Tuesday, June 17, 2008

10.5 Hours Around Vegas & The Grand Canyon

In mid-May, I had a conference to attend in Las Vegas and decided to go out early so I could get some flying in around the Grand Canyon. Last November, I had flown to the Grand Canyon West airport and I wanted to fly to the airport at the Grand Canyon National Park this time (KGCN).

I rented a Skyhawk with steam gauges and no auto pilot from Westair Aviation. I've rented from this flight school in the past and have found their planes to be well maintained and the staff to be very friendly. My scheduled instructor for the check-out ride was a no-show, though. One of the instructors reviewed my log book and saw that I was current, instrument rated and had plenty of time in type plus rentals from this school in November, so he waived their 90 rental rule and signed off on my rental.

I departed the North Vegas airport around noon VFR and followed ATC's instructions through the Class B airspace. They vectored me over Nellis Air Force Base and the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The weather was windy, but there were few clouds. I flew to the Peach Springs VOR, then headed to GCN. The flying time was almost 2 hours due to winds.

The wind passing over the mountains and canyons created very bumpy conditions and the lack of an autopilot forced me to rely on my stick and rudder skills to remain straight and level. I've been spoiled by the two-axis auto pilot in the Skyhawk that I fly at home...and I have been flying G1000 equiped aircraft almost exclusively, so going back to steam gauges was quite a change. Nevertheless, I flew over incredibly beautiful scenery and made it to GCN without incident.

Along the way, I managed to take a few shots looking North to the Canyon. There are numerous canyons that feed into the Grand Canyon and I was able to fly directly above them as I traveled eastward at 9,500 feet.The FAA regulations don't permit general aviation aircraft to fly directly over the canyon except in four narrow corridors that are 4 miles wide and that cross the canyon or nearly cross it North and South, but these are fairly far to the east or they only come down from the North rim making it very time consuming to get to them from Las Vegas. Nevertheless, I was able to get a good view of the canyon as I flew South of it. Once at GCN, I caught a cab from the airport to the national park. For $16, I received transportation and admission to the park which I thought was very reasonable. I spent the afternoon hiking and taking pictures. I hiked down the Bright Angel trail for about an hour wondering why the rangers thought it was so difficult to hike down and back in a single day. After hiking down for an hour, I turned back and it was quickly apparent why the rangers issued their warnings. It took me two hours to get back up and I only went a fraction of the way down the trail.
The winds in the area of the Canyon are notorious and challenging to pilots of small planes. I paid particular attention to wind direction as I taxied for my departure. The ride was bumpy and required my full attention because the wind direction would frequently change causing my airspeed, engine speed and altitude to change every few minutes.
As I approached the Las Vegas Class B airspace, I was asked if I was familiar with the area, and I told the controller I had flown there twice before. He asked if I knew the Cortez arrival route and I responded that it was on the TAC but I had not flown it before. The controller then dropped me down to 6,500 feet and cleared me for the Cortez Arrival and cleared me into the Class B airspace. I was bouncing around in the plane quite a bit as I attempted to fly the route. At one point, the controller asked if I was flying the route, and I told him that I thought that I was. After about 10 minutes, the controller informed me that the route was supposed to be flown at 3,500 feet. The trouble was that the route only mentioned 3,500 once in small print that I never noticed as the chart bounced in front of me. I apologized and the controller said it wasn't a problem and gave me vectors for North Vegas.
The next day, an old friend of mine arrived and I flew the same route all over again, just a bit later in the day. The wind was fierce and we bounced all over, but this time I had a Skyhawk with an autopilot. When we departed Grand Canyon, the wind was nearly straight down the runway at 19 knots with gusts to 28 knots...pretty fierce, but the direction was steady. The climbout was easy and quick and the flight was bumpy but uneventful.
The next day, I took another friend up. I had met Lynn through work and had encouraged her to come sightseeing with me. The weather was overcast and windy, but the clouds were high and this would not prevent us from flying. We received vectors from ATC to fly directly to Hoover Dam and even had a controller say, "Enjoy your dam tour!"
I handed my camera to Lynn and she demonstrated her skill as a photographer by taking these shots of the dam.
And another shot by Lynn:
After passing the dam, we flew around a mountain ridge that extended to the southeast then flew north back towards Lake Mead. We followed the lake to the North then ultimately flew along the North rim of the canyon remaining outside the restricted areas. The chart showed an airstrip in a canyon, but I couldn't spot it. After turning around, I spotted this very narrow runway situated deep in a valley near the north rim. I can only imagine the challenges that landing in a windy valley like this would present.

We followed lake Mead back and I called ATC for clearance back through the Class B. They vectored me towards Nellis where we were finding challenges trying to remain clear of clouds. Ultimately, we were caught in some virga followed by severe turbulence that made me just a bit nervous. I slowed the plane down to minimize the stress on the airframe and we made it through the mess. As we were getting tossed around, Lynn asked, "Are you going to get us down from here?" and I responded, "One way or another, we'll get down". Her nuckles were white as she gripped the door handle and she grabbed my shoulder each time we hit a bump. I felt so bad for her, but I was never really in danger. We landed without further incident with 2.5 hours on the Hobbs meter. I was amazed that we had flown that long. It felt like only an hour.

The first two days took up about 4 hours of flying time each and this one generated 2.5 for a total of 10.5 hours of flying over three days. What a great trip!

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