Sion, in Switzerland, is the perfect place to start with some mountain flying. The airport is located along the Rhône valley in the Swiss Alps, surrounded by mountainous peaks with summits well above 10’000 feet. The runway is at roughly 1’500 feet and if you need an escape route, it is possible to fly along the Rhône to Lake Geneva area at 2’500 feet. This is also an easy way to find Sion: fly from the eastern end of Lake Geneva, follow the Rhône, turn left at Martigny and you’ll have the runway in sight.
Because of the local aerology, the active runway is almost always 25. If you come from the west, you’ll fly an interesting circuit. You’ll fly much closer to ground than to mountain tops. A small town on the right hand-side is exactly at pattern altitude – don’t miss the photo of the white church. The valley is not as tight as at Samedan, but there is not engoug room for a base leg. Simply fly a continuous turn from end of downwind to final.
Don’t be surprised if you get traffic informations about military aircraft. Sion is an air-force base frequented by F-18s but also business jets, KingAirs and a lot of rescue and taxi helicopters. Beware of the arresting cables and nets before the threshold: your landing gear and prop would probably not survive if you land a bit short of threshold and roll over this military gear. The positive side of the military nature of the airport is the runway itself: over 2’000 meters of concrete with lights and PAPI.
There is an IGS procedure (no typo, this is an Instrument Guidance System). The localizer has an offset of more than 7 degrees with the runway axis and the glide slope ends a few thousand meters before the runway. Unless you can start the approach at FL180 and have local training, don’t even think about flying an IFR approach. Your best option for a leaving is St-Prex VOR (SPR) or Fribourg VOR (FRI), then fly below Geneva TMA through the mountains or via the Rhône valley.
One word about mountain flying for pilots not having experience with this kind of operations. Don’t consider flying in the Alps if the winds at FL050 and FL100 are above 20 knots. You could encounter serious turbulence and downdrafts, possibly well above what a light aircraft can compensate for. Apart from that, getting to Sion is really easy, and many flying excursions are possible from there: Matterhorn, Aletsch glacier, Jungfraujoch, Saanen, …
Click here to see a YouTube video a passenger of mine made of a landing. The video starts by begin of downwind 25, shows the famous church, the base turn, and ends after touchdown. This is in a DA40 TDI, flying approximately 110 knots on downwind and 70 knots on final. Flying the same circuit with a faster plane can become impressive, but the valley is not that narrow.
In the “airport restaurant” category, the local one is slightly above average. The possibilities for Golf, Hotel and Whiskey in the Valais area are countless, but if I had to retain only one resort, this would be Crans-Montana. The 9-hole course designed by Jack Nicklaus is really a wonder… Finally, because it’s a vineyards region, The “W” should for this time stand for “Wine”.