Pilotage: Three days to Vegas

February 1, 2009

Mark R. Twombly lives and flies in Southwest Florida, but occasionally has to venture out into the real world.

The people I fly for had never seen much of the country from the unmatched perspective of a light airplane cabin, so they decided we should take the Piper Aztec to Las Vegas. Other than the business to be done in Vegas (really), quality sightseeing was at the top of the list of objectives for the trip. We weren’t in a hurry. The plan was to fly 110 miles southeast to Miami to pick up a business partner, then head north-northwest up the Florida peninsula to Tallahassee before turning to a more westerly heading. First stop was Panama City for self-service fuel ($2 more a gallon than the self-serve at home base), then a short leg to New Orleans Lakefront Airport, and a great seafood lunch at nearby Deanie’s Restaurant.

The first overnight was in Austin, selected because none of us had ever been there before. Despite our best intentions to do Austin in a night, we ate in the hotel and went straight to bed.

The next morning the rising sun illuminated a flawless blue sky. We were held for takeoff while a Southwest 737 did a flyby so the tower could check out the nose gear. The controller said it appeared that it was not fully extended. The Southwest crew went off to troubleshoot, and we were cleared to go. Listening on the number-2 comm, we heard the 737 return for a second pass to confirm that all looked fine. It did, according to the controller. They were vectored around for an uneventful landing, and we headed off to the northwest in a fine mood.

I stayed low so we could enjoy a detailed view of the Edwards Plateau and Texas hill country. We passed just east of the hilltop LBJ Ranch and its backyard airstrip, where Lockheed JetStars used to deliver President Johnson for his frequent working visits. Flying across the breadth of West Texas is a transforming experience. The land changes from rolling, rocky, mesquite- and scrub-covered hillscapes to the flat, featureless, gradually rising plains of the Llano Estacado stretching into southeastern New Mexico. Just southeast of Midland and Big Spring the empty horizon sprouted oil wells—thousands of them, for as far as the eye could see.

As we flew on we noticed strange new shapes in the distance that grew into huge windmill farms, many of which share land with pumps and wells bringing up crude from underground reservoirs. Texas leads the country in the production of wind energy, and thinly populated West Texas is the epicenter of the state’s investment in wind turbines. The contrast—old-school oil wells sharing the land with new-technology windmill farms—was dramatic. Flying over a sea of slowly spinning windmill blades that lovely Saturday morning, we felt as if we were glimpsing the future.

Lunch and fuel were taken in Roswell, New Mexico, famous for an alleged 1947 crash and recovery of an alien spaceship and alien bodies. But the most interesting thing about the place is the hundreds of idled jetliners parked all over Roswell International Air Center awaiting better times and, hopefully, future service. Meanwhile they sit, preserved in the dry, high-desert air.

Rolling out after landing, I noticed a piece of heavy equipment tearing the carcass of an old jet to shreds. I read later that Elvis Presley’s JetStar, minus engines, is among the menagerie at Roswell. It is soon to be auctioned off at a celebrity event, thus sparing it a final tow to the Grim Reaper aluminum recycler.

Departing Roswell, we made our way around the northern end of the 3,200-square-mile White Sands Missile Range, the largest military installation in the U.S. We passed by Gallup, New Mexico, and Window Rock, Arizona. Our objective was the Grand Canyon, but first we had to check out the spectacular red buttes dotting Monument Valley just over the Utah border—our eighth state of the trip thus far. I had spent a small portion of our many hours aloft programming the GPS navigator with lat-long coordinates that define corridors separating the four Flight-Free Zones overlying the Grand Canyon. Minimum altitude in the Flight-Free Zones is 14,500 feet msl, but the corridors can be flown at 10,500 feet msl or 12,500 feet msl southbound, and 1,000 feet higher when northbound.

There was just enough daylight remaining to fly the two easternmost corridors, Zuni Point and Dragon, before landing at Grand Canyon Airport for the night. We launched early the next morning and were transitioning from the Fossil Canyon Corridor to the Tuckup Corridor when snow showers moved over the canyon from the southwest. After two-plus days of perfect flying weather across much of the southern and southwestern United States, winter had finally tracked us down.

I turned back northeast to Page, where I refueled and planned an IFR flight around the south side of the canyon to Las Vegas. By the time we were ready to go, however, the radar showed that the snow showers had moved on. We were able to return to the Grand Canyon and complete our tour, and even take in Hoover Dam before checking in with Las Vegas Approach for a VFR arrival into North Las Vegas Airport.

A couple of years ago I flew an airplane to Vegas and ended up spending 13 days there, which was about 10 days too long. This time I was in town just two days, but as I was about to find out on the return trip, even that was one day too many. (Next month: “Cross-Country Cold Front.”)

E-mail the author at marktwombly@earthlink.net.