The High Sierra Fly-In: A Playground on the Playa

High Sierra
Photo © Sarina Houston

There’s just something about the High Sierra desert that sets the scene for the best airplanecamping ever. If you've never been to the High Sierra Fly-In, make it your new bucket-list item. Described before as "a Burning Man for pilots," it's by far my favorite aviation event ever. 

I've always loved the western United States because of the fresh air and mountains, and the High Sierra doesn’t disappoint in this regard.

But I also know that it’s not only about the mountains - the magic of the west is really about the people. And when you combine the wonder of the high desert landscape with the charm and hospitality of the best people in the world and then add airplanes, well, it just doesn’t get any better.

Dead Cow

I knew I was in for some sort of experience when I departed Raleigh-Durham International for Dead Cow Lakebed in Northern Nevada, but I had no idea that it would be one of the most exciting fly-ins ever. 

Dead Cow is a dried up lake bed in middle-of-nowhere, Nevada, just north of Reno, and it's the new location of the High Sierra Fly-In. The land was recently purchased by the event organizer Kevin Quinn after battling with the BLM for land in which he could safely hold the fly-in event, which, after six years, has become significant in size. There were about 140 airplanes at this year's fly-in.

 

Dead Cow is easiest to access by air, and had it not been for the genuine hospitality of the gracious people running and participating in this fly-in, I probably wouldn't have made it. You see, I had every excuse in the book. I couldn’t (really) afford it. I had to arrange childcare. I couldn’t take that much time off work.

I don’t own an airplane, nor do I know a thing about bush flying, and this is a bush flying crowd. And how would I even get there?

Planning

On the other hand, I knew that sometimes the best things in life involve taking a risk. So I made it happen. And from the moment I inquired about the event on the group’s Facebook page, I felt good about it. I was greeted by a friendly, lighthearted crowd of pilots who assured me that I wouldn't regret making an effort to go. Sure, I thought. But how do I get there?

No problem, they said. There will be a ride. And then there was. Multiple people offered rides from various places, and before I knew it, I was off to the desert, along with many others who experienced the same generosity and hospitality that I did. Everyone was welcomed- and this wasn't just a tailwheel fly-in. Quinn and the other organizers were sure to make everyone - tricycle gear pilots, Mooney and Cirrus pilots, RV pilots, even RC pilots, and of course, future pilots - feel at home. Anyone who could land on a wide open dried up lake bed was encouraged to fly in. For those who of us who didn't have an airplane of our own, there were others who were willing to offer a seat in an airplane.

From the first exchanges I witnessed between the many people excited to go but without access to an airplane, and the rest of the pilots who went out of their way to help them, I saw what I often see in pilot groups - general aviation at its absolute best - and I knew I'd be in good company.

Departure

I met my ride at a hangar at the airport in Nampa, Idaho - a place I was somewhat familiar with, as I’d taken my CFI written exam at the same airport in 2005. Andrew had an extra seat in his 1975 Cessna 180 - a gorgeous and practical airplane - and he was generous enough to offer this strange lady a ride. Now, it might sound crazy for a person to just hop into just anybody’s airplane, and maybe it is, but it didn’t take long for Andrew and me to find common ground. He is an active member of the Idaho Aviation Association, and being that Idaho is my home state, we had some mutual acquaintances.

So, long story short, I did hop into an airplane with a complete stranger. But aviation is a small world, and as it often happens, he wasn’t really a stranger after all.

Arrival

Andrew eased any fears I may have had about flying with a strange pilot right from the start with a thorough preflight safety briefing, a discussion of the airplane's weight and balance and a briefing on the upcoming route and weather. After a spectacular flight through the canyons of Idaho, a nice view of the Owyhee mountains in Oregon and the high plains of northern Nevada, we landed at Dead Cow on a Friday afternoon. We touched down smoothly on the 3,000-foot strip of cracked dirt, where the only indications of the landing area were two small rows of red flags near the approach end. It was hard ground when we landed but would turn softer and dustier as more and more airplanes roughed it up. We parked next to a small group of Skywagons, and I climbed out. A thin layer of dust instantly swirled around the soles of my black combat boots, turning them a shade of brown that they’d stay for at least three days.

Unpacking

I set up my one-man tent next to Andrew’s and without delay, unfolded a camping chair. The sun was high and warm in the 60-degree October air, and I immediately regretted not bringing sunscreen. I pulled the chair out to a place that can only be identified by “further off into the dirt, ." and I watched the other arrivals come in. I grabbed my transceiver and listened. I waited for the bounced landing. I waited for the go-around or the high-speed approach and the balloon. I waited for something… but there was nothing but solid approaches and near-perfect, smooth landings. 

