Restricted airspace is something we pilots study and then studiously avoid.
Fortunately, it’s limited enough in most places to easily bypass. But here in the Intermountain West, huge swaths of the stuff can dictate 100-mile detours.
Jean and I regularly experience this flying from Flagstaff to Alamogordo, New Mexico to visit family. To bypass 135 miles of restricted airspace encompassing White Sands Missile Range, we must steer east past Socorro and then 90 miles south, or southeast to El Paso and turn north.
Normally we take the shorter northern route. But when weather recently shrouded northern New Mexico, we launched via El Paso.
En route, we reflected on restricted-airspace lessons we’ve learned…
Earning your wings requires hand-eye coordination, but instrument flying (IFR) is a brain game.
Yes, mastering flight by tiny needles is tough, but navigation, holds, and approaches are exciting and fun. And while IFR may be the hardest rating, it’s also the most safety-enhancing, rewarding, and practical. When I earned my cloud wings forty years ago this month, my flight-completion rate doubled overnight to over 90%.
Instrument flying, of course, gets you where you’re going without sight of the ground, and “instrument approaches” deliver you safely to landing.
As with VFR cross-countries, instrument flight plans are crafted around checkpoints, but using predefined fixes from an IFR chart. These days, thanks to GPS and moving maps, we can fly great distances and shoot programmed instrument approaches almost as readily as by looking out the window.
The romance of flight comes in many flavors, so when my friend Andrew requested a “huge favor,” I didn’t know what to expect.
Andrew formerly edited our local entertainment weekly, for which I’d provided aerial photos. An avid outdoorsman, he was eager to explore Arizona from above, so I’d invited him on flights to Tucson and Lake Havasu City. Instantly he was hooked on both the views and the controls. But that was months ago.
“What’s this ‘huge favor?’” I asked, surprised.
“I’ve met this special girl, Rachel,” he replied, “and I’m planning fun things to do together. So suddenly I got this idea… Would you consider taking us flying? It would be a total surprise for her.” Coincidentally, I already had a fitting mission planned: my semiannual rendezvous with buddy and former neighbor Gary at Payson Airport—Gary motorcycles from Phoenix, while I travel by Flying Carpet.
“Would you and Rachel care to join us for breakfast?” I offered, “Grab a separate table if you like. We’ll sightsee Sedona on the way back!”
“That sounds awesome!” said Andrew. “And we’ll definitely join your table because Rachel is a very social person.” Later, Andrew texted downloaded photos of Payson Airport’s Crosswinds Restaurant. “Is this where we’re eating?” he asked. I replied affirmatively with restaurant views of the scenic Mogollon Rim. My friend’s enthusiasm made me feel increasingly honored that he’d involve me in such a personal mission.
When Andrew introduced me to Rachel at Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, I immediately saw the magic that attracted him to her. A dynamic, outgoing professional woman, Rachel sparkles with humor. When I cranked up the Flying Carpet’s radios she asked, “Greg, are you gonna say that ‘copy, roger, affirmative, and negative’ stuff?”…
“Beware—the airport you fly into every day is not the same airport at night,” my friend Donna Wood observed last year.
As a new private pilot, Wood had invested in a Cessna 182 and launched on ambitious regular flights between her Detroit home and Charleston, South Carolina, where she has family and business.
Wood is exceptionally careful and diligent, but 18 months after earning her wings, she’d experienced a scare. Battling u
nforecast headwinds from South Carolina with her nonpilot husband, Roger, the couple had arrived home after dark.
“I was legally night current,” Wood said the next morning, “but wasn’t planning on night flight.” Her first challenge was finding urban Oakland/Troy Airport (VLL) under Detroit Class Bravo airspace, landlocked by obstacles and buildings. “All I saw were lights, everywhere.” Then, on the downwind leg of the traffic pattern, the runway lights—activated by a previous aircraft—went out.
Rattled, she keyed the mic too quickly to reactivate them. Fortunately, her former CFI Wayne Hendrickson was waiting to help hangar the airplane, and triggered the lights with his handheld radio.
Now flustered, Wood turned final for Troy’s obstructed 3,549-foot runway, high and too fast. So, she went around. But this time she flew downwind too near the runway and overshot final, destabilizing her approach. This began a dangerous chain of events…
“You’re So Vain…you flew your Learjet…to see the total eclipse of the sun,” taunted my friend Tom Lippert from the old Carly Simon song.
We laughed because he and his wife Laurel had just flown their Cessna 182, Henry, from Truckee, California, to meet our Flying Carpet in Hailey, Idaho for this year’s celestial event. Jean and I had originally planned to fly to Oregon, but amid predictions of gridlocked airports and roads I’d phoned Laurel and Tom, asking if and where they planned to view the eclipse.
“Greg, that’s three months away!” Laurel had chuckled. But upon learning that hotels and airport ramps were already filling, she proposed we rendezvous in Sun Valley where friends would loan us their condo. For 38 years, Jean has endured stories about the time I flew to Canada for a mid-winter total solar eclipse, on a weekend she had to work. (Flying Carpet, March, 2002) Now, finally, I hoped to share the experience with her.
As media hype grew, however, so did our concerns. Would there be room to land and park? Would the weather cooperate? Could we count on ground transportation? Should we bring groceries, assuming restaurants would be full and stores empty?
