A strong October wind was scouring the hard-packed playa of a remote Nevada dry lake, whipping up the dust as the temperature dropped to multiplelayers territory. If this seems like one of the last places on earth any sane person would want to be, you’re only half right.
As you probably know, the annual High Sierra Fly-In got its start as a small gathering (small as in five guys) of like-minded backcountry flyers getting together to meet at Dead Cow Dry Lake, hang out around the campfire and, during the day, go flying to cool backcountry destinations within easy reach of Dead Cow.
High Sierra is no longer that cozy gathering. Though, in a way, it is. It’s just scattered widely about the lakebed and multiplied by nearly a thousand.
Though few people talk about it this way, High Sierra is just like Oshkosh, just scaled down. A lot. And at the same time, it’s nothing like Oshkosh. In fact, in many ways, it’s the opposite of EAA’s big summer shindig. Not that EAA and High Sierra are mutually exclusive. A lot of folks who show up at Dead Cow make an appearance at Wittman Regional, too, and the homegrown STOL/Drag race that was born through HSF is now a popular fixture at AirVenture.
But whereas EAA is a year-round organization with a large permanent staff and headquarters and programs and advocacy, High Sierra is none of that. I think that’s a big part of its greatness. It isn’t about fitting yourself in, as you need to do with an event that each year attracts hundreds of thousands to its airshows and rock concerts. And more.
Oshkosh is all about the more part, and that’s what makes it great. HSF is all about the less part. And that is what makes it great.
That formerly small gathering of friends has turned into a big event. This year, there were an estimated 1,000 aircraft (mostly fixed-wing backcountry taildraggers) and 3,000 people in attendance. There are services, though they all go away at the conclusion of the fly-in. But while it’s happening, you can get coffee, fuel and firewood and even a burrito.
The other thing about the event is that it centers around three main activities: the STOL/Drag contest, just flying around with friends and family, and just hanging out. In that way, the High Sierra Fly-In is special. It’s grown bigger, yes, but it hasn’t grown past its roots. In fact, one might argue that if it did, it would simply no longer be that fly-in of like-minded aviators who gather in celebration of being off the grid for a few days—a few dusty, chilly and glorious days.
Scroll through the slideshow below to see more photos from the 2021 High Sierra Fly-In
A Pilatus PC-24 touches down on Dead Cow. It did not, we want to emphasize, participate in the STOL-Drag contest. Photo by Jim Raeder