One of my clearest childhood memories is of my father telling me, I suppose at the time of Sputnik, that he would not live long enough to see a Moon landing, but that I might. It was my first brush with mortality and I believed him with a heavy heart. Well, not only did he live to see the Apollo landings that helped spark my enthusiasm for aviation, but even their 25th anniversary! So will I see a man walk on Mars? Like my father, I don't think so, but he was wrong on this and maybe so am I ...
Meanwhile, the Arizona terrain has much in common with the surface of Mars, especially in the Grand Canyon area. Most people correctly assume that all flights within the Grand Canyon were prohibited years ago, even down to helicopter tour operators. Certainly, the idea of descending toward the river in a light aeroplane would prove very unpopular with the National Park Service, the FAA, and many others.
Now, the entire Canyon is restricted by a special rules area, as you can see in the chart:
But all is not lost... there is still one place where you can actually fly into the Grand Canyon! It is called Marble Canyon Airport and it is situated at the North end of the Canyon, close to Pearce Ferry where the pioneers first entered the river.
My 152 has insufficient fuel for the 40 million mile hop to Mars, but the terrain in this area looks strikingly similar to images of the Red Planet published in the last couple of years. Just look at this: the canyon from overhead Marble Cayon and the same place, more or less, on Mars. (Of course, the Martian 'river' might have consisted of liquid Carbon Dioxide, but that's a small detail..)
Look, especially, at the bend in the river.
The Mars picture is at left (or is it right?). When I first saw this image, I thought "I know this place!" and searching through my tapes, I found this fleeting glimpse of the North Canyon, taken on the climb out from Marble Canyon airstrip, that you see here. To me, it's uncanny. Mars is a real place, not just a pinprick in the sky. (You can click on the Mars picture to see a full view of this Martian Grand Canyon).
Perhaps one day small aircraft not unlike the 152 in size will explore this Martian landscape. But I sincerely doubt that their pilots, if they have pilots, will ever enjoy the freedom to roam fantastic landscapes at will that has somehow been handed to me in my little Cessna. Right now, I am privileged beyond words or my wildest boyhood dreams to have the fantastic Grand Canyon of the Colorado River as my playground and I will settle happily for that!
Marble Canyon is a 2Hr hop from Prescott in the 152, routing North to Valle, then NE to pick the Little Colorado river near it's confluence with the main river, and then back onto North again for the run across the Painted Desert. On approach to the marble Canyon area, the Echo Cliffs, familar to anyone who has driven the highway from Utah through the Arizona Strip Country, line the horizon for many miles.
Here the highway to Page, Arizona, climbs up the ramparts of the Grand Canyon to gain the Colorado Plateau.
This road actually follows a huge fault in the cliffs, where the sedimentary rocks have slipped during the colossal uplift that has elevated the Colorado Plateau several miles above the sea level where it was originally formed. (By the way, you might notice that in the Mars picture there seem to be sedimentary rocks in the cliffs as well, revealed by a disctinct band of colour in the slope of the bluffs, perhaps laid down under some ancient sea...).
We take advantage of the giant fault to climb up through the escarpment and out on to the vast Colorado Plateau.
The reason for this manoevre is that to the West, the Grand Canyon special rules area prohibits flight below 2000' above the rim. Soon, however, we will be able to turn left toward the Canyon, entering a special zone surrounding the marble Canyon airstrip, where flight is permitted.
Here at last is the view from the perspective of the IMAX theatre seat: crossing low over the Canyon rim, the world below falling away for half a mile, down to the inner gorge. It is a remarkable sensation, the pictures conveying little of the sheer magnitude of this landscape. Actually, the Canyons on Mars are much larger: the one in the photo is 2 or 3 miles deep. It is very tempting to go close to the terrain in this remote country, but the wind is Westerly today and I would not want to get caught out by turbulence at the rim. Anyway, there is little time to enjoy the sensation of entering the Grand Canyon for the first time, because I am looking for tour traffic crossing my track and setting up to join the pattern at Marble Canyon.
Down, now, into the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Here are the bridges, 500' above the river, and the strip on the far side. (The strange circle is a parking lot!) If you look out for them you will see these bridges in a lot of movies: the older one, on the right, built when this road was opened up in the 30's, is now closed to traffic and ideal for filming. The new bridge was built in the 70's and had to stick to the same design.
Into the pattern we go. Not many base legs look quite like the one above! And then, the turn on to final, looking back on to North. This strip has a pronounced 'hump back' to it, no problem to a 152, but challenging to the pilot of a fast twin who decided to go around, didn't make it, braked again, and ran into a brand-new camper van parked on the apron at the end of the runway (according to local legend). This is a high altitude strip and very hot in summer.
And so here we are, on the ground in the Grand Canyon and 40,000,000 miles from home....