***I know this is not the usual type of trip report you see here but I wanted to share my experience and I thought the people who frequent this forum could all appreciate the experience.***
For anyone who doesn’t think having your pilot’s license and flying a general aviation aircraft somewhere is a viable alternative to the airlines consider this. I live 45 minutes and $4.75 from Denver International Airport (from my house a toll road offers the only direct route). You need to arrive at least 2 hours prior to your flight to account for parking, check in and security. Then there is your flight time, Denver to Las Vegas is 1 ½ hours. Then with your fingers crossed you get the pleasure of waiting 45 minutes for your bags. Finally add in 30 to 90 minutes for getting a shuttle van or taxi to drive you to your hotel or waiting in line a riding a shuttle to an off airport lot to pick up a rental car. Using my public school math skills that comes out to be about 5 ½ to 7 hours. Now I see why most folks feel the worst part of their vacation is getting there.
Since I am working on my Commercial pilot’s license and I still need 40 hours to meet the minimum flight time requirement I decided that I was going to fly myself to Las Vegas. Making some long distance trips seems like a better alternative to 40 one hour flights to the practice area and looking at farm fields and houses. Time is time, and I figure it’s better to use my license and have some fun at the same time. My flight school has a very nice Cessna 182 to rent and this airplane is built for cross country flying. Roomier and faster than a 172 and it has all the latest gizmos and gadgets to make cross country flying not only easy but extremely safe and efficient. Flight time was estimated to be around 6 hours. I had planned one fuel stop at about the half way point but that was more for the benefit of my bladder than for the airplane.
I know what the pundits are saying. Southwest and Frontier have cheap flights to Vegas from Denver. That is correct, but those deals are not always available and when they are available they are only for certain day’s times. You better be constantly watching your email and quick on your keyboard if you want to catch those fares. Flying yourself on the other hand allows you to go when you want to leave. How much is your time worth to you? That cheap ticket price is only for your 1 ½ hour flight. What about the other 4 hours you spent in a line or circling the parking lot. By the time you arrive you are so upset dealing with people who hate their jobs and the rest of the rude passengers on your flight that you can’t start to enjoy your vacation until after a drink in the hotel bar. Now I will grant you that my trip was not cost effective because I do not own the airplane. However, since I am working towards a rating I would have spent the rental fee anyways. I might as well have some fun while I am at it. This experience is just another reason for me to own my own airplane.
Friday 20 July 2007
Departure day dawned calm and beautiful. The weather briefing called for some patchy fog and low ceilings at my departure airport but when I arrived the whole area was clear of clouds. Weather wise it looked to be smooth sailing all the way to Vegas. I had planned an early morning departure so as to beat any afternoon thunderstorms that are ever so common in Colorado and the southwest. The airplane I was flying is not pressurized and the regulations state that without supplemental oxygen I cannot fly over 12,500 feet for longer than 30 minutes. Colorado as you know has some pretty big hills to the west and it would take significant altitude and time to clear them direct. Therefore I planned my route to go around them down to the south and then turn west. My filed flight plan was as follows
KBJC V81 BRK PUB V611 CIM FTI V190 ABQ
This would take us (my friend and fellow pilot Justin was coming with me) to Double Eagle II
airport in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Takeoff from runway 29R occurred at 0715 local time, 30 minutes later than I had originally hoped for. No problem though since I am flying myself its no big deal to be a little late. Turning south we get on with Denver departure to get traffic advisories through the busy Denver and Colorado Springs airspace. Denver cleared us to our filed altitude of 11,500 feet and we head south towards our first fix. After being handed off to Colorado Springs approach we get the standard “remain east of Meadow Lake airport” instruction which keeps us clear of the Colorado Spring’s airport. This deviation takes us slightly east of our planned route but I had anticipated this and planned it into our flight time estimate. The fog and low ceilings that were forecasted in my weather briefing were a reality over Colorado Springs. Flying along at 11,500 we were on top of a nice cloud layer that blanketed the Colorado Springs airport. Once clear of their airspace we were cleared direct to the Pueblo VOR and then on course. The clouds became patchy at best and then pretty much disappeared completely. It was a perfect day for flying. After crossing the Pueblo VOR we made the decision to use a shortcut through the mountains over LaVeta pass. This is the preferred route for traveling between Colorado and New Mexico, however depending on the time of day and the weather conditions it is more prudent to go the long way. I won’t go into mountainous areas if there is any cloud cover, mountain obscuration or high winds. Today it was clear and very little wind, so we amended our flight plan with Flight Service to reflect our new routing and off we went. LaVeta pass is very mild and can be easily cleared at 11,500 feet. We went to 12,000 just for an extra margin of safety. Once you clear the pass it opens into a very wide valley that offers some beautiful views but more importantly many escape routes so that you can turn back should conditions worsen or you have engine problems. Once across the pass and through the valley a bit we go GPS direct to Los Alamos and from there direct into the Albuquerque area. We landed at the Double Eagle II
(KAEG) airport just after 10 A.M.
