USA Coast to Coast – The Desert

USA Coast to Coast – The Desert

We spent another night in a Super 8 motel, and a return to the airport to see about crossing the Rockies. I had decided to avoid heading straight through the mountains; the highest you are allowed to fly without oxygen systems is 12,500ft, and this would put us well down in the canyons doing real mountain flying. I was not trained for this so we headed south to New Mexico and the beautiful city of Santa Fe.

Headed south to Santa Fe

We refueled immediately after landing, and when starting the aircraft up again to taxi to parking, discovered that the starter motor would not engage. A local mechanic engaged it manually for us, with a deft flick of a screwdriver, and we parked up and headed for town.

A great deal from the FBO meant we swapped the Super 8 for the Hilton on this occasion, and we spent the afternoon in town window shopping and enjoying the excellent local food. Santa Fe is a beautiful city, and the adobe buildings mean it is impossible to forget what part of the country you’re in! Before it became too late I telephoned the owners of Mike Charlie and told them about our starter problem; they could not have been more helpful and arranged for a new motor to be over-nighted to our next stop where it could be fitted with no delay to our trip.


After a great night in the Hilton, we returned to the airfield, loaded up the baggage, and struck out west once again, into the vast red deserts of the Southwest. The route took us across the only place in the US where 4 states meet at one point, known imaginatively as “Four Corners”.

The route west and across the Grand Canyon

The dramatic change in landscape below us really made us feel like we’d entered a new phase of the trip. The pictures describe the landscape far better than words can.

We chose to refuel at a small airport known as Cal Black Memorial Airport, in Utah. The airport was deserted, and in the middle of nowhere; but still had a newly tarmacked runway and a full time employee, who drove us around on a golf cart. By refueling at these smaller airports, we tended to get much better fuel prices than we would at larger ones.

After taking off from Cal Black Memorial (luckily without any starter trouble on this occasion) we crossed Lake Powell (created when the Glen Canyon dam was built at the upper end of the Grand Canyon) and approached the Grand Canyon from the North. Flying VFR over the Grand Canyon is subject to a number of restrictions, as a result of a number of accidents in the past and also to minimise the noise impact on those enjoying the canyon from ground level. You should not approach the canyon without the Grand Canyon VFR chart, and ensure that you stay within the designated VFR corridors above the fairly high minimum altitudes. These restrictions do not detract in any way from the majesty of the canyon, and the extra height is very desirable given the lack of available emergency landing spots!

After crossing the canyon, we spotted Grand Canyon Airport. This airport is one of the busiest GA airports in the US, due to the concentration of sight-seeing traffic. To add to the fun, on the day we arrived the forest service were having a controlled forest fire directly underneath the downwind leg, making it tricky to avoid IMC conditions in the circuit! We landed without fuss, and taxied Mike-Charlie to the maintenance facility; leaving the keys with them, we caught the shuttle bus to the canyon for two nights of camping.

The state park facilities on the South Rim are excellent, with several good visitors centres and regular free of charge talks and guided tours given by the rangers. Having lectured Hannah throughout the trip so far about the importance of travelling light to keep the aircraft weight down, I earned myself a telling off by purchasing about 10 kilograms of books at the visitor centre, including one listing every accidental death in the Canyon since it was discovered. The aviation chapter was best not read until we’d flown a good distance away. That evening we attended a night-time talk by a ranger in the amphitheater, and then walked out to look over the canyon in the moonlight.

We could easily have spent another day at the Canyon, but all too soon it was time to return to the airport where we found Mike-Charlie with a brand new starter motor fitted, ready to go! We set off along the canyon towards Las Vegas.

West along the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas

After two weeks of camping on deserted airports and in state parks, Las Vegas was rather a shock. Arriving on a Friday night did not help, either. We landed at Henderson Airport, where the very friendly FBO gave us a free lift into town in their shuttle bus. We stayed in a fairly forgettable motel which cost us nearly double what we had paid for the Hilton in Santa Fe a few nights before. The visit was saved by the evening show, the topless Cirque du Soleil (done tastefully, I assure you), but we were not at all upset the next morning to return to the airport and flee to the northwest!

Click here to read the next part of the story.

One thought on “USA Coast to Coast – The Desert

  1. Great trip and pics.I also made that trip in 2010 in a helicopter.We followed interstate 10 from San Diego to Wilmington.North Carolina.Only regret was that my co pilot and I had to be back at work and did the the trip in 4 days with no time to screw off and enjoy the country.We also landed at small airports and the staff we found could not have been more helpful and also to get the local flavor of the country. Ron

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *