From low to high—and points in between

December 1, 2011

Tom HainesGeneral aviation provides a visual perspective not possible by any other means. We all know that at a certain cerebral level. However, when we experience it in a tangible way, it’s almost like learning it anew. A recent example: Through the miracle of general aviation flight I was able to experience the lowest point in North America and the highest point in the Lower 48 states all within about an hour of each other—and that was only half the day!

Wrapping up our coverage of the National Business Aviation Association convention in Las Vegas, my wife, Brenda, and I cabbed it to North Las Vegas Airport shortly after dawn to meet brothers John and George Kounis next to their Cessna 185. The workhorse 185 is the same one that carries them to the far corners of the continent and beyond in search of stories and photos for Pilot Getaways, the bimonthly magazine they produce about great places to fly. Residents of Glendale, California, and longtime GA advocates, the pair know the Mountain West like you and I know our backyards.

Cockpit Pilot Getaways Editor in Chief John Kounis shows the author a proposed route through the desert.

Our ultimate destination for the day was Fresno; however we first went east from Las Vegas across Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam toward the Grand Canyon, landing at Grand Canyon West Airport for a walk on the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass platform cantilevered over the big ditch. Walk out on it and look down some 3,600 feet to the Colorado River. For pilots, many of whom I have found are afraid of heights, it can be a tummy-tickling experience.

Flying west from there, we passed Las Vegas again, headed for Furnace Creek Airport inside Death Valley National Park. As John turned final, he urged me to watch the altimeter as we descended to the runway. The pointer wound through zero and ended up pointing at the 8 as we touched down, some 210 feet below sea level—the lowest airport in North America. After a quick lunch at nearby Furnace Creek Ranch—a resort destination all its own—we headed west again, skimming the remarkable sand dunes that look as if they were imported from the Sahara Desert for a movie.

Desert Sahara-like sand dunes in Death Valley

Then we began the long climb from sea level to 14,500 feet, donning oxygen cannulas on the way. Soon John was expertly maneuvering among the Sierra Nevada peaks on this remarkably calm and clear day, with George in the back snapping photos right and left. As we spiraled upward, we soon found our target—Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous states. As we flew by the 14,500-foot peak, a hiker, who had probably spent the day reaching the summit, was standing on the edge enjoying the view. We waved. He didn’t.

We meandered through the glorious peaks a while longer, landing at Mariposa-Yosemite Airport for fuel before turning south to fly down California’s Central Valley to Harris Ranch Airport, a runway on the property of the Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant in Coalinga. Friends drove down from Fresno to meet us there for dinner and to close out our remarkable flying day.

As the brothers flew back to Los Angeles after dinner, we were left to reflect on reaching the highs and lows of the nation all within an hour of each other by general aviation. And as if the destinations themselves were not enough, the vistas in between and all around were breathtaking—an experience not possible in any other way.

Editor in Chief Tom Haines has visited all 50 states, 46 of them in GA airplanes. Email the author at [email protected]; follow tomhaines29 on Twitter.com. To learn more about Pilot Getaways magazine, visit pilotgetaways.com.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.