After a bathroom break, quick snack and a weather briefing we were on our way to Las Vegas. The filed route for this portion was
V12 ZUN INW
PGS KADDY.KADD1 KHND.
We again filed VFR but planned to pick up an IFR clearance around Flagstaff. The airspace in and around Las Vegas is very busy and since I paid for the rating I figured I should use it to my advantage when I could.
This portion of the trip is pretty much a straight shot west across the northern portion of New Mexico and Arizona. I think the landscape in this part of the country is gorgeous. It may not be big beautiful mountains and trees like in Colorado, but the desert has its own charm. There certainly is not much out there although it is relatively flat and therefore offers some options for an emergency landing. One of the things I do on a long cross country is to constantly scan and pick out where I would go if the engine quit or I had an emergency. I want to immediately begin dealing with the problem and know where I am going to go. Also, I don’t want to be one of those pilots who in an emergency did not remember that they just passed an airport and instead they pus their airplane down in a field.
Just outside of Winslow, Arizona I look to my left and see this huge hole. We look at the sectional and amazingly enough it is on the map. It is labeled meteor crater. After I got home I looked up this place on the internet and evidently it is a pretty popular attraction complete with a visitor’s center and a museum. The crater itself is very impressive especially from above. It is nearly a mile wide and if my metric conversion skills are accurate it is almost 500’ deep. Is this the one that killed the dinosaurs?
As we approached Winslow, Arizona I can’t help thinking of the song by the Eagles where Glenn Frey sings “standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona such a fine sight to see”. Apparently they have a park in Winslow that is the Standing on the Corner Park and you can have your picture taken by the sign. Maybe I will do just that my next time out this way. I find myself humming “Take it easy” as we over fly Winslow.
There was no mistaking that we were rapidly approaching Flagstaff as Mount Humphrey, Arizona’s highest peak at over 12,000 feet, started to fill the windshield. I regret not getting a picture, but I was busy picking up our IFR clearance into Las Vegas. Turned out to be a good idea as there was a lot of smoke and haze in the area, so much that visibility while still technically still legal for VFR was very limited and I would not have been comfortable flying around blind. I never did find out what was the cause but I suspect there was a wildfire in the area.
Our clearance had us flying V291 to PGS and then continuing on V291 for radar vectors to Henderson Executive airport. They had us climb to 12,000 feet until well after Peach Springs and then we started a systematic descent to 6,100 feet. Our last descent to 4500 feet just cleared us over a ridge south of the airport. It was a very impressive sight as we skimmed across and then saw the Las Vegas strip come into view. After clearing the ridge it was a rapid descent to pattern altitude and then into a left downwind for runway 17L. There was a pretty good gusty crosswind during our landing but it was easily manageable. As we taxied in we noticed the winds died down to practically nothing as the Pilatus PC
-12 who had been on our tail the whole way in made a greaser landing.
The folks at the Henderson airport could not have been more professional or friendly. You would have thought we flew in on a Gulfstream not just a little Cessna. The lineperson greeted us at our plane and helped us tie down. She had a bottle of cold water for us as she drove us to the terminal. The airport folks just needed my cell phone number and gave me a card with the number to call for fuel when we were ready to depart. The folks at Enterprise had all the paperwork for our car ready, all I had to do was sign. All in all within 15 minutes of shutting down the engine we were on the road to our airport. Try landing at McCarran and being on the way to your hotel in 15 minutes.
