By Jenny Neyman
While it may be surprising that three central Kenai Peninsula friends were able to perform so well in their first crack at a takeoff and landing competition in Valdez, it’s not surprising the three are so humble about their success.
Through years of flying together, the trio has developed a kinship based on respect and safety. They’ve learned cockiness and flying don’t mix, and have a standing pact with each other to come down hard on any member of the group whose brashness gets out of line.
To hear Soldotna’s Shawn Holly give an account of this year’s Valdez “May Day” Fly-In and Air Show, his accomplishment in the short takeoff and landing competition was barely worth mentioning. It certainly ranked below the interest of meeting pilots from across Alaska and the country who came to participate in the annual event, seeing the flights of fancy and feats of engineering in the experimental airplanes, and watching how well his Kenai buddies Mike Sibley and Bill Bryant did in the competition.
Entering for these three was a lark, done for the fun of it. It wasn’t to show off their mechanical skills in how finely tuned and modified their planes are; to demonstrate their precise, Bush-honed flying skills; to measure up against pilots from as far away as Virginia and New York; or to claim bragging rights — although that’s exactly what they did.
With 14 years in a pilot’s seat, Bryant has the least experience of the three and had the
least competitive inclination entering the contest, held May 6 to 8. He still ended up placing fifth out of 13 in the light touring division. Sibley finished second and Holly nabbed first by three points with a display that had the crowd gasping in suspense. Not that you’d know how well Holly did from talking to Holly. Or how well Sibley did from asking Sibley, or Bryant from speaking to Bryant. It’s only from asking them about each other that a sense of their skill comes out.
“It was really good to see Mike and Shawn do so well. I don’t think they give themselves enough credit for being the pilots they are. I take a lot of advice from them,” Bryant said.
In aviation, especially in navigating the challenging conditions of flying in Alaska’s backcountry, a lack of bragging is often the hallmark of a pilot who’s good enough to do so. The best of the bunch are the ones who can escape and — more importantly — avoid sticky situations, thus living to accumulate more experience.
“They’re real quiet guys. They’re real even-keeled. They’re not braggers. You find the pilots that are like that are probably the pilots that will survive, unless something really odd happens to them,” Bryant said. “They’re pretty cautious pilots. I think every year as we get older the yellow streak up our backs gets a little bit wider. We think about things a little bit more, the consequences that could happen.”
Bryant and Sibley fly small, two-seat Cessna 150s, and Holly has a slightly bigger
four-seat Cessna 170. On any given flight most of their cargo and passenger capacity is taken up by friends and family members, emergency gear and the hunting, fishing and camping supplies they haul on their frequent adventures into the backcountry. What space is left is occupied by the ghosts of fellow pilots, whose presence in the cockpits of their minds reinforces the lessons learned from their time flying.
There simply isn’t room for egos.
* * *
Holly, Sibley and Bryant took slightly different flight paths into aviation, but have ended up at the same altitude in their attitudes toward it.
Holly learned to fly as a kid. He grew up in Soldotna and got his first flying lesson at 13 from the pilot taking him and his dad on a hunting trip to Port Alsworth.
“I just thought that was the greatest thing ever flying in these little airplanes,” he said.
Holly worked for two years to save up money, which he gave to his dad for the two of them to buy a plane together, a Piper PA-11. He started taking flying lessons when he was 15. He was hooked, he said, but it was not without challenges.
“I get motion sick. I could only last about 20 minutes in a lesson before I had to quit. Over time you build up some resistance to it. Still, today, I’ll feel sick when it’s really rough, but that continues to improve the more you fly in rough stuff,” he said.
He soloed at 16 and had his license at 17.
“I did that before I got my driver’s license, just so I could say I could legally fly before I could drive,” Holly said.
Once he graduated from Skyview High School in 1992 he went to the University of Alaska Anchorage to study aircraft mechanics.
“I love mechanicing. I grew up always tinkering on things, taking my tricycle apart and putting it back together, taking my mom’s vacuum apart and putting it back together. I was good about it. I’d take it apart to a certain point and go, ‘I better put that back together.’ And the next time I’d go a little further with it,” he said.
