Daylight faded quickly into neon as the sun fell behind the mountains to the west of Las Vegas. Having completed my checkout with the local instructor, I ran through a quick pre-flight of N975TA, a four year old Cessna Skyhawk with about 1400 hours on the clock.
Cessna outfitted this aircraft with the NAVII option - dual nav/coms with a glideslope on the nav 1 and the Garmin 430/530 moving map GPS system. A two axis autopilot rounded out the equipment.
Remembering the instructor's words about flooding this particular plane, I tried unsuccessfully to start the engine without using the priming procedure. Mixture at ICO, throttle at 1/2 (which seems a bit aggressive to me), I turned the key to start. After about two blades, the engine caught and I pushed the mixture, but the engine didn't start. I tried several more times with a variety of throttle and mixture positions. Finally, I pushed the throttle to full, mixture at ICO and tried again. This time the engine caught, revved quickly and I increased the mixture. With RPMs ridiculously high, I pulled the throttle back to idle and things came back to some semblance of order.
I asked Matt to be my flight crew - navigator and handed him the Las Vegas sectional. I tuned the ATIS and got the numbers.
Contacting North Vegas ground, I called, "North Vegas ground, Skyhawk niner seven five tango alpha at west air with uniform, VFR to Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon at five thousand five hundred feet."
The controller replied, "Skyhawk niner seven five tango alpha, squawk 4251, taxi to and hold short of runway 7."
I read back the instructions and the controller told me the readback was correct.
As we started our taxi, ground advised that there was a Baron that would be passing on my right and I should keep an eye out. I asked if he would like me to stay put - but he said I should see the baron momentarily off to my right.
The Baron approache the runup area ahead of me, but he parked right in the middle and did not angle his propwash away from the rest of the area...brilliant. I pulled up to his right and ran through the runup checklist. I then flipped on my strobes, nav lights and taxi lights and after checking to see that the Baron was staying put, I pulled forward to the hold short on taxiway golf short of 7.
I switched the radio to the tower frequency and called, "North Vegas Tower, skyhawk niner seven five tango alpha, on golf holding short of 7."
Immediately, the tower called, "five tango alpha, cross runway seven and hold short of runway one two. Number three for departure."
I repeated the call and did as I was told.
The plane on the runway departed and the number two plane was cleared to position and hold. Shortly, he was cleared, but we had to wait for an arriving aircraft who landed long. This plane was told to taxi back on runway 12 - "Hey, we're waiting here!" I thought to myself. Finally, I was cleared for departure and assigned a heading of 220 on the climbout.
Lights, Camera, Action, Showtime - Landing lights on, transponder to ALT, off we go - time 6pm.
The sun set about 5 minutes before our departure, but Las Vegas was lit! We climbed out and I made my turn to 220. The tower quickly handed me off to Las Vegas departure. As soon as I switched to the new frequency, I heard, "Skyhawk niner seven five tango alpha, Las Vegas Departure, you up?"
Wow! that was quick. Usually, I have to switch, then wait for a break and then make my call. These guys are good.
I replied, "Approach, five tango alpha is through three thousand two hundred for five thousand five hundred".
The controller then told me to identify and I complied.
ATC then announced contact and asked me what route I wanted to the dam and the canyon. I replied that I had never flown in this area and would be happy with whatever he chose to assign to me.
He immediately told me to turn left to 080 and expedite a climb to five thousand six hundred. He cleared me through the Bravo airspace. I repeated the instructions and said I would give her everything she's got. I pitched for Vy (74 knots) and made my turn.
Our course put us right along the Las Vegas strip. I was busy flying the plane, but I'm sure that Matt had a great view of the sights below.
We leveled off at 5,600. As we traversed the bravo airspace, we received quite a few traffic calls and could see the planes loaded with gamblers. As we headed east, it became clear that we wouldn't be able to see much of the canyon in the dark.
Just prior to clearing the class bravo airspace, the tower told us we were clear, squawk VFR and fly a normal VFR altitude. I repeated the instruction, advised that I would descend to 5,500 feet and thanked the controller for the nice tour.
