Postcards: Touring Tips
Helpful hints on flying over one of nature's greatest creations
Even those who live within eyeshot of the Grand Canyon are taken aback by its mind-boggling size and immeasurable beauty. For pilots, the canyon takes on additional splendor; truly, there are few perches as good as a light airplane from which to view the scenery. So it's only natural that pilots, both locals and out-of-towners, would want to include a pass or two over the Colorado River's millennium of handiwork while in the area.
Such a special landscape calls for special flight precautions and rules. Heavily traveled by air tours and arduously protected by environmentalists, the canyon harbors a complex set of flight restrictions. Under order of Special Federal Aviation Regulations 50-2 (recently extended to be effective into 1995), much of the canyon is off-limits to overflight below 14,500 feet msl, except in four corridors aligned roughly north/south. You can purchase a special Grand Canyon VFR chart that depicts the flight-free zones and the locations of the corridors; you should consider the chart essential equipment. An accompanying pamphlet provides a primer on canyon flight.
Knowing that studying a chart is no substitute for experience, we spoke with Lake Mead Air's Earl Leseberg and asked him for his recommendations for a canyon first-timer. "Get a thorough briefing on the canyon from someone who's flown there a lot," he says. "Better yet, take that person along." We recommend that you stop in at one of the FBOs at Boulder City Airport or Grand Canyon National Park Airport and ask around; we've found the tour operators, who know the canyon intimately, are more than willing to help.
Leseberg points out that trying to navigate the airspace puzzle, watch for other airplanes, and enjoy the view all at once is more than one person may be able to handle. "At least, get the briefing and take friends along to help look for other airplanes," says Leseberg. Military aircraft pose a particular hazard; Leseberg says his air tours have more problems with high- speed jets than with wayward civilian flights.
During the summer months, with tourism at its peak, there are literally hundreds of aerial tour aircraft—both airplane and helicopters—plying the canyon's airspace, so it pays to keep a close look out for traffic. The Grand Canyon chart also depicts the tour routes and altitudes and shows the frequencies to monitor. Tour aircraft make regular position reports that can help you spot them more easily.
It would only be fair to expect a spectacular landmark like the canyon to have spectacular weather—and it does. The trick in flying the canyon, Leseberg says, is to "always leave the back door open. Don't fly in bad weather conditions. Go on a nice day." He relates how he's lost several friends to scud running, "We lose way too many that way," he says. Part of the problem here is that, while the weather is usually good VFR, when it's bad, it is bad. And it can change with amazing rapidity. Unless the conditions are CAVU, keep a wide-open eye on the weather patterns and be ready to execute a plan of escape. "Usually, if weather comes in quickly, it will pass just as quickly. Get on the ground, and let it pass," Leseberg says.
Even if there's not a cloud in the sky, your flight could be ruined by turbulence. "Get your flying done before noon," Leseberg says. We might even amplify his statement by saying that the best time to enjoy the canyon is at dawn. The tours haven't yet begun, the air is smooth, and density altitude is not as much a concern. What's more, a recent photo mission conducted at the canyon in the late afternoon revealed to a couple of Pilot staffers how even with mild surface winds, the air over the canyon can be rougher than a pub-house brawl. Get up early; it's worth the trouble.
Other tips from Leseberg include carrying "plenty of water and wearing comfortable shoes" because if you go down, it could be awhile before help arrives. This warning might also make you want to fly at an altitude that will allow you to glide to the rim, where civilization and rescue equipment is much closer at hand.
Also, Leseberg warns to be aware of the effects of density altitude on airplane performance; "We've had problems here with four people in a 172 during the summer," he says. Don't underestimate the strength of the winds aloft, and fly when it's cool, and you'll be much happier.
You might want to set down and stay a spell during your canyon tour; for this, there are several options. Boulder City and Grand Canyon both have large airports with all the amenities, and there are several smaller, dirt fields on the western side of the canyon. Locals caution that unpredictable winds and springtime rains can make these dirt strips, which are none too smooth and long to begin with, quite a challenge. In other words, don't expect to get your Mooney into Bar Ten, Pearce Ferry, or Tuweep.
Most of these suggestions should be common sense, but pilots and passengers have been lost to the canyon due both to pilots' unfamiliarity with desert flying and the local terrain. So get that briefing, fly the canyon, and enjoy yourself taking in one of nature's greatest spectacles.