I was saddened to learn today of Clive Cussler’s passing.
Jean and I once enjoyed a memorable day with the acclaimed author and adventurer, including a Flying Carpet ride. It turned out Clive had strong aviation connections, along with those of land and sea. The biggest thrills were learning about his famed sea recoveries, and seeing him in action formulating fiction. Here’s the column I wrote about that memorable day. A more detailed account appears in my book, Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane.
“Clive Cussler!” I said, “He writes the Dirk Pitt novels, like Raise the Titanic and Inca Gold. And he discovered the Confederate submarine, ‘Hunley!’”
“That’s right,” said Penny Porter, director of Tucson’s Society of Southwestern Authors writers conference, “After our original keynote canceled for next week, Clive graciously agreed to speak on short notice. You’re still coming, right?”
“Wouldn’t miss it!” I said, “And I can’t wait to hear Clive Cussler speak. But why are you phoning me?”
“Because we have a problem,” said Penny. “Clive has agreed to present, but he must get home by five o’clock for another engagement. Would you bring him with you in the Flying Carpet? He lives nearby and you’d easily be back before five, right…?
It was just to be a quick 20-minute flight home from Cottonwood to Flagstaff, Arizona.
But brevity of flight in the Flying Carpet or any airplane, has little to do with what you might see out the windshield. I had already photographed stunning snow showers gracing edges of the Coconino Plateau on my outbound leg.
The showers had thickened slightly by the time I made my way home, and over Sedona I found myself treading ghostly passages, chasing glimpses of Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks.
I rounded a veiled corner and emerged from a snowy chasm over this vibrant vista of Oak Creek Canyon. Magical light illuminated rich colors of the canyon walls, and in place of Arizona’s stereotypical blue sky it was topped with a wispy, frosty crown.
Another subtle element makes this image special. Among my challenges photographing the desert Southwest, is that people living elsewhere often find it difficult to take our regional rock colors seriously. So I treasure views like this one, where grassy terrain at right and atop the plateau help the eye to resolve those vibrant mineral-laden cliffs as real.
My Fine Art Metal Prints start at just $125, and shipping throughout the Continental US runs only $10-21 up to the largest sizes.
Where the heck is my watch? I wondered, upon checking my wrist for the time.
I was dining with renowned aviation author and humorist Rod Machado, his wife Diane, and two of their friends at an outdoor cafe in Palm Springs, California. We had joined pilots from all over the country to attend AOPA Expo, the pilot association’s annual convention.
“So Greg,” said Rod, continuing a conversation in progress, “how was your flight from Phoenix yesterday?”
“Very pleasant,” I replied, massaging my empty wrist. “I arrived early to avoid the heaviest fly-in traffic. It can be a real hornet’s nest the afternoon before the program starts.”
“I’ve often dodged those hornets myself,” said Rod. “Any delays?”
“None at all,” I replied. “I just joined the published arrival procedure and followed the freeway in—no circling was required. I suspect it was tougher late in the day.” We proceeded to swap aviator stories with Rod and Diane’s friends. Ian, an American Airlines pilot, told of his days flying in Alaska. Jason, an author and internationally renowned professional magician, recounted adventures flying his twin-engine Piper Aerostar. Earlier, over appetizers, he’d dazzled the group with mystifying card tricks.
Even as flying yarns circled the table, my thoughts kept returning to the missing watch. It wasn’t valuable, but I liked it and the data bank held important phone numbers. Particularly disturbing was that I’d lost a set of keys earlier that morning. Ultimately I’d found them in the side pocket of my suitcase, but I had no recollection of placing them there. Now I’d lost my watch.
Hopefully I’m not developing memory problems, I found myself worrying. I must ask my wife if she’s noticed any other symptoms. Attempting to banish such concerns from my mind, I returned to my friends’ ongoing conversation, saying nothing of my loss.
“Did I tell you about flying into Long Beach for the last West Coast Expo two years ago?” I asked.
“No,” said Rod. “Did you have some ‘close encounters’ there?”
“Warning! GPS Navigation Lost!” proclaimed my GPS receiver.
Jean and I were bouncing through clouds on instruments at 12,000 feet, over trackless mountains along the remote Arizona-New Mexico border.
Seconds after that initial warning, my primary flight display announced, “GPS reversion mode: for Emergency Use Only!” (but displayed no position.) My multifunction display restarted itself with a “Maintenance Required!” alert. Next came an “ADS-B (out) inoperative!” warning, meaning our transponder had stopped transmitting our GPS coordinates to air traffic control (ATC).
