Big tires, spot landings, and off-airport adventures are all the rage in aviation. It might not be for everyone, but for three women, short takeoff and landing (STOL) has become a way of life.
As a pilot who has been flying for over 34 years, Cathy Page is a well-versed general aviation enthusiast and airline pilot with experience in aircraft ranging from Piper Clippers to airliners made by Airbus. After becoming a private pilot at age 25, she became an airplane owner. “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,” recalled Page. With no real intent to earn ratings beyond her private pilot certificate, Page surprised herself by leaving her career as a steamfitter for a career as a professional pilot.
While her day job flying airliners keeps her busy, it’s the little airplanes back home that have her heart. The Piper Clipper and Van’s Aircraft RV–6 owner became interested in STOL by stumbling 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,” recalled 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.”
Although Page is currently competing in her beloved Piper Clipper, she is excited to be partnering with CubCrafters to become the proud 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.”
First-generation aviator Nat Esser was born to fly. The Ontario, Canada, native credits her early desire to fly to growing up next to the Trenton Air Force Base. “I would watch planes fly over all day…I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” recalled Esser. As a teenager, she joined the Royal Canadian Air Cadets, where she earned her glider license at age 16 and her private pilot certificate at age 17. After graduating from high school, she attended Seneca College, where she earned additional ratings and her bachelor’s degree.
Esser 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. It just so happened that the 2019 High Sierra Fly-In was when the Flying Cowboys advertised a $2,000 prize for the fastest female racer. As a result, Esser started training in her Kitfox for the STOL Drag event. “We set up a course, and I did about ten runs before going to the lakebed,” recalled Esser. 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 for 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.
Her advice for those who want to become STOL pilots or to improve upon their STOL flying is to “start mastering spot landings, power pulling, being on speed all the time, turnarounds and taking off and accelerating in ground effect.” Esser adds, “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.”
Jaden Newman, 18, started flying just over two years ago after her dad became a private pilot. “We have a home in Arizona, so we wanted a faster way of getting there. My dad thought flying would be much faster than driving, so he decided to become a pilot,” said Newman. “My mom and I wanted to do it too, so we got our certificates on the same day, just after my dad got his.”
After earning their certificates, the family purchased a Carbon Cub after owning a Cessna 172 and an American Champion Scout. “I had fun flying around in the back seat with my dad, but we thought it would be fun if I had [a Carbon Cub] too,” said Newman. Shortly after that, Newman had a Carbon Cub SS of her very own.
It wasn’t until Newman’s father ran into a gentleman wearing a Byrd’s Adventure Center T-shirt that the family learned about the popular STOL event ArkanSTOL. “My dad asked Dale what Byrd’s was, so he told them about the place and ArkanSTOL,” said Newman. “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.
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. As a direct result of her success, she has partnered with several aviation businesses, including Acme Aero, Patriot Aircraft, Catto Propellers, and Western Skyways.
Newman’s most significant piece of advice for someone looking to compete in a STOL competition would be to “come prepared and practice a lot. Even if you think you’ve practiced enough, you probably haven’t,” said Newman. “Nerves are high because there are so many people watching. Just be confident, but not too confident.”