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!

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