I was flying Jean from Flagstaff to El Paso for tennis sectionals. Normally we make the 2½-hour journey straight-line VFR. Today, however, layered clouds shrouded the mountainous central portion of the route, so I’d filed under instrument flight rules (IFR). This route spans a huge swath of military airspace that when active cannot be crossed IFR, so I’d filed a circuitous route over Socorro, New Mexico.
My first hint of trouble was when our controller asked, “Are you ADS-B equipped?”
That seemed odd, as he had long been tracking us. He then cleared me to an intersection to bypass nearby White Sands Missile Range restricted airspace, but the GPS died as I entered the fix into my navigator. After I reported the failure, the controller assigned radar vectors around the restricted areas.
Now other pilots began reporting lost GPS, and I noted that the position symbol on my tablet computer had stopped moving…
This new Fourth Edition features many new illustrations and updates, many in full color, and now covers all required ATP-CTP material.
Along with numerous systems and terminology enhancements we’ve updated and expanded coverage of multi-pilot-crew coordination, one of the toughest challenges faced by new turbine pilots, and added an all-new crew briefings section.
Check out my new “Mosel Valley Castles” photo wall calendars, featuring amazing castles of southwest Germany. Some are in ruins, some have been upgraded from fortresses to palaces, and some are close to original, but all are spectacularly sited in high places with commanding views.
Included are amazing views of and from Reichsburg Cochem, Burg Thurant, Burg Eltz, Burg Landshut in Bernkastel-Kues, Ehrenburg, and the upper and lower Oberburg and Niederburg Manderscheid castles.
As usual, I’m offering two sizes, Standard and oversized Premium. Check them out by clicking on each calendar image. (Click “Preview” on the linked page to see all the monthly photos.)
Our friends Steve and Molly recently invited us for a hiking weekend in southwest Colorado.
This would be our first summertime visit to 9,070-foot-elevation Telluride Regional Airport (KTEX). Telluride is surrounded on three sides by 12-14,000-foot mountains, but we could approach from the west at 11,000 feet.
Like most Telluride traffic I planned to land on Runway 9 and depart Runway 27 to avoid maneuvering in the dead-end canyon east of the airport. That required good visual flight conditions, and light winds to preclude downwind takeoffs or landings and dangerous downdrafts tumbling over the surrounding mountains.
Given suitable weather, my main concern flying our non-turbocharged Cessna 182 was safely departing such a high-elevation airport in summertime.
Temperatures of 48°F to 75°F sound pleasantly cool, but at 10-12,000 feet density altitude we’d be lucky to get 65% of sea-level power at full throttle, and 300 fpm climb…
Our weekend guests Alex and Sabina arrived to unseasonably wet and cold autumn weather.
As with previous visitors, I’d promised Alex a Grand Canyon aerial tour. I mention only Alex because while he and I had flown together before, Sabina had expressed such fear of airplanes that I’d presumptively invited another friend in her place. Saturday, rain confined us indoors. Based on forecast improvement, we designated Monday for hiking and autumn leaf-peeping. That left only Sunday, weather permitting, for flying.
Sunday morning, both Flagstaff Pulliam (KFLG) and Grand Canyon (KGCN) Airports reported scattered clouds at 1,700 feet above ground (AGL), roughly 8,700 feet above sea level (MSL). While that was adequate for the route, the Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area requires a 10,000-foot MSL minimum altitude to overfly the Canyon.
Lacking pilot weather reports, I explained that we could safely fly to the Grand Canyon, but depending on arrival-time conditions we might not be able to cross. Alex was predictably game to go. Sabina, however, surprised everyone by volunteering to join us—her sister and friends had told her she’d be nuts to miss the Grand Canyon from above.
Although apprehensive, Sabina took the copilot seat, usually best for nervous passengers. Noting clenched teeth and hands while taxiing out, I offered to turn around, but she insisted we continue. After takeoff, however, she began peering out the window…
We recently landed at Telluride Airport, Colorado (KTEX), elevation 9,100 feet. The above photo was taken at 11,000 feet inbound to land. (Note how low we are over the ridge at right, at that altitude.) The town of Telluride is barely visible deep in the valley beyond the airport. Airport density altitude was almost 12,000 feet when we landed.
Several pilot friends expressed interest in my planning process flying into such an airport, so I thought I’d share the details in a post.
First, check out the map. Telluride Airport is surrounded on three sides by 13-14000’ mountains. However it is relatively open to the west. By navigating to the Cones VOR and then turning east, it is accessible under the right conditions.
Density Altitude and Aircraft Performance
When I say accessible, my underlying concern flying a non-turbocharged airplane was not so much whether I could safely approach and land, but whether I could safely depart the 9085-foot-elevation airport in summertime temperatures. So the crux is “density altitude” (D.A.) and that’s where I’ll start.
