Leaving Grand Canyon

‘Myths that need clarification: “No matter how many times you see the Grand canyon, you are still emotionally moved to tears.” False. It depends on how many children the out-of-towners brought with them who kicked the back of your seat from Phoenix to Flagstaff and got their gum caught in your hair.’ – Erma Bombeck

It’s our final day at Grand Canon and the weather gods continue to smile upon us. We have a really short flight today and favorable conditions to make it. The interesting bit is are the rules that much be followed in order to be legal.

Ok, it isn’t really fair to make you look at that and be all impressed that pilots can make sense of it. It’s actually a lot easier if you look at it on a map, and there is one especially for that purpose.

The astute observer will note that we’re flying north and, since we aren’t a tour operator, will have to fly at 11,500 through one of the corridors. You may also remember from early postings about mountain training, that our little Cessna 172 climbs pretty slowly when heavily loaded and in the thinner air of higher altitudes.

One solution to this problem is to lighten the load. Beth wasn’t at all amused by my wildly funny comment that I might have to leave her behind. Instead, we lightened the load by about the same amount by taking on less fuel than a full load. This is something every airline passenger experiences every day. Every flight you get on has had a calculation done to figure out — given the passengers that will board, the distance to be flown and the weather that might cause issues — how much fuel to take on. We did something like that. Fuel is expensive at Grand Canyon, we wanted to climb as well as we could and we only had a bit over an hour of sky in front of us, so we got less fuel.

That said, it was still a major trauma to our flying carpet to have to struggle up into the air. The rule is 11,500 for northbound transits and we were climbing at about 300 feet per minute. The altitude at Grand Canyon is 6,500 feet so we needed to find somewhere to ascend for 15 minutes or so. Luckily, there really isn’t anything out there except the canyon, so we just headed south for a bit and did a couple giant lazy circles until we had the altitude we needed.

From there we headed to the Zuni Corridor. Depending on how you count, there are 3, 4 or 5 corridors that can be flown. We picked Zuni for a couple reasons. First, it’s close to where we would launch. Not such a huge deal, but why not. Second, and more important, it’s one of the longest stretches that can be flown over canyon. Given that this might well be a once in a lifetime flight, we figured that making it last would be a good plan.

Flying Zuni was a trip. Anyone planning to do this for themselves should definitely avail themselves of GPS. I’m not sure I would want to try and fly it by VOR and I certainly wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing it only by pilotage. But with GPS (two GPSs actually), it was a simple matter of setting up the entry and exit points and flying the plane between them. While there was still a certain amount of stress involved simply because of the risk management and the tour operators, the actual aviating was an absolute blast.

Let’s talk about the risk management a bit. The goal in any flight is to get from point A to point B without killing yourself. There are a lot of secondary goals (not bending the airplane, keeping everyone comfortable, enjoying the flight, deciding not to fly if that’s the best answer), but any flight you can walk away from is, at some level, a success.

There was one big risk on this flight that most don’t have. If you are going to fly over the canyon, even at 11,500 there are going to be stretches where your ability to glide safely to flat ground in the event of an engine failure is questionable.

Engines fail for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they aren’t maintained well. My club is extremely good on this front. We even started this trip with a fresh oil change. But, sometimes the engine just breaks. Not much you can do about this one. Sometimes the fuel fails. This is actually the most common failure. Either the pilot has mismanaged the flight and run out of fuel, or the fuel has water or filth in it. Our flight plan was developed with this possibility in mind. On the ground, I did a standard fuel check to confirm that things looked fine. But then we get back to that 15 minute climb. Most fuel problems reveal themselves fairly quickly after take off. That 15 minutes of boring circles actually adds a bit of insurance to the ultimate success of the flight. By the time we had completed that climb we had a much higher assurance that the fuel would continue to flow to the engine, yet we hadn’t been in the air so long that we would run out.

The tour operators are another story. I found them to be alternately fastidious and unappreciative of my intrusion into their space and their rules and dismissive of the rules. On the way into Grand Canyon we were approaching from the east which meant that we should overfly the airport and enter a right hand pattern for runway 21. Instead the tower told us to enter a left base for runway 21. I was fine with this once the controller confirmed that he did indeed mean left pattern. One of the tour operators was not happy, complaining that I was coming in against the flow of traffic. This was kind of true, but it was a clear day and easy to keep sight of folks, so not a particularly dangerous situation.

On the flip side, some operators think the rules are for other people. When getting ready to overfly the canyon a tour operator was flying a helicopter way up at 10,900 rather than the 7,500 he was supposed to be. Los Angeles Center gave me a heads up and I quickly had him in sight and judged it to be no factor, but still, he was talking to no one and just wandering around a busy airspace. Not cool.

