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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