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.