Anyway, none of these problems posed a deal breaker for our flight and we successfully navigated to St. George Municipal, located in the second most expanding metro area in the country. But St. George is a story for another entry.

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A Walk To Remember

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks – John Miur

We’ve just finished what is clearly to me the best hiking so far. Bryce and Zion National Parks are only about and hour and a half apart in the Utah desert, but seem worlds apart when you get there. Staying at a little motel in Springdale, Utah, the entrance to Zion, we hopped a shuttle at the visitors center to explore the Emerald Pools hike. There are 3 levels and we hiked to the upper pool first. Sheer cliffs surround the pool and we saw a young man repelling down the face to just ‘hang out’ several hundred feet above the small pool. The middle pool was not very noteworthy, but the lower pool was a grand spectacle as the water flows over a large overhanging cliff to the pool below.

The next morning we made trip to Bryce Canyon. What a complete 180! Where Zion is covered with towering cliffs, the hoodoos of Bryce are other worldly. They are almost indescribable, but a few pictures can loosely sum it up. We completed a 6.5 mile series of loops below the rim among the eery naturally sculpted forms. What a treat!

Our last day was spent at Zion again hiking the ‘narrows’. The unique aspect of this adventure is that you do not follow a trail, you walk in the river. Up to a 16 mile trek, some people start at the top and hike straight thru, some start at the top and spend a night in the narrows to finish the next day and then others, like ourselves, do a ‘bottom up’ hike. We hiked about 5 miles up the narrows to experience the beauty of ‘Wall Street’ where the walls become 25-30 feet apart. Awesome!

The striking beauty of Bryce and Zion is something we will not soon forget and we both long to return to spend more time in these majestic parks.

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Hold Your Tongue

The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail. – John Wesley Powell

Some of our activities this week included: 3 mi. hike under the rim on the south Kaibab trail to Cedar Ridge, 7 mi. hike from Hermits rest to the Bright Angel Trailhead, ranger lead fossil hunt, learning about California condors (and spotting many) and a ranger led rim walk learning about the geology of the canyon. Our wildlife spotting included: mule deer, mules, elk, condors, ravens, turkey vultures,lizards and the most dangerous animal in the Grand Canyon… the rock squirrel. Seriously, several hundred people have had to get stitches and/or rabies vaccinations due to coming to close and feeding the squirrels. It is against the law to approach or feed wildlife.

Our climb to the summit of Mt. Fuji was awe inspiring and spiritual, our visit to Auschwitz in Poland was humbling and deeply thought provoking and seeing the sunrise from the top of Haleakala in Hawaii evoked thoughts of hope and the wonderful possibilities a new day can bring. As we’ve spent the better part of the week here at the Grand Canyon we’ve come to know many things, but none more than this: there are no words.

The naturalist, preservationist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, wrote of the Grand Canyon in 1902, ‘In a dry, hot, monotonous forested plateau, seemingly boundless, you come suddenly and without warning upon the abrupt edge of a gigantic sunken landscape of the wildest, most multitudinous features, and those features, sharp and angular, are made out of flat beds of limestone and sandstone forming a spiry, jagged, gloriously colored mountain-range countersunk in a level gray plain. But it is impossible to conceive what the canyon is, or what impression it makes, from descriptions or pictures, however good. Naturally it is untellable even to those who have seen something perhaps a little like it on a small scale in this same plateau region. One’s most extravagant expectations are indefinitely surpassed, though on expect much from what is said of it as the biggest chasm on earth.’

While John’s words are not the only ones uttered in reference to the canyon, to me they so eloquently say, that there are not enough adjectives to describe it unless you stand on the edge of this absolute beauty. For those of you who know me well, mark this moment in time as I am speechless!

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Flight To Grand Canyon

Bad weather remains one of the greatest challenges facing pilots. For instance, when there’s a thunderstorm, it becomes dangerous to fly. The cumulonimbus clouds are also dangerous as they cause a lot of turbulence. – Maipelo Kelotlegile

Goals are important things in life. Without them you just kind of wander around aimlessly gathering various diseases and sponging off others. Our goal today was to fly from Carlsbad to Grand Canyon National Park. After the first few days of this trip I was a bit trepidatious about the flying coming up. We’ve dodged more thunderstorms and rain that I had previously noticed in a midwestern June, but the flying itself was very safe and controllable. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have taken to the skies. But there have been challenges.