He knew he wanted a career that involved aviation, but didn’t want to be a commercial pilot. To work up the ranks would require him leaving home to put in his time flying in rural communities, and possibly face pressure to substitute his comfort level for the demands of the job.
“I wanted to fly on my own terms. If the weather’s bad I don’t want to have to fly, I want to be able to make a good judgment call and fly safe and be alive to fly tomorrow. When you fly for somebody else sometimes your job depends on you flying — good, bad or otherwise with the weather,” he said.
Out in the working world, especially when he had a family to support, he realized the monetary aspects of aviation suited him more as a hobby than a full-time career. Now he splits his time seasonally — operating his River City Construction excavating company in the summer and doing aircraft mechanics with his High Country Aviation business in the winter.
No matter the season, he’s still out flying as much as he can.
“It’s just amazing when you’re up there flying, there’s nothing like it, the freedom that you have. It doesn’t matter what struggles you have going on in your life, what problems you have going, when you’re up there it all just melts away and you don’t think about it. I call it therapy. If I don’t get a chance to fly for a while I almost get grumpy. I need that time,” he said.
Holly doesn’t hold a gym membership, doesn’t have a golf habit and doesn’t begrudge himself the time and money it takes to fly, especially when he can take his wife and five kids on a trip or go on a backcountry adventure with his friends.
“It’s something that I thoroughly enjoy, and when the family gets to go on these trips, you can’t buy those memories. A lot of people go out and blow money at the bars or on hobbies, and I don’t do that kind of stuff. This is my thing and those are precious memories, every hour of them,” Holly said.
Sibley takes a little different approach to flying. For him, the destination, not the journey, holds the most appeal.
“I’ve always said that I never really enjoyed the act of flying as much as where it gets me.
You can get to the backcountry where there aren’t a lot of people and you can see a lot of really neat stuff. I always tell people I don’t have a month I don’t like because every month it seems like there’s something we can go fly to and do. The boats and the snowmachines and four-wheelers are kind of seasonal, but a plane you can just put floats or wheels or skis on it and keep going year-round,” Sibley said.
Sibley grew up flying with his dad, Gerald “Sib” Sibley, who was a pilot and had an aircraft mechanic business in the Kenai area since the family moved here in 1975 until he was killed in 2001. Sibley started lessons when he was 16 and got his license when he was 22.
“Once I became a semi-adult I figured I’d better get started on my own,” he said.
Sibley and his dad built a hunting cabin near the Kustatan River across Cook Inlet, in a spot still called Sib’s Lake. It’s still a frequent destination for the younger Sibley, his friends and their families. They make the 30-minute trip about 25 to 30 times a year, Sibley said. He and his buddies are often flying off looking for moose antlers, or just exploring.
“It’s a great way to take friends and relatives and show them around,” Sibley said.
Bryant was one of those friends, having known Sibley for about 20 years, with both working in the oil and gas industry, at one point both at Agrium and now both for BP on the North Slope. Bryant was a frequent passenger on hunting and fishing trips, until his wife, Brenda, encouraged him to get his pilot’s license, as well.
“She was worried that something would happen to the guys and I might have to fly a plane. I took lessons not knowing I would get hooked on flying,” he said.
Having been on the Kenai Peninsula for 40-some years now, Bryant said he feels crowded by the growth in population and popularity of the road-accessible recreational activities. Having a plane means having the freedom to avoid the crowds.
“I can take the plane and just a half hour away from Kenai I can go over to the west side (of Cook Inlet) and fish with the bears all day or just go over there and do nothing,” he said.
Though he prefers to avoid crowds he’s rarely out on his own, often flying with Sibley and Holly, who team up on aircraft mechanical projects as well as trips into the backcountry. The three are just as likely to offer each other assistance with an engine overhaul or new paint job as they are advice about flying. It’s a requirement, in fact.
“We have a pact between us, if one of us sees the other doing something that we don’t think is smart we all have the right to stop and say that,” Sibley said. “Like my wife (Julie) and I talk about, you can’t kid yourself — this is a dangerous sport. I always tell my buddies the old saying about erring on the side of caution, that means a lot in the flying world. If you’re going to make a decision, pick the safe one. We try to learn a lot from other people’s mistakes.”