Even before checking anything else, I knew I’d be lucky to get 65-70% of sea-level power at full throttle, and 200-300 fpm climb after takeoff from such a high elevation. So my first questions were “In the worst case could I take off in some direction without the need to climb? Better yet, could I safely descend after takeoff if I found myself unable to climb?” If I needed to climb to clear significant terrain after takeoff, I wasn’t going there.
So that crazy dropoff from the Telluride Airport westbound into the San Miguel River Valley is actually a big plus. If I could just get off the ground before the end of the runway, I’d be okay proceeding westbound even with little or no climb. I dared not take off to the east due to high terrain and little room to turn around. But visiting here was within the realm of possibility as long as I departed to the west.
Next I checked forecast temperatures for our visit. Telluride expected highs in the mid-70s and lows in the upper 40s. Those sound nice and cool until you consult density altitude charts. At 73F the density altitude would be 11,500 feet. If I departed early morning when the temperature was around 50F, D.A. would still be 10,200 feet. Wow!
Then I consulted the performance charts in my airplane’s pilot operating handbook (POH)—how much takeoff roll would I need, and did I need to clear any obstacles? I’m no test pilot and my engine is old so I all but doubled the chart values in my calcs. Even with a 1500-foot takeoff roll and some 3,000 feet to clear obstacles, the 7,000-foot runway should provide adequate takeoff margins.
Next I consulted my POH climb-performance charts. At these density altitudes my calculated climb rate was a thought-provoking 12-14 miles to clear a 1000 foot ridge in our normally peppy Skylane. (Before our first visit here several years ago, I actually climbed the airplane to 11,000 feet to confirm my climb rate under appropriate temps.) Clearly I didn’t dare climb eastward toward the mountains after takeoff, but the good news was that departing west I needn’t climb at all to clear terrain, and could in fact safely descend into the San Miguel River Canyon if necessary.
Two things I can do to shorten my takeoff roll and optimize my climb rate are:
Take off when it’s coolest early in the morning, and
Load the airplane as light as possible. For the latter we took minimal luggage and removed unnecessary supplies from the airplane. I also planned fuel for the 2-hour flight before taking off from Flagstaff. Although our Skylane holds 88 gallons, 45-50 would give me adequate reserve. So we took off from Flag with 75 gallons, with the target of having 45-50 departing Telluride. That put us ~475 pounds under max gross weight, not a precisely calculated target but simply based on “the lighter, the better.” If we’d had heavier people or bags I’d have departed Telluride with even less fuel and landed at nearby Cortez (which is much lower) to fuel for the flight home.
Now come weather factors. It goes without saying that I want excellent visual flight conditions before flying up a dead-end canyon. (Initial altitude for an instrument approach here is 13,000 feet, and for an airplane like ours you’d need to miss the approach some 6 miles from the runway where there’s still room to turn around. And yes, consulting approach plates is accordingly part of my planning.)
The remaining factors boil down to wind. I did not want to take off eastward over town into the dead-end canyon, nor battle downdrafts given such limited aircraft performance. Wind flows over mountains like water over rocks in a brook, so I dared not accept significant winds from north, east, or south due to potentially severe turbulence and downdrafts tumbling over the high surrounding mountains. Anything stronger than light westerly winds would also generate turbulence and force me to land downwind. There’s hardly room to circle-to-land nor on climbout, so I decided I wouldn’t accept any wind beyond a few knots from the west.
This is a relatively busy non-towered airport in a narrow canyon with effectively a one-way runway (land east, depart west). Many visitors arrive in jets. If there’s much traffic when we arrive or depart it’s best to to avoid conflicts by lingering outside the canyon or on the ground until things quiet down.
Consult with Local Pilots
Based on this assessment the flight sounded quite doable. I always phone ahead to unfamiliar mountain airports for guidance from a local pilot. So to reinforce my conclusions I phoned Telluride Airport to ask whether many light aircraft come in at this time of year and they said yes. But those answering were not pilots so I phoned area flight schools hoping a local pilot with Telluride experience could give me a summertime operations report. Finally I reached someone at Cortez Airport who said they do see quite a few light aircraft coming or going from Telluride. In a telling example he told of a Comanche pilot who came in the day before and checked extra luggage with him for the weekend to lighten the airplane before flying in and out of Telluride. (That pilot sounds like a wise one!)
Noise Abatement Procedures
Even then I was a little nervous, but logic and homework said we’d be safe. My final planning step was investigating and refamiliarizing myself with Telluride Airport’s noise-abatement procedures. (Check for these on any given airport’s web page, as they’re not always available through normal flight-planning channels.) By following noise abatement procedures we help keep our favorite airports open.
