Flying the Desert Southwest

One of my favorite things to do is long solo cross-country flights in the Bonanza. They are challenging and require quite a bit of planning.

In May of last year I arranged for some time off work and flew from Leesburg, Florida to the desert southwest, including New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. 

The plane was packed with 3 gallons of water, a Coleman cooler filled with snacks, a survival kit, an ePirb locator beacon and my grandfathers’s Model 1911 Colt .45. The Colt, with a nine round clip, was loaded with .45 ACP FMJ ammo in the event I needed to land out and shoot any rattlesnakes.


Sunday, May 24, 2009: Leesburg, FL (KLEE) to Tallahassee, FL (KLTH) to Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, LA (KOPL)

Nautical Miles Flown: 563

Fuel Burned: 45.6 gallons

Originally the plan was to fly out of Central Florida on Saturday, May 23rd, but the first part of the route was blocked with thunderstorms that day. Sunday improved a bit so I was “wheels up” for Santa Fe, NM, only to divert to Tallahassee because of more thunderstorms. I shot the ILS 18 into Tallahassee, landed and waited out the weather for a few hours in the pilots’ lounge before continuing. After several more deviations for weather south of New Orleans, my flight path was again blocked by thunderstorms. At this point, it was starting to get dark, so I stopped for the night in Opelousas, LA. (Wherever that is)

Monday, May 25: St. Landry Parish, Opelousas, LA (KOPL) over Longview, TX (GGG) to Wichita Valley, TX (F14) for a fuel stop. Then to Santa Fe, NM (KSAF)

Nautical Miles Flown: 770 (one stop)

Fuel Burned: 62.4 gallons

Monday morning the Opelousas/St. Landry Parish weather was CAVU. After some self-serve fuel, I departed northwest for my next planned stop, Wichita Valley, TX, (F14), northwest of Dallas. The flight over Longview, TX was over some low clouds, but soon the weather cleared up nicely for a visual approach into Wichita Valley. After refueling at F14, I took up a 282 degree heading across the high plains of West Texas, over the huge wind farms near Tucumcari, NM, and finally over the Southern Rockies into Santa Fe (KSAF). There was a strong westerly flow at altitude, so flying into Santa Fe from the east was a bit choppy.

Santa Fe Airport

Tuesday, May 26: Santa Fe, NM (KSAF) to Canyonlands Field, Moab, UT (KCNY).

Nautical Miles Flown: 284

Fuel Burned: 23 gallons

After walking around and having dinner in Old Santa Fe Monday evening, I left early the next morning for Moab, UT. In order to avoid the 13,000 foot tall southern Rockies, the best route was from Santa Fe, tracking Victor 62 west to CABZO intersection, then northwest along Victor 187 over Rattlesnake VOR, past the tall peaks near Durango, CO, over the Cortez (CEZ) and Dove Creek (DVC) VORs. After Dove Creek I was direct to Canyonlands Field (KCNY). This was a visually stunning flight as the New Mexico desert and Colorado mountains yielded to the verdant green Mesa Verde National Park in the Four Corners area, then the Utah rock formations.

Of all my stops the one in Moab was probably the most enjoyable. The next two days were spent solo hiking the Arches National Park, Negro Bill Canyon, the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. Balanced Rock, Landscape Arch and Delicate Arch are simply beautiful works of nature not to be missed.

The evenings were spent walking around Moab, an upscale, charming old west town. The town center is filled with restaurants, art galleries and boutique jewelers specializing in turquoise and silver. The Native American influence is unmistakable and very peaceful.

Friday, May 29: Moab, UT (KCNY) to Grand Canyon Airport (KGCN) over Cedar City UT and Page, AZ.

Nautical Miles Flown: 203

Fuel Burned: 16 gallons

This leg was also filled with stunning vistas from each of the aircraft cabin windows. It was hard to concentrate on flying, and at times I wished I was just a passenger so I could enjoy the view.

