STOL Competitions: Should The FAA Get Involved?

I’m always a little trepidatious about recommending intervention by the FAA, but it’s probably long past time to have an official look at STOL competitions. By all means, tell me how wrong I am but be constructive and polite. And while you’re at it spare a thought for Tom Dafoe’s beautiful family as they ponder his utterly senseless loss at the MayDay STOL competition in Nebraska last weekend.

As we reported, Dafoe died after his Cessna 140 dove into the dirt at Wayne Municipal Airport/Stan Morris Field while he was taking part in an ad hoc landing and takeoff distance competition. The STOL drag race he’d traveled hundreds of miles to compete in had been postponed because of high winds.

It’s not clear what prompted Dafoe and a handful of others to hop in their planes for a little friendly competition. That they were able to put it together and get those aircraft into the air in an unsanctioned competition within the STOL Drag event in questionable conditions is puzzling, too.

The event itself had all the trappings of a well-organized aviation outing. AOPA was one of the sponsors and spectators were present. That implies that there were standards and procedures in place governing the conduct of the participants.

This is not meant to be a vilification of those taking part. Rather, the backcountry origins of the STOL competition suggest phenomenon some swagger is involved and the preconceptions involved may have been a factor.

Regardless of all that and the undeniable entertainment factor, this kind of flying is far from playful. It’s highly dangerous. The whole idea is to dance on the cliff edge of flight parameters Our instructors taught us to avoid unless absolutely necessary.

Forget the argument that competition has always been a part of flying and risk is a natural extension. Once you start placing ads and inviting spectators there is a well-founded expectation that safety, for the competitors and the crowd, is a fundamental organizational priority.

So, what could the FAA do without just a blanket ban on such competitions? As with aerobatic displays, it could mandate that pilots be trained and checked out for competence. It could also require that an air boss or the equivalent be in charge of the field and that pilots comply with his or her direction. Maybe there should also be a standard set of rules. They seem to vary widely. The agency could also have a representative or two at each event to keep an eye on things.

Of course, the FAA’s involvement may be rendered moot by a much more powerful force. The insurance industry is undoubtedly all over this accident and you can watch for competition clauses in your next renewal if they aren’t already in there. If they’ll touch you at all in a STOL competition, you can bet it will cost plenty.

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