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They’ve got STOL

Aviation’s hottest new event changed these pilots’ lives

Big tires, spot landings, and off-airport adventures are all the rage in aviation.
Photography by Jim Raeder
Photography by Jim Raeder

It might not be for everyone, but for three women, short takeoff and landing has become a way of life. For Cathy Page, Nat Esser, and Jayden Newman, flying STOL has enhanced their flying lives in ways they could not have imagined. They’ve honed their skills, met a whole new group of aviators, and even made a little prize money along the way.

A former steamfitter who now flies an Airbus for an airline, Page became interested in STOL when she stumbled across a video from the 2016 High Sierra Fly-In. “After watching that video, I decided I had to go to the event. I had no desire to compete, but after sitting through the STOL Drag briefing, I got talked into racing, so I did it. It was so much fun. I’ve competed every year since,” said Page. 

Nat Esser

Jayden Newman

Cathy Page

Page credits her STOL Drag success to flying for 30 days straight in the Idaho backcountry during her off time amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “We got good because we were out there flying every day. If you can devote time towards really focused training, you can do it like a boss.” 

Esser, a first officer for a Canadian airline, became interested in STOL after her husband attended the High Sierra Fly-In in 2018. “Josh came home raving, so I knew I had to get down there,” said Esser. The 2019 High Sierra Fly-In was when organizers The Flying Cowboys advertised a $2,000 prize for the fastest female racer. Esser started training in her Kitfox. “We set up a course, and I did about 10 runs before going to the lakebed,” she said. To her delight, she won the $2,000 grand prize and took sixteenth place overall, meaning that she qualified to race STOL Drag at the Stihl National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. 

After several months of maintenance and upgrades on her beloved Kitfox, Esser raced at Reno in 2021 and placed third overall. Almost a month later, Esser placed second in the silver class at High Sierra. “So many pilots and nonpilots think I’m crazy, but if you have the drive to do it, it’s very attainable,” said Esser. 

It was when Newman’s father ran into a man wearing a Byrd’s Adventure Center T-shirt that her family learned about the popular STOL event ArkanSTOL. “My dad asked what Byrd’s was, so he told them about the place and ArkanSTOL,” said Newman, 18. “We decided to fly from California to Arkansas to go to the event.” With no intentions of competing, Newman found herself flying in the event and finishing in second place, a mere 0.5 seconds short of former ArkanSTOL champion Steve Henry. She flies a CubCrafters Carbon Cub SS.

Since flying in her first STOL event at ArkanSTOL in 2019, Newman has competed in several STOL competitions, including the Florida Classic and National STOL event at the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo.

Newman says she knows to “come prepared and practice a lot. Even if you think you’ve practiced enough, you probably haven’t. Nerves are high because there are so many people watching. Just be confident, but not too confident.” 

Esser offers advice for those who want to become STOL pilots or to improve upon their STOL flying: “Start mastering spot landings, power pulling, being on speed all the time, turnarounds, and taking off and accelerating in ground effect. You’re not going to get the benefits of practicing on a full course in the beginning. Find a little, sleepy grass strip and master the little things first.”

Page bought her first airplane soon after becoming a private pilot at age 25. “We are middle-class people that appreciate the magic of flight, so we found a way to make it work by prioritizing what was important,” she said. Page is currently competing in her beloved Piper Clipper, and she will partner with CubCrafters to become the new owner of an FX–2 Carbon Cub.

“I love the Clipper, but the Carbon Cub will be a much more backcountry-capable aircraft that will make me much more competitive at the races,” said Page. She added that you don’t have to have a fancy airplane to compete in STOL: “The rubber meets the road when you’re on the course. You don’t have to be smart or rich to compete. Everyone gets along great. It’s truly the gem of general aviation.”

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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.

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