Saturday, December 12, 2009

Soaring over the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas

The guys together for a group picture at Sedona.
This was the day! We were at Sedona during a beautiful fall morning with clear skies and that warm sun radiating with a cold morning breeze. We loaded the planes and made the general checks and once again studied the route for the day! The flight was to be full of eye candies, 100% scenic, starting with arizona's Mesas and valleys transitioning to the overwhelming views of the Grand Canyon and ending with Las Vegas' lights and glitz.
We did a quick review of the route to be flown and settled on a place for a pit stop to refuel. That place selected was H. A. Clark Memorial Field (KCMR), just 45 minutes away from Sedona at an elevation of 6680 feet (2000 meters) above mean sea level. We decided to take it low and slow, flying together from take-off to landing and without controllers nagging us with route constraints and altitude limitations. In a matter of minutes the run up was made, mixture was adjusted for the high altitude take-off and we lined up at the right side of the runway, followed the the other Cessna lining up behind to the left. A static take-off was done and as we lifted off we kept our rate of climb to a minimum gaining speed while still flying relatively low and enjoying one last view of the airport's Mesa. With maximum elevation figures higher than 9000 feet we decided to maintain 8500 feet and dodge the terrain enjoying the views and the great colours at a low altitude. As we got close to the pit stop we overflew the airport checking the wind conditions at 1500 feet above the field and joining the pattern for the runway in use while our "wingman" followed us behind.
Flying low at the leader's 4 o'clock.
After doing a landing together we refueled and got on the phone with Las Vegas to prepare our arrival to the airport and transportation to the hotel.
In less than an hour we were once again soaring, now at 10500 feet which would be the minimum altitude available to cross the Grand Canyon on a scenic flight.
One of those perfect pictures that just make the day!
Pit Stop for some fuel and planing to Vegas.
Billy doing some planning on his improvised navigation table.
In order for you guys to understand it let me put it this way, nowadays due to the excessive traffic flying over and along the Grand Canyon in Air Tours or just for fun the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has decided to lay out some rules and create some preferential flying routes around the place. This has allowed to keep traffic organized and protect all the wildlife and nature around the park, which suffered due to the low level aircraft. So you readers have an idea, the Canyon is one of the busiest places to fly in the USA during the high season. Lucky us, we flew there during the low season and on Thanksgiving, so guess what, no one was flying there!
The view from our right window, while flying across the Canyon.
There are a few corridors going across the Canyon in different directions and altitudes. The Air Tour guys can always go lower, the general aviation goes higher. We decided to fly the corridors, first heading from South to North and then, proceeding North to South, while moving West. For those who know the place and the rules we flew first the "Dragon Corridor" and then the "Fossil Canyon Corridor". All the journey was done at 10500 feet and 11500 feet (3500 meters), with the scenery 3000 feet (915 meters) below. After crossing the designated routes we flew West descending inbound Las Vegas while the sun was fading ahead of us.
The routing we did.(This does not accurately depicts the corridors, it is simplified for better understanding)
The Canyon tour is better describer by photos, other than words. Please enjoy and bear in mind this is only a selection of a much wider, much bigger, collection!
Patches of snow could already be seen in higher terrain.
Westbound to Vegas down the Canyon.
Big ridges and Mesas all around.
Close up on a big crack inside a valley.
Nature at its best, with the nicest light one could ask for.
The sun setting on the West, leaving the Canyon for Las Vegas.
After crossing such an overwhelming scenery from a bigger, higher and different point of view you get the feeling you are being spoiled because you're flying your own small aircraft with your best mates across one of natures' biggest achievements and you have the opportunity much people can only dream of. So once I left the mountains, valleys and canyons behind I was still stunned, amazed, to say the least and I was surely not asking for anything else other than a simple landing at Las Vegas. But then again, I was wrong. This was to become one of those flights one could never imagine of when he first flew for the first time.
Let me tell you, approaching Las Vegas on a clear fall evening with the sunset on the horizon has got to be one of the nicest things one might experience while flying. The controller took us from the West right over the big Hoover Dam and told us to proceed visual to the runway. So you guys have an idea, we were assigned a runway that makes you fly an approach path which is parallel to the Las Vegas Strip which is the main street in the city and the place where all the casinos and big hotels seat. So, as the video below might show, we had the best possible view over the city without paying a dime for a helicopter tour or something like that!
The arrival at Las Vegas came with a feeling of accomplishment and happiness since we had made it all work out just right. 5 guys, 2 aeroplanes, 2000 nautical miles (3700 km) and 22 hours of flying made us reach our destination and the most fantastic thing was that all worked out according to plan. But this was by no means the end of the journey, we were on ground to enjoy 2 full days of "sinful" party in Las Vegas. And then one would have to make the nice journey back! So there was still plenty to come but that is to be told on some other posts.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Flying in Arizona