To be honest as much as I love Vegas, the trip in was more exciting than the time in Vegas. As I was bleeding chips at the Poker table in Caesars I couldn’t help but think that I was probably the only person at the table with their own plane waiting for them at the airport. Unlike when you travel by the airlines the best part of my vacation was the getting there. Everyone else had an itinerary to keep and I had the freedom to leave when I wanted. The shuttle service from the hotel to the airport is never convenient and usually results in you sitting around the airport for hours before your flight. If I wanted to sleep a little longer on departure day I could. Heck, if I won big at the poker table I could even stay a few extra days if I wanted.
Sunday July 22 2007
Win big I did not, but sleep in I did this morning. It was a longer night before than I had planned and I wanted to make sure I got at least 8 hours of sleep before flying home. It wound up being about 10 which was a good thing. I had a long day ahead of me. I had my fingers crossed for a tailwind, but even then I knew I was going to lose an hour flying eastbound so a long day it would be no matter what.
After topping off the rental car and grabbing a quick bite at McDonald’s we returned to Henderson airport. Before leaving the hotel I called and had them top of the 182’s tanks so upon arrival all I had to do was turn in the car. This proved as painless as picking it up two days prior. The weather briefing was all good news and contained all the usual warnings about scattered thunderstorm activity. Flying in Colorado and the southwest you quickly learn that every day in the summer they forecast thunderstorms. The conditions are perfect for storms every day but that doesn’t mean they always materialize. If I chose not to fly solely based on the forecast I would probably never leave the ground in the summer months. I paid for the fuel and we got another bottle of cold water and a courtesy ride to our airplane. We did a preflight and then started the engine. Justin programmed the flight plan in while I taxied us to runway 35L for departure. We departed VFR because I had heard horror stories of waiting up to 30 minutes waiting for an IFR release from Vegas departure control. We took off to the north and immediately turned left to avoid entering McCarran’s airspace and began climbing in order to clear the ridge to the south. We had to stay under 5,000 feet until the ridge to stay clear of Class B airspace. This meant flying south a little farther out before turning east so as to pass the ridge at its lowest point. Once clear of the ridge we could climb to 5,900 and 5 NM
later we could go to 7,900. By this point we had begun our turn on course southeast bound. About 20 NM
outside of Henderson we were free to climb to our filed altitude of 10,500.
Again as we approached Flagstaff we called to pick up an IFR clearance. We were noticing some buildup of clouds in front of us and we did not want to have to be constantly flying over, under or around them. Los Angeles center at first did not seem to want to give us a clearance. They kept asking if we were still in VFR conditions and we were but the clouds were getting heavier so we told them that if we continue on our present course we would not remain VFR and they finally granted us a clearance. The routing they gave us mirrored our filed VFR route except they had us climb to 12,000. We were ok with this because it meant that we were guaranteed some actual instrument time as the cloud levels all seems to start around 11,500 feet.
I have had my instrument rating over a year now but have never logged actual instrument flight time. It has all been simulated either in a flight simulator or “under the hood”. Flying in Colorado makes it very difficult to get actual instrument time because when you have clouds in Colorado it is either too cold and you have the threat of ice or it is the middle of summer and those clouds all contain thunderstorms. I felt both excitement and trepidation as we approached the first cloud that we would be flying through. The 182 that I was flying is relatively new and has all the latest and greatest gadgets and gizmos onboard. One of those gadgets is XM
weather. After this experience I believe that onboard weather radar is a must have. Most of the clouds in front of us were pretty menacing looking on the outside but they were not even registering on the radar which meant they did not have any rain showers or lightning in them. Without the benefit of radar I would have more than likely avoided them and flown around them. I learned also that even the ones that show up as green on the radar are ok to fly through. Green indicates light precipitation and probably no turbulence. Yellow on the radar would indicate a bumpy ride and defiantly some rain but again safe to fly through. Orange and red are definite no no’s and you divert around those every time. Even the airliners will divert around those types of clouds.
