Before the birds fill the mountain air with their songs and the sun throws its warm golden rays across the sky, three JAARS Pre-Field Orientation (PFO) students and their instructors wake up. For a week in the mountains of North Carolina, John Troyer and Richard DeVreese have been flying onto grass runways—each presenting unique challenges—to prepare for the rugged terrain of where they’ll serve overseas: John in Cameroon and Richard in Guatemala.
The other orientee, Matt Cousins, has been preparing for his maintenance manager position at JAARS by helping with maintenance issues that have come up. He’s also helped measure angles of approach and departure for John and Richard during the week.
This last day of mountain week culminates in the most challenging portion of flying in the three-month PFO training: landing on and taking off from Strawberry Ridge runway. “This place is the crowning achievement of their training,” says Bryan Jones, the initial training coordinator. “When you see [the runway], especially from the air, it’s intimidating. A lot of pilots get understandably nervous. We want to get them in here to get the experience of [taking off from and landing on] the steep slope.”
Strawberry Ridge is, in many ways, the perfect embodiment of the difficult mountain runways the pilots will land on and take off from overseas. The grass runway is short, only 1,000 feet, and has a steep 10% slope in the middle that forces pilots to learn a special technique for landing. “As soon as [the pilots] touch down and get comfortable on the ground,” Matt says, “they have to throttle up to make it to the top of the [runway].” Once a plane touches the ground, a pilot’s instinct is to pull the throttle to stop. But at Strawberry Ridge, the challenge continues even after touching down. The pilot must also manage the aircraft’s energy as the slope increases.
Thankfully, after three months of practice at JAARS and a few days of landing on three other runways in the mountains, the orientees have honed their skills enough so they can land with precision in the touchdown zone on the steep slope of Strawberry Ridge.
First, their instructors demonstrate landing on and taking off from the difficult runway a few times. Then, it’s John and Richard’s turn.
After all the hard work of the instructors’ and pilots’, the two orientees made landings and take-offs on the steep slope look as easy as if they’d been doing them their entire aviation careers! The flying took their complete concentration. After their success, they felt as if they were still flying. “[Mountain week’s] been really challenging,” John says, “but like this morning at Strawberry Ridge, after you do it and you conquer it, it’s like, ‘Yes!’”
Strawberry Ridge was the most challenging runway for John, but he’s thankful for his training time in the mountains with PFO. “It has sharpened my flying skills and made me aware of everything: the wind, the weather, the airplane, and the [aircraft’s] performance.” He now feels prepared for flying in Cameroon.
Although Strawberry Ridge looks the most intimidating, Richard believes the Brown runway—another grass strip that has less slope—was more challenging. “When you’re on the approach [to land at Brown], you’re actually closer to a lot of terrain.” Due to the surrounding mountains, he had to fly his approach in a zigzag pattern instead of the usual rectangle pattern.
Like John, Richard found the mountain week portion of PFO worthwhile: “It has definitely helped solidify a lot of things that we’ve been working on over the last few months. And it has helped build [my] confidence. It’ll be great to translate [this knowledge] into Guatemala and operate with confidence, knowing that we are doing it as safely as possible.”
Soon, John and Richard will be landing on different mountain runways, but with the same purpose: to share God’s Word with the nations and see it transform lives. And people like you helped get them there!