I flew my RV-4 to the Bowman STOL competition, and Tyson and Isaac brought the Bearhawk. As we flew over the mountains from Bethel Maine, I could hear other pilots calling into the traffic pattern: Cubs, Super Cubs, Maules, and 180’s. Everyone coming out on this sunny, late fall day to watch pilots try to take off and land as short as possible.
The last three years, there has been a growing series of short-field take off and landing competitions in the northeast. This year was so organized it went from one person running it to a committee. The committee postponed the Bowman competition twice for COVID and for rain, but when it finally happened, it was a great day for a fly in. Not too much wind, sunny enough to warm the crisp air and dry the grass runway, and bright fall leaves still coloring the Androscoggin River valley. Higher up in the mountains the trees were mostly bare. Thirty or so yellow, red, and blue planes flew in. Most of them outfitted to land off airport or on rough grass strips.
The start line was midway down the runway. For takeoffs, you start at the start line, throttle up, and then try to get off the ground in as little distance as possible. For landing, you compete to stop your plane in the shortest distance after the start line. If you touch before the start line, that landing gets disqualified. Bowman is 2,200 feet long, so that meant 1,100 feet to take off and clear 50 feet tall trees. The distance before the start line lets pilots push to fly as slow as possible on landing without worrying about bending their landing gear if they touch too early.
The organizers had set up checkered yellow and black flags on either side of the chalked start line so it was easy to see from the air. Then they had cones set out at 25 foot intervals with a tape measure in-between and people at every cone to measure exact distances. Every course helper had a radio, and the master judge had a worksheet to fill in all the pilot’s takeoff and landing distances. They even had an announcer and loudspeakers and an audience area filled with people relaxing in camp chairs.
Ten pilots signed up to compete, and an eleventh arrived late. They split us up into groups of three, three, and four-became-five. Tyson in the Bearhawk was in the first group, and I in the RV-4 in the last group. I set up near the start line to get the best pictures I could of Douten, Tom and Tyson. I noticed two things — Tom, who is really good, wasn’t using any flaps on takeoff, and Bill Brine who always gets amazing photos was down at the far end of the cones despite then having to shoot straight back into the sun. I walked down to the far end to ask Bill about both. He said a long lens shade helps for shooting into the sun. Still, he said, he wasn’t getting good pictures. He has since forwarded around photos that prove otherwise. As for Tom’s technique, Bill explained that if I watched carefully I would see that Tom lowered his flaps right when he wanted his wheels to leave the ground. His Super Cub has manual flaps which he can quickly raise and lower. On the next takeoff, I lowered my camera and watched. First Tom kept his flaps up flush with the wing to reduce drag. Then, right at takeoff he put the flaps down. During the whole climb out, Tom varied the amount of flaps to match his climb rate. I wondered if I could do something like that in the RV-4. My electric flap motor is too slow for me to completely retract or extend the flaps, but maybe I could vary them a little.
Since this was the first group, they were all trying out different techniques to see what worked with today’s wind. On Douten’s second landing, he dropped low into the trees early on. So low and so far down the runway that I was wondering if he accidentally touched. Then I heard the judges and announcer asking each other the same question while squinting into the sun. Luckily for them, Douten made it easy to figure out because he then landed 20 feet short of the line, scratching that landing. I asked Douten after he finished why he had come in feet above the runway, and should I try that technique when it was my turn? Douten laughed. He hadn’t intended to get that low, but with the carburetor heat on, his engine couldn’t give enough power to stop the sink.
On Tom’s last takeoff, the announcer called out 95 feet. That’s impressive. Tyson in the Bearhawk was taking off in around 220 feet and landing in 240 feet. I didn’t know any of the next three pilots. I snapped a few more photos, then went to prepare my plane.
In my heat, we had: myself in the RV-4, a red Taylocraft, John Hartz in a Denali Cub, Jim Crane in his Carbon Cub on floats, and the yellow cub clone that showed up late. Jim was no more likely to win than I was. Other years before he got floats, he has won the STOL competitions. This year, I think he was partly advertising for PK floats who sponsored him, and partly just had so much fun landing on lakes over the summer that he didn’t mind being long in the short field competition. He still did his signature rocket-like ascent from the ground.
I was first in line. The wind had shifted around so it was sometimes a tail wind. I checked the wind sock before lining up at the start line. It was limp, so I should be fine to clear the trees. The line attendant carefully guided me to within a millimeter of the start line. Not, that I expected it would matter for my performance. Pump – on, mixture – rich, flaps – a little less than normal so I could try extending them during the roll out, lights – on, gas – yep, carb heat – off for full power, trim – normal. Throttle up and off I went. I lowered the flaps as I went, but I didn’t get the kind of response I was expecting. The great thing about a STOL competition is that someone else measures your takeoff and landing distance, so I could focus on technique. Once I cleared the ground I tried adjusting the flaps and my climb angle to see what got the best performance. None of them seemed to be getting as good of results as my standard settings, so when the trees started getting close, I put the flaps back to two notches and climbed at 65 knots. Flap experiment done, I would use my standard setting next round. Talking with Bill afterward, he agreed that standard technique was often best. But I could try another technique I’d seen the other pilots using.
