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Mayday STOL Drag: Heartland town embraces new fly-in

AOPA Social Media Marketer Kevin Cortes and I arrived in time for Friday’s activities and even early in the morning, the wind was sustained at over 14 knots. The AWOS didn’t report a gust factor, but the whipping windsock and multicolored flags denoting pedestrian versus airplane-only areas told another story. STOL drag qualifiers were scheduled to take place, but with a strict 10 mile-per-hour wind limit, and an unfavorable update from the nearest terminal area forecast, it looked like part of the day (and the main event) might have to be scratched.

Despite the forecast and typical spring weather patterns for Nebraska, the wind began to die down by early afternoon. Jon “Jughead” Counsell and Dakota, his black lab who quickly became a crowd favorite, emceed the event, which began with one-way-only drag racing.

This was a different crowd from your typical STOL drag event—these weren’t the Flying Cowboys’ super fans or longtime off-airport enthusiasts who make a pilgrimage to the High Sierra Fly-In every year. Overheard conversations focused more on the appearance of the airplanes rather than the tech-savvy chatter at a pilot-heavy airshow, and locals wondered out loud the difference between knots and miles per hour. As the races got underway, Counsell explained the rules and what to expect, and as the heats continued, onlookers new to the sport had a favorite pilot and were engaged in the race.

Scott Hammer, one of the main event organizers who also is a member of the Wayne Airport Authority and helped start a flying club at the airport, expressed excitement and enthusiasm for the event, though he was so busy keeping things running he didn’t have time to watch (or compete, he noted). With his wife, Melissa, working as a volunteer, and their daughter also in attendance, it was very much a family event.

From the whir of the Kitfox Rotax engines to the heart-pounding rumble of a Cessna 185’s Lycoming IO-540, the sweet and dramatic sounds of racing filled the air until sunset. Eventually the practice rounds turned into full there-and-back STOL drag qualifiers, and, taking advantage of the favorable wind, the event organizers decided to run STOL drag races all day. One of the most exciting heats pitted Steve Henry, a longtime STOL drag racer, in his Just Aircraft Highlander, against first-time racer Austin Clemens in his Aviat Husky that’s fitted with a reversible prop. Henry in the Highlander came out ahead, but the propeller on Clemens’ A–1C made it a very tight race. Henry and Clemens took first and second place, respectively.

Winds howled during the Mayday STOL Drag, curtailing some of the activities. But the winds relented on occasion, including during this sunset. Photo by Alicia Herron.

As the sun dipped below the hills by the “Wayne, America” water tower, live music played by the fire pits, beverages were enjoyed, and the food trucks kept the crowds satisfied and hydrated.

The next morning, with the wind gusting to 30 knots before breakfast was over, it was unclear if any flying would happen. The traditional STOL demo was delayed until afternoon for a reassessment of the winds. Cortes and I wandered over to the camping area while we waited. It looked like a good turnout—next to the expected Piper Cubs, Cessna 170s, and other taildraggers that frequent STOL events, there was a floatplane and a Cirrus, and about two dozen other aircraft.

Sarah and Nick Step and their children flew their Cessna 182 from the Denver area to Wayne, Nebraska, for a day at the show and a night of camping. Photo by Kevin Cortes.

We stopped to chat with Sarah and Nick Step, who had flown in with their kids from the Denver area for a day at the show and a night of camping with their Cessna 182 Skylane. The flight took only a few hours, and the Steps have also used the Skylane to visit Idaho and explore Utah. Happy to be there and unbothered by the wind and heat, we watched together as a Cessna 185 started up to test the afternoon conditions, although if anything, the wind had picked up. After the pilot took a couple trips around the pattern, it was clear the lighter aircraft still couldn’t compete safely, and the competition was delayed again.

Cortes and I turned on traffic on our respective ForeFlight apps and headed into town to explore. Our first stop was the Johnnie Byrd Brewery, which has the enticing slogan of “Spread Your Wings.” We tested a couple of the company’s beers; homemade, perfectly chilled sodas; and even a Nebraska wine (who knew?). The brewery is in Wayne’s original city hall, and the hip vibe and kind service make it a must-visit establishment. With no activity on ForeFlight and the wind now up to 36 knots, we weren’t surprised when fellow patrons let us know that the demo had been called for the day. The awards ceremony took place that evening, and although the Saturday flying was slim, the show the pilots put on Friday was worth the price of admission.

This Cessna 170B is right at home among aircraft camping or competing in the Mayday STOL Drag. Photo by Alicia Herron.

Before calling it a night, we wandered into town to the White Dog Pub, where we were warmly greeted after immediately being noticed as non-locals. Our new friends who were born and raised in Wayne told us how excited they were that the fly-in was in town, asked us questions about how to become a pilot, and expressed excitement that there was a three-year contract in place. We experienced nothing but enthusiasm from the locals, and the fly-in has much potential to be even bigger next year.

STOL Drag is now a nationally accredited race organization recognized by the FAA, and there is no better time than now to get involved in the sport, watch the races, and perhaps even become a racer yourself. Though the winds didn’t work out perfectly this time, they worked out well enough. See you in Wayne in 2022!

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