Competitor Killed In STOL Competition Crash


A competitor in an AOPA-sponsored STOL competition in Nebraska was killed Friday when his Cessna 140 appeared to stall and spin while setting up to land. According to AOPA, Tom Dafoe’s 1946 140 “rolled and dove during or soon after the base-to-final turn, and struck the ground in view of shocked spectators.” The accident happened on the second day of the planned four-day MayDay STOL 2022 event at Wayne Municipal Airport/Stan Morris Field in Wayne, Nebraska.

Dafoe was taking part in an unscheduled heat of a traditional STOL competition where takeoff and landing distance is all that is measured. The STOL Drag heats, where speed is an added element, were postponed because of high winds. A fundraiser has been launched by jetAVIVA, Dafoe’s employer, to help his family. AOPA President Mark Baker also pledged support. “We are heartbroken that we lost a member of the general aviation community, and our thoughts are with the family and friends of the pilot,” Baker said. “We will continue to support the community as needed.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. While I have no idea why Tom did not recover at the onset, this is a powerful reminder for those flying low & slow to be current and sharp on their stall recognition and recovery skills.
    Reacting a little better better or slightly sooner can save your life in this regime. Even a docile and tame bird like a Cessna single can snap into a spin on you in the right (wrong?) circumstances.

    • yes
      and some aircraft are dangerous near the stall, some pretty safe and some very safe.
      And there are some aircraft that will maintain full control authority before and during the stall. These are the ones you want your kids to learn to fly on

      • I disagree. I do not think new pilots are well served by learning in planes that erase every mistake. That leaves them unprepared for future aircraft that don’t react “kindly” to inatentive pilots. 400ft AGL is a bad place to learn.

  2. Not to be judgemental or a Monday morning quarterback, but what was the age of the pilot? I have seen far too many times in safety meetings the average ages of the others, and it’s a quite up there. I am almost 60, and I know my reaction times are not what they used to be. Being in denial about ones skills and abilities isn’t a thing to mess with. Especially in an aircraft.

    • I agree, I’m not able to do snap spins on a unicycle off a jump, or see just how much I can push my motorcycle to the edge on and off road… but with age should come the common sense that this really doesn’t need to be done. At over 50 I don’t need to prove I can jump a 50ft ramp in order to impress a girl in the fleeting hope I might get laid.
      I did notice this about younger pilots I’ve flown with… They wanted to push the aircrafts abilities to the edge. With their quick reflexes, they get out of trouble… most of the time. I noticed the older pilots I flew with were more reserved in their flying, slower yes, but more deliberate, with far greater decision skills than the younger pilots. The older pilots knew not to put themselves in a bad position where their superior skills were required to get them out of a bad situation.
      There does appear to be a time when some pilots in their middle age seem to think it is time to impress again, and this is where even quick reflexes will not save you.
      Would a young pilot be doing this STOL competition? probably not, unless they have rich parents that gave the kid a plane to screw around with… in my life time those kids I grew up with that were given the super car or plane… didn’t make it to 50. That is right, they are all dead now and unable to slow down.
      So, maybe it isn’t the slowing down with age… maybe it is realizing, I don’t need to climb that ladder and get myself killed. I know of many good pilots over 70. They seem reserved in their actions. Probably why they made it to 70. These are the pilots I watch. I want to make it to 80, because I’ve seen so many that didn’t.

    • Many 60 year olds are PICs at the airlines. It doesn’t matter whether you are 20 or 80. You don’t fly any airplane on the edge without greatly increasing risk, even a Cessna 140 or Aeronca 7AC.

  3. Not sure why this turned into an age discussion. After just a tiny bit of Internet research, I have learned that Mr. Defoe was neither a newbie nor a senior pilot. So age is irrelevant.

    It is a reminder that when you’re flying on the edge of the envelope, you must be on your A game. When low and slow, there’s no time to recover from a stall/spin. I’m so sorry for his family—their loss is immeasurable.

  4. Ah, but age is always relevant. Sometimes for the callow youth, others for the hoary oldster. For some strange reason that many of us don’t get (or at even admit to the obvious and… close correlations between the inverse relationships of chronological age and reflexes, decision making, situational awareness, and often hubris. For some pilots the curves bend down sooner than later. MIdlife is usually the apex of our skills and decision making, but some of us still work diligently to overstep our physical and mental limits.

