A line of single-engine planes taxied onto the runway at Missoula International Airport on Friday evening, the setting sun glinting off their wings.
“Good evening, folks, is that pretty or what?” announcer Mike Vivion asked hundreds of spectators who had massed along a mesh fence at the airfield’s edge. They had come to watch an aerial demonstration as part of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Fly-In, a national pilots’ meeting hosted Friday and Saturday at the airport.
First in the lineup came six planes from the Texas STOL Roundup, there to demonstrate “short takeoff and landing,” or STOL.
"It's typically a technique which is used in the backcountry, which of course Montana and Idaho are famous for,” said Phil Whittemore, the Roundup’s “Commander of the Air Group,” before the event.
Short, remote airstrips, he continued, demand a pilot’s best.
“Once you've decided you can safely get out of that runway...you've got to get off the ground as quickly as possible, and if there's obstacles on the ground you got to clear them as quickly as possible so you don't run into them.”
But landing is what “takes the most skill,” he said. “You're basically keeping the airplane in the air...with lift on the wings, and you're trying to fly as slow as you can, and then get it down on the mark.
“You've got to practice, practice, practice, practice, with your airplane,” to pull this off, he told the Missoulian. In recent years, practicing STOL, and competing for the lowest distances, has gained popularity among pilots.
Whittemore founded the Texas STOL Roundup about five years ago. Its largest event, he said, drew in 97 competitors, 600 planes and 2,000 spectators.
In competition, STOL pilots are scored by adding together their takeoff and landing distances. Scores vary by type of plane and an airstrip’s altitude. In Missoula, Whittemore ventured that the group’s lowest scores would come in at 400 to 450 feet.
Friday’s event was just a demo, not a competition. But as one plane after another leapt from the runway, circled the airfield, then gently touched down, spectators were impressed. “That was insane!” shouted one after an especially brief takeoff.
After about 30 minutes of flying, the Roundup’s planes stilled their propellers and made way for a much larger bird: Neptune Aviation Services’ BAe-146 firefighting aircraft, crewed by Chief Pilot Tom Loehde and Lauren Crea.
Laden with 10,000 pounds of fuel and 2,000 more pounds of water, this jet didn’t have a short takeoff in store. It needed thousands of feet to get airborne, then slowly lifted up and shrank to a speck among the clouds.
It eventually circled back over the hills for a first run, dropping to about 170 feet over the crowd and tilting its wings in salute. On the second pass, the plane’s tail door opened, spilling one ton of water onto the airfield. It hung over the grass for a few seconds, a misty curtain hundreds of feet long, before dissipating.
Both the firefighting and STOL demos drew hearty applause from the crowd, and approval from other members of the West’s aviation community.
Jackson McDonald, Carl Stearns and Isaiah Fee had come to the Fly-In from Coeur d’Alene, where they work at the Latitude Aviation flight school. Speaking with the Missoulian after the event, they were especially awed by the Roundup pilots’ ability to land and launch their aircraft so quickly.
“We do fly a plane that has STOL capabilities,” Stearns said, “but we’re not that good.”