Grand Canyon Adventure, El Segundo

On July 29th, I returned to the Grand Canyon with some friends in a Cessna Tu-206. It was a very different experience from my first time flying into the Bar-10 airstrip. First, we left from North Las Vegas (KVGT) in a turbocharged Cessna 206. We were able to climb up to 12,500′ in order to safely and legally navigate the Grand Canyon SFRA; the last time I made this trip I was forced to avoid all of the special airspace and go directly to Bar-10 since the Cessna 172 stops climbing well before 10,000′ on a warm day at maximum gross weight.

The most difficult part of the trip was planning it. The Grand Canyon Special Use Airspace is documented only on a paper chart; neither Skycharts nor Foreflight offer a digital version; Skyvector does, but you can’t use that while flying. So I made a trip to my local airport and bought a paper chart.

General Aviation pilots have to remain high above the Grand Canyon in most parts of the National Park. There are some corridors for crossing over the canyon at “lower” altitudes (10,500′ MSL) but they’re not marked by visual references or even database-referenced waypoints; instead, the FAA provides coordinates that have to be manually loaded into a GPS receiver. After toiling away at the problem, I put together a CVS file that can be used to import the waypoints into Foreflight. If you’d like to save yourself some work, feel free to download the file but be sure to give it a sanity check before launching with this data. Foreflight has instructions on importing waypoints here. I haven’t found a way to make the waypoints show up on the Foreflight moving map, but if you create a route using the custom waypoints you get a nice set of blue lines delineating all the useful boundaries. Incidentally, there seem to be a handful of different formats for encoding lat/lon coordinates and I found this page to be very helpful in converting between them.

Displaying Grand canyon SFRA boundaries in Foreflight

After figuring out how to stay out of trouble, the next step in the flight planning was figuring out how to have some fun. After some research and a few phone calls I decided to land at Marble Canyon (L41). They’ve got a restaurant and a bridge within walking distance of the airstrip. The runway is in good condition and the approach is slightly less intimidating than it is getting into Bar-10.

On the day of the flight, I called for a weather briefing and was advised of a widespread convective activity outlook for everything East of Las Vegas and South of Salt Lake City. Since we were all excited about the trip and we had to be back at work the next day, we figured we could make a quick run into the Grand Canyon and make it out before the afternoon storms really began to build, as they usually do with the summer heat over the desert.

Weather radar after landing at Marble Canyon

We made it to the Grand Canyon and landed without any problems. We were mindful of the minimum sector altitudes, the altimeter changeover points, and the traffic advisory frequencies to monitor. We didn’t see a single other airplane despite hearing a good deal of activity on the advisory frequency. We also asked LA Center to keep an eye on us with VFR flight following, which they were happy to do.

After lunch and a stroll across the bridge, however, the storm cells began to build rather quickly. On the ground we had access to the Internet and thus weather radar in Foreflight. In the air we used the XM datalink to stay away from the isolated cells, but the special-use airspace really limited our options for weather deviations. I would not repeat the experience and I would strongly recommend anyone venturing into the Grand Canyon to only do so on the finest of VFR days. Strong winds blowing across the rugged terrain can be just as dangerous as storm clouds in a small airplane close to the ground.

It goes without saying that it’s critical to be aware of your density altitude when landing and departing the Grand Canyon airports. Keep an eye on your vertical speed indicator as there can be areas of strong lift and sink. While it’s exciting to find yourself in a 1200fpm climb, the corresponding sink rate is often only a few seconds away. Some of the runways are one-way because of uphill slope or terrain clearance. I found Brian’s Blog to be a good reference for VFR operations in the Grand Canyon.

Flight path for our trip to Marble Canyon from KVGT

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Letting the rust collect…

Well, it’s been a long time since my last post. Over a year, in fact! I have been flying, but I haven’t made the time to write about it.

Since earning my glider rating I’ve made a few flights up at Tahoe in a Grob 103, which was an incredible thrill – the Grob feels like a Ferrari compared to the Ford-Pinto-esque Schweizer 2-32 I used in my glider training. But outside of that, I’ve only been up in a C-172 for the occasional Bay Tour.

While I think it’s absolutely true that learning to fly gliders really helps to hone your skills in a powered airplane, I’ve struggled to return to flying powered airplanes as if they actually had an engine. My first few landings, for example, had a terrifyingly steep glide slope with a perfectly-executed forward slip right before the threshold. I learned this in a glider, where sudden downdrafts encourage glider pilots to carry extra altitude for as long as possible. Needless to say, the CFI in the right seat quickly reminded me that there’s a perfectly good engine in the airplane we were flying.

Salt flat south of the San Carlos, CA municipal airport.

