Existing to fly

17-year-old boy pilots planes and writes about it for magazines, web sites

Posted: Friday, April 07, 2000

If you were asked to identify a certified pilot who is the possessor of an aviation proficiency award, is a writer for national magazines such as Sport Aviation and Flight Training, as well as a contributor and forum moderator for major aviation Web sites, you might guess, say, Ernest Gant.

But if you look at the work record in his resume - cashier at a family grocer, file clerk at a hospital - at age 17, you know this is not about the world's foremost aviation writer. It's only about someone who has taken his first strides in that direction.

Chris Sis graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in January, and he exists to fly - to study it, to write about it, and to scramble for the cash it takes to get off the ground and stay there.

So far he's earned and spent about $8,000 on flying - at a time in life when some of his peers are barely out of the finding-money-for-Pokemon stage.

His quest to be a top flier - and to write about it - has sometimes been grounded for lack of money. But he's managed to turn even that circumstance to advantage by writing about rectifying the condition and getting his article published in Flight Training last year.

In an easy style that belies the dogged determination behind it, Sis wrote for FT: ``In late May last year I set a goal of soloing on my 16th birthday. Because school would be out in early June, I had to start my lessons in the early summer to prepare for my birthday in September. I brainstormed about possible ways to finance my lessons, and I was soon on the way to the local (Fixed Base Operator) with my resume. Weeks went by, and after giving up my great idea about getting a job at the FBO, I decided the only way I could meet my goal would be to earn $100 a week, which would pay for about one lesson a week. With this in mind, knowing my young age wouldn't get me a dream job, I was soon mowing neighborhood lawns, pulling weeds, and digging trenches in the summer heat. Somehow that didn't matter to me.''

The article goes on to discuss the finer points of being a ``hangar rat'' - as opposed to the mall variety - and encourages those who might be put off by the minor turbulence of poverty not to be deterred in The Quest.

For years, Flight Training magazine columnist Greg Brown hosted two AOL forums for experienced and career pilots. A singular experience introduced him to Chris Sis.

``One of the guys who came to the online forum was intelligent, and he knew about advanced systems and aircraft,'' Brown said. ``One day we had a guest from one of the aviation universities, and this guy started asking him questions. The teacher asked if he was thinking about going back to school. The guy responded, `No, I'm only 15.'''

The revelation stunned Brown. ``I've been in aviation for 30 years,'' he said. ``And I can tell if someone's not experienced.''

After publishing Sis's story, Brown referred him to Sport Aviation magazine, where Sis's article about a Juneau-Haines cross-country solo was published in February. The story ranges from the technical, meteorological aspects of the flight, through the nervousness of Sis's mom as she drives him to the Juneau Airport, to Sis's mild complaint - he was born and raised in San Diego - about frozen hands on an icy Haines runway.

It's the first of six such accounts that will appear in the magazine this year.

``I think if Chris continues to write with the kind of spirit he puts into his stories now, he could one day be one of the great aviation writers,'' Brown said.

Sis has plans for college, probably with the University of Alaska Anchorage's aviation program. In the meantime, he's earning money - however he can - to pay for getting his instrument rating this summer. After college it will be on to flight instruction and, eventually, to the right-hand seat with a major airline.

He also flies with the Civil Air Patrol and is trying to put the wherewithal together - $4,000 - for a special nine-day aviation course in Tucson, Ariz.

Asked about his favorite airplane, Sis responded that he loves all of them, though he felt a particular closeness to the CAP's new Cessna 172. ``It smells like a new car inside,'' he said.

And how would he characterize a good pilot?

``I've found about 99 percent of being a good pilot is having good judgment and thinking things out,'' he said.

Pretty good criteria for a writer, too.

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