If the idea of seeing some of the nation’s most spectacular natural landmarks in a general aviation aircraft is irresistible to many pilots, sharing the experience with a group of fellow aviators should only add to the appeal.
Group tour operator Northern Adventures is making such an opportunity possible this year, offering three 10-day "Classic National Parks and Historic Western Lodges Odyssey" tours in June and July. Destinations include Mount Rushmore in South Dakota; Yellowstone National Park and the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming; and Glacier National Park in Montana. Overnight accommodations are arranged in park lodges and historic hotels.
Up to 10 aircraft per tour will make up what tour leader Jerry McCann describes as "a caravan" of airborne travelers who will rendezvous is Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to get acquainted at a "welcome aboard dinner," and prepare to set out on the aerial group’s vacation.
McCann, an Air Force veteran who said he owes his pilot wings to Uncle Sam, splits his time as a resident of Maine and Montana. For 15 years he and his wife ran group air tours of interior Alaska, out of Fairbanks. After returning to the Lower 48, McCann stayed active in aviation tourism, flying vacationers from the New York City and Boston areas to their destinations at New England resorts.
The Alaska group flights provided a way for many pilots to have an experience they might never have attempted on their own, he said.
"That was the whole purpose of it," he said in a telephone interview. "Everybody wanted to go to Alaska, but of course it was somewhat foreboding."
Now, the combination of companionship and the expertise of a professional guide is part of the appeal of the $2,995-per-person "America the Beautiful" tours McCann has fashioned for summer 2015, with the tours’ start dates set for June 28, July 10, and July 21.
The assembled aircraft will proceed in what McCann describes as a "loose formation"—meaning that the pilots will have each other’s aircraft in sight—to each destination. Routes are designed with simplicity in mind for the usual wide variety of aircraft, which have ranged on past group tours from Cessna 172s to a Piper Cheyenne twin turboprop, he said. Simplicity also means going around, not over, peaks as high as 14,000 feet msl in the Rocky Mountains.
The concept also extends to selecting airports with high comfort factors. For example, when flying to Yellowstone National Park, the groups land at Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, Wyoming, where the airport overlooks "a gorgeous broad valley," rather than Jackson, where pilots would face "high terrain, wicked winds, and awful weather," McCann explained.
Any tour of remote places most worth seeing in the American West can involve facing such mountain-flying scenarios as high density altitude conditions, and using "one-way strips." Thorough preflight briefings will eliminate surprises, McCann said. He added that although he is not along to instruct, he can offer pilots tidbits of advice, and he sometimes helps out by transferring baggage from lower-powered aircraft to the Piper Saratoga he flies, for trips in high-and-hot conditions.
"It all boils down to everybody has a good time," he said.
For aviators who want to include flying with the annual vacation, and who value having an experienced guide to help maximize enjoyment in the air and on the ground, McCann is confident that group flights provide an ideal solution.
"They can enjoy the camaraderie of their fellow pilots, and go to places that are high on everybody’s bucket list," he said.