short take and landing
Flying Adventure

Finding your own Alaska... flying STOL

When it comes to Flying Adventures, for Ed Smiley-Jones it is Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) all the way with his faithful Husky…

Like many others, I learned to fly in a Cessna 152, but on a grass strip in Rutland. My instructor, an owner of a Piper Super Cub and an advocate of Short Take-off and Landing (STOL), was keen to prepare me for that unavoidable short field landing that I may have to make one day. This led to many of my training flights to out-lying grass strips throughout Rutland, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire which had challenging approaches and take-offs to test me and to improve my skills.

During my training I was introduced to the concept of STOL flying and told about the legendary STOL pilot Frank Knapp. Frank Knapp landed his highly modified Piper Cub in a distance of just 10ft 5in and took off in 13ft 8in – how was this possible? I also followed the North American STOL pilot video bloggers such as Trent Palmer, Mike Patey, Kevin Quinn, Cory Robins and the website, which focuses on STOL training. 

I was captivated by their adventures and the finer points of STOL flying within the backcountry, including Alaska, along with the highly competitive and exciting STOL drag races that they organised. For those who don’t know, STOL Drag is when two pilots race side-by-side down a 2,000ft track 75ft apart. They land on or after a marker, come to a complete stop before turning around and then fly back down the course landing on or after the marker, coming to a complete stop at the start/finish line. The pilot to stop first wins.

My fascination with these aeroplanes and the skills of the pilots intensified, and my goal was to perfect the short landing and take off. This all came out during my Skill Test and the subsequent debrief by my CAA examiner where he jokingly said to me (in a sort of Michael Caine accent, think The Italian Job), “I know I asked you to make a short landing, but you didn’t need to do it that short!”

Author Ed Smiley-Jones loves STOL flying

I saw STOL flying as a way to keep my long-term interests in flying alive and stimulating. Early on in my pilot training I was given some advice, which was to decide on which style of flying was of interest to me, create missions to explore the UK, go to challenging airstrips… because if you don’t, you could end up having no purpose to your flying apart from going from A to B for a cup of tea! With this resonating, my mind was set on the idea of STOL flying and this drove me to complete my tailwheel differences training a few weeks after qualifying and I have not looked back – in fact I haven’t flown a tricycle aeroplane since.

As my STOL bug intensified and grew into an obsession I knew I needed to buy a STOL aeroplane. I was flying a 1980s Super Cub which was an ex-Israeli military spotter. I loved everything about this aircraft – highly capable, fun and also customisable. However, I soon came to realise they’re expensive and difficult to find, and when I did find one for sale the combination of the price and refurbishment just made it too expensive for me. Luckily as one door closes another opens, and thanks to hours of research and a chance meeting with a bush pilot I was introduced to the Aviat Husky.

This aircraft springs from 1985 when Christen Industries developed the Christen (Aviat) Husky, a purpose-built STOL aeroplane with a stall speed of just 45mph. As it happens, my chosen aircraft is an Aviat Husky A1 and is fitted with 26in Goodyear tyres, which help with rough surfaces, floatation during the winter months and the inevitable harder landing. The Husky is extremely capable and can handle the job with ease (far more capable than me!) – together with its 180hp engine, a constant speed propeller and Fowler flaps. It will land within 350ft (and shorter with a stronger headwind) and take-off within 200ft – skilled STOL pilots can improve on this significantly. I believe the Husky, along with the Piper Super Cub and the Maule are the perfect aeroplanes for the UK.

I fly my Husky from a 225 metre grass strip, slightly downhill one way and with a typical Leicestershire hunting hedge at the other end – good for the Duke of Rutland’s hounds, but adds another obstacle for me! Saying that, I have always seen this hedge and the short grass strip as a way to improve my skills… it definitely sharpens my focus!

Creating a community

 I constantly reflect on how lucky and privileged I am to be a pilot, and how I get to couple this interest with my love of the countryside. This blend of flying and the countryside allows me to pursue my passion and fascination for STOL and backcountry flying. I felt that to get the most from my flying I needed to be part of a community.

Calling it ‘backcountry flying’ in the UK is probably a bit of a stretch so I like to call it, ‘hinterland flying’. I believe this is more suited to the UK landscape and scale. This led to me creating Hinterland Pilot, my social media brand to promote flying and unite a group of like-minded pilots. 

From this platform, I reached out to fellow pilots and within a week I had 20-plus new flying contacts all keen to meet up. They were from all over the UK and even included one pilot from Tanzania. Surprisingly, Hinterland Pilot also started to draw an audience from North America, who were also keen to understand the UK scene.