I’ve also been aggressive on the rudder pedals, which many C-172 pilots sometimes forget even exist! The induced drag on the long, slender wings of a glider forces pilots to use a lot of rudder input for coordinated turns; in a Cessna 172, with a shallow-enough bank angle, there can be turns where no rudder input is even required!

My resolution for the new year is to knock off some rust; a few cross-country flights to a new airport, an Instrument Proficiency Check, and maybe even some good old-fashioned reading of the AIM.

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Added a glider rating!

Today I passed my oral and practical exam to add a glider rating to my Private Pilot license. I’d like to thank all the fine people at Turf Soaring near Phoenix, Arizona. Especially Dan Webber and Carl Baxter, my friendly CFIs.

Soaring at 9,000 AGL in an SGS-32

Learning to fly gliders has been a very rewarding experience. I decided to pursue the rating because I’ve heard from many pilots that it would refine my stick and rudder skills – I found this to be absolutely true and I’d recommend every pilot take at least a few flights in a glider, especially after doing Instrument training if you’ve used the autopilot a lot. I find that I’m much more confident with my landings these days thanks to the planning and constant glidepath assessment that I perform in a glider. Having an engine and the option for a go-around feels like a luxury these days!

But beyond the skills added to my repertoire I also learned about a whole new sport and the thrill of finding and soaring in thermals. During my glider training I had a flight that lasted 1.5 hours, during which my CFI helped me find thermals and ride them up to almost 10,000 MSL, just under the cloud base. I can’t describe the joy of that experience but I do recommend that anyone fond of flying or sailing give it a try!

This winter I plan to learn mountain-wave soaring up at Lake Tahoe – I find it absolutely fascinating that a glider can make it past FL 350 without an engine, where a Cessna 172 can barely make it to 10,000 feet!

So Carl, Dan, and everyone else at Turf: thank you for a wonderful introduction to an incredible sport.

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Flying Adventure in the Grand Canyon

I recently took three classmates over the Grand Canyon and landed at 1Z1 on the North Rim. Because of our weight I could only take half a tank worth of fuel in each wing, so we stopped for fuel in Prescott on the way up as well as the way back home.

There was a misunderstanding on the meaning of “filler tab” and we ended up with full tanks, putting our airplane about 80 lbs over maximum take-off weight. It turns out some people call it a collar, others call it a filler neck. And the Cessna POH calls it a tab. Fortunately the FBO manager was very nice about unloading the extra fuel and not charging us for it.

Lifting off at maximum take-off weight at a density altitude of over 6,000 feet was painfully slow, as was the 100 foot-per-minute climb over rising terrain. Eventually we lumbered back on-course and turned North toward the Grand Canyon.

The views into the Canyon were spectacular and we even saw some rafts drifting down the Colorado River. Three miles from the runway we began a brisk descent, crossed mid-field and entered the downwind leg of the traffic pattern. The final approach was windy and bumpy, with strong updrafts followed by downdrafts of equal magnitude. My recent glider landings actually made me feel very comfortable with this approach, and we touched down gently at the beginning of the runway. With an upward slope and a strong headwind, stopping distance was magnificently short. I taxied to the least obtrusive spot I could find, shut down the engine and chocked the wheels with some rocks. My passengers and I hitched an ATV ride into the ranch, had some lunch and went for a hike. We then returned to the airplane and took off for an uneventful ride home.

I had read that the strip was “sealed gravel”, sloped upward, was surrounded on three sides by canyon walls, and that airplanes landing in the past had been damaged by bushes near the runway. These details really didn’t make me feel comfortable about landing there, yet of the three options for landing at the Grand Canyon, Bar-10 Ranch seemed like the most interesting – we wanted to go for a hike and didn’t want to deal with the crowds on the South Rim at KGCN.

Queue some Internet magic: for years I’ve been reading AOPA’s Flight Training magazine and I’ve always enjoyed Greg Brown’s Flying Carpet column. I contacted him via his blog since he wrote an article about flying into Bar 10; he called me up with some really great advice and he even put me in touch with some friends who had recently flown into Bar 10. Combined with some careful flight planning, the conversation with Greg really made me feel confident about the trip.

As pilots, we usually work hard to reduce risk and uncertainty every time we go flying. It’s much easier to work up the courage to make that cross-wind landing on a 2000′ island runway if you’ve had some helpful insight from a pilot with local knowledge. CFIs are always a good start, but with the reach of today’s social media tools why not expand your network beyond the local flying club? There was a good discussion on this very topic at last month’s AOPA summit; you can watch the replay here.

And for anyone curious about making that flight into the Grand Canyon, I recommend it wholeheartedly. Just be sure you’re comfortable with high-altitude operations, pay attention to density altitude and airplane loading, and you should probably stick to daytime VFR. I’ve also posted some pictures on my Flickr site.

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