Flying in Arizona's Scenic Wonderland

Grand Canyon

No natural wonder could live up to expectations more than Grand Canyon. I have had the privilege of traveling there many times over the last 20 years, although I have never yet made the trip down to the River. One day! My daughter learnt her first word - Hi! - at the Grand Canyon village and I have visited many of the more remote scenic overlooks that are so populous in Summer, but deserted in Winter.
Most memorable of all was a trip to the deserted North Rim Lodge before dawn one November morning to watch the dark and starry sky lighten with the approaching dawn, casting fantastic shadows across the canyon floor in total silence. And I was not quite alone, 65 miles from the highway and eons from civilisation in time and space.
Driving back across the broad alpine meadows that straddle the North Rim Road, a lone wolf stood in my path. Desperately I fumbled the controls of my camera. The proud wolf eyed me up, turned and nonchalantly strolled away. As I desperately tried to re-start the camera, which I had switched off instead of on, he faded into the tree line and disappeared. But he was there - really.

Edited 2004 to say that the chart shown here is out of date now. The boundaries of the SFRA have been extended to cover the Little Colorado river, making the flight described in Little Colorado unrepeatable. That's progress, I suppose...)

This is a 'clickable' map. Just click along the route to see some images along the way. (Click 'Back' to return to the map.)

(You can also see Marble Canyon, at the North end of the Canyon, where flights below the rim are permitted)

The grand canyon airport is about 80 miles North of Prescott, an easy 1 Hour hop for a 152 across the most fantastic landscapes on Earth.

I have flown to the canyon from Las Vegas several times, but always turned back before the Grand Canyon airport because of the frantic sight seeing traffic that makes Grand Canyon (GCN) one of the busiest general aviation airports in the world. However, today is Thanksgiving Thursday, and I have found on a previous trip up here that local pilots prefer turkey to flying on this special day.
This morning, only the dedicated controllers are working and on my flight from Prescott to the canyon I have not seen or hears another aircraft. So today, I will fly the Canyon! In a 152! I land at GCN for fuel. Full tanks are a good plan in Canyon country, although that would be a different story on a hot summers day with two on board. Like the controllers, the FBO is working and I am soon ready for departure again. GCN's runway is 9000' long, and at an elevation of 6606', they need it.
One of the first things they hammer into your head at North Las Vegas airport when you check out to fly in this terrain is Density Altitude, a term so little known in England that when I first bought my Garmin GPS, the technical man at Garmin UK had never even heard of it, much less explain why it didn't work. (It does now, following my complaint!)

On this cool November day, there is nothing unusual about the little Cessna's ground roll, probably using not more than 1500' of the available runway. But be warned: the temperature here can get to 100F and my Garmin says that equates to more than 10,000'. How well does your 4 seater climb up there? And that's after you've avoided the tour traffic (It says in the book that if you hear traffic stacking over the holding points, go somewhere else).

But not on this Thanksgiving morning. I am the traffic at GCN today, with nothing but the vista of the world's greatest landmark for company. As I climb, the tower offers me a frequency for flight following, which I decline (afterwards, I wonder if they were trying to tell me something). Flight following is a radar service available to VFR pilots and I understand that they will even steer you around the canyon's landmarks if you ask. Yes there is radar coverage up here and the transponder is blinking at intervals. But today is strictly own navigation.
The canyon itself is governed by very strict aviation rules to minimise noise impact on the wilderness below and no flights are allowed below 14,500' over large parts of the area. However, there are VFR corridors crossing the canyon N-S in the GCN area and it is these that I plan to fly. The Dragon corridor will lead me NE across the canyon to the West of the Bright Angel trail, which the central no-fly corridor is designed to protect. Then I will cross to the East, joining the Zuni Point corridor Southbound en route for my return to Prescott.
There are also low level tour routes snaking between landmarks in a constant series of tight turns, requiring total familiarity with every part of the terrain. It seems you need a special permit for this, and there's no way you could stick to the designated tracks without being trained over the routes. Even then, no flight is allowed below 2000' above the canyon rim, so the days of flying down to the river are long gone. To cross the Canyon northbound, you need to get to 11,500'.

Yes, 11,500' in a 152. I make lazy orbits SW of the airport, taking about 20min to get up there. As I approach the south end of the Dragon corridor, I announce my intention to cross on the advisory frequency. An astonished voice comes back "What? In a 152? How long did it take you to get up there?" I tell him, pleased to have an admirer (actually, he thinks that I'm mad, of course).

Still 15mi South of the rim, the vast splendour of the canyon at it's widest point opens before me. 25 miles across and a mile deep, this chasm rivals the English channel as an obstacle to travel. The distant North rim is 1000' higher than the South, much colder and at this time of year, completely deserted. Apart from the Wolves.

I cross the rim, more than a mile above. there is no sensation of falling over the cliff at this level - just the widening vista as the grand staircase of geologic time falls away, one step at a time. Countless millions of years of deposition lie exposed here, the grains of ancient sandstone and the tiny shells of long dead sea animals forming layers of rock hundreds of feet thick.

