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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