Nothing Like it in the World

It was one of the best things you could ever do with a plane. Flying over the Grand Canyon was something I’d thought about for years.  Even better than flying for two hours over spectacular scenery, is sharing the experience with the family aboard, which was rare indeed.

Grand Canyon B

After the flight from Chicago, we drove to the Sedona,  Arizona airport (KSEZ) the day before takeoff, checking in at the fixed base operation (FBO) that was to rent the plane.  It was located at 5,000 feet  on top of a Mesa overlooking the city. Tall peaks nearby promised to play havoc with gusts and crosswinds. Once inside, “Mister Curmudgeon” (MC) looked up at me from behind his desk.
Me: “Good morning! Can I confirm that I’m on the schedule first thing tomorrow.”

MC: (Looking at the schedule) ”Might be windy. Are you all good flyers? It can get real bumpy and we’ve had people get sick”

Me: “We’ll be fine.  What can we expect for cross winds up here?.”

MC: “They can be really bad. Look at the runway. You’ll see skid marks everywhere. We probably have a mishap every month, and that’s with pilots who have experience here.”

Me: (Feeling less confident but trying to sound unconcerned) What kind of mishaps?”

MC:” Sometimes planes blow a tire when they bounce off the runway. Or do a ground loop. We had one nose over. We’re up pretty high so you don’t want to go off the end.

Me: “Uh-huh. That’s why you advertise this as the USS. Sedona? Looks like an aircraft carrier at altitude?”

MC: “Yup. Have experience with high altitude flying? The planes and engines operate differently.”

Me: “Thanks , yes- look forward to seeing you tomorrow… ”
That was inspiring…

The following day was perfect. Winds  calm. A cool, bright blue-sky morning.  We started with preflight of the stout but dependable Cessna 206 Stationair outfitted with the Lycoming IO-540. Constant speed prop , 300 horsepower, six seats and a high wing. Perfect for the mission, which would include hundreds of photos.

At the hold short line I noticed  planes were departing both directions and landing opposite of our take off. This was due to light winds, to be sure, but the runway also sloped downward. It made sense to land uphill and takeoff down the slope, wind permitting. After a brief run-up, I executed a short field takeoff.  The runway was 5,120 feet but that was standard procedure here, especially when the density altitude began to creep up as summer temperatures kicked in.

Soon we were circling over the red rock peaks of Sedona. It was stunning. With a good sized engine, we were lucky to eek out a 400 foot rate of climb as I leveled off at 7,500.  At higher altitudes, manifold pressure can exceed the RPM so I set it to 25mp and 1700 RPM’s as recommended. The crucial part of altitude flying is to lean the mixture so as to not foul the engine and increase power. Normally it’s a slight “rich of peak” cylinder head temperature in the flat lands of Illinois. Here I was fixated on the key digital instrument that measured exhaust gas temperatures with a target of 1,340 degrees (lean of peak). It would require constant adjustment as we went higher.

After passing Flagstaff to the west I continued climbing to cross the mountains. The San Francisco Peaks soar to 12,633 feet and serve as one of the most distinct features of the Colorado Plateau. Named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi by the Spanish Friars in the 1620’s, The Peaks include six summits that circle the caldera of the now quiet volcano. 9,500 feet would suffice thorough the pass. As I approached, the smooth air became washboard alley. Once through, it was back to normal as we crossed over a series of “cinder cones”. They look like little volcanoes. The hardened magma flow had spilled everywhere, evidence of a violent past.

Grand Canyon A

Huge creases appeared in the flat plains ahead.  It was the Little Colorado River. First thought:  X-wing into the Death Star trench.  It lasted only a few seconds. Best to keep the license and not deviate the required altitude of 10,500. This was special use air space. We followed the meandering smaller canyon until it opened wide. There before us was The Magnificent Grand Canyon. Part of it anyway. It’s over 260 miles long and as wide as 26 miles. The word “Awesome” was invented for this. It’s beyond huge. I had a big goofy smile on my face as the plane floated from Mesa to Butte to Plateau with the Colorado River more than a mile below.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.

Later that week, I went rock climbing one day, and rappelled into a slot canyon the next with sons #2 & #3. Hard work for an old guy. Shopping with the wife was looking like a good option. Almost.  Some of the pictures are here. (Best viewed clicking on slideshow)

Flying in the mid west will never be the same.


9 responses to “Nothing Like it in the World

  1. Wow – awesome, in the true sense of the word.

    I’ve never taken off at such a high altitude, being from a wide, flat brown land. Was the mixture fully rich for takeoff or did you need to lean it out any?

  2. I appreciate the comment and agree. I still think through each sequence of the flight as I scroll though the photos.
    To answer the question, the mixture was not full rich. Close though. Full rich would rob the plane of power at higher elevation. Instead of “lean of peak” EGT’s it was “rich of peak” by 75 degrees during run up. Early in the morning the density altitude wasn’t much higher than 5k and we were close to standard temperature so not as much a factor as it would be later in the summer.

    I would imagine there are some high altitude areas in Austalia, correct?

  3. virgil xenophon

    The 1st time I saw the Grand Canyon was in 1960 as a HS sophomore . Was totally speechless (friends who know me said for THAT to happen it must be spectacular indeed!

    To give some comparison of size, the entire country of Austria–all it’s mountains, lakes, rivers, cities and people can fit within the boundaries of the Canyon. (not as a congruently physically fit, of course, as the Canyon system as measured is a long, comparatively narrow, winding thing, but in terms of total sq. miles. I first heard an Austrian Minister of Forrestry state this in an interview in ’76 when he was commenting on the fact that most Europeans simply cannot comprehend the size and distances we consider “normal” here in the US)

    • VX… Speechless? That’s a wonder in itself.
      I had been there in the 60’s as well. It’s still really big.
      With more time I would have enjoyed white water rafting but that would have chewed up the better part of a week.
      Still- the flying was terrific.
      We did note that after two hours, the whole family had the beginnings of a very slight headache. Wondered if a touch of hypoxia at 10,500?

  4. I am going to have to fly over it one day – low enough to see stuff and in seat 0A preferably.

    I always think of Australia as pretty low, being so old and eroded. The transition altitude is only 10,000 feet and the highest mountain only 7310 feet. The density altitude can get pretty high in summer, though.

  5. Chris: You’ll need to share your amazing morphing skills with VX. He’s in the market for a new look. A little less “sprocket” in the face.

    Hopefully, you’ll make it to the states for a trip to AZ at some point. Another destination on my “bucket list” would be a dive in the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve enjoyed caves / wrecks/ reefs but that would be my *ultimate* dive destination!

  6. virgil xenophon

    Wilco/ I’m just a refugee from the band “Toad the Wet Sprocket.” 🙂

    • Wow I forgot that band existed until now. It’s like rummaging around in an attic and out comes something that you left in a trunk years ago.
      How do you remember all that stuff!

  7. Pingback: Into Thin Air « Blue Side Up

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