After reaching Tucson the goal of this trip was getting closer, the Grand Canyon was just a few hours to the North.
Pima Air and Space Museum.
Just as side note Tucson was a great stop because we were able to have a full day around airplanes in one of the biggest museums and air force boneyards in the USA. Pima Air and Space Museum has loads of Air Force aircraft (275 aircraft) on a static display in the Desert and also includes some nice hangars which contain some well preserved World War II birds! Furthermore they have put together a tour that goes inside the actual Air Force Base boneyard - the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) - where you can see all the work that is done in preserving, storing, maintaining and destroying Air Force old and still in service airframes. The boneyard itself has more than 4000 airframes. After a day full of aviation related activities it was only right to go for a flight and so we moved to the airport to continue our journey to the Grand Canyon and Vegas.
The Famous BlackBird SR71 at Pima.
But before going there one should get used to flying in the mountains and valleys and so a stop was planed at one of the best known cities in Arizona, Sedona. Sedona seats in the middle of the arid Arizona and is best known for having the nicest views since it is right in a valley surrounded by red mountain tops with beautiful mesas and typical desert cactus. After reading about it on a guide book and learning a little bit more about the place on the internet it just sounded right to stop there on our way North. It was agreed that we would spend a night in Sedona to know the place prior to departing to the Canyon and so in the afternoon we departed Tucson inbound Sedona so we could do the 2 hour flight during the day in order to enjoy the most of the scenery. As Tucson seats at 2000 feet (610 meters) above mean sea level and it has mountains all around one had to climb to go past those mountain tops in order to fly the desired route to Sedona Airport which seats on top of the so called Airport Mesa (which is at 4830 feet (1450 meters) above mean sea level, but still is engulfed by the mountain tops) with a 180º view over the valley, to the opposite side of the town.
Our aircraft at Tucson prior departure to Sedona.
Departed from Tucson we started cruising at 10500 feet to clear all the terrain on our two hour flight. But somewhere in the middle it just felt right to go lower and enjoy a beautiful sunny afternoon and make the most of our scenery and so we cancelled the flight following and went down making our way visually at 3000 to 4000 feet down the valleys and rivers doing "slaloms" around the higher terrain. Elevations around us came to 10000 feet which made the ride quite interesting! After a while our friend caught up with us as they went through another valley which met up ahead with ours.
As you might understand the flight extended a little bit due to the fun we were having and we only landed when it was no longer worthy of enjoying the views due to the lack of sun rays and so we arrived in Sedona just after Dusk only to make a landing on runway 03, which has an upslope of 2.0% and at that time winds were gusting 26 Kts which accounted for some nice mechanical turbulence on final that put our skills to the test. It was the nicest ending for one of the nicest flights I have EVER had!
Enroute to Sedona flying in formation with the sunset behind.
We arrived at 6PM and the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) - the service provider on the airport - had just closed at 5PM but fortunately there was still a clerk inside to help us with our check in, even after hous! We got a car and moved down the road from the airport half a mile to the Sky Ranch Lodge which is a nice small and cozy lodge that has cool rooms and all an atmosphere of a mountain lodge with pool and hot tub. Obviously since it was kind of cold and windy it was only right to get the luggage to the rooms and jump to the hot tub right away. Yeah, one must relax after such a hard day, right?
We relaxed for half an hour on the tub doing the debriefing and planing our next flights and as the dinner time came we got ourselves some warm clothes and got down to the city for the first time, just to find a local diner which had a rather different motif based on area 51 and aliens.
The next day we woke up early in the morning to make the most out of our time in Sedona and got down to the town in search of a breakfast, which we were thinking it would be really hard since it was the day before Thanksgiving. We came across a place which was packed with people and instantly decided to stop there. We one knows, if it is packed, it has to be good! In fact it quite exceeded our expectations and I might say it probably was one of the best breakfasts I've had since I've been in the USA!
With our stomachs full of such a great meal it was only right to feed the remaining senses and so we drove around the Town going to the landmarks and in search of those great views that make Sedona well known, the result can be seen here:
General view from a Mesa with the city on the valley.
One of the many views from the roads of Sedona.
The Church of the Holy Cross, a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The team at the Church entrance.
One of the many elevations around.
Small monument close to the airport. At night the cross
is illuminated and can be seen from the town.
As our departure time approached we went up the Mesa to the airport to get the workhorses ready for the next major flight which was the main goal of our trip. The route would go through the Grand Canyon, after doing a refueling stop in Clark Memorial Field and would end in Las Vegas, the more Westerly point of our journey.
Parked at Sedona, getting ready for the next leg.