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Bush planes flew low across the plains of the High Sierra Desert as tumbleweeds rolled beneath them. The cool air blew dust across the playa of Nevada’s Dead Cow Lakebed Airstrip for the tenth annual High Sierra Fly-in, held Oct. 17-20, 2019.
With STOL (short takeoff and landing) flying gaining popularity in recent years, this fly-in has grown to a record high of 500 aircraft and 2,000 visitors. Event organizer, Kevin Quinn, restricted the amount of aircraft taking part in this year’s event, keeping safety as the main priority.
The greatest appeal of this fly-in is the landscape that surrounds it. The possibilities are limitless with the right imagination and a capable aircraft. With so much room to play through the rolling landscape and the dried-out lake beds of the wild desert, it’s no wonder why pilots travel from across North America to experience this slice of heaven.
The High Sierra Fly-in brings bush pilots together from around the continent to celebrate back country aviation and to participate in STOL Drag racing. STOL Drag requires that two aircraft fly a 2,000-foot straightaway down and back in a drag racing format, side by side. The first aircraft to come to a complete stop, on heading, moves on to the next round.
Several Canadians competed in this year’s races, including Oshkosh STOL champ Jason Busat in his EP914STi powered Rans, Mic Thiessen in his Kitfox STi, Jeremy Rahn in his Kitfox Series 5, Nat (Natalie) Esser in her Kitfox Model 7, and Katie Waito in her Pitts S1.
Esser and Busat both made it to the finals and have been invited to compete in the 2020 Reno Air Races, where STOL Drag debuted for the first time this past September. Esser is the first female to qualify for the finals, and took home US$2,000 in winnings, sponsored by the Flying Cowboys and Aerodynamic, for being the fastest female on course.
There was a lot of buzz along the flight line about the ladies of the High Sierra races, in particular Nat Esser. The day of the races had all the makings of a Hollywood movie — the winds picked up, tensions were high, an excited crowd lined the raceway, and a mechanical issue plagued our female protagonist.
The camera pans to Esser, wearing a sleeveless shirt, hair thick with playa dust, sporting a backwards fluorescent pink flat brim hat, holding a wrench over her Kitfox.
On her Instagram page she wrote, “Friday, Oct. 19, was a day that started with a devastating low after I made a mistake that rendered my propeller useless.”
With just hours to go before the races, Esser and her intrepid crew of STOL Drag friends were able to replace her propeller with moments to spare. In her third run, she finished with her fastest time of the day, one minute and 13 seconds, placing her sixteenth out of 37 racers.
Esser’s home airfield, Calmar/Wizard Lake Airport, doesn’t have a long enough runway to simulate Dead Cow Lakebed, so during practice she would take off in one direction and try and go as fast as she could, close to the ground, in a straight line. Then she would loop around, come back the other way, and fly as fast as she could towards where she wanted to touch down.
She and Busat began practicing together in Rimbey, Alta., three weeks before the High Sierra Fly-in, where they have a 3,000-foot strip and were able to set up cones.
“It took five to seven runs to get the feel for the order of things, and once that was happening it was just tightening things up and talking about the best way to go about the turnaround,” explained Esser.
She and her husband, Josh Esser, started building their Kitfox Model 7 Super Sport six years ago. Neither of them had flown taildraggers before finishing their airplane and they needed time in type for insurance. After being married for five years, and not yet getting away for their honeymoon, they decided to pay a visit to Stick and Rudder Aviation, a company that specializes in tailor-made backcountry flight training. It was there that they learned about landing on upslope runways, mountain flying, ridge crossings and more.
A self-proclaimed newbie to back country flying, Esser thinks she has become a better pilot after participating in STOL Drag and says she is much more comfortable in their Kitfox.
Her strong performance at the High Sierra Fly-in has inspired men and women alike.
“I’ve always wanted to do something more to promote women in aviation, but I was never able to find my way of doing it,” said Esser, when talking about how her racing has positively impacted the perspective of women in aviation. “All I wanted was to fly the airplane well. It’s exciting that I was able to be competitive. If a woman can watch the air races and see another woman flying STOL Drag, doing well at it, and think that they can fly from seeing that, then that would be mission accomplished for me.”
Follow along with Nat and Josh on Instagram @nat_esser & @out.foxd.