I plugged in the CROWE intersection into the GPS. This was the second point on my plan -we were already nearing the MEADS intersection and were high enough that the peaks below would not be a concern. As we got closer to CROWE, we really couldn't see much of anything. There was a small airport below according to the chart, but we could only see a few lights. Ahead in the distance I could see a few other lights in the area where the Grand Canyon West airport was situated - but I saw no beacon. I could make out the shapes of the mountains below and ahead of us, but they were only shadows.
I got the feeling that Matt was becoming nervous and since it was clear that we wouldn't be able to see a thing, I started thinking about turning back. I started to think about landing at an unfamiliar airport at night in the mountains - when I've never flown in the mountains. I had a choice to make - would I like to do my gambling in the air, or on the ground? Being a conservative pilot, I told Matt that we would turn around, but I wanted to check the chart to determine the height of the mountains near us, just in case a mountain would be too close to our turning path. With our flashlights and the overhead light glowing, we determined that we could turn above the nearby airport without any trouble and I made a leisurely right turn.
I turned back to the CROWE intersection and listened to the ATIS. I then called Las Vegas approach and advised that we were over CROWE at 5,500 with victor at north vegas and would like vectors for a full stop at north vegas. The controller gave me a squawk and advised me to ident when I tuned the squawk. Before I could punch in the squawk, the transponder reset to 1200...don't know why that happened. Finally I had the code input and I idented. ATC announced my position as 4 miles west of CROWE - cleared through the class bravo, fly heading 270.
We received several other vectors to avoid traffic and the lights of Las Vegas grew closer. We were advised to descend to 4,200 feet - and I double checked the mountain tops on the chart. As we passed our last mountain, Matt told me to look back if I could - I'm sure the mountain looked closer than it really was, but the vegas lights sure made it look imposing - good thing we were already past it. ATC vectored me directly to the Stratosphere tower, but it was impossible to make it out from the clutter below. The controller asked me if I could see the tower and I reluctantly admitted that I could not see it amoungst all the other lights. He told me to continue my course.
As we got closer to the strip, I finally could determine which building was the stratosphere - and I told the tower I had it in sight. He told me to fly directly to it and to descend to 3,500. There was the famous Las Vegas Strip out our left window. What a great sight. I managed to snap a few shots as we got closer - only one is usable - too much shaking with a slow shutter speed.
As we passed directly over the tower, ATC told me to turn right to 320 and advise when the north vegas airport was in sight. About 7 miles out, I spotted the airport and was about to tell ATC, when the controller asked me if I had North Vegas in sight. When I said that I did, he told me to contact the North Vegas tower and the handoff was complete.
North Vegas told us to enter a right downwind for runway seven. We were number two behind another aircraft who appeared to be wandering west of the airport. The tower questioned the other plane and made him verify that he was lining up on seven and not one-two. We saw the other plane and made our turns, but by following him, we were not exactly lined up properly - good thing we extended our downwind. We were cleared to land and touched down smoothly. I followed the other aircraft on the ground as he requested a progressive taxi to the terminal. Since I remembered that our hangar was right below the control tower, I looked for the fuel depot, found it, and with ground's permission, taxied to the hanger.
This was an exciting flight for me and Matt seemed to enjoy himself, too. It was good having a co-pilot, even if he isn't technically a pilot. Having some help with the charts takes some of the burden away from the pilot. I love flying at night, but usually my flights are in Florida where the world is flat and the coastline makes a nice line to follow. Flying in the mountains was a new experience for me. I'm looking forward to going back to 'Vegas and repeating the journey in daylight hours. Most of my tower flying is done in class C and D airspace. In fact, it is a rare situation that causes me to enter the Tampa or Orlando Class B airspace. Flying in the Las Vegas bravo was a real treat. The controllers are extremely professional and always polite. Even though I heard some other pilots blunder, the controllers never reacted in any way other than with strict professionalism. The controllers at CRG could learn a few things here. So there it was, new city, 'Vegas, night, class B - truly a special flight.
1.3 hours of night flight with 1 night landing. David West