I joined the Flying Farmers Association, a group of 250-plus grass strip pilots who share my passion. I quickly discovered some of the members flew tailwheel aeroplanes and were looking to broaden their horizons. This culminated in me organising a STOL event, which included a talk and flying demonstration for the members at Belvoir Castle. 

“This blend of flying and the countryside allows me to pursue my passion and fascination for STOL and backcountry flying”

Out of the blue I was contacted by Peter, who wanted to connect, having seen my YouTube channel. Peter explained that he was based at a private strip called Glenswinton, nestled in a valley surrounded by dense woodland, on the south-west side of Scotland – in essence, a one way in and out strip!

A few weeks later, Peter dropped into our farm strip in the East Midlands to talk backcountry flying and Aviat Huskys, and invited me to visit his strip in Scotland.

Through the Flying Farmers, my social media and a few articles I’ve written, I have made contact with a number of backcountry pilots and landowners who are based throughout Scotland. After a few text messages, and a couple of phone calls, with my flying buddies Graham, Edward, Jeremy and Wes, we had a trip planned.

The route was to leave our respective strips in the East Midlands, head north over the Lakes to Glenswinton, on to the Isle of Mull, up to the Orkney Islands, back across to Aberdeen and home. However, the best laid plans are not always followed to the word and the adventurous spirit took hold of us!

Heading in to Glenswinton

Ready for departure… rain stops play!

It was 8am on a Friday, on what should have been a perfect day in mid-summer. The Husky was loaded with fuel, tent, sleeping bag, stacks of chocolate and some gifts of Stilton cheese and pork pies for our hosts – I live near Melton Mowbray – the home of the famous pork pie and the king of cheese.

Unfortunately, the weather was shocking and I couldn’t even think about taking off. The cloud was circa 300ft and it was pouring with rain. There was a static weather front sitting over Melton Mowbray and it didn’t move all day. I contacted my flying buddies who were also experiencing serious precipitation and a blanket of cloud – the joint decision was that unfortunately the trip would be delayed!

Take two… Saturday morning dawned dry but the cloud was still only a few hundred feet high. I couldn’t fly but kept everything crossed that it would clear soon. Two hours later the cloud was slowly shifting, and as I knew the skies were clear to the north west, I coordinated with the others and we were finally on our way. 

The clouds and weather conditions in the East Midlands were far from perfect but Peter (based in Scotland) had texted to say that Scotland was bathed in sunshine so I knew I was flying towards fabulous weather.

I powered-up the Husky, completed my checks and pointed the aeroplane down the grass strip, added full flaps, full power and off we went. Within minutes I was negotiating and weaving around the odd puff of low cloud, and I scooted around the north-east side of Nottingham. As I passed north of Derby I heard Graham talking to East Midland ATC – he’d just left home. This was great news, the trip was on! 

The first leg of the trip took me through the 1,300ft low corridor between Manchester and Liverpool towards Winter Hill mast. I passed over the rolling hills of Derbyshire, then swooped down to this vast plateau that forges its way from the Irish Sea to Manchester. I felt like I was scooting along the deck over villages, towns and tree tops. The odd aircraft passed me in the opposite direction and a few jets powered over the top. I reached the end of the corridor and started to climb towards the mast en route to Lancaster and then on to Morecambe Bay.

Fuel stop at Kirkbride

Following the curve of the coast off to my left, the views of both the coastline and the Lake District were truly beautiful. 

I continued to track the coastline until I reached Morecambe Bay before heading to Kirkbride for fuel. I didn’t realise the scale of Morecambe Bay until I started passing over it. This was emphasised by watching the glide scope parameters appearing on my SkyDemon. What a handy piece of important information, especially for where I was heading.

The next stop was Glenswinton, 21nm north-west of Kirkbride. Glenswinton is a privately owned farm strip 520ft above sea level, nestled in the surrounding hills and woodland. The strip doesn’t have a ‘go-around’, as you are in essence flying towards a hillside and a forest. You have to get it right the first time!

On the day the airflow was being disturbed by the surrounding mountains and forest, and I was making good use of rudder, power and ailerons. Adding to this drama, there was also an occasional strong gust of wind. On final, I was clouted by a powerful right hooker of a gust – this wobble made the video footage look extremely dramatic, but we landed well.

After meeting my buddies at Glenswinton we were taken to some beautiful coastlines where we made some low passes over the beaches. We would have loved to have landed but unfortunately they were SSSIs, and then on to a number of farm-style grass strips. Following this mini adventure we headed north-west via Glasgow to the Isle of Mull and to stay at the Glenforsa Hotel. 

