Sunrise cracks the horizon as Jean and I rotate skyward. Any direction we steer—north to the Grand Canyon, south over Sedona, west toward Las Vegas–will reward us with spectacular sights. But we’re reminded this sparkling morning that perhaps our favorite route is east to Santa Fe.
From Flagstaff’s mountain pines, we soar above volcanic cinder cones, crazy-jagged Canyon Diablo, within sight of Meteor Crater, over the Painted Desert, and then the buttes, hoodoos, and hogans of the Navajo Nation. Beyond there, crimson cliffs frame Gallup, New Mexico, and jet-black ancient lava flows stream eternally from 11,306-foot Mt. Taylor.
We’re not the first pilots to appreciate these views. Back in 1929, Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh photographed area scenic and cultural sites from their custom Curtiss Falcon biplane, and hence today’s mission.
Our friend, National Geographic and Arizona Highways aerial photographer Adriel Heisey, was commissioned 10 years ago by Archaeology Southwest to reenvision the Lindbergh photographs for a comparative “then and now” exhibition, called Oblique Views. We’re bound today for the opening at Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
Joining us in Santa Fe for the event will be another longtime friend, Bruce Papier.
In a past life we shared many adventures, including piloting a Cessna 210 from Indiana to Arizona…
Winter offers spectacular flying, but its fickle and unforgiving weather can make longer aerial journeys daunting.
Jean and I annually flee snowy Flagstaff to visit our neighbors Tim and Hedy Thomas for a California vacation. Usually we meet in sunny Oceanside or Carlsbad, but this January they invited us to sample Monterey’s rugged coastline, bountiful sea life, scrumptious seafood, and renowned aquarium. Afterward, we planned to visit other friends two hours northeast in Truckee, California, and from there fly home through Nevada.
Although straightforward in good weather, this is an ambitious wintertime journey. Mountainous northern Arizona and California’s coast, deserts, Central Valley, and Sierra Nevada all feature different if interrelated weather patterns, which must coincide for safe air passage across the route. Truckee, in particular, high in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, averages 41 inches of January snowfall, yet perfect flying weather would be required to land there.
So rather than attempting to hard-schedule our vacation, we negotiated a three-week “visit anytime” travel window with our respective hosts.
Even then, weather concerns arose. By early January, closely spaced winter storm systems were lined up to steamroll California and Arizona. Our travel needed to be accomplished during one- to two-day gaps between storms…
Every aviator knows the pain of stressing about weather before important aerial journeys. It’s become tradition for me to fly Jean to tennis regionals when her team wins their conference.
Fortunately, the playoffs occur in late spring and early fall when good flying weather generally dominates the Southwest.
Jean’s team was particularly strong this year, so with each successive win she’d more enthusiastically ask, “You will fly us to Albuquerque if we qualify, right?” Each time I assured her that nothing in my universe could possibly be more important. Accordingly she solicited fellow players to join us, collected their weights, briefed them on baggage limits, and arranged for driving teammates to accommodate overflow gear. When Jean’s team indeed made the cut, we began casually watching the weather.
You may be surprised to learn that hurricanes, or at least their remnants, occasionally visit sunny Arizona.
In the past month two of them, Marie and Norbert, had arrived from Mexico’s Pacific coast, dropping extensive precipitation including the largest daily rainfall ever recorded in normally bone-dry Phoenix. Following two such rare occurrences in one season, I never imagined we’d see more.
But a week before Jean’s regionals, Hurricane Odile steered our way from Baja California. Jean and I watched in disbelief as local meteorologist Lee Born projected the storm’s track northeastward through Arizona and New Mexico.
“This could be another major precipitation event,” he said, “with a high likelihood we’ll benefit by more rain.” Jean and I, however, saw only a disrupted tennis trip in the colorful weather blob projected to engulf the two states…
READ THIS MONTH’S ENTIRE FLYING CARPET COLUMN,“TENNIS TIME AGAIN.”(Allow a moment for the article to load.)
