“Summer Sightseeing,” Greg’s August, 2014 Flying Carpet column

GrandFallsLittleColoradoRiverAloft_0231eSmw1200Not all who wander are lost

Once or twice a year I hear of friends visiting “Grand Falls,” a seasonal waterfall on Arizona’s Little Colorado River. Although the little-known 185-foot desert cataract is taller than Niagara Falls, it runs in volume only occasionally following mountain snow-melt, monsoon thunderstorms, or rare widespread rain.

Jean and I have always wanted to visit the landmark, but have been hampered both by its ephemeral water flow, and by the tortuous drive over primitive roads to reach its remote location northeast of Flagstaff. The rugged journey favors high-clearance vehicles, and traveling in pairs in case of breakdown. Invariably we either hear too late that the falls have been running, or are otherwise committed when invited to go.

Given the magnitude of the waterfall when flowing, I’d always assumed it would also be exciting to view from the air. But it’s not marked on sectional charts, nor many other maps for that matter, so finding it seemed a task in itself.

3-GregBrownFT814_0192eSmw1200Then one late-summer morning I found myself desperate to fly. Not having been aloft in weeks, and armed with a new camera that demanded “testing,” I decided on a lark to seek out Grand Falls and mark it for future reference in my GPS navigator. There’d been little rain lately, so I didn’t expect the falls to be running. But knowing their location would be useful for a future aerial visit when the right opportunity arose.

I first gleaned general coordinates and nearby landmarks via Internet search. I also knew the Little Colorado River runs northwestward from Winslow to ultimately join the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. By intercepting the Little Colorado near Winslow and tracing it downstream, I should easily find Grand Falls.

2-GregBrownFT814_0185eSmw1200The instant I departed the ground, I knew I’d picked the right day to fly. The sky sparkled cobalt, punctuated by snowy puffs of fair-weather cumulus. No sooner had I turned downwind for departure than I was mesmerized by a huge field of vivid yellow wildflowers bordering Lake Mary southeast of town. I diverted in that direction and sailed over the sea of golden blossoms. Floating in their midst like a spidery space station was the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer, an observatory that collects starlight from distant galaxies via widely dispersed light tubes, and calculates their distance from Earth via parallax.

Following a joyous few minutes savoring chrome-yellow flowers, I departed Flagstaff’s pine forest over high desert to intercept the Little Colorado River. I found it chiseled as if by a coping saw through crimson rock north of Winslow. Tracing the channel toward its distant Colorado River junction, I almost missed Grand Falls, as it proved virtually invisible from the upstream side. But for whatever reason, I happened to glance back. To my surprise and delight given the dry summer weather, the falls flowed vigorously.

READ THE WHOLE STORY in this month’s Flying Carpet column, “Summer Sightseeing.” (Please allow a moment for the article to load.)

Top photo: At 185 feet, Arizona’s “Grand Falls,” is taller than Niagara (note cars in foreground), but flows in volume only a few times a year. Upper right: Late-summer wildflowers tint the Coconino Plateau near Flagstaff, Arizona. Lower left: Wildflowers envelop the Navy Precision Optical Observatory. SEE MORE PHOTOS!

(This column first appeared in the July, 2014 issue of AOPA Flight Training magazine.)

©2014 Gregory N.Brown

“Space Travelers,” Greg’s July, 2014 Flying Carpet column

MeteorCraterSnowSunsetAloft-J_0791eSmw1200Viewing Earth through fresh eyes

“My favorite moment was circling that huge crater on the way back to Flagstaff from Window Rock,” said my sister Leslie when asked what she’d most enjoyed about her Arizona holiday. “Having always been fascinated with sci-fi and outer space, it was branded in my brain that ‘this is the closest I’ll ever get to the cosmos!'”

Leslie and her husband Lindsay recently visited from Philadelphia. Along with driving trips to the Grand Canyon and the historic mining town of Jerome, I’d offered flying primarily to access additional destinations during their stay.

Our first aerial excursion was to Arizona’s old territorial capital of Prescott, where we viewed a photo show, wandered art galleries, and toured the 150-year-old log Governor’s Mansion. Instead of driving the 3-hour round trip, we flew 35 minutes each way. En route, we surveyed the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness, and previewed mountainside Jerome from above.

Everyone seemed to enjoy that flying trip, so I proposed another that seemed purely selfish at the time: to visit my Navajo pilot buddy Tyler and his family while he was home from college. There wasn’t time to drive 7 hours round-trip to Window Rock, but it’s only an hour away by Flying Carpet. The vermillion Painted Desert and golden spires of the Navajo Nation over which we flew are so different from the rolling green beauty of Pennsylvania, that I was surprised when our guests said little about it […]

GregBrownFT614_ReentryRocketSmw1200I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised about the couple’s space interests, however. Outside their day jobs, Leslie is a beadwork artist, and Lindsay a wood sculptor. Among other subjects, each crafts sci-fi and space pieces.

orbit-3-3-qtr-view-6-2010Leslie fashions beadwork spacecaft, planets, and ray guns — one of her rockets is in NASA’s space-art collection — while Lindsay artistically interprets planetary orbits…

READ THE WHOLE STORY in this month’s Flying Carpet column, “Space Travelers.” (Please allow a moment for the article to load.)