That lesson came a tragic way. Their trio used to be a foursome, when friend and fellow pilot Chris Copple, who worked at Agrium with Bryant and Sibley, was in their ranks. Copple died in a plane crash near Kustatan on July 30, 2004. He had borrowed a plane he wasn’t familiar with and it stalled in a steep turn.
“He left a wife and kids. It hit us all really hard,” Sibley said. “In fact, I told my wife I was going to get rid of the plane and get out of this business because it was enough bad taste in my mouth, but she convinced me to stop and think and hang on for a while.”
Copple wouldn’t have wanted them to stop flying, they decided, but he would want them to keep his memory safe by keeping themselves safe.
“We all kind of kicked ourselves for not sitting down and discussing just what we were all up to. So now we’ve all got the pact that if we’re going to keep doing this, and our wives are going to let us, we’ve got to be smart and not take chances,” Sibley said. “We’re all allowed to chew each other out if we see each other do something foolish. Inevitably there are situations that come up that are a little bit hairy, but you’ve just got to pull back and give yourself an option to get out.”
Just as they don’t lose sight of how much they enjoy getting into the backcountry, they don’t lose sight of the danger inherent in doing do.
“We use the planes to have a lot of fun with and do the things that we love doing in the outdoors and Alaska, so we’re pretty cautious about how they’re taken care of and where we go into,” Bryant said. “We’ll walk into an area to clear a strip instead of trying to flop the plane in there, tear up your plane and get yourself hurt or something like that.”
It doesn’t take much of a clearing to serve as an airstrip in the backcountry, Holly said, especially when a plane is designed or modified for short takeoffs and landings — planes such as Supercubs and small Cessnas.
“They’re just a lot of fun. When you get in one of those it’s like you’re strapping the plane on instead of buckling into the airplane. It’s amazing what they can do off-airport, and that’s the kind of flying I like to do — gravel bars and things like that,” Holly said. “There’s places on mountains where the wind will blow the moss off and it’s just kind of dirt on top of a ridge, and you can land on that if it’s solid enough.”
But the shorter and more rustic the strip, the more skilled and safety-conscious a pilot needs to be.
“When we go out in the Bush for hunting season you don’t have much room for error, so it makes you a good pilot or you don’t do it. Bill and Shawn are both excellent,” Sibley said. “They’re not crazy, they’re not stupid, they’re precise.”
* * *
That precision, coupled with the engineering skills lavished on their much-loved and fine-tuned planes, served the three well in the Valdez short takeoff and landing competition. Planes are divided into categories — heavy touring, light touring, small Bush planes and experimental Bush planes. Also participating from the peninsula were Jim Trudeau, of Kenai, who came in fourth in light touring, and David Machado, of Kenai, who flew in the experimental Bush class; Al Goss, of Kenai, who flew in the Bush class; Kevin Doyle, of Soldotna, who finished fourth in the Bush class; and Adam St. Ouge, of Soldotna, who flew in the Bush class.
Each pilot gets two tries taking off and landing in the shortest distance possible. The distance, in feet, of the landing is added to the distance of the takeoff. That combined number from their best run is the pilot’s score. Touching down before the marked line on the runway is an automatic disqualification.
“It’s to simulate Bush flying, because sometimes when you’re landing you’re coming over a creek or a tree or a rock or something and if you land short you wreck, so it’s a good simulation to disqualify for that,” Holly said.
The three had talked about going to the Valdez show for years, but work and family schedules managed to get in the way. This year they finally made it happen.
For Holly, the trip had family implications. He and his wife, DeAnna, and five kids drove to Valdez in an RV so the kids could watch him compete, which is something he hadn’t done since doing competitive shooting as a teenager.
“I realized this spring that I avoided competition — don’t-compete, can’t-win type of thing, I guess,” Holly said. “And I realized that’s not a good excuse and that’s not a good role model for my kids. I try to talk them into doing sports and competing in things regardless of whether or not you win, because of the experience and the fun of it. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’ve got to practice what I preach.’”