Top photo: Tennis teammates Jean, Jana, and Jenny at Albuquerque’s Double Eagle II Airport. Lower photo: “Old Acoma Pueblo ‘Sky City,’ near Grants, New Mexico. SEE MORE PHOTOS!
Among both the joys and challenges of piloting, is that however long we fly we’re continually encountering new and different circumstances. Recently Jean and I attended an FAA Safety Seminar at Mogollon Airpark (AZ82), a private fly-in residential community high on the Mogollon Rim 100 miles northeast of Phoenix.
Although Jean had lately observed that, “we don’t do enough together, anymore,” I was stunned when she cancelled Saturday-morning tennis to join me for the highly esoteric topic of “ADS-B surveillance, traffic, and weather delivery technology.” Later it came out that she was “also a little sore from too much tennis.”
Our destination likely impacted her decision, too. Picture your favorite childhood piney-woods summer camp, set at 6,700 feet elevation for nice, cool summers. Now add a paved runway and homes with attached hangars on spacious wooded lots, and you’ll appreciate why we enjoy visiting this aviators’ paradise.
Flying into private airports generally requires prior planning and permission, so you can’t wait until departure morning to figure things out. Such airports needn’t meet public-use airport standards and rarely appear in official publications such as the FAA Airport/Facility Directory. Fortunately, Mogollon’s web site specifies rules and recommends safety procedures. As with many private strips, visiting pilots are required to pre-submit aircraft insurance documentation and a hold-harmless form. The website also designates Runway 21 as calm-wind runway, specifies right traffic for Runway 3, and prohibits night landings.
The high-elevation strip is only 3,436 feet long, shorter than I remembered, and is surrounded by tall pines. That raised density-altitude concerns. Looking more closely however, I noted that narrow centerline taxiways at each end of the runway effectively add another 2600 feet for takeoff, well within Flying Carpet capabilities.
Particularly thought-provoking is that Mogollon’s runway slopes downhill from the midpoint in both directions. As a result, departing pilots cannot see aircraft at the opposite end of the runway — in fact they are so thoroughly blocked by the midpoint rise that they may not hear each other’s radio transmissions. Accordingly I studied and printed the airpark’s 7-point “Safety Warning” anti-collision departure procedures list.
Finally, I pre-calculated my course since you can’t just dial it in after takeoff. Private airports rarely appear in panel-mounted GPS navigator databases, so getting to Mogollon requires manually entering its coordinates as a user waypoint, or applying old-fashioned pilotage and dead reckoning…
READ THIS MONTH’S ENTIRE FLYING CARPET COLUMN,“AVIATORS’ PARADISE.”(Please allow a moment for the article to load.)
Photos: Arizona’s remote Mogollon Airpark, 100 miles northeast of Phoenix.
What makes something precious? The price tag? Or perhaps that someone you love desires it?
We recently suffered a traumatic horticultural loss — one of Jean’s treasured Provence Lavender plants. She bought them several years ago at the annual Red Rock Farms Lavender Festival outside tiny Concho, Arizona. (See “Scent of the Sky,” FT 6/10.)
Under Jean’s careful tending, the aromatic plants have since flourished in our front yard from 4-inch seedlings to glorious, 3-foot purple-blossomed bushes. Appealing as lavender may be to humans, it’s refreshingly unappetizing to elk, rabbits, and javelina. So we never anticipated losing one to a gopher dining from underneath. I asked Jean if she planned to replace it.
“I’d like to,” she said, “but it’s challenging finding hardy lavender locally. The last bushes I planted didn’t last.”
“So the Concho plants are hardier?”
“Yeah, they seem better suited to our climate. But although Red Rock offers other lavender products online, they only sell plants during their annual festival that ended last month.” I offered to inquire about flying over to get some.
“No,” she said. “It seems impractical flying almost to New Mexico to buy a few plants.” That ended the discussion for a few days — until I next encountered Jean pondering the remains of her beloved lavender bush.