Departing the Moab Airport, I turned southwest and overflew Canyonlands National Park and the Island in the Sky. Attached are some photos of the convergence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, taken from a vantage point that only a few ever get to experience. Continuing towards the Grand Canyon Airport, I overflew Page, Arizona and Lake Powell. I deviated a bit to the south for the arrival into KGCN to avoid a thunderstorm. The nice thing about flying out west is that you can see the t-storms literally hundreds of miles away, unlike the embedded ones we get here in the southeast.

Grand Canyon Airport

The next day was spent touring the Grand Canyon rim by foot, stopping to visit all the sites you see on the HD Discovery Channel, including the El Tovar and Bright Angel Resorts. The El Tovar Lodge, Hopi House and the Artists’ Studio were all designed by Mary Coulter around 1905 for the very first tourists visiting the area.

Saturday, May 30: Grand Canyon (KGCN) to Sedona (KSEZ) via BISOP intersection, then KACEE intersection, Flagstaff VOR (FLG) direct Sedona, AZ.

Nautical Miles Flown: 98

Fuel Burned: 8 gallons

Saturday was an early day. I got up at 6 AM to beat the expected high density altitude at KGCN. The field elevation there is 6,609 feet MSL with a pattern altitude of 7,500 feet. On warm days, the density altitude can easily exceed 9,000 feet, compromising aircraft performance. The runway is 8,999 feet long and I used a good amount of it during the take-off roll. Since the Bonanza is not turbocharged, density altitude definitely takes its toll on engine output. My planned routing took me clear of some very mountainous terrain. At KACEE intersection I turned east towards Flagstaff, then south direct to Sedona, AZ.

Landing at the Sedona Airport (KSEZ) is the most fun you can have in an airplane. Well, almost. The runway is 5,132 feet long, but at an elevation of 4,830’ MSL. The airport sits atop a mesa overlooking the town 500 feet below, and the visual setup gives you the impression that you are landing on an aircraft carrier.

The famous Red Rocks rise to the east, so winds permitting, all landings are on RW03. Takeoffs are down slope on RW21 to avoid the cumulogranite. It is indeed very challenging for all of these reasons, especially to a flatlander pilot like me.

Upon landing, I rented a car and drove around the Red Rocks area looking for natural vortices. I am not sure what I would have done if I had actually found one, but Sedona is famous for them. Later I visited the gallery district and grabbed a late lunch. The town was busy with people from all over the world. Many of the shops sold books by Shirley McClain, and crystals so that you could channel your “inner self”, if you are into that sort of thing.

Sunday, May 30: Sedona (KSEZ) east over Winslow, AZ and the Meteor Crater to Lubbock, TX (KLBB) for a fuel stop. Then to Alexandria, LA for fuel and an overnight stop.

Fuel Burned: 80 gallons (one stop)

Nautical Miles Flown: 989 (longest day)

The alarm clock in the hotel room went off at 5:30 MDT Sunday morning for the beginning of the trip back to Florida. It was still dark out. Again, density altitude was a consideration, but more importantly I wanted to get in a full day of flying and attempt to reach home in a single day. I knew I would lose two hours in time zone changes.

After flying the OATES1 Departure, I picked up my IFR clearance enroute. The assigned route overflew the famous Meteor Crater near Winslow, AZ so I took some photos. The violent meteor strike that created the crater was an incredible natural phenomenon, and wish I had the time to visit it on the ground.

The planned fuel stop was Lubbock, TX (KLBB). After a quick turn, I was again on my way towards home. Unfortunately the headwinds held ground speed down to 130 knots so it was clear an overnight stop was going to be necessary. Alexandria, LA was as good a place as any.

Monday, June 1: Alexandria, LA (KAEX) back to HEVVN intersection and back to Leesburg, FL (KLEE).

Nautical Miles Flown: 580

Fuel Burned: 47

This was the final leg home on Monday morning. Near the Louisiana swamps, Alexandria was warm and steamy on departure. The east winds were strong at altitude, so the trip was filed for 3000 feet just to make some headway. After a long week, I finally touched down at Leesburg.

Trip Totals:

Total distance: 3,487 nautical miles/4010 statute miles roundtrip  

Total flight time: 22 hours

Total Fuel: 282 gallons of avgas

Longest leg:

580nm from Alexandria, LA to Leesburg, FL.

Here are more pictures:  AZ Trip May 2009

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