    Sad for Tom’s momentary lapse. Another lesson for everyone else who prefers to learn from the bad experiences of others.

  5. Tom was my friend. He was 45 yrs old, an A&P for Textron/Cessna Aviation for many years, a farm boy from North Dakota who went to A&P school out of high school. A fairly new pilot who had already earned his instrument and seaplane ratings. He flew his little 140 back and forth across this country probably a dozen times. He was a very proficient and current tailwheel pilot. Many pilots with much more experience have made the same fatal mistake Tom did and unfortunately, many more will do the same.

  6. It seems that everyone (aside from Cary A.) immediately jumped to speculation about the pilot’s age. Yet no one commented on the fact that the competition had been “postponed because of high winds”. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that perhaps those winds were not well-behaved constant-speed straight-line winds, and that it wouldn’t take much of a burble in the breeze on a tight, low-altitude, base-to-final turn to totally destroy the lift and turn the pilot into a pax for two hundred feet. Unfortunately, I doubt he was that high on a STOL approach Every pilot here who has had that happen, and was lucky enough to survive, raise you hand. (Mountain airstrip, terrain-confined pattern, wind blew me downwind, then died on B2F turn, felt elevator soften and dove for the ground short of threshold, just cleared runway end lights, then wind resumed and I ballooned. Landing was smooth; approach was entertaining for those on the ground.)

  7. Seems like he turned onto final and was too close to a slower plane. He should have done a 360 or some other maneuver to allow him to keep his speed up and create some space.

    The lesson is that some planes are able to fly slower than you. Keep your speed where you need it to be. Always.

  8. I agree with Chip D. Yes, why is this an age discussion? I don’t remember a Cessna 140 being frequently mentioned as a great STOL plane. Why is it even in such a competition? Reaction time of a human of ANY age can never keep up with sudden wind changes while low and slow with all airspeed margins gone! My flight instruction always said on gusty days, add 5 mph to the approach speed to account for a sudden calm, or even a tail gust. It’s just added insurance that costs you nothing.

    • This did not happen as part of the STOL drag. STOL Drag has classes, so you can absolutely fly a Cessna 140 in the STOL Drag and safely compete against other planes of similar performance categories. I’ve seen a Cirrius compete and do pretty till they had to drop out due to brakes over heating.

  9. Age is why I quit flying and teaching in 2021. I had a wonderful time since 1947, but your reaction time slows down. I have flown a variety of aircraft, BE-18,DC-3 and MU2 ,singles and twins. Taught countless people to fly safely, but at 86 I think it’s time to quit. Even if you can still get a valid class 2 medical. Fell so sorry for the 140 driver and his family.

      • Cameron, holding “competitions” where the norm is flying right at (or below) the white arc, at very low altitude, leaves no margin for safety.

      • You won’t even place in a STOL competition flying POH defined approach profiles at POH speeds unless you have some sort of super-STOL aircraft. So yes, it’s going to happen as long as STOL competitions are a thing because the margin for error is essentially zero. A lapse of concentration or a swing of the variable wind and you’re going to have a stall when you’re flying basically as close to critical AoA as possible as a matter of course.

        • This has nothing to do with a STOL competition or type aircraft.

          Your aircraft does not know one day to the next much less is aware that it is flying in a STOL competition.

          The type aircraft is no factor either. You could compete in a 747, Maule, Kit Fox, C150. Matters not.

          Physics doesn’t change. The POH numbers don’t change because you’re in a competition.

          What matters, is how you fly the airplane.

          • You’ve either intentionally misrepresented what I said to try and win internet points or completely missed it and need to read it again. I will distill it to the essential points for you.

            Fact: You *will not even place* in a STOL competition flying approaches as defined and intended by the people who made the airplane, they leave a margin for error/safety/bad conditions.

            Fact: STOL competitors consistently flying right on the edge of stall which is inherently more risky than flying textbook approaches.

            Fact: STOL competitions and their competitors are at inherently high risk for this sort of crash because they are flying at the ragged edge of the airplane’s capability which leaves almost no room for pilot error.

            Fact: STOL competitors are people and people make mistakes. When people make mistakes and there’s no room for them bad things happen.

            You cannot argue against these, they’re incontrovertible truth and the crux of what I said.

          • Tyler:
            Fact: You can not fly your airplane safely and successfully outside its limitations.

