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#150 The Mystery of Sisters

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I find myself on the horns of a dilemma.  But maybe it’s a good one, one that will challenge both me and my students, whether they are primaries or experienced flyers.   It has to do with my home airport.  It’s a great airport and I don’t want my comments to discourage anyone from coming here.  To the contrary, I want them to get excited about coming here.

You see, I teach out of Sisters, Oregon.  Sisters has an interesting reputation.  For years, flyers stayed away from it.  A combination of seemingly inhospitable airport

                                          The new, freshly striped runway at Sisters

ownership and rotten wind conditions had created a reputation.  As a result, Sisters was a pretty lonely airport.  When I moved here, I heard all sorts of talk about how you couldn’t fly in or out in a summer afternoon because of the weird turbulence.  At first I poo-pooed all that talk.  My ego insisted that it was simply due to the inadequacies of those doing the talking.  But eventually I found out that there was some truth to what all those people were saying.  Conditions can be extremely challenging at this recently revitalized little airport.  Nestled in the foothills of the Cascades, the air rolls in off of those mountains and performs sneaky turns and tumbles along the runway.  The wind socks, so long depended on by pilots, are largely useless…If it’s a turbulent day, it’ll be a turbulent crosswind, peppered with lift and sink, no matter which way you land.  And that brings up my dilemma:  Badly trained or inadequately practiced aviators really SHOULDN’T land here when conditions are tricky!  But all rated pilots SHOULD be able to safely takeoff and land here, even if the conditions challenge their abilities.

Before the new owners of the Sisters airport announced their plans to re-surface and widen the runway, I was happy as a hog in slop.  I found the rough, somewhat narrow runway to be refreshingly challenging.  But I realized that this airport needed to be more welcoming to a wider range of pilots.  Now it is.  The goofy air may remain, but this airport is now far more welcoming to a wide range of pilots.

         A young pilot who learned at Sisters prepares to swoop into her home airport.

Because I just can’t stand not to understand these things, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy noodling over how pilots can tweak up their skills sufficiently to operate out of this airport when conditions are challenging.  I think I’ve got it figgered out.    What’s the secret?  I think it’s twofold.  First, coming in, we need to carry a bit more airspeed.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One, the additional air across the control surfaces makes them more effective.  That’s important if we’re going to out-roll the rolling air and out-climb the sudden sink.  The same holds true for departures.  Given the choice of airspeed or altitude, I’ll take airspeed every day if I need maneuverability.  Altitude won’t do you any good if you don’t have the speed to out-roll the turbulence or out-climb the sink. Two, we’ve gotta get with the program and have the necessary reflexive skill to quickly provide the inputs which will allow those control surfaces to do their thing.  Now, every tyro pilot knows about increasing speed, even if they don’t know why.  But it’s the practice of reflexive control inputs that is the undoing of under-practiced pilots.  How do you get the practice?  One way is by flying in and out of tricky places.  And there’s the rub:  Modern low-time instructors often lack the confidence and ability to protect the student or equally low time pilot while he gets used to these conditions.  What’s the answer?  I think maybe there is one thing a flyer can do to tweak up their skills without operating in those conditions.  Practice those somewhat unusual maneuvers which we routinely teach.  Even some more conventional CFI’s at Acme are watching our videos and reading our articles.  Then they are borrowing some of these techniques.  I find this extremely encouraging. Alternating forward slips, alternating side slips, sky-doodles, multiple landings and slaloms will all increase piloting skills and reflexive control inputs (at the risk of self-serving advice, those maneuvers are described in “Brian’s Flying Book”, available at “The Tailwheeler’s Mercantile”).  And it’s always interesting to note that strangers to Sisters always seem to depart toward town on runway 20, even though the departure on 02 with an early left turn is significantly safer.  Just another case of appearance being more convincing than actuality.

                                 New lights guide aviators into Sisters when the sun goes down.

My parting advice is to use the added width and smoothness of this sometimes-challenging runway.  Practice landing at Sisters.  Keep that newly-learned reflexive ability to compensate for the roiling air in your piloting bag o’ tricks.  Keep it on the centerline.  Know when you can execute a go-around and make that decision to execute the go around nice and early.  Give it a few tries and if it doesn’t work, go to Redmond.  There’s no shame in that.

But when you do fly into Sisters, you’ll reap the reward:  A welcoming airport where you’re greeted warmly. A place to get fuel.  A nice little campground for pilots. New runway lights to aid evening departures or arrivals.  An airport nestled close to a picturesque town with lots of dining and shopping.  And pilots aren’t isolated.  There are free loaner bicycles and an airport car in order to give you mobility.  But you’re so close that many’s the time I’ve simply walked to downtown.

And I’m sure that when you come here you will hear a very popular greeting:  “Welcome to Sisters!”