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‘The world’s most awesome backcountry fly-in’

Thousands attend STOL Drag event on dry lakebed

Editor's note: This article was updated October 21 with additional information about the Dead Cow lakebed from High Sierra Fly-In founder Kevin Quinn.

The High Sierra Fly-In began as a small gathering of friends, but the action-packed event has transformed into one of the most popular "aviation celebrations" of the year.

The High Sierra Fly-In is a backcountry event that takes place on the Dead Cow lakebed, 30 nautical miles north of the Reno/Stead Airport, each October. Event founder Kevin Quinn, who owns over 600 acres of the lakebed, has turned the dusty playa into a unique aviation destination. The off-airport event has three separate runways and room for an entire niche of general aviation to gather for one weekend each year.

High Sierra began in 2010 with only five pilots, but it has steadily morphed into what event organizers are calling “the world’s most awesome backcountry fly-in.” “We had 3,000 people and 1,000 airplanes at High Sierra this year. The event just keeps growing,” said Quinn. “But of course, with all the growth and exposure comes all the permits. I have permits for permits for permits. But we want to ensure that this event stays safe, so we have all the professionals and proper protocols in place to keep this a big celebration for aviation.”

The AOPA-sponsored event began at daybreak each morning with the “Skywagon wakeup call,” a civilian version of dawn patrol consisting of Cessna 180s and 185s. After being awoken by a handful of Skywagons, attendees found their way to the main gathering tent for “the warmest thing on the playa”—free coffee. AOPA Social Media Marketer Kevin Cortes said, “It was great getting to talk to everyone and meet so many new people during those cold mornings. I think we handed out three or four thousand cups of coffee.”

Kevin Quinn marshals a STOL Drag racer toward the starting line. Photo by Jim Raeder.As the sun climbed higher in the sky, race participants made their way to the briefing area before the weekend’s STOL Drag competition. STOL Drag is a nationally accredited, drag-racing-style airplane race in which “two aircraft fly side-by-side as fast as they can down a 2,000-foot straightaway, land, and turn around and race back to land at the finish line,” explained Quinn. Quinn, who also founded STOL Drag, told AOPA earlier this year that STOL Drag “is making good pilots better,” by teaching the finer points of energy management, slips, spot landings, and altitude and directional control.

The race is divided into three classes—gold, silver, and bronze. The gold class features highly modified backcountry airplanes and highly experienced pilots. The silver class comprises everyday aircraft or less experienced STOL Drag pilots. The bronze class consists of first-time racers.

Austin Clemens, 18, placed first in the silver class race in his 2011 Aviat Husky. Clemens said, “The unique part about STOL Drag is any airplane can participate… It’s all about knowing your airplane and your equipment.” The young corporate pilot and his 180-horsepower aircraft, which is equipped with a two-blade reversible MT propeller, has won several STOL competitions in recent years, including the Mayday STOL Drag and several National STOL events.

Although unconventional, the family-friendly event attracts pilots, enthusiasts, and volunteers from as far away as Canada. “You will find the best backcountry pilots from all over the world at High Sierra,” said Cortes. “Everyone is super accessible and easy to talk to. It’s the most enjoyable fly-in of the year for me.”

The High Sierra Fly-In attracts a wide variety of airplanes, ultralights, and an assortment of other vehicles. Photo by Jim Raeder.

As the day turned to night, bonfires lit the lakebed and attendees socialized into the wee hours of the night. Off-road vehicles ranging from dune buggies to Onewheels (which were the most dangerous form of transportation on the playa this year, after several people, including race participant, Mark Patey, suffered from broken bones) could be found driving from campsite to campsite throughout the night to gather around new sources of heat.

If you’re thinking about attending next year’s fly-in, make sure you’re well prepared. “Self-reliance is really important at High Sierra,” said AOPA Live® Producer and video journalist Paul Harrop. “There is no electricity, running water, or heat. If you want to take a shower, you have to bring a solar shower, have a motor home, or have a friend with a motor home. But if you need something, just ask. The people at High Sierra are fantastic.”

The playa dust might find its way into every nook and cranny that an airplane, car, or motor home has to offer, but the camaraderie, community, and love for aviation might be worth the slight increase in your water bill, after several thorough cleanings. Event attendee Leah Ochs said, “The High Sierra Fly-In brings together a community of people who never fail to fill each other’s cup… it’s an event that lights a new fire inside of you for aviation."

The Dead Cow lakebed transforms into an airport and RV park for one weekend each October. Photo by Jim Raeder.

Cayla McLeod

Cayla McLeod Hunt

Social Media Marketer
Social Media Marketer Cayla McLeod Hunt is a private pilot with a love for tailwheel and backcountry aircraft. When she isn't writing stories, she enjoys flying with friends and introducing others to general aviation.
Topics: Events

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