Flying New Mexico and Arizona is generally less challenging than the more northerly Rockies. Density altitude is an issue, but our lower terrain offers more route options for circumnavigating weather. We do get afternoon turbulence and thunderstorms here, so summertime flying is best done in early mornings and late afternoons. (For more on regional flying weather, see Tom Horne’s terrific book, Flying America’s Weather.)
It would be wise to study mountain flying before piloting the West for your first time. (For starters, check out AOPA’s free online Mountain Flying course.)
Some of my favorite Southwest destinations:
- Durango, Colorado: ride the Durango & Silverton steam train; kayak rapids through town!
- Santa Fe, New Mexico: founded by the Spaniards in 1608, with adobe buildings dating from that era. The 2nd oldest city in the country after St. Augustine, Florida. Dining, history, art, Native American culture, outdoor activities, shopping… A town like no other!
- Grants, New Mexico: check out Old Acoma Pueblo (See my column, “Sky City”), El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments, and the nearby ice caves.
- Chinle, Arizona on the Navajo Nation: tour stunning Canyon de Chelly by horse or jeep.
- Fly through Monument Valley — incredible from the air. (Consider landing and staying at legendary Gouldings Trading Post, but research it before going there. The private one-way airstrip dead-ends into a mesa.)
- Page, Arizona: Hike nearby Antelope Canyon, rent a houseboat, or take a Lake Powell boat tour to Navajo Arch.
- Sedona, Arizona: Among the most beautiful landing sites anywhere, Sedona Airport lies on a 400-foot plateau in very rugged terrain. The runway slopes uphill to the northeast so normal procedure under light winds is to land uphill on Runway 3 and take off downhill on Runway 21. It’s a busy airport so given the bi-directional traffic keep your eyes open. There is little horizon reference in the pattern, so fly your pattern altitudes precisely to make your approach work out smoothly. You’ll feel high on final to Runway 3 (and low approaching 21) due to the sloping runway. (There are VASIs to help.) Although challenging when windy, the airport is quite manageable in good weather. See my column, Flight of Two. Among places to stay is Sky Ranch Lodge right there on Airport Mesa.
- Overfly Meteor Crater and the Painted Desert.
- Aviation history buffs: Winslow Airport (KINW) was laid out by Charles Lindbergh himself, and retains the original territorial-style passenger terminal and TAT airline hangar. (See my column, Lazy Day and associated photos.) Stay at Winslow’s restored La Posada Hotel, one of the original “Harvey Houses” for early railroad travelers.
- Fly the Grand Canyon overflight corridors (familiarize yourself first with the Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area); then land at Grand Canyon Airport and hike along the rim. (See my column, Grand Canyon New Year.)
- Wickenburg, Arizona, offers an old-West Sonoran Desert experience far removed from the glitter of Scottsdale and Phoenix megalopolis most people visit. Ride horseback among giant Saguaro cacti, tour the Vulture Mine and associated ghost town, and see the marvelous Desert Caballeros Western Museum. Consider staying at Rancho de los Caballeros resort, an authentic but contemporary western “dude ranch.”
- Visit the Planes of Fame Museum at Valle Airport, between Williams and Grand Canyon, Arizona.
- If you’re passing near Clayton, NM, see the incredible dinosaur footprints at Clayton Lake State Park.
- Finally, read the adventures and see photos from two pilots who followed my recommendations flying the Southwest, in my column, Flying Carpet Tour.
Other than Sedona and Gouldings, most of the named airports require no special considerations except density altitude. All are at or above 5,000 feet elevation. Durango, Grants, Santa Fe, Grand Canyon, and Flagstaff Airports are at 6-7,000 feet elevation.
Photo: “Three Mountains:” Sun pierces clouds over Sedona, Arizona, photographed from the Flying Carpet. (Available as a Fine Art Metal Print.)
©2013, 2014, 2016 Gregory N. Brown