“I wonder if I can bring it back to life,” she said, but that didn’t look promising.
Admitting it might not make sense flying halfway across the state to buy three or four plants, I asked if other gardeners in her club might want some. That apparently passed the test, so I phoned Red Rock Farms owner Mike Teeple…
READ THIS MONTH’S ENTIRE FLYING CARPET COLUMN, “PRECIOUS CARGO.”(Please allow a moment for the article to load.)
Top photo: Mike Teeple of Red Rock Farms loads lavender plants at St. Johns Industrial Air Park, Arizona.
Bottom photo: Aerial view of Red Rock Lavender Farm, near Concho, Arizona. SEE MORE PHOTOS!
Dark clouds fringed the western sky when I departed Prescott. With appointments to make, I’d monitored the weather all day. Our home airport of Flagstaff expected gradually lowering ceilings after 6pm, and snow beginning after 8. I picked up Jean in Scottsdale at 4:30, later than I’d hoped, but a tailwind promised to hurry us home in under an hour.
Our destination still reported clear skies when we took off, as did all stations along our route, but those ominous clouds approached relentlessly from the west. Williams, 40 miles west of Flagstaff, reported visual conditions in light snow. In any case, we carried plenty of fuel to land at Sedona, Cottonwood, or Winslow, or return to Scottsdale.
Halfway home over the Verde Valley, I noted shades of green threatening Flagstaff on the datalink weather display. Little precipitation was likely reaching the ground, but this was unexpectedly early. Then the tint changed to pink. Snow! I told Jean we might be driving a rental car home from Sedona tonight.
“But we’ll arrive well before 6,” said Jean, taking the forecast literally. “Surely, we’ll beat the weather.” Maybe she was right. Flagstaff’s Pulliam Airport still reported good visual flying conditions: clouds at 2,400 broken, 6,000 overcast, and 9 miles visibility in light snow.
Nearing Sedona, we heard Albuquerque Center clear an aircraft for Flagstaff’s instrument landing system (ILS). That’s a popular training approach, so I asked the controller whether he’d issued it for practice or for ‘real weather.’
“Flagstaff is still reporting VFR,” he replied, “but the last two pilots landing there thought a visual approach would be sketchy, so both shot the ILS.” These were turbine aircraft descending from the flight levels, however, so they’d need to penetrate the overcast while we approached from underneath. Sedona soon sparkled delightfully beneath us, crowned with a solitary snow flurry illuminated by the setting sun. Ahead the distant horizon bisected an inviting if faraway sliver of sky beyond the overcast.
It’s always a bit discomforting flying under a cloud ceiling onto the plateau. Here you are cruising comfortably under a high overcast, and the ground suddenly rises up to squeeze you. Confirming as we approached that the ceiling indeed floated a healthy 2,500 feet above the plateau, I took momentary leave from Center and radioed Flagstaff tower that I was 7 minutes south and requesting the trend.
“The weather’s definitely deteriorating,” replied the tower controller, “but we’re still decent VFR, especially to the south where you’re coming from. If it’s a matter of just 7 minutes you should be in good shape.” Retrieving instrument charts for backup, I advised Albuquerque that we’d proceed visually to Flagstaff with Sedona as our alternate. Topping the plateau, we intercepted Interstate 17, which would lead us directly to the airport and ensure terrain clearance. Flight conditions remained excellent, so I said goodbye to Center. “Be safe!” said the controller as we cruised blithely homeward.
“Shouldn’t we see the runway by now?” asked Jean a few moments later…
How far must you fly to have fun? At AOPA Summit last fall, Jean and I dined with Barry Knuttila of King Schools, and his wife Susanne. Over dinner we learned the two fly often from their San Diego home to vacation in Sedona, Arizona.