  • Leaving Chicago we ended up a day behind schedule because of storms
  • In Jefferson City we had to go on a tour of the state capital instead of managing to get back on schedule
  • In Hot Springs we had to listen to Glen Beck
  • In Stephenville we had to figure out how to get around town with no car and no taxi service (hint, there is a reason they call it southern hospitality)
  • In Carlsbad we had to…

Actually, the Carlsbad to Grand Canyon flight went pretty darn smoothly. I wish I could bend your ear with tales of having smartly avoided a hurricane or deftly ferrying medical supplies to save the lives of a sick family in the painted desert, but the truth is that things went just fine.

Flying in the heat of the summer at a higher altitude brings some additional considerations. With heat comes an increase in density altitude. What this means is that as the air heats up it gets less dense and the airplane (i.e. the engine and propeller, the wings don’t care as much) thinks it is flying at a higher altitude. This leads to lower performance and, occasionally, pilots crashing their planes off the ends of runways (because they didn’t get airborne at all) or into mountains (because they got airborne, but could get as high as they needed).

Now, we’re getting into the mountains and with that a different set of challenges. Navigation is one. A surprising amount of pilotage is done on man made landmarks. Cities, highways, railroad tracks and water towers (lost? just go down a bit and read the water tower! Of course, it’s up to you to figure out where Seniors Rule or Jesus Saves is on your map.)

In the mountains fewer of these queues exist. One mountain looks a lot like the next and ranges that look obvious on a map don’t look nearly so obvious when viewed horizontally. It is very easy to get lost flying in the mountains. In fact, I bet we will get lost before the trip is finished. This is why it is critically important to fly defensively. Don’t let the airplane get ahead of you and don’t let the canyon walls close in before you execute your backup plan. But we’ll talk more about that in coming days I’m sure. For now, let’s talk about a different challenge, that of having no landmarks. No mountains to confuse, no cities to mistake. Just two hours of desert.

We got up early today. This helped with one set of challenges, avoiding weather. Even if there are no storms, the skies get bumpy as things heat up during the day. It’s also true that as things heat up, storms are more likely. So, getting up and out was an easy decision to make.

At the airport by seven there was very little wind and the skies were beautiful and clear. The same would hold true of our entire four hour flight. There wasn’t a single cloud in the entire 543 miles of our flight. We did see some other cool stuff.

  • A volcano reaching higher into the sky than we were flying and a lava field that stretched for miles.
  • The painted desert. Just beautiful.
  • A dust storm that looked like it might wreck our approach to Grand Canyon.
  • A mountain range with snow capped peaks in June.
  • Our first glimpse of the Grand Canyon itself during our approach to the airport.

The bulk of the trip was above the desert, painted and otherwise. We relied heavily on Otto (you know, Otto the autopilot) to drive the bus for this stretch. GPS was definitely our friend as we watched the miles roll by and kept working harder than expected to match the GPS display to the maps. We also regularly checked our other radio aid, the VHF omnidirectional range or VOR, to make sure we had a backup plan. Otto got us the bulk of the way, which was a good thing. I love flying by pilotage, but absolutely discourage it in the desert. That said, Otto is a bit passive aggressive sometimes.

Ottos is really exceptional at keeping things on the rails when conditions are favorable. When there is some turbulence he throws a bit of a hissy fit. Riding through the bumps he won’t do much and then suddenly say, “Ok, time for a giant correction” and, without warning, turn the plane hard to keep the wings level or get the plane back on track. A human pilot does a much better job of smoothing out the bumps. This came into play during our approach into Grand Canyon.

By the time we got here, the skies were starting to warm up and the winds were blowing briskly. The runway is oriented into the wind, I’ve never checked the weather and seen the runway more than 20 degrees off the winds, but a gusty wind still makes for an interesting approach. So, off goes Otto and rw2 applies his analog workmanship to the flight. Trouble is, I’m good at making the flight smooth, less good at taking in everything else needed to keep things going, literally, in the right direction at the same time. At one point I regained orientation and found that we were more the 30 degrees off course!

Add to that an interesting pattern (pilots: the pattern for runway 21 is advertised as right-hand, but for some reason today the tower was running it as left-hand) that took inbound planes over the flightseeing helicopters (we managed to avoid three of them) and I was pretty glad to be back down and off to the park.

Just one comment on the park before signing off. Come to the Grand Canyon. Pictures don’t do it justice.

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We Prefer the Term ‘Cavers’

The frame of the cave leads to the frame of man. – Stephen Gardiner, 16th century poet


To me, there isn’t anything better than summiting the top of a mountain. We’ve hiked in 4 foreign countries and numerous states including Hawaii and Alaska and the only way I can ‘top’ that feat is to explore what’s underneath!

