Day 16 – Grand Canyon
Yesterday we went to bed in our Chinese room in the little Western Village with a wee bit of trepidation what the next day might hold in store for us. It was going to be a day set aside specifically for a flight to and over the Grand Canyon. There were several challenges which all combined to make this flight a demanding adventure in our journey.
The Grand Canyon is one of the most visited natural wonders, both by foot as well as by air. A tragic mid air collision in 1986 prompted the FAA to establish a special airspace structure around the Grand Canyon which strictly regulates flights below 14.500 feet in and around it. One needs a specific chart, the Grand Canyon Special VFR Chart, to learn how access is permitted for general aviation aircraft to this area. The Grand Canyon is not only a high altitude flight environment but also an area of high air traffic density. Summing up, these are the issues to deal with on our Grand Canyon flight:
1)High altitude flying. We had to climb to at least 11.500 feet MSL. The density altitude can be quite a bit higher. There can be strong lift as well as sink if there is thermal activity in the area. Our gyros are normal “air suckers”, no turbos, and have minimal power reserve to overcome prolonged sink at this altitude.
2)Adherence to special flight rules. This required us to be able to navigate the numerous reporting points and stick to specific altitudes. But you also have to be able to develop a mental image of where other aircraft are in relation to your position as they are reporting their whereabouts.
3)High air traffic density. There usually is a large number of aircraft touring the Canyon, and they all converge on the same reporting points. Large and small, slow and fast, fixed wing and rotorcraft need to to be seen and avoided while keeping a listening ear on the traffic advisory frequency.
4)Rough and rugged terrain, which makes engine problems something you´d rather not spend a long time thinking about. There just is no place to land but put your gyro down in the Colorado river. You have to be able to trust your machine 100%.
So you can understand why our sleep was a bit troubled and short. At 6 o´clock we got a cab to the airport and immediately went to check out our gyros. We spent more than the normal time checking all hoses, connections, and fluid levels. We pull here, wiggle there until we are satisfied that there are no problems that we can detect. We both had lowish oil levels and decided to top off the oil at Valle, where there is a full service FBO as well as a gas station across the street. At 7 o´clock we taxied onto runway 19 for a straight out departure and short flight to Valle (40G).
The grass and trees looked to me like green puff balls in the strafing low light of the early morning sun.
When we got there, Robert went off to buy some oil while I proceeded to unload every item not strictly necessary for this flight in order to save weight. We filled our tanks, although that would have not been necessary for the 2 hour flight. However, we wanted the extra security of additional fuel. And should that prove to be too much weight, this problem would also solve itself by just flying around for a while. We checked the oil level again with a warm engine and decided that we didn´t need any extra after all.
Valle is a well situated little airport that presents itself as an ideal point from where to explore the Grand Canyon. The FBO on the field is extremely friendly, highly competent and resourceful. There is an exceptional vintage aircraft and car museum on the field which features a number of eye poppers, but I don´t want to get ahead of me here. I checked with Larry, who runs the FBO, to get some local advice on flying the Canyon. This is the route we had planned:
From Valle we wanted to fly north-easterly and use the distance of about 18 miles to climb from 7.000 (the elevation at Valle) to the required 11.500 feet en route. Once at altitude, we would enter the special rules area at “Zuni Alpha” and proceed north through the Zuni corridor via “Zuni Bravo”, “Zuni Charlie”, “Temple Butte”, “Gunthers Castle” and “Nankoweap Rapids”. From there we would turn west toward the entry point of the Dragon corridor, drop down to 10.500 feet and fly from “Dragon Bravo” to the “Tower of Ra” and finally exit the special rules area at the “Ranch”. You gotta love those names; they add to the experience. It just sounds real swell to report “Gyrocopter Charlie Alpha, flight of two, at Dragon Bravo, 10 point 5, next Tower of Ra.”
After having agreed on lost comm procedures, double checked the programming of our GPS units, and managed to fold the chart in a way that my knee pad could accommodate, we took off from Valle with our eyes pinned at the horizon and periodic anxious glances at the altimeter and VSI. A gradual, steady climb at an average of 300 and finally 200 feet per minute took us up to the required 11,500 feet just in time before reaching Zuni Alpha.
The temperature was a chilly 36 °F – or 2 °C. The biting wind in the open cockpit hurt my hands every time I took a photograph. Operating the zoom button became difficult with stiff and numb fingers. But, hey, the desire to have proof of this flight and share the experience with all of you was motivation enough for us.
I´m not going to comment every photo now and rather post them gallery style for you to view. Please bear in mind that they are, of course, no match to professional Grand Canyon pictures you might have seen elsewhere. They were taken with our bare hands holding dinky little cameras while keeping everything else under control.
The order will be roughly matching our route. Here is over the entry point of the Zuni corridor at the brink of the south rim.
IAs our landing options kept dwindling, our criteria for a suitable landing spot got less and less stringent. The little patch of sand in the Colorado River was one of the better options.
As I already mentioned, you have to be able to trust your machines or else you´d be crazy to attempt the flight. I can only sing high praise for the reliability of our MT03 gyros. They never let us down and were always fun to fly.
The next set of pictures is flying south through the Dagon corridor.
This is the Tower of Ra. It really is awesome (or “totally rad, dude”, as they say at the place we´re headed).
We shot about 250 pictures among the two of us this day. So I´ll stop here and just comment on the nice warm feeling of accomplishment we both had as we left the area headed back to Valle. If it hadn´t been for our ears, our smiles would have wrapped right around our heads.
And this, now, brings me to the second part of our travelog. Because after we landed at Valle, we took a tour through the “Planes of Fame “museum at Valle with Larry. You have to know that Larry is a top notch A&P and does most of the restoration and rebuilding of the antique aircraft himself. Actually that´s not quite true. He and his wife do most of the work. They both live not close but actually at the airfield – get this: inside one of the roomy hangars. Standing in the hangar with a Ford Trimotor, a Travelair and Beech Staggerwing, “The Duker”, I could see the lamp shade of his living room one floor up and overlooking the aircraft. The hangar is so clean that I was tempted to ask if it was OK to leave my shoes on.
The owner of all the aircraft has set himself the goal to collect all aircraft flown by GCA, Grand Canyon Airlines, the world´s longest operating airline.
Again, I´m not going to comment on every picture but you can visit the museum´s homepage at www.valleairport.com.
All aircraft are in “better than new” condition with unbelievable attention to detail and accuracy. We could actually get into all of them and get a feel for how it is to sit behind the controls. Below is a picture of me in the Travelair followed by a shot of its interior. I like the wicker chair seats.
And now to Robert “The Duker” in the Staggerwing. This plane was the “Learjet” of the 40ies, with luxurious leather interior and fold out mahogany trays, all for the comfort of the top notch executives.
In yet another hanger there is a flying Ford Trimotor. You can actually get your type rating in a Trimotor here at Valle. Larry says that there are always a couple pilots a year who want to get that rating in their logbooks.
The “Detroiter” is another plane that was used very early in Grand Canyon Airline´s history. You gotta like that spartan panel look (by the way, the knees are mine!)
And here is a study on a polished spinner cap:
And to finish off, here are a set of sexy pictures – hold your pants, guys!
First I noticed her voluptious curves:
Then I noticed her aquiline nose:
When finally our eyes met for a deep, long look:
Please, let me introduce to you the Hudson Pickup Truck.
There are at least as many eye catching old timers as there are antique airplanes in the museum. But I have to draw the line somewhere and will call it a day for now.
Tomorrow it´s supposed to be a beautiful flying day and we want to get to Lake Havasu, right at the edge of Arizona and the brink of California.
– Robert & Chris.