“We’re going there later this month,” said Susanne. Knowing we live in nearby Flagstaff, she quizzed us about lesser-known regional sights. I suggested Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson, which we’ve always found fascinating. Our friends hadn’t heard of it, so I detailed driving routes. It’s two hours over mountain roads from Flagstaff; I estimated 90 minutes each way from Sedona.
“We’re staying right at Sedona Airport, and I see Payson’s not far as the crow flies,” said Barry, consulting his smartphone. “Would you consider joining us if we flew there? Susanne and I could fly directly to Payson coming from California, and you and Jean could hop down to meet us in the Flying Carpet.” It had never occurred to me to fly to Tonto Bridge given its rather remote location, but Barry later took the initiative to phone around. With no weekend rental cars available at Payson Airport, he arranged a limo* to deliver us to the park…
Tonto Natural Bridge is reportedly the largest natural travertine bridge in the nation, and possibly the world. Unlike more common aboveground stone arches, Tonto Bridge was sculpted from underneath by Pine Creek. Trees and vegetation carpet its ground-level top, and spring and rainwater percolate through limestone to trickle and shower 180 feet to the underlying creek. Not only does this stunning watery oasis mark an otherwise parched area, but visitors can actually observe the continuum of living vegetation accumulating calcium carbonate and turning to stone… It’s amazing how little-known this treasure is both within and outside Arizona.
We awoke in San Antonio to low ceilings and steady rain. At bedtime last night, a massive stalled cold front curved eastward from El Paso in a great northerly arc to Canada. Today’s forecast called for inches of regional rain, thunderstorms, and flooding.
Following a week touring Texas, Jean and I were eager to return home to Arizona; instead, it appeared we’d be stuck here for days. Futilely, we’d hoped the front would accelerate past during the night, leaving clear skies and tailwinds behind it. Now, resisting the urge to roll over and sleep, I fumbled through a weather briefing. Considering the gloom outside, the news was surprisingly good.
Yes, the front remained stationary as forecast, but thunderstorms no longer threatened. And while a few stations along our route reported ceilings below 500 feet, most were “easy IFR” at 800-1,500 feet. Finally, the freezing level was high enough to relegate any icing threat above our planned altitudes.
While it meant battling 500 miles of clouds and rain, it was entirely feasible to fly to El Paso on instruments. Beyond there, New Mexico was forecast to clear by afternoon. If so, we’d proceed visually through the mountains to Flagstaff. If not, a lengthy westerly detour would circumvent them IFR. Either way, we had an instrument ticket home!
Read the whole story in this month’s Flying Carpet column,“Easy IFR.“(Please allow a moment for the article to load.)
This year’s AOPA Summit had long marked my calendar. I’d never been to Fort Worth, unless you count in pilot parlance, “I’ve flown over it.” And just two states from Arizona, it initially appeared within reasonable Flying Carpet range.
I was soon reminded, however, of how big those states really are — we faced an 11-hour round trip. Then Jean was invited to a San Antonio meeting the week after Summit. I phoned Texas pilot friend Sergio Schaar asking where to relax over the intervening weekend.
“Consider Fredericksburg, in the Texas Hill Country,” he said. “It’s known for wine and German cuisine, and you could stay at the Hangar Hotel right there on the airport. While there, partake of the incredible $1 avgas promotion at nearby San Marcos Airport, though I’ve heard there’s a two-hour wait.” Landing at San Marcos would also allow me to tour Redbird Skyport‘s touted “aviation laboratory.” Each additional destination made the long journey more attractive.
We fled Flagstaff ahead of a huge storm system rolling in from the west. (Snow there the following day made national news.) Although turbulent, powerful tailwinds urged us along ahead of the approaching cold front.
“Poof!” Jogged by a bump, Jean’s elbow popped the passenger window some 60 miles out.
Photo: Downtown Fort Worth’s Sundance Square, glimpsed through a hole in the clouds. See more photos here. This month I’ve included some of the “Well, I’ll Be!” ground photos I always enjoy taking at our destinations. Let me know what you think!
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…