We were up early, and enjoyed a simple breakfast at the hotel buffet. After watching a baby rabbit playing on the lawn for a few minutes, we jumped into the hotel shuttle and were dropped back off at the airport. Pre-flight checks revealed that all was in order, so we chose the into wind runway, and took off to head for our first stop of the day, Page. This airport sits at the top of the Grand Canyon, and would be our brunch stop before a scenic flight over the canyon itself. The weather was ideal, with the occasional scattered cloud but otherwise bright blue skies and little wind.
We headed northwest across New Mexico, and into Arizona. The terrain slowly changed from bare desert, to arid forests, to bare red desert again. We had chosen Page because we wanted to see the terrain around the Grand Canyon, and even before we made it into Arizona, the views did not disappoint!
The second half of the flight had us flying over the Navajo Nation, the largest land area retained by a Native