We had planned a side trip to Sedona, Arizona on our way home. Sedona is a very beautiful area and the airport is one of those that you just want to add to your list of places you have flown into. The airport sits atop a 400’ mesa and looks rather challenging but I have been told it is not a difficult approach. The radar showed Sedona getting all sorts of precipitation and after talking with a friend of mine who lives in Flagstaff he confirmed that Sedona did indeed get pounded that day and that even if we wanted to we would not have gotten in there.
We passed the next hour or so listening to all the airline traffic dodge the storms we could see to the south and north. It made me feel a little spoiled when I would hear the regional airliners call up and ask for weather updates because they did not have radar on board. The spoiled feeling quickly turns to a feeling of relief as I heard the controller tell them that their equipment is only about 50% accurate so don’t believe everything that I tell you. I was also feeling a bit privileged to be able to just fly through the clouds rather than dodging them like we saw and heard the VFR traffic doing. After this trip I felt that getting my instrument rating was the best decision I ever made. I certainly felt a higher level of safety and confidence while flying in and around the weather.
As we approached Albuquerque we finally had to divert to the south a bit to get around a pretty good sized cloud. We could see the rain coming down from it and just did not feel it was worth the risk and the discomfort in flying through it. It was during this diversion I encountered my first “sucker hole” and it was here that I was most thankful for the onboard weather equipment. A “sucker hole” as its title suggests is a hole in the cloud that normally suckers pilots into bad situations. Typically the hole closes around the pilot after he enters it and now he can’t see where he is going. If not properly trained in this situation you can very quickly wind up in a stall/spin situation and those are usually fatal in the clouds. This particular hole was a perfect window through the cloud and the perfect size for our 182. In fact as you looked through it you could see Albuquerque and sunshine on the other side, very, very tempting. As I was admiring the view and thinking we should go through there, the lightning detector on the radar registered a strike right in the center of the hole. Now I understand why they are called “sucker holes”. A VFR pilot or someone without onboard weather would have probably flown right towards that hole hoping to save some time. They probably would have made it ok but then again they might not of. I love to gamble and play poker but I don’t like to gamble with my life. “Sucker holes” had to have gotten their name somehow and I think I understand how. We continued on our diversion, came around the backside and then were able to turn back north towards Albuquerque and Double Eagle II
Based on our experience on Friday we chose to stop at Double Eagle again. The cell we had diverted around had dumped a good amount of rain on the airport and the ramp was still wet. They were not busy and after fuel, the restroom and a snickers we were on our way. We took off VFR but being greedy for actual instrument time and seeing so many great clouds in front of us we called up center for an IFR clearance. We got one and they sent us up to 13,000 to clear some terrain. We advised them we could only be over 12,500 for 30 minutes and they promised to have us back down after we cleared the terrain. 20 minutes later we got a descent to 12,000 and we flew that the rest of the way home. We chose not to do the shortcut over LaVeta because the radar showed a lot of activity over that way and because it is in the mountains you have limited options when it comes to going around the cells. Turned out to be a good decision because there was a major cell over the Alamosa area and it was causing even the airliners to divert and take our routing. The remainder of the trip was pretty uneventful although the sights were all gorgeous. The sun was slowly setting to the west and the areas all seemed so fresh and clean from the rain. We eventually got on with Denver approach and received vectors right over downtown for Rocky Mountain Metro. One last visual landing, this time on 11L and we were home.
This trip may not have been cost effective when compared to an airline ticket but it was certainly more fun. The experience was so cool that I doubt am giving the experience the justice it deserves with these words. This was the first time other than my training cross countries that I have used an airplane to go somewhere distant and now I have the confidence and the knowledge that General Aviation is a viable alternative to the airlines. I may not take a 182 to New York, but I can see myself taking my family to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, or Phoenix for the weekend. The experience that I gained flying with the weather on the return trip was invaluable. You can read all you want about weather flying but until you experience it you never truly understand or appreciate it. I certainly am not saying that I am now experienced to fly anytime anywhere and in any conditions, but I do know that I will not be so quick to cancel a flight just because of a couple of clouds. If you’re a pilot and you read this story I hope that it inspires you to get out and use your license if you’re not already doing so. I am just sorry I waited so long to experience the real joys of flying.