“This is kind of like watching the Oshkosh arrivals, but... well, not nearly as interesting," I said to Andrew. "These guys don't really botch landings, do they?” He just smiled and shrugged. Short airstrips, high elevation, tail wheels and good old-fashioned stick and rudder flying are just a part of life for these guys. There’s no place for bad airmanship here.

Briefings

The morning campfire further solidified a great first impression. Quinn offered up a pilot briefing around the fire at 7 a.m., and it was clear that these bush pilots, who often have an unfair reputation for being daring and reckless, were among the safest and most competent pilots I would come to know. There were rules, standards, and protocol. There were separate frequencies for different operations, a standard traffic pattern, and clearly no room for unprofessional behavior. Safety culture lies in the behavior of the leaders of an organization, and Quinn set the standard for safety early on, perhaps on edge a bit after a midair collision during the previous year's fly-in. “You gotta be safe. There are people who won’t know the procedures, and they’re out there doing things that aren’t expected, so you’ve gotta keep your head on.” Quinn briefed during the morning campfire. After asking anyone from the FAA to identify themselves - and being met by silence - Quinn had one last word of advice for the crowd of eager pilots: “Fly like you’re being watched by the FAA.”

In the morning, there was breakfast burritos and coffee in mittened hands, and sleepy but eager murmurs around the campfire about the activities to come. 

Events

During the day there were fly-outs to dirt strips, grass strips, dirt roads, lake beds, and flights over the scenic Pyramid Lake. We stopped at a Susanville Airport (KSVE) for fuel. We flew in formation as we checked out the area, looking for elk and wild horses. We landed in the middle of the Black Rock Desert, at the site of Burning Man, where I sat in the dirt and found it hard to imagine the tens of thousands of people in the middle of this vast, seemingly untouched desert. The only indication that Burning Man had ever occurred was the faint outlines of what were once roads that accessed the middle of a large, vast lake bed.

There were intense moments during the scheduled STOL drag races - by far one of the best aviation events I've ever witnessed (watch these video clips of a Super Cup and a Beaver - and even a Cirrus - racing) and we watched experienced air show pilot Gary Ward fly his MX2. And there was a seemingly random F-16 fly-by, which of course grabbed everyone’s attention but surprised no one. We were adjacent to a MOA in the middle of the desert, after all. There were Piper Cubs and Super Cubs and 180s and 185s and 170s and 172s and Archers and Mooneys and Cirrus' and Maules and Experimentals and not one, but two WilgaBeasts and homebuilts and so many other amazing airplanes. It was a pilot's version of heaven.  

And then there were more blissful moments like a dip in a secluded hot spring at what was once a homestead, and watching kids ride their bikes at camp during a late afternoon break. But my favorite moments were just those quiet moments in the airplane, listening to the dependable hum of the engine, spotting wild horses or elk just a hundred feet below with the sunlight shining down in between the high cloud layers, chasing the airplane's shadow over the land. 

At night, a drone buzzed over the campfire, and there were drinks and dinner and camaraderie. There were kids and pets and airplanes decorated with Christmas lights. There were remote controlled cars and RC airplanes, and the best conversation. There were raffles and prizes and laughter.

Something about the atmosphere of this fly-in coupled with the vastness of the powerful high desert landscape quite simply won me over. The wide open sky at night takes your breath away. The flights through the canyons, above the wild horses, over the immense and seemingly infinite desert - it all makes you feel small and insignificant in this great big world. And the people - the generous and kind people like Andrew, who offered me not just a seat in the 180, but food and coffee and toilet paper and a chair to sit on - and the neighbors who camped next door, and Kevin Quinn and other organizers, who, through their leadership, managed to include everyone while, most importantly, inspiring safety, and the campfire conversation and the new friends; something about all of this together just makes a person feel alive.

Reflection

Dead Cow is just a dusty, dried-up lake bed, which, for a few days each October is full of airplanes, but the High Sierra Fly-In experience is one that makes you feel incredibly small but larger-than-life at the same time. It's an aviation experience that can't be replicated anywhere else. If you ever get the opportunity to go, just do it. I can say with certainty that you will be welcomed with open arms, you'll make new friends, and you'll witness the same spectacular flying, starry nights and incredible memories that I did.