For Sibley, the contest was partly for fun but a bit of a way to honor his dad. In the mid-1980s Sib started modifying Cessna 150s from tricycle planes, with a nose wheel, into tail-draggers with a wheel at the back to create less-expensive small planes better suited for Bush flying. He built 14 during his career in Kenai, one of which Bryant flies, and another that Sibley flies. Sibley also remembers the short takeoff and landing competitions his dad put on for four or five years on the Kenai beach down from Cannery Road.
“That’s what we were thinking in Valdez, how proud he’d be that two of his planes were there and I was there, doing what he loved to do, so we were really happy we finally got over there and did that,” Sibley said.
Bryant was originally planning on being a spectator, until Holly and Sibley talked him into competing.
“Bill, he was kind of nervous about entering the competition, but you go out to the Soldotna Airport and 90 percent of airplanes never move, but ours are always flying. So I told him if anybody’s got a right to be there, we do, because we actually fly these things,” Sibley said.
Weight and power are significant contributors to taking off and landing in short distances. All three planes have engine modifications to ramp up their horsepower, particularly for Bush flying conditions. Bryant’s plane is a little heavier than Sibley’s and lighter than Holly’s, he’s a little bigger guy himself and didn’t go quite as gung-ho limiting weight for his runs as many of the other pilots did.
The rules required a particular amount of safety equipment be on-board, and a pilot’s seat and a certain amount of fuel are unavoidable, weighty necessities. But everything else not fastened down — and some things previously fastened down — got pitched.
“Before the competition they take anything that weighs anything out of the airplane because the more your plane weighs the longer the takeoff. So extra seats are coming out, extra fuel is coming out, sunglasses, packs of gum — everything. Bill didn’t think he had a chance of being very competitive, he was just doing it for the fun of it, and he realized after the fact he could have done a lot better because he didn’t take much out of his airplane,” Holly said. “In hindsight, I looked at mine and I thought I stripped it down real good, but I was looking at some of the stuff the other guys did and was thinking ‘Wow, I coulda taken the carpet out. I coulda taken this out, or that out. Every pound counts.”
Each category was grouped in four-plane sets, and Sibley ended up slated right behind Holly. It was clear to the crowd the two were the ones to beat.
“We were watching people go and the crowd was like, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good. Yeah, they’re all hitting kind of close to the (landing) mark,” said DeAnna Holly. “I’m going, ‘I know Shawn can do better than this.’ He lands and his tail pops up and the first response out of the crowd was ‘Ooooh!’ And they hadn’t really said a word the whole time watching everybody else. But it was like, ‘Now we’re watching something.’ I meant to take pictures but I was so excited waving my arms around I got a picture of some guy’s back.”
Sibley managed shorter landings than Holly, at 142 feet his first run and 134 feet his second, to Holly’s 154 feet and 140 feet. But Holly managed to edge ahead with shorter takeoffs — 96 feet his first run and 89 feet his second, to Sibley’s 132 feet his first run and 98 his second.
“I knew his plane would beat mine off the ground, because the flying around we do I just know that. So I had to get the landings right. And I did, and the little bugger beat me by 3 feet,” Sibley said.
The next-closest score to Sibley was 19 feet away. Even though none of them had put in much specific practice before the event, Holly said he thinks the three represented themselves well in the competition.
“I was pretty happy, because even in the Bush class, the Supercub category (with lighter planes), I beat a lot of them. And I think we earned some respect from those guys, because I don’t think most of them gave my plane a second look, or me a second look, and here I go out there and beat them, so that was kind of neat,” Holly said.
Even better is that the three now have a new tradition to weave into their flight plans.
“It was all in good fun. I like to tease Mike, and he’ll be back for revenge, I’m sure, next year,” Holly said.
“Well of course, you get hooked now,” Bryant said. “The main thing is I just wanted to go have fun, that was the important thing, so I was real happy that in all the group of guys, none of us had any scratches.”
Scratches from a missed landing could mean crashes if it happened in the backcountry, and that’s just not acceptable, to Copple’s or Sib’s memories, to Holly, Sibley and Bryant, or to those waiting for them back on the ground.
“Just watching all these pilots hot-rodding around with these huge egos — ‘Look at my plane’ and their pretty paint jobs and worrying about what color it is. Who cares what color it is?” DeAnna said. “What matters is how well you fly it.”