When I was a kid, my parents treated me to the joys of ‘spelunking’ or cave exploration in Kentucky and Missouri. However, on our tour of Slaughter Canyon Cave, ranger Dave imparted this wisdom upon us: Spelunkers don’t care for the term ‘Spelunkers’ since it’s the sound that they make when they fall into a cave pool. Therefore, the politically correct term is ‘Caver’.

So, we played cavers for the day. We parked at the Slaughter Canyon cave trailhead and hiked 30 minutes up the Guadalupe mountains to reach the cave entrance. Guided by the afore mentioned ranger Dave and National Park volunteer, Lionel, our group of 18 headed down into the darkness lit only by our own flashlights or headlamps. This portion of Carlsbad Caverns was originally used for guano mining (bat droppings) to be used for fertilizer in the orange crops of California in the 20′s and 30′s.

Due to land rights and the politics of the National Park, the mining company was not allowed to use certain devices while mining such as electric lights, motorized vehicles or consuming alcoholic beverages. Needless to say, according to the ‘artifacts’ left behind, they didn’t pay close attention to or enforce these guidelines. The result is an undeveloped cave that is great to explore, but shows great signs of damage. Exploring far into the cave afforded some beautiful decorations, but a large part is dead by living cave standards.

The up side to all this is that the main caves are absolutely brilliant! The preservation of the caves is superb and we were awestruck through most of our tour. Due to our ‘aviation tap dance’ we were only allowed to have one day with the caverns. We lost out on two tours due to our delay, but were able to tour the Giant Room after our morning caving experience.

I will not go into the detailed history about the caves, but will point out that some of their brilliance is awarded to the fact that they posses some of the most unique decoration (the term for formations within the cave) known in the world. The formation of the cave was due to a shallow sea covering Carlsbad Cavern. Plants and animals lived and died in the sea. Their shells and skeletons piled on top of each other, making a reef. Over time, many layers piled up, squashing the shells and making the layers hard, compact, and thick.

The sea dried up, causing the reef to be exposed to the air. Movements in the earth’s crust pushed the reef upwards, forming a limestone mountain. Trees and other plants grew on the mountain, covering the old reef and causing cracks to develop in the limestone. Rainwater sank into the soil and went down through the plants’ roots and finally down through the cracks in the limestone. On its way through the atmosphere and the soil, the water absorbed carbon dioxide. A weak acid was chemically formed when the water mixed with the carbon dioxide. The resulting carbonic acid dissolved the calcite in the limestone.
At some point, large rocks in the cave ceiling fell. This opened up chambers, like the Cavern’s Big Room—25 stories high and a third of a mile wide… wow.

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VFR Over The Clouds

‘A pessimist only sees the dark side of the clouds, and mopes; a philosopher sees both sides and shrugs; an optimist doesn’t see the clouds at all–he’s walking on them.’ – Leonard L. Levinson


Another day, another delay.

As the midwest gets drenched by day after day of storms, we have managed to get as far south as the United States goes and still weather presents challenges. Today we got up and found northwestern Texas still covered with big storms and flight advisories that can be best summarized as “really, we’re not kidding. Don’t fly.”

I spent the morning in the lobby of the Stephenville, TX Hampton Inn watching World Cup (and I’m certain I could have done a better job than the referee of the Côte d’Ivoire v Portugal match. It wasn’t terrible soccer, but he blew more calls than should ever be allowed in international play). I was also spending some time seeking a hole to fly through and find a path to a state who’s official question is “Red or Green?”

Things in western Texas didn’t look great and flying down to Mexico wasn’t an option this trip as I had done no prep work and am not even sure if I would be permitted by club rules to take the plane into Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Nonetheless I was still amused to see the not so cleverly named “Rancho la Vaca” just over the border. Around noon it looked like we had the hole we needed. KINK had been instrument conditions earlier and was improving to visual as the morning progressed, so we took off thinking that it would likely continue to improve and ready to turn back if it hadn’t.

