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.
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.
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.