Flying to the Grand Canyon

Last weekend I flew the farthest that I’d yet gone as a pilot – to the Grand Canyon! It was a short overnight trip, with enough time to fly there, go for a beautiful hike, spend the night, and then fly back the next day.

I took the outbound leg, and my friend Manuel flew us back. The Grand Canyon airport (KGCN) is about three hours of flying from El Monte. After factoring in enough fuel for an alternate destination plus an extra 45 minutes of flying time (my standard margins), it just fit in the plane’s 38 gallons of usable fuel. (Originally I’d planned Valle as my alternate, only 18 miles from GCN – but in my pre-flight research I learned that it no longer sells fuel! The next closest option is Kingman, 97 miles from GCN!)

The usual June gloom meant an early morning start wasn’t possible, so we departed around 10 a.m. We climbed above the haze layer and kept going on up to 9500’. It was a bit clearer (but not entirely) once we crossed the mountains into the desert. We were on our way!

Three hours can be a long time in a plane. I entertained myself by tracking VORs in addition to the GPS. Then things got more challenging as some light turbulence set in. In addition to bumping around, we got a roller coaster feeling from a series of updrafts and downdrafts that would send us suddenly climbing or descending at 500 fpm. This required active attention to manage (pitch and throttle), especially given the occasional nearby traffic which made it very important to stick to our planned altitude. It is a funny feeling to be fighting that kind up updraft – nose pointed down yet fighting to avoid gaining altitude! It felt kind of like surfing! Also, I got to make a PIREP for light turbulence :)


Approaching the Canyon!

As we approached GCN, the winds were reported to be from 260 at 11 gusting to 18 knots. We were landing on runway 21, so that’s a healthy crosswind (with gusts). GCN is also high enough (6600′) that you need to be mindful of your mixture and prepared for faster groundspeed (as I’d trained two days earlier with a trip to Big Bear).

I entered right traffic and the tower gave me an altitude restriction – a first for me – in which I was not allowed to descend more than 300’ below pattern altitude until established on final. As I approached, I spotted a helicopter maneuvering below and figured out why I needed to stay high! I extended my downwind a bit to keep a healthy distance from the helicopter (their direction and speed are extremely hard to anticipate), then turned final as the helicopter went to its helipad. I landed without incident, marveling at the wide runway! I didn’t notice much of a crosswind so I think the winds had died down a bit.

Other things I learned on this long(er) flight:

  • Managing and transitioning between four different VFR charts with a kneeboard is a challenge!
  • Sometimes LA Center is just too busy and you get to “see and avoid” without flight following for a while :)
  • The PGS VOR seemed to be dead. Thank goodness for GPS!
  • It is possible for tach time to exceed Hobbs time!
  • It is hard to find good visual checkpoints when flying over the desert.
  • Sometime I want to try doing a flight via dead reckoning and see whether I can actually get to my destination using my planned headings and time durations for each leg. There’s so much uncertainty in predicted winds aloft and other sources of error that I’m not sure it’s possible to get to actually reach destination that’s three hours away – but pilots of yore did!

We tied down the plane and ordered fuel. We had consumed 24 gallons in 2 hrs 45 mins of flight – pretty good for this plane (my leaning was effective)! We had also benefited from a ~30-knot tailwind. We hit all of my predicted checkpoints almost precisely! I enjoy planning out the flight log and then tracking progress as we go.

We took a shuttle to the Grand Canyon itself and got in a lovely 3.5-hour late afternoon hike. The Grand Canyon is breathtaking from the top and from every switchback down the trail! We hiked down about 2.5 miles, then back up to watch the sunset from the rim.

The METAR and TAF the next morning included “FU” (smoke) – the first time I’ve seen it in reality! They were doing controlled burns north of the airport. The smoke was gone by the time we departed.

On the way back, I got to be a passenger and take lots of pictures. :) As we departed the airport, the Grand Canyon Railway train slid by right under us! What a treat!

High-altitude takeoffs and landings

Yesterday I had a lesson on high-altitude flying. We went up to Big Bear airport (L35) in the mountains above Los Angeles. Big Bear is at 6700′, and that plus some intervening ridges meant we chose a cruise altitude of 9500′. It takes a long time to climb from 300′ to 9500′ on a warm day! Big Bear is 60 nm from El Monte, and it took us over halfway to get up to 9500′.

The goal of this lesson was to learn not only about flying at high altitudes, but how to take off and land at high altitudes. The challenges arise from the fact that the engine’s performance is greatly reduced and the thinner air means the wings develop less lift. Here’s a terrifying tale of how not to do it. Big Bear is also nestled in the mountains, so there are some additional factors to consider in terms of likely updrafts and downdrafts and being mindful to always have one or more exit strategies in mind. Don’t get boxed into a canyon!

