With a small spot of hard-packed ice just big enough to land a plane on, Soldotna’s Shawn Holly pointed the nose of his 1954 Cessna 170B toward the near slope of a mountaintop not far from Chinitna Bay in Cook Inlet with the hope of performing a perfect landing.
But instead of trusting his instincts, which were telling him he was coming in too fast, he continued his approach based on what his air speed dial was reading. The decision proved to be one of his closest calls.
In an attempt to time the landing on the uphill ascent leading to the summit of the mountain, which would slow him enough to end up right on top, Holly instead found himself skimming along the icy surface and facing a gradual dropoff that led to a sheer dropoff.
“I realized this is not gonna end well,” Holly recalls. “From there, it was back to full power.”
Holly quickly decided to gas it back up and fly back up and around for another landing attempt, but first he had to save him and his passenger from dropping completely off the cliff face.
After a tense few seconds of freefall, the Cessna finally nosed back into the air and out of danger.
“I got the skis up, the nose up, and my passenger was like, ‘Well, that’s a neat trick,’” Holly said.
It’s one of the many valuable experiences that Holly has put into his memory bank as he prepares for a competition at one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious aircraft conventions.
The 41-year-old Soldotna resident and airplane enthusiast completed the 3,000-mile flight to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, early last week in anticipation of attending EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. For Holly, it will be only the second time he has been to AirVenture, which he last visited with his father in 1993 as a wide-eyed, airplane-obsessed 19-year-old that had gotten his pilots license the day he turned 17.
You could say it’s somewhat of a homecoming.
“I studied everything I could then,” Holly said. “To see these rare planes, see one in person and touch it, that was just a thrill. To see and hear some of these famous pilots encouraging you to keep pursuing your passion … it was a thrill.
“But I never in my years thought I’d be one of the pilots.”
EAA, short for Experimental Aircraft Association, is an international organization that unites aviation enthusiasts in the spirit of flight. The community of about 180,000 gathers in the midwestern United States for AirVenture every summer in late July, as it has been for 62 years.
Paul Poberezny, an American aviator and aircraft designer, founded the EAA along with a few other aviation enthusiasts in 1953 with intentions of assisting amateur aircraft builders and promoting the domestic spirit of aviation. With Curtiss-Wright Field in Milwaukee picked as the venue of the inaugural EAA Fly-In, Poberezny and his associates quickly built up a reputation that eventually outgrew not only Curtiss-Wright Field but also the second site in Rockford, Illinois, the EAA venue from 1959 through 1970, the year it was ultimately moved to its present location at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh.
But the event is much more than a bunch of old chaps reliving the glory days of air travel.
According to the event website, over 10,000 planes descend on Wittman Regional during the week, adding real credibility to the moniker, “World’s busiest airport,” even if just for a few days. The weeklong celebration of worldwide aviation, starting tomorrow and ending next Sunday, annually brings together some of the biggest names in the world of aviation, from Aeronca to Zenith. That includes many experimental machines, used almost exclusively for recreational and educational purposes.
With more than half a million visitors — representing almost 70 countries — attending the event last summer, and over a million square feet of commercial exhibits and displays to peruse and attend, it is nearly impossible to see and hear every demonstration, show and workshop that goes on at Wittman Regional, which is reason to attend more than once.
Along with seminars on flying, aircraft maintenance, motor building and fabric work, vendors selling parts and pieces of planes, and Q&A sessions with former and current pilots, there are also daily aerobatic and pyrotechnic displays, nightly concerts and feature films at the “Fly-In Theatre”.
“Basically, anyone that’s a pilot, it’s their lifelong dream to go,” Holly said. “It’s the premier event to see. It’s crazy the stuff that goes on.”
An excavating contractor that has doubled most his life as a plane mechanic, Holly was able to make the trip this year with the help of a few good friends and, of course, the blessing from his wife.
“She was adamant I had to go,” he said. “I mean, how many times do you get the opportunity to do this?
Holly said the opportunity arose from a good friend of his that helps coordinate the annual Valdez Fly-In, one of many STOL, or Short Take Off and Landing, competitions around the nation. After seeing Holly win five straight years in Valdez, Joe Prax put in a good word for his friend to the folks in Wisconsin. With winning runs of 76 feet on takeoff and 104 feet on landing to his name, Prax believed Holly had a real shot at contending with a field of 16 total competitors in the Touring class in Oshkosh.
It wasn’t even a day later when event officials called Holly and informed him that he was invited to compete.
The only remaining hurdle was cost. Holly said with fuel costs estimated to hit $3,500 for the nearly 8,000-mile round trip from Kenai to Oshkosh (including a slight diversion to Illinois for a friend’s retirement party), he was thinking of turning down the offer.
That’s when a few buddies of his scrambled to come up with the cash for the trip, setting Holly up for a dream vacation.
“It was an extremely humbling moment,” Holly said. “To have that kind of support and friendship is a real blessing.”
Totaling “28 or 29 hours” of flight time to Missouri, Holly made the trip alone in his 61-year-old Cessna. The plane — which he has owned for about 14 years — has been a work in progress for Holly. Without any real major restoration done when he purchased the craft, Holly spent the summers retooling and renovating the machine. He changed out the original 145-horsepower engine and put in a 210-horsepower motor to aid in getting the plane up into the air as fast as possible, then applied a STOL kit on the wings that has helped in slowing the plane on landing in competition, adding drag to shave off precious feet of distance.
As impressive as his personal bests are, Holly said he’s seen planes in different categories perform takeoffs in 29 feet and landings in a jaw-dropping 20 feet. With that kind of stopping power, the front wheels of a plane can touch down on a particular mark on the ground and come to a halt before the rear wheel passes by.
All the times he has spent getting a plane to land on gravel bars, beaches and bumpy tundra in the Last Frontier has prepared Holly for the AirVenture contest.
“You can’t land short because you’re going to wreck and you can’t go long because there won’t be enough room to land,” Holly explained.
But as much of a thrill Holly gets from competition, the bigger, more important, experience comes from the purely Alaska adventures. Not particularly fond of flying airport to airport, Holly said he enjoys seeing the backcountry with his family and friends, where they can take in the sights and features that only a plane can afford them.
“One winter when we didn’t have enough snow in Soldotna to go sledding, so we loaded up and took off and landed on a high altitude lake, and we went sledding,” he reminisced. “It opens up a lot of options.”
Just like the spirit of Oshkosh.