“Small Flight Turns Big,” Greg’s July column

SnowSquallSedonaSEZ_7144-EditeSmw1200Better than a sunny day

By car, Sedona, Arizona is 45 minutes over winding mountain roads from Flagstaff. But by Flying Carpet, it’s less than 20 miles and takes ten minutes. The small distance, however, belies the grandeur of the flight. Forested Flagstaff graces the southwestern Colorado Plateau, while sunbaked Sedona edges the Verde Valley far below the plateau’s red-rock rim. To fly there you cruise cool pines for five minutes, launch over a 2,200-foot precipice, and plummet half a mile downward between scarlet spires to Sedona’s mesa-top “aircraft carrier” runway.

Videographer Derek Ellis and I had been filming at Flagstaff Airport under partly cloudy skies this unseasonably cool morning. The forecast called for gusty winds and midday snow showers, so we’d agreed to shoot on the ground today and film aloft tomorrow which was to be sunny and warmer. After capturing hangar and preflight shots, Derek wanted to test our cockpit audio setup for tomorrow’s aerial recording. So he took the copilot seat and I cranked up the engine. So much for that forecast bad weather, I thought, scanning high broken clouds.

“It seems like a shame not to fly when we’re sitting here with the engine running,” I said to Derek. “Shall we go up for a look? If conditions are favorable, we’ll do some filming. If not, we’ll just fine-tune the audio and return to land.” My friend showed thumbs-up, so armed with my previous weather briefing we taxied for takeoff. No sooner had we cleared the trees than it was obvious the weather was good for miles around. What’s more, shafts of sunlight streamed between the clouds, and the air sparkled clear for filming.

I steered to where scenic Sedona huddled out of sight beyond the rim. Within minutes we cleared the cliffs, and Derek excitedly filmed the freshly revealed red rock paradise on his first-ever light airplane flight. When he finished, I suggested we land for breakfast at the airport restaurant.

Sedona’s runway slopes upward to the northeast. Since slope generally trumps light winds when it comes to runway performance, Sedona traffic normally lands uphill on Runway 3, and departs downhill on Runway 21. There are various rules of thumb for estimating when winds should override slope in determining takeoff and landing direction. Some pilots use 10% of touchdown or rotation speed as their limit for arriving or departing with a tailwind, while others round the number to a simple 10 knots. With today’s breeze southwesterly, I elected to land uphill with a light tailwind.

Over huevos rancheros and plenty of coffee, we discussed Derek’s upcoming graduation from Northern Arizona University, and his filmmaking career plans. Then, some 35 minutes after arriving, we moseyed out the restaurant door toward the airplane.

“Whoa! Look at that!” said Derek. To our astonishment, a massive snow squall loomed ominously from the northwest…

Read Greg’s entire Flying Carpet column about this adventure, “Small Flight Turns Big.”

Photo: A late-season snow squall threatens Sedona Airport, Arizona. See more photos here.

View Derek Ellis‘s video shot partly on this flight:

©2013 Gregory N.Brown

(This column first appeared in the July, 2013 AOPA Flight Training magazine.)

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