Around Eastland I called Flightwatch and got a weather update. Things hadn’t really improved much, but another possibility presented itself. Carlsbad was in the clear and so were we. That meant we could jump up on top of the clouds and fly in smooth, cooler air. This was the first time I had an opportunity to use this trick, so we excited to add a new play to my book. There are two concerns in flying on top. The first has already been hinted at. It’s really not a good idea to decide to fly over the clouds and then not be able to get back down. Flightwatch assured us that Carlsbad was “clear” and I knew from my pre-flight that conditions generally improved the further west we flew. The other problem is that there are no landmarks to help guide your flight. On this I was extremely confident. One of the things I love about flying is using various radio navigation aids to find my way around. On today’s flight we had two GPS units (one hooked to the autopilot) and two VORs (radio beacons that your plane can see and tell you where you are relative to the beacon). One of the GPS receivers has battery backup and runs independent of the other three radio navs, so even a total electrical failure wouldn’t cause us to get lost. Perhaps a bit worried about other things, but not lost, so up we went.

At five thousand feet it was hot and muggy in the cockpit. The outside air temperature (OAT) claimed it was about 90F, but with the sun shining through the windows it felt even warmer. As we climbed higher and higher, eventually to 12,500 the OAT kept dropping further and further until it finally bottomed out at 48F. We actually had to shut down some of the vents because we were getting cold on this blazing hot June afternoon.

All good things must come to an end and we finished up about two hours of visual flying over clouds in clean air with a bumpy descent and landing into Carlsbad, where the winds couldn’t make up their mind what direction they wanted to blow. The landing was challenging, gusty winds from all directions, but uneventful. Just what you want. A bit of challenge to keep you sharp, and a landing that doesn’t bend the plane.

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On ‘Cloud Nine’… Again

There is no top. There are always further heights to reach. -Jascha Heifetz

mt fuji from plane.jpg
We started out the day in Stephenville, Texas to, you guessed it… rain. The storm systems pushing up through the plains states into the midwest have been relentless and slow moving. So much so, that we’ve been traveling south for 2 days to avoid them and hope that they will loose force or just get on with things and move out. Since we seem to have run out of ‘south’, today it was time to head west.

A 3 hour flight was ahead of us from Stephenville to Carlsbad, New Mexico, but again there were storms in between us and our final destination. A quick breakfast at the Hampton Inn was followed by waiting in the lobby with our computers and kindles hoping for another break. We headed for the tarmac around 1 and were in the air shortly thereafter. There was still rough weather ahead, but rw2 was confident we could navigate around the tough stuff.

I have not gotten my wits about me yet to not be airsick every time we fly (and I might never), so a quick dramamine seems to do the trick. However, a dramamine does nothing whatsoever if we crash into the earth due to severe weather! With this in mind, rw2 decided to increase our elevation to fly over the clouds and essentially, the weather.

Now, as I’ve stated before, I have spent plenty of time in a commercial airplane and I am aware of the physics involved. To fly far and efficiently, you must get some room between you and the earth. However, when you are that far up, with a thick fuselage between you and the atmosphere, it seems to make me breath a little easier. Today was an exception to that experience.

Being in a single engine aircraft that would fit into a Boeing 777 multiple times, you get quite a different perspective. At some point, I decided that far up was far up and everything was going to be a tiny dot wether we were at 6,000 ft or somewhere higher. ‘For cryin’ out loud! I’m in an airplane and we’re going to be high in the air!’ I wanted to scream to myself. But in a small plane, none of the 12,500 ft. altitude feels like flying… it feels like space.

With all this said, I am completely confident in rw2′s ability to pilot our Cessna 172 and I would never have agreed to this trip, let alone flying in general if I didn’t have this certainty.

We stood atop Mt. Fuji in Japan at 12,388 ft. with our feet on the ground and felt like we could touch the sky, but today at 12,500 ft. we literally did.

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Jefferson City

‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable’ – Thomas Jefferson


Trying to get south, we found ourselves rained delayed in Jefferson City. The rain was supposed to leave around lunchtime, so we decided to make the best of things and wander down the street to take a tour of the capital.

Like many, the building in Jefferson City is inspired by Roman architecture. I suppose this is a good thing, otherwise who knows what kind of building would have been built. Certainly North Dakota must be thinking that their capital building is a bit uninspired. We got the standard info about the state. Anyone who has lived here for more than a few hours seems to be embraced as a native and their achievements recognized. Still, there were a few notables.

In particular, there was a bust of James Smith McDonnell of McDonnell Douglas fame. This being our entry point to the south, it was a bit surprising to see someone rumored to be an occultist recognized in a capital building decorated with entirely too many references to God for a government structure, but he was indeed very influential.

After the tour we needed to get a bit of grub and check the weather. We headed down to Chim’s Thai Kitchen and found ourselves in a tiny restaurant that could have been a clone of
Mekong River Restaurant in Austin, one of our favorite places on 6th Street.

Exiting the eatery the sun was starting to peak through the clouds, the forecast was considerably improved and we made a dash to the airport for a long day of flying.

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