            Doesn’t matter if it’s a highly modified STOL home built or a 747. Doesn’t matter if it’s in a STOL competition or, grabbing a $100 hamburger.

            The nature of the mission does not add an extra few degrees to critical AOA.

            Hence, the STOL competition is no factor. How the airplane is flown, is a factor.

  10. Flying a Maule I also enjoy continuing to train and practice short field operations but for me at least I’d never compete.

    For me, not a good risk benefit ratio.

    With that said I understand but if no one’s life depends on it, I’ll only get so close to the edge of the envelope that I remain with a safety margin.

  11. Such a shame. Watching the video, it seems he was well after the base/final turn. It looks to my inexpert eye like he was too close to the competitor ahead and instead of a 360 he tried to slow it way down outside ground effect & misjudged.

  12. About the reality of recovering from a stall near the ground:

    When I was a (young) Instructor here in Phoenix, I was flying in our practice area early one morning with a student the day after cold front passage. It had rained the day before, so the desert air here was still moist. A thin stratus layer had formed over a largish man-made lake here at 5000′ MSL. (“Thin” as in, “I could see through the layer and could see any traffic under it.”)

    I told my student that this would be a PERFECT opportunity to practice Departure stalls – for “real.”

    So I slowed down to 50 kts (in a C-152) skimming the top of the layer, as if it were a runway on the ground. Then I went to full throttle in a max performance climb, with AOA ever increasing.

    We stalled about about 200′ above the layer. (Simulating a stall at 200′ AGL.)

    I’m happy to report that, proficient (young) instructor that I was, I recovered quickly from the stall in text book fashion.

    Only to encounter a secondary stall immediately after.

    See, I had never practice a stall at 200′ AGL. When you stall down low, the ground comes up VERY FAST! And so I instinctively pulled up to get away from the “ground.”

    Fortunately, with my (then-) quick reflexes, I recovered from the secondary stall with about 50 feet to spare.

    I’m ashamed that I secondary stalled it. But it was a good lesson for me that all our practicing of stalls way up high does not really reflect what it would be like to stall after takeoff or on Final. It’s scary.

    So the obvious statement – it’s best not to stall near the ground. Know your plane and know how it feels in an imminent stall, and keep it from stalling near the ground. Period.

    (Hint: I have found, since then, that our eyes in these (panic?) situations tend to lock straight ahead – in a tunnel-vision, tele-photo sort of way – depriving us of all sorts of visual input (a bird’s eye view of the actual situation, attitude info, etc.). It wasn’t until I took some aerobatics that I learned to keep my vision “open” – in a wide-angle sort of way – to take in the Big Picture. With the wide view, these situations near the ground aren’t quite as scary.)

    • Thats as good as account that I have read of the whole tragic affair. The stall and recovery at low altitude vs high altitude is salutary, and the tunnel vision effect cured or mitigated by aerobatic training another. Also the 180 return at altitude dead stick and see what height you gobble is another. Low altitude unintentional stalls are out no matter how good your reflexes are-young or old!

  13. I’m noy sure why discussions about articles like these often jump to age or sex as having anything to do with anything.

    My first thought was actually “I’m surprised there aren’t more crashes like these in STOL competitions”. They’re fairly high-risk events, compounded by the competition factor to get as close to the edge as possible while being judged. To me, the reward just isn’t worth the risk.

  14. I’m with Gary.. This isn’t about age or other demographics, or Cessna’s or other model aircraft. The entire STOL Rodeo/Competition thing is high risk activity, and destined to lead to more accidents and injuries than non-competitions. Practicing is good, and doing so at safe altitudes is much better.. Flying at (or below..) stall speed a few feet or a hundred feet above the ground is more likely to end poorly than doing so at 1,000′ or above…

  15. Gary B and John M have nailed it.
    The laws of physics are immutable.
    Why does the flying community spend so much time commiserating when an accident occurs
    in this very high risk type of flying.?

    • Well, he wasn’t yet in the “high risk” part of flying the backside of the power curve. As others have mentioned, he likely thought himself too close to the plane ahead, and rather than S-turn (having been based at a busy field, I’m used to that) he slowed down. And when the plane stalled, it appears (until someone comes up with better video) that the appropriate actions weren’t taken.

  16. i’ve thought all along, it was only a matter of time. And there will be more if they keep these competitions going.