The winds were a little odd when we arrived – crosswind and gusty, and mildly favoring runway 8, which points into a forested area, as opposed to runway 26, which points into a lake (which therefore poses fewer obstacles). See image at right for what it looks like approaching runway 8 (image credit Mead & Hunt).

We tested it out by starting with a low approach over the runway – 300′ up, 70 kts, 10 degrees of flaps. We did NOT go full rich as I would normally do. That was my first deliberate low approach, and I’d been curious about how to do it. This meant I got to see how the winds actually felt near landing, without fully committing; midway down the runway, we went full power and did a go-around. Indeed, I could feel the crosswind and some airspeed oscillations from the gusts. And the climb out was weak, even at full throttle. And there were definitely up- and down-drafts and bobbling turbulence in various places. Still, nothing we couldn’t handle.

We came back around for an actual landing, which was beautifully smooth. I had pre-calculated the likely landing distance given the temperature and altitude, which was about 700′ (versus 570′ at EMT – not much difference) and indeed, it felt like a pretty normal landing.

We taxied back for takeoff and there I got to learn how to lean the mixture to get max performance – stand on the brakes, full throttle (only getting 2200 rpm when full rich!), then lean the mixture out (increased to 2400 rpm) but not too lean (we aimed for an EGT of 1300 F). Then – takeoff! I’d also calculated the takeoff distance (1440′ compared to 825′ at EMT) and this time I did notice that it took longer than I’d expect to reach rotation speed. But Big Bear has a 5800′ runway, and that’s tons more than a Cessna 172 needs to take off, even in those conditions (density altitude was about 8500′).

We also practiced an aborted takeoff – a surprise event that my instructor called just as I was about to lift off. Pull throttle to idle, keep the nose up, maintain directional control. Again, plenty of runway for us to slow and stop. This is a great option if the plane just isn’t developing enough speed or anything feels or sounds wrong.

In general, flying at Big Bear was challenging but doable. I felt that it was within my ability to keep the plane under control and doing what I wanted it to – but it took a lot more attention than usual, between the reduced performance, turbulence that induced sudden banks, altitude changes, and airspeed changes, and the gusty (and strongly variable) crosswind that kept playing with me as I’d approach to land. My instructor commented that in those conditions, it’s more about keeping the plane within a box of desired performance, since you can’t micromanage it to stay nailed on airspeed, altitude, descent rate, etc. with the constantly changing conditions.

Now I’m ready to fly to the Grand Canyon! (Almost the same altitude as Big Bear!)

Night flying refresher… to Burbank!

Flying at night can be magical. The air is often smooth, winds die down, and there are fewer other planes out there. In L.A., a glittering carpet of colored lights spreads out beneath you. The city is transformed.

But flying at night is also challenging. It’s a skill that should be practiced and maintained. Recently I realized that it had been almost two years (!) since I flew at night, and it was high time for me to dust off some rust. So I set up a lesson with my instructor in which we decided to fly to Burbank and practice some landings there. The day of the lesson, the plane I’d booked was taken off the line for some maintenance, so I switched to a different plane that I hadn’t flown in over a year. Oh well – it’s still a Cessna 172, so who cares, right? (Except that its avionics are entirely different…)

Here is Burbank (Bob Hope) at night (awesome time-lapse video):

Credit: trekandshoot

More accurately, this is Burbank’s runway 8, the one often in use by commercial jets. When we arrived, we were assigned to the crossing runway 15, which you can barely see poking out to the right. It is even harder to find runway 15 when you’re in the air and bouncing around in a surprising amount of turbulence.

My goal was to polish up my skills in night navigation and operations. But I kept getting extra curve balls thrown at me, due to how busy Burbank is (even at night). On our very first landing, the controller asked me to “keep it in close” so we did a short approach. Then we got a “line up and wait”, took off with a crosswind, and switched to runway 8 in hopes of getting less turbulence – whereupon we got to hear those magical words:

“Cessna 326, you are #2 following a 737 on a 4.5 mile final, caution wake turbulence.”

Alaska flight 524 was coming in ahead of us. Meanwhile we were getting jostled around by the consistently turbulent air on downwind (NOT the wake turbulence) which not only makes the plane harder to manage but also makes it hard to keep your hands on the controls! Thank goodness I have a strong stomach.

We did several stop and go landings, in which you come to a complete halt on the runway and then take off again. This is the most efficient way to get several full-stop landings in, but it comes with a curious feeling of vulnerability, like if you stopped your car in the middle of an intersection and then started it up again.

I think it was on my third takeoff that I suddenly added up all of the complexities of this situation:

  • First night flying in almost two years
  • In a plane I hadn’t flown in over a year
  • Through significant turbulence
  • To an unfamiliar airport I’d never visited
  • Which is a class C airport with frequent jet traffic

Excellent learning experience when accompanied by a trusted instructor. Not something to do on your own! Next time I go out at night, I think I’ll visit Brackett or another local airport with a bit of a slower pace. :)

Flying to Twentynine Palms

On April 1, I took my friend Vali for her first flight in a Cessna 172. Vali is a geologist who does a lot of field work in the Joshua Tree area, so we decided to fly to the Twentynine Palms airport (KTNP) which would give us some great aerial views of places she already knows well from the ground.