Heading to the Hebrides and Highlands

 We arrived on the Isle of Mull at 8pm and landed on the pristine airstrip that runs parallel to the Sound of Mull and Glenforsa Hotel. The lodge, food and accommodation were excellent and a real bonus was that the owners are serious aeroplane enthusiasts.

The sense of adventure, the freedom and sheer experience of flying over these mountain ranges, dipping into the valleys, over the sea and onto another island and repeating was thrilling, exciting, igniting all my senses. I may have just discovered my inner Alaska!

The next part of our trip was to head north to Orkney, and we had a few exciting stop-offs planned en route. The flight was magnificent as we were flying through the Great Glen and over the lochs where the awe-inspiring 4,400ft mountain ranges reached up on both sides and dwarfed our tiny bush planes. The thought did cross my mind as to where to land if I got an engine out… loch, mountain top or beach – what a choice!

Our first stop along the Great Glen was a privately owned strip located close to Fort Augustus called Glendoe. The strip has a stepped downward slope which we discovered when Graham landed and had to use the entire runway to slow down… there was no help from the wind as it was across the runway that day. Quick-thinking Graham called us just in time so we could change direction and approach the strip from the north – hugely helpful!

The following stop off was at Easter Airfield, the original site of HMS Owl. The airfield is in a military zone so we had to get PPR before flying in, but as always, the military was excellent and very helpful. However, their instructions were clear… “We will cease firing whilst you enter the range and notify us on landing so we can recommence.” Instructions we obeyed.

The day was long and our final leg was to head to Orkney along the eastern coastline via Wick with a landing at one of the smallest islands and airstrips of our trip at Lamb Holm. 

The north-south runway approach at Lamb Holm is over the sea and along with this you’re faced with a cliff edge. On our arrival the winds were reaching 25mph and the Husky was almost hovering as I passed over the runway threshold. I came to a standstill in feet – by far my shortest landing!

Lamb Holm island is just to the south of Kirkwall and east of Scapa Flow. The island is linked via a series of causeways which were built by the Italian POWs during WWII. On the island is a chapel converted from a military Nissen hut by the POWs. It is worth visiting as the inside is hand decorated and resembles a scaled down version of the magnificent Sistine Chapel.


Easter Airfield, the original site of HMS Owl

The next leg of the trip was to Whiterashes, which was a whole new experience. Firstly you have to gain permission from Aberdeen and then they guide you in. The route in was strict and detailed: low level, many obstacles en route, such as wind turbines, and a few radio masts along with some hills and farm houses to avoid! This all sounds quite straightforward but when you add in a couple of slower aeroplanes in front of you it sharpens the focus. The last thing I wanted to do was to chew-up a Super Cub’s tail…

Due to a weather front coming in from the west it was an early start so as to avoid an extended break in Scotland. Using local knowledge, and combining this with the latest weather update, we decided to take a coastal route as the Grampians and the Southern Uplands would hopefully keep the worst of the weather away. The route took us via Carnoustie to St Andrews, then Elie Ness across the Firth of Forth to North Berwick and on to Eshott, our final fuel stop and then home.

It was a thrilling adventure to take my Aviat Husky to places where there were challenging strips, difficult approaches, high winds and tiny island landings. It delivered what I wanted, an adventure which challenged me and improved my flying.

However, the important take-out for me is that flying is a huge privilege which I don’t take for granted. These experiences have allowed me to be part of a community and share a passion for a particular flying niche. 

If you’ve been bitten by the flying bug, and are looking for a real focus, I would strongly recommend having instruction in a STOL aircraft! It changed the game for me, giving my passion for flying a true focus and allowing me to spread my wings, connect with like-minded pilots and discover my very own ‘Alaska’ right here in the UK.

The team at Whiterashes, Aberdeen

Have you had a Flying Adventure?

FLYER is always interested to hear from readers who have had a Flying Adventure of their own, whether that’s across continents or within the UK. We can’t publish all of them but if it tells a story we’ve not heard before, and comes with a good selection of photos, we’ll certainly consider it.

The articles are best when between 2,500 and 4,000 words. Any more than that and you’re writing a book! Photos are best when in landscape format (ie, not portrait or upright) and should help tell the story of the trip. We can also embed video which can be hosted on your own YouTube or Vimeo account, or you can send them to us for hosting. Please do not add music to the background unless it’s your own copyright! So Harold Faltermeyer’s Top Gun Anthem is a no-no!

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