Every band in these rocks is a layer of deposition, anywhere from a few thousand to a million years of time, sediments laid down in a world quite different to our own. Looking at the flat land of the Colorado plateau, it is striking to reflect on the thousands of feet of sediment that once laid above this land, and is now eroded away as though it had never been.

Right at the edge of the rim here, the limestone sediment is the bed of an ancient sea. These were Jurassic times, and Dinosaurs ruled the land. Huge Pterosaurs, some as big as this 152, lived not far from here. Imagine an airmiss with one of those!

Between the limestone layers are episodes of red sandstone, laid down when this land was a barren red desert. Imagine the sea of time, flowing from one era to the next, sometimes a warm tropical sea, sometimes a hostile desert... But no need to imagine: It is all here, laid out before your very own eyes, in this Grand Canyon.

Setting out across this colossal abyss feels exactly like setting out across a cold and hostile ocean, or at least in my experience the very cold and unwelcoming Irish sea. Soon I am far from gliding range of the rim, and searching for rocks that look flat enough if an emergency arose. There aren't any.

I know that the Bright Angel trail crosses flat terraces on it's long and winding way down to the river, and resolve that I would try for one of those if the need occurred. I suppose I could get down somewhere...

And now, here is the river. The great Colorado, power and life to Southwest, winds through tiny canyons far below. Of course, the 'tiny canyons' are vast gorges in their own right, but are simply swallowed up by the grandeur of the landscape. Down in the inner gorge are some of the oldest rocks exposed anywhere on Earth, 2 thousand million years old, half way back to the birth of the Solar System.

Up here, two miles above the river, none of the power and glory of this scene is lost on the pilot of a tiny 152. But more pressing matters are at hand: "Fly the aeroplane" rings through the mind. The Dragon corridor here is only a few miles wide, and wandering off track here might mean big trouble with the park Rangers.

Happily the magnificent sectional charts supplied by the FAA contain every detail needed to explore this wilderness, including on some charts photographs of prominent landmarks at the ends of the VFR corridors. I use these landmarks for my primary navigation, with the trusty GPS already programmed with each corridor co-ordinates as back up against mis-reading the unfamiliar terrain.

Back in 1991 the FAA published 'VFR Pilots briefing pamphlet' describing the special rules are that surrounds the canyon and details of the corridors and 'no fly zones'. This part of the U.S. looks more like northern Iraq than Arizona! I don't know if the pamphlet is still available, but I'd recommend it to any intrepid aviators entering this territory.

It takes 20 minutes to fly across the canyon in the Dragon corridor, 20 glorious minutes of maintaining heading, speed and altitude while trying to absorb the entire geologic history of the world in one continuous vision. Nowhere else could one hope to see so much of the Earth, from high above and yet feeling as though immersed in the scenery all around.

Soon, we are crossing over the North Rim, noticeably closer to the aeroplane because of the higher AGL. I continue inland to my turning point, calculated to avoid the restricted airspace surrounding the North Rim Lodge. The terrain here is heavily forested, on contrast to the open prairie of the South rim plateau.

Now, I turn East. Away to my left is the North Rim Road, punctuated by the same Alpine meadows, in one of which I met my lone Wolf

Now, I turn onto an Easterly heading to intercept the Northern entry to the Southbound Zuni Point corridor. I begin a gradual descent to 10,500' , the crossing level southbound

Soon, the North Canyon comes into view . Here the Canyon makes a 90 degree turn, heading up to Page, Airizona and Lake Powell.. We will cross the North canyon to the point where the little Colorado river enters the main confluence, and then turn South to cross the Zuni Point corridor. From there, it is straight run home to Prescott.

Perhaps 100 miles to the North towers the monolithic bulk of Navajo mountain.

In the foreground, the chasm of the North Canyon opens up. Of to the left of the aeroplane, fantastic folds give evidence to how this plateau was forced up two miles into the sky by the colossal forces of tectonic plate movement, the lighter continental plate floating upwards over the subducted oceanic Pacific plate below.

And so to home. I turn south over the canyon's Eastern wall, entering the Zuni Point corridor and 40 miles of the Colorado river to Desert View, where I leave the SFRA and set course for home.

The Canyon of the Little Colorado, Looking East toward New Mexico
The canyon of the Little Colorado river winds westward from Cameron, Arizona to join the Grand Canyon at Cape Solitude. As I prepare to turn on to South, smoke from forest fires burning on the North Rim give an illusion of mist in the late afternoon sun.
The view looking South along the River
I track South past Temple Butte along the river, entering the Zuni corridor.

The run back to Prescott across the vast Colorado plateau takes me overhead Bill Williams Mountain.
The controller at Prescott, said to be the 7th busiest in the US in terms of aircraft movements, seems pleased to hear from me and scans the desert sky while I am still many miles away. (no radar at Prescott!). Finally he sees me and grants that unique honour at Prescott (for VFR traffic, anyway) of a straight in approach.
It is an inestimable privilege to be allowed to fly freely in the skies of this fantastic country and now, with the free run of Prescott's normally teeming airport, the feeling of being the only flier in this whole continent is complete.

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