The annual Valdez Fly-In & Air Show presented by CubCrafters took place May 12-14 at Pioneer Field, Valdez Airport (KVDZ), featuring a beach landing fly-out, balloon bust, flour bombing, aerobatics demonstration and pilot roundtable. But it is heralded most for hosting the world famous Valdez short takeoff and landing (STOL) competition.
Pioneer Field is tucked away in the heavily glaciated Chugach Mountains near the head of a deep fjord in the Prince William Sound, just across from the Port of Valdez, and the Valdez Glacier that sits to the east of the runway. Despite how awe-inspiring this landscape may be, it owns a reputation for creating fast-changing and inclement weather conditions, but it seems the weather gods were smiling down upon the 19th Annual Fly-In & STOL Competition with blue skies and an abundance of sunshine. The conditions could not have been more beautiful for this legendary event. Regular Valdez competitor Dan Reynolds said, “Overall this year’s weather was some of the best I have seen.”
The ramp was full of airplanes belonging to competitors and spectators who traveled from hundreds, even thousands of miles to participate, coming from as far north as Fairbanks and North Pole, Alaska, to Juneau, just 450 miles to the south of Valdez. Boaz Schwarts of Tel Aviv, Israel, flew his Carbon Cub FX3 from Bend, Oregon, to join CubCrafters at the event to give demo rides, and another person traveled 4,348 miles from Tampa, Florida, to volunteer for the event.
Of the 2,000 spectators in attendance were 200-plus passengers from the HMS Nieuw Amsterdam, a Holland America Line cruise ship that was docked at the port just a few miles up the road. The city of Valdez offered the ship’s aviation enthusiast a free shuttle ride to the fly-in.
Even a few Canadians made it over the border to compete, including Valdez Light Sport Class winner Reynolds, who made his event debut in 2016 in his 1984 Chinook Valdez Special. This was Reynolds’ sixth year competing at Valdez, having only missed 2020 due the Canadian border being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reynolds is one of the fan favorites, having set a new short landing record in 2018 with a distance of 9 feet, 6 inches, beating the previous record of Valdez STOL legend Frank Knapp in his “lil’ Cub” set the previous year at 10 feet, 5 inches.
Reynolds has reached the podium every year since he started competing at Valdez, and 2023 was no different. He took home another first place win in the light sport category with a take off distance of 28 feet and landing distance of 38 feet for a combined 66 feet that also earned him the overall best score. Because of the unusually mild weather, the stronger headwinds that bring the super-short, record-breaking distances were lacking, leaving Reynolds’ 2018 mark standing for another year.
You can watch Reynolds compete at the Wayne America Fly-In in the National STOL Series against some of the most talented pilots in the lower U.S., including Steve Henry, Austin Clemons, and Hal Stockman.
This year, Knapp and his wife, Kris, were spotted on the spectator side of the fence. Knapp said, “We enjoyed the show from the spectator viewpoint this year! For us, one of the most exciting moments was watching Dan (Lawn Dart) Reynolds with his Chinook! It was a great group of pilots and machines!”
Nathan Rehack took the win in the Alternate Bush Class in his 2022 Experimental CAW12 Super Cruiser, with a combined score of 171 feet, an impressive 49 feet shorter than second place.
The Bush Class was the most stacked class of the event with nine aircraft, including Piper PA18s, ranging from the early 1950s to the late 1970s, a PA22 Tri Pacer, a 1943 Interstate S1B1, and a 1946 Aeronca Champ! Joe Prax, the Valdez fly-in president, said he found the Bush Class scores to be the most impressive, and although the Aeronca Champ didn’t win the class, pilot Kyle Sobeck did a great job with a lower-powered plane without flaps. The crowd appreciates any airplane flown well.
It was newcomer George Pine who won the Bush Class in his 1959 Piper PA18. This was Pine’s first time competing at an STOL event.
The 170 Mafia enjoyed a strong showing in the Light Touring Class. However, the strength-in-numbers axiom didn’t apply this weekend as it was Steven Spence in his 1958 Cessna 172 who took the win for the third consecutive year with the combined shortest distance of 170 feet.
The Heavy Touring Class was also stacked with a strong presence of Cessnas— 206, 185, and 180s—but it was a 1978 Helio Courier that won by a whopping 113 feet over second place with a combined distance of 177 feet flown by Lukas Stutzer. It was Stutzer’s second career victory at Valdez.
Second- and third-place finishers James Sparks and Keving Doyle have competed for many years. Doyle especially sports a long family history in Alaska STOL, as his uncle was part of the first known competition held on the beach on Kenai in the early 1970s.
Prax was pleased with the turnout this year: “We had a good mix of new and veteran pilots who all performed well. The wind at the event was only 7-8 knots but (was) extremely steady. Another factor in great performance is the low density altitude from cooler temperatures and the event (being) at sea level.”
The day ended with a delicious dinner and awards banquet at the Valdez Convention & Civic Center that overlooks Port Valdez. With the Sugarloaf, Benzene, and Mummy mountains serving as a breathtaking backdrop, it was the perfect setting for a celebratory formation flyby—performed by aerobatic pilots Scott Sexton of Barnstormers Aviation in his Citabria and extreme sports athlete Melissa Dawn Burns in her Edge 540—to celebrate the competing pilots, volunteers, staff, and 350 of their closest friends, family, and fans.
Richard McSpadden of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said, “Valdez is hallowed ground for STOL. It is like (the) Fenway Park and Lambeau Field of bush flying.”
Valdez STOL is known for bringing this type of competition to the forefront of general aviation and has made a direct impact on the creation and growth of popular events in the lower 48 states. The staff is already planning and preparing to celebrate the event’s 20th anniversary in 2024.
All in all, the 19th Annual Valdez STOL Competition was truly a sight to behold, made even more memorable by the gorgeous weather.