It’s all about Airspeed
Okay, now let’s talk about the actual flying, much of which boils down to speed. As you know, we fly all our pattern work and approaches at “indicated airspeed” read off the airspeed indicator. That remains true whether you’re operating at sea-level Nantucket or Telluride.
ALWAYS FLY THE SAME INDICATED AIRSPEEDS FOR AIRPORT OPERATIONS REGARDLESS OF ELEVATION. If you approach sea-level Nantucket at 60 knots indicated, you should also approach Telluride at 60 knots indicated.
That being said, it’s true airspeed, not indicated airspeed that in no-wind situations defines our speed over the ground. This of course is why when cruising at altitude your airspeed indicator might show 100 knots when your true airspeed and hence groundspeed might be say 130. True airspeed increases by about 2% per thousand feet, so at Telluride you’re truing about 20% faster than at sea level. Why does that matter?
The plane feels like it’s going much faster than you’re used to on final approach at sea level, so pilots sometimes make the dangerous mistake of slowing below normal approach speed because “this doesn’t feel right.” Obviously you’re going to touch down faster, too.
You may have wondered why landing distances increase with altitude like takeoff distances do. The reason is because you’re going faster over the ground at the same indicated airspeed so consult your performance charts for adequate runway length.
Since you’re flying faster, the airplane’s turning radius increases, just as it does when driving faster in a car. You may be familiar with accidents where airplanes flew up a blind canyon and lacked room to turn around. Larger turning radius at the same indicated airspeed is one reason why. This is one reason why pilots generally avoid circling to land or taking off east at Telluride–you need more room to turn around. If you must reverse course in a tight canyon, maneuver the plane to one side, slow down, and drop a notch of flaps to reduce turning radius.
High Density-Altitude Takeoff Procedures
Finally, a few general tips regarding high density-altitude takeoffs.
As mentioned, clearing obstacles or terrain after takeoff is a major consideration as to whether you can safely depart a given high-elevation airport. Along with studying the charts beforehand, when arriving at a new-to-me high-elevation airport, I scout the terrain from the traffic pattern BEFORE LANDING and note what direction I could fly after takeoff toward the lowest terrain with minimum climb. I then record that info and clip it to the yoke. Departing Telluride the only way to go is west down the San Miguel River Canyon. Here at Flagstaff, the terrain descends toward the south over I-17, but departing in any other direction requires climbing. If takeoff performance stinks, I want to know before takeoff which way to steer.
Lean the engine at full power during pre-takeoff run-up to ensure maximum takeoff power. This is done the same way as you would in cruise, with a nudge toward the rich side of peak rpm or EGT.
Following rotation, accelerate in ground effect to best rate of climb speed before beginning your actual climb. Since engine power and propellor efficiency are diminished at high density altitude you will not experience the sort of acceleration, clean rotation, and climb performance you’re used to. This procedure prevents you from pitching up too much/too early into climb and potentially stalling the airplane upon leaving ground effect.
Among the biggest threats of high D.A. takeoffs and landings is perceptual. Prepare yourself mentally to fly by the numbers, regardless of what you see out the windshield. You’re gonna feel too fast approaching to land, and be startled at the long runway roll and poor climb rate on takeoff. (Expect to clear obstacles by dozens of feet, not hundreds as you might be used to.)
We Made It!
Jean and I launched for Telluride Friday morning, and with tailwinds flew a smooth and uneventful 1:45 flight. We spotted the airport shortly after entering the canyon, and with no other traffic, landed uneventfully.
Following a fun weekend of hiking and dining we roused our hosts too-early Sunday morning to take us to the airport, and although our takeoff run was long we cleared the runway in plenty of time. Density altitude at 8am, with outside air temp ~50F, was 10,200 feet. Our climb rate ranged from 3-500 rpm, not impressive but better than I’d expected. That marginal performance actually turned out to be a plus because as we rolled down Runway 27 a jet reported inbound on the Runway 9 instrument approach but we passed way below him still climbing out of the canyon. (Another good reason to have previewed instrument-approach paths and altitudes, so we knew we wouldn’t conflict.)
You’re probably thinking “that’s a crazy amount of work and planning just to land somewhere.” That may be true, but our lives could depend on it. And once you’ve experienced a given airport a time or two the process is much simplified. Now that I have twice personally experienced Telluride’s setting and terrain, and know that the Flying Carpet will take off comfortably from there at a given weight and density altitude, I’ll need to do little more next time than check weather parameters–and be prepared to cancel or stay over if those parameters depart my safety range.
This is not intended to provide comprehensive guidance as there are many more mountain flying principles not described here. But hopefully you’ll find this example useful for basic understanding.
PS: Those flying turbocharged aircraft will experience all the above effects but with better takeoff and climb performance. (You’ll still use more runway on take off and landing.)