This was a good chance for me to do some more flying outside of the L.A. Basin. I’ve been working on trying to visit all of the L.A. airports and have now visited 17 of 26 (!). But it’s good to get some longer flights in and more experience with new locations.


Chino Hills with spring green and yellow flower fields

Starting from El Monte, we flew southeast to the Paradise VOR (PDZ), then east through the Banning pass at 7500′. That’s high enough to have some options for landing, but still below the mountain peaks to the north and south, yielding some dramatic views.


Mt. San Jacinto, south of the Banning Pass

We also got a good view of the San Andreas Fault, just east of Palm Springs.


San Andreas Fault

We continued on to the Palm Springs VOR (PSP), then turned northeast to head to Twentynine Palms.

At TNP, we found a cute little pilot’s lounge stocked with water, sodas, and snacks (honor system to pay for fridge items). It also has a microwave and a bathroom. Great place to have our picnic lunch!


TNP pilot’s lounge

TNP has the largest and most visible wind tetrahedron I’ve ever seen. It looks like a huge yellow tent and easily spins around to show the current wind direction. Next to it, the windsock looks small and ineffective.


Windsock and wind tetrahedron at TNP

TNP has runway options for north-south or east-west winds. The larger and more improved runway runs east-west, but the winds at the time of our visit were coming from the north, so we took the smaller one. That meant flying downwind south straight at the rising terrain, then turning for a left base entry to runway 35. It’s 3800′ long, which is plenty, but only 50′ wide, compared to 5500′ x 75′ for the more commonly used runway 8/26.

We returned following highway 62 through the Morongo Valley and back west through the Banning Pass at 8500′. I tried to descend a few times as we got closer to the PDZ VOR, but SoCal kept me high to deconflict with traffic. You can see that we didn’t actually reach the VOR but instead did some navigation north around it – SoCal gave us vectors to avoid traffic during that period.

TNP track
Flight track (click to enlarge).

Both flights were great! We got to see some great terrain and to visit a new airport. It took us about 1.25 hours each way, with a headwind on the way east and a tailwind coming back. It wasn’t a crystal clear day, so there was some distant haze, but still good visibility. One annoyance was that there was light turbulence throughout, which makes the ride a bit less comfortable, but nothing problematic. We overheard someone else coming through the pass who was getting 1000 fpm up- and downdrafts, and we were glad not to have anything that wild!

Flying to Torrance through the LAX Bravo

On Friday, I flew down to the Torrance (Zamperini Field, KTOA) airport – another new one for me!

I requested flight following at 3000′. Manuel handled the radio and, after we departed KEMT and switched to SoCal, he asked for a transition through the LAX Bravo! And we got it! “Cleared into class Bravo!”

There was an AIRMET out for moderate turbulence below 12,000 feet, and we definitely got a taste of light bumps throughout the half-hour flight. The plane felt frisky, bouncing up and down and making sudden waggles to one side or the other. I noticed that it took a lot of my attention to maintain altitude and heading – and since we were transitioning the Bravo, we were on assigned headings and altitudes for most of the time. That left less time for looking outside the airplane. Nothing bad happened, but I definitely noticed the increased workload.

KTOA has two tower frequencies, listed as “north” and “south.” We used the “north” one as we were coming from the north. My pre-flight research also turned up warnings about birds and farm equipment (!).

I got a right base entry to runway 29R. Winds were reported as 290 at 13 kts. I turned final right on the glideslope, but then had some trouble maintaining the glide as I had to keep adjusting power. The wind started moving around a bit and I dealt with a small crosswind on short final, and then we landed.

We taxied to the transient area and switched places. Manuel started up and I took the comm. In the time it took us to switch, the wind kicked up stronger from the south and now had a noticeable crosswind for runway 29R. While holding short, we watched the same plane make a series of poorly controlled crosswind touch-and-goes. But no worries, we had a master pilot at the controls! Manuel took off like a pro and we made a right downwind departure.


Looking down just after departure from KTOA on 29R.

This time I hailed SoCal and asked for the Bravo transition (at 3500′). And got it again! Two Bravos in one day! Well, the same one.

On the way back, the ride was noticeably smoother (and mostly tailwind). SoCal kept us busy spotting traffic.

Overall, it was a fun hop down to KTOA, which has a nice big runway (plus a smaller companion one to the south). It was also good to practice requesting a Bravo transition, which saved us time and, to my surprise, was apparently no big deal. And of course, we had a fall-back route we would fly if they said no. Next time I will have to try it solo!

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