Top photo: Rare snow frosts Arizona’s Meteor Crater, at sunset.” At right: “Re-Entry Rocket (or Monday),” NASA Space Art Collection. Design and glass beadwork by Leslie B. Grigsby. Lower left: Orbit #3 by Lindsay Grigsby. SEE MORE PHOTOS!

(This column first appeared in the July, 2014 issue of AOPA Flight Training magazine.)

©2014 Gregory N.Brown

“A Pilot Again!” Greg’s June, 2014 Flying Carpet column

GregBrownFT714_1570edeSmw1200Back in the cockpit after nine years away

What a kick, for Mary Katherine Jackson to experience her dad piloting an airplane. Sure, she knew his credentials, but their previous father-daughter flight was nearly beyond memory, when she was just six years old.

Richard Jackson crafts exhibit prints for fine-art photographers. The day we met, he was printing National Geographic’s iconic, “Afghan Girl,” cover photo for famed photographer Steve McCurry. Only when we later began working together did I learn of Richard’s aviation background. As a US Air Force combat photographer in Viet Nam, he documented military action from such legendary aircraft as the F-100 “Thud,” C-130 Hercules, and Chinook and Huey helicopters.

Following his tour, Richard qualified as an instrument-rated commercial pilot. He’d accumulated 1,100 hours and was training for his CFI when personal and career pressures derailed his flying during a busy period of his life.

GregBrownFT714_1566eSmw1200Then, 2½ years ago, Richard and I flew from Flagstaff to Phoenix to proof some prints. Remembering his piloting background, I offered the controls as we taxied out. He never returned them.

Seven years after his previous flight, Richard expertly took off, negotiated traffic and radar vectors to Sky Harbor International Airport, and landed, all from the right seat. Based on the joy in his eyes and his virtuoso performance, I urged him to get current again.

“One of these days, I will,” he replied. While Richard’s piloting passion and skills clearly survived, the requisite resources, motivation, and time had yet to converge. More concerning was something unspoken. Experience tells me the confidence to go back to piloting erodes long before the competence does. Flight proficiency usually returns quickly even after a long hiatus; the bigger obstacle is turning the key and driving to the airport. And the longer pilots are away from flying, the less likely they’ll return to it…

READ THE WHOLE STORY in this month’s Flying Carpet column, “A Pilot Again!” (Please allow a moment for the article to load.)

Photo: Richard Jackson treats daughter Mary Katherine to a ride, on his first command flight after returning to the cockpit.

(This column first appeared in the June, 2014 issue of AOPA Flight Training magazine.)

©2014 Gregory N.Brown

“Pep Rally,” Greg’s May, 2014 Flying Carpet column

StudentPilotPepTalkFacebookGroup-MeyerEclipseJet_0854eSmw1200Share your gift of flight

When pilots-in-training get disheartened, a few well-placed words of encouragement can often keep them flying. So several years ago I organized a “Student Pilot Pep Talk” Facebook group.

Friendships blossomed, and some Southwest-area members recently proposed our first-ever fly-in rendezvous at Lake Havasu City Airport, Arizona (KHII). I asked along student pilot Victoria Coleman, who’d recently celebrated her first solo. When Victoria boasted of her husband Paul helping her study, I invited him too.

Victoria and I agreed that rather than make this a “lesson,” we’d share piloting duties as equals: she’d handle the radios and navigate while I flew. Once aloft, Paul enthused about his wife’s newfound skills.

“We recently bought property in Pagosa Springs,” he said. “Victoria will be able to pilot us there!” Although Victoria was yet to start cross-country training, she’d thoroughly scouted our route and destination airport, and compiled relevant radio frequencies. And though new to aerial navigation, she precisely tracked our location via outside landmarks. It turned out she’s always loved maps, and as a child aspired to be a cartographer.

“You’re a natural at this!” I said.

“I felt that way, until the other day,” Victoria replied. “I recently had a great solo day in the pattern. But last time I flew, there was a light crosswind. I wasn’t sure I could handle it, so I landed. Now I’m nervous about mastering landings, and about flying by myself…”

READ THE WHOLE STORY in this month’s Flying Carpet column, “PEP RALLY.” (Please allow a moment for the article to load.)

Photo: Members of Greg’s “Student Pilot Pep Talk” Facebook Group rendezvous at Lake Havasu City Airport, Arizona. L-R: Mike Hardison, Ken Meyer, Bijan Maleki and Miranda Rydstrom, Brian and Theresa Farley, Paul and Victoria Coleman, Paul Meehl, and Shari Meyer. SEE MORE PHOTOS HERE.

(This column first appeared in the May, 2014 AOPA Flight Training magazine.)

©2014 Gregory N.Brown

“Fickle Snow,” Greg’s April, 2014 Flying Carpet column

SedonaSnowshowersAloft_0743PS_v2-Edit-2eSmw1200Little room for error

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…

READ THE WHOLE STORY in this month’s Flying Carpet column, “FICKLE SNOW.” (Please allow a moment for the article to load.)

Photo: Sunset illuminates an isolated snow shower over Sedona, Arizona, on our flight home. 

(This column first appeared in the April, 2014 AOPA Flight Training magazine.)

©2014 Gregory N.Brown