At typical RV speeds, I would have been around the pattern and ready to land before the fifth plane in the sequence was off. So I flew the pattern at Cub speed. Flying slow like that is great practice for landing slow and short. Turning final, at first I was too high, but I could fix that, I slipped. Then I had a nice steady slow approach. Nearing the threshold I slowed it up, and slowed, and slowed, and touched ten feet short. I could fix that on my next two tries.
As we each landed, we taxied to the far end, and then taxied back. The radio operator said if I wanted to bow out, that would be ok because my first takeoff had scarred people. I responded that I just needed to use different technique. I wondered what Tyson had thought. When I asked him later, he said he could tell I had plenty of speed that I could convert to altitude.
Second round, I set my flaps to their normal setting, but this time I decided to try holding my brakes at the start line until my engine was up to full RPM. The really good STOL competitors lift their tails up in the air before they start moving. I accelerated down the runway. When I felt the airplane almost ready to fly, I tried another trick that Tom uses. I pushed my ailerons left to act as extra flaps and increase the angle of attack on my right wing. Pop! That wing hopped up. I steadied the plan and was off. Then I climbed out without any more flap shenanigans. The organizer on the radio thanked me for the better climb out. I think that was my best takeoff, but I’ll never know. The official judges were only measuring out to 300 feet and all my takeoffs and landings were over 300′. Tyson did his best to estimate them.
I again flew the pattern at Cub speed. I expected everyone behind me to follow. This time they all got off the ground faster. And then the red Taylorcraft directly behind me lost sight of me and turned downwind ahead of me. We convivially sorted it out. He landed first that round.
This time, once I was below the trees into the calm air, I slowed the RV-4 down as slow as I could maintain. At those speeds, not only can I see the speed of the airplane in it’s attitude — how high the nose is. I can also feel the speed in the mushiness of the controls. It was a good landing, but I thought I could do better. Third time around was a refinement on the second time. The plane didn’t pop off as well for me, and we had a tail wind on landing. I made sure to call out my position on the radio more so the Taylorcraft could follow. He cheerfully called his turns second. The Denali Cub was third and calm, but minimal with his calls. Jim in the Carbon Cub was far enough behind that I was concentrating on landing before he spoke on the radio. I thought my landing technique was better than the second landing, but Tyson says my overall rollout was longer. Still Tyson thought I was 350-450 feet for all my landings and takeoffs. That’s not far from the factory specs of 300 feet. If you search the internet for “realistic RV-4 landing distance” you get numbers 1,000ft plus. These threads (1) (2) summarize people’s opinions
As stated in any performance figures, they could be the best obtained from a skilled test pilot, using brand new brakes / tyres on a dry surface, and with no regard for airmanship / longevity of components.
[…] Us mere mortals can double the factory spec numbers.
Hah! no mere mortal-hood for me. The Bearhawk specs are less specific because there are more configuration options — 200-500 feet. But Tyson was doing very well compared to those also.
After we parked our planes, I congratulated Jim on still having a rocket ship even with the float on. He said the floats definitely hurt his shortfield performance, but they were well worth it in fun factor. Then I found the red Taylorcraft and pilot and apologized for not calling out all my turns the time he got ahead of me. He said not to worry, he should have kept sight of me better. I’ve forgotten his name, but he was based not far away. Most of the summer he puts his plane on floats. We have seen it flying over Richardson Lake the time we camped there. One of the pilots from the middle group joined us, Mike Falconer. Since they both fly floats, I asked whereabouts I could get my float rating. Mike highly recommended the folks at Higher Ground Aviation. They both encouraged me to get my float rating and join them lake flying next summer.
Tom in his Super Cub won with a combined takeoff and landing distance of 136 feet. John Hartz in the Denali Cub came in second. I don’t have numbers for him or the third place winner. Tyson was the only four place airplane who competed, and I was the only non-bush plane.
We had meant to make the day longer by first parking my RV-4 at Bethel and flying up to the rough Dartmouth airstrip in the Bearhawk with the big tires. Furthermore, I had meant to compete in the Bearhawk like I had at the NY STOL competition this spring. However, after fueling up and loading my gear into the Bearhawk at Bethel, when I tried to put the flaps down during the pre-takeoff check, they didn’t budge. We parked the Bearhawk and Tyson poked and prodded. Something was electrically disconnected. Without a multi-meter, we couldn’t figure out what. Someone at Bowman would have a multi-meter. I got back in the RV, and Tyson took the left seat in the Bearhawk. He turned the engine on, and the flaps worked just fine. I decided I would rather compete in the RV-4 than in an airplane with a potential flap switch issue. It didn’t act up the rest of the day, but we still need to see what wire is loose.
At Bowman they had a Philippino food truck. Isaac tried out the beef lumpia and really liked them.
On the way back, I stopped for fuel at Bethel and ran into Lisa who had flown her Cub to Bowman to watch the STOL competition and was impressed with my flying. She’s hoping I’ll come fly with her more, and she is a ski instructor at Sunday River.
So many good pictures. I had a hard time cutting it down.