to be a plume of dust from another truck (“I think he’s the guy that passed us a while ago”) down what looked to be more of a dried stream bed than a “track.” Soon enough the other truck was heading for us. It stopped and, when the dust settled, truck guy asked us if we were trying to find the fly-in. When we said yes, he said me too, let’s try this way. So, we turned around and followed him. Finally, the stubby bushes and rocks and logs gave way to a wide-open expanse of gray, hard ground. We were on the lake bed!

Yet another long drive across the empty lake bed (truck guy was moving faster than we were) and finally we see aircraft through the dust, and RVs and campers on the perimeter. Now kids on bikes and men on motorcycles and tents and campsites. We’d made it! It was like finding Neverland. Friends shaking hands, people laughing, kids playing in the dirt. Look, there’s AOPA video producer Paul Harrop cooking steaks over a camp stove. Mike Patey landing Draco. Flags and tents indicating show center. Exiting the Tahoe, we were immediately covered in gray dust.

Fizer suggested we retrace our path back to the “track” out of here so when we leave after dark, we can easily find it. So, we circled the perimeter again, waving to the kids and campers, and not only timed the trip out but mapped it on the truck GPS. I made note of landmarks—a line of trees, the last campsite, a big log. Oh, we’ve got this.

As we sat in the pitch-black darkness seven hours later in the truck somewhere in the middle of nowhere, I ask Fizer what happens if we never find our way out. We wait for sunrise, he says.

STOL Drag

The smart money is on Draco. Mike Patey’s Frankenstein Wilga aircraft that pitches up so dramatically when it takes off seems destined to win the 2018 STOL Drag at Dead Cow. After several years of meeting on the lake bed to camp out and share flying stories, Quinn envisioned this race. “I came up with the idea of STOL Drag while in the shower one morning. No joke,” said Quinn. “I was pondering on how one could make traditional STOL a bit more interesting. Don’t get me wrong: I love traditional STOL, but I also love Nascar and drag racing. So does mainstream America.” His idea was to blend STOL and drag racing. Traditional short-field landings are still in play at the halfway point and finish line, but they’re paired with side-by-side, head-to-head racing. Racing is in a straight line both ways, flying just barely off the ground.

“We don’t turn around in the air. It’s on the ground. Each leg is to a complete stop. The aircraft that comes to a complete stop first at the finish line wins,” said Quinn. “There’s a lot going on and the fastest airplane doesn’t always win. Pilot skill set is extremely important and a big player in STOL Drag.”

Watching STOL Drag isn’t easy, either. The aircraft pick up curtains—draperies—of dust as they fly down the 4,000-foot-long straightaway. It’s blinding. Along the strip are commentators of every style: the critics, the know-it-alls, the fans, the gamblers. Robin and Quinn do the actual commentary and watch the winds. On this first day of the 2018 STOL Drag, competition is stopped for two hours until the wind settles down. By this time everyone is a dust-covered cowboy. No hair-care product could save this.

The STOL Drag takes place over two days—the Friday qualifier and the Saturday race. Draco, as assumed, is the victor. Trent Palmer is in second in his Kitfox, Toby Ashley third in his Carbon Cub.

Band of brothers

Quinn is the leader of the High Sierra Fly-In. It’s his event, and he handles the lake bed and the website. But he will say that none of it could happen without his friends—the Flying Cowboys—and his wife, Jessica. An Anchorage, Alaska, native, Quinn grew up in aviation. “I have been flying around in my dad’s airplanes before I could walk. Flying and aviation is really all I have ever known. Now I own a Carbon Cub and a 1953 Cessna 180 and spend the better part of my time teaching folks how to fly in the backcountry off-airport environment,” Quinn said. He also runs Points North Heli-Adventures, a heli-ski operation in Cordova, Alaska. He and Jessica have two children, Kinley, 8, and Kash, who is 4.

“The Flying Cowboys are a band of pilot brothers who are extremely talented at what they do,” Quinn said. “All have extensive experience in aviation, big personalities, and a mission to promote aviation in a safe, positive, and professional manner.”

Although there are a lot of pilots and aviation enthusiasts who are part of the Flying Cowboy entourage helping Quinn put on High Sierra, he says these are the main guys you will find at his side: Cory Robin, Trent Palmer, Jason Sneed, Steve Henry, Mike Patey, Mark Patey, and Scott Palmer.

“I’m amazed at how hard my brothers/pals work to promote aviation,” Robin said. “Kevin specifically has touched the backcountry aviation world in a big way, and in my opinion is the biggest influencer in the industry today. His social media networks are huge and thriving—it’s a big part of the success of his endeavors.”

All the Cowboys make use of their big personalities by posting on social media, especially on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. Their collective goal is to inspire and entertain—and to get people out and flying. As Trent Palmer says in one of his YouTube videos: “You people don’t get out enough.”

Email [email protected]

Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.

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