Then there was the route—traversing high mountains across Arizona, Utah, and Idaho, and transitioning Salt Lake City’s mountain-ringed Class Bravo airspace…
We’d cleared a nasty line of thunderstorms departing Flagstaff, surmounted a vivid rainbow, and now cruised cumulus-flecked skies toward Montrose, Colorado.
Although datalink weather suggested clear sailing the rest of the way, I’d previously learned the hard way that an empty weather screen doesn’t necessarily equal “no thunderstorms.” After an unknown-to-anyone squall line turned us around halfway to Montrose last year, I’d discovered the large weather-radar gap spanning the Four Corners area due to lack of antennae.
We’d been so traumatized by last year’s “U-Turn” and Jean’s subsequent 16-hour round-trip drive, that she’d investigated flying airlines this year instead. But between such remote locations, general aviation can indeed save money. Yes, Flying Carpet fuel would cost $4-500 to drop and retrieve Jean and her mother, but far less convenient Phoenix-to-Grand Junction airline tickets priced out at $750 apiece.
Fortunately, I’d learned from last year’s misadventure. This time I previewed online weather-radar coverage maps, and ADS-B ground-station coverage from which we’d receive weather and traffic data. (Sure enough, there’s an ADS-B gap, too.) I loaded lots of fuel for the remote route, allowing hundreds of miles’ diversion in case of unforecast weather.
Given minimal radar coverage, I monitored satellite imagery for telltale cloud buildups. And along with gathering weather for the few airports within 100 miles of our route, I scanned non-aviation station reports for the tiny Native American communities passing under our wings. Even “sunny,” “cloudy,” and “thunderstorm,” reports are better than nothing.
Even then, every distant shadow raised the specter of last year’s lurking weather…
“Never did I imagine ever finding myself in a place like this!” said Purna, as we lurched along the rutted cattle track, like characters from a Tony Hillerman Navajo detective novel. “Always I have lived in the city, and this is unlike anything I’ve ever imagined.”
My wife Jean and I had plucked the young native of India and her fellow graduate student, LeeAnne, from plush Scottsdale, where the two were visiting from Chicago.
Together we’d flown from urban landscape to high-desert plateau, notable from the air not so much for its own featureless surface, but rather for the distant buttes and mountains to which it leads one’s eyes.
Parched and treeless below us, high plains rolled like soft flesh to the horizon, slashed here and there by deep incisions cut by water zig-zagging through the land. What’s down there, I wondered, in those crevices rendered bottomless by harsh desert shadows?…
“Oh no! Not again!” said Jean when we arrived at the hangar. “This trip seems jinxed!”
A gargantuan steel-grey cloud wall spat lightning across the eastern sky, having sprouted in the hour since I last checked weather.
“Not a good omen so early in the morning,” I muttered to Jean’s chagrin. This was my second attempt to deliver her and her mother to visit relatives in Montrose, Colorado. Last year an unforecast and unreported 100-mile squall line turned us back mid-route, forcing my passengers to drive eight hours instead. It turns out that blank cockpit-weather displays don’t necessarily mean storm-free skies—a huge weather radar gap spans the Four Corners region and not even Flight Service knows what’s there. At least this year I knew weather avoidance would be strictly out the windshield for part of the trip, valuable planning knowledge where usable airports are hundreds of miles apart.
That assumed we could depart in the first place. Despite forecast clear skies, the north-south line of thunderstorms entirely blocked our northeasterly route, and daytime heating threatened further development. Could we safely circumvent the fast-growing line before it engulfed our airport? And if we could, what hazards might lurk in the weather-radar gap beyond?…
“Hello Greg! I’m back in Flagstaff with a group of Dutch students doing our annual video production workshop at NAU (Northern Arizona University).
“One show’s theme is ‘Arizona from Above,’ so I thought of you and your Flying Carpet. Would you consider working with them on a story?”
It was Charlie Hicks, former CBS-TV anchor and NAU faculty member, who now teaches International Media & Entertainment Management at the NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Anything to promote international relations, right?
Following approvals, student producer Floor van der Vlugt phoned to arrange the details. All three students were excited about flying, explained Floor, “but one is very nervous.”
I suggested we meet early for cooler and smoother flying and filming…
For pilots to be interested in space and science fiction is only “logical,” but few of us personally experience the interface.
I met Chris Barton when he was executive director of the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra.
He was intrigued by piloting, so we launched on local flying adventures. Even while savoring the controls, my friend was captivated by Meteor Crater and the unearthly volcanic landscape where Apollo astronauts trained for moon missions.
Our friendship and Chris’s flying were interrupted when he joined Florida’s Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra as executive director. So when he phoned recently about returning to Flagstaff for a concert, I offered to retrieve him from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport by Flying Carpet.
Navigating a Class B airport requires planning, but it’s always a kick. Phoenix controllers welcome light aircraft, and Cutter Aviation offers complimentary airline shuttles.
My first minutes with Chris were consumed by departure and taxi clearances. He oohed and ahhed as we swooped over futuristic clusters of docked jetliners on early turnout. Only after escaping congested airspace could I ask, “What’s new?”
“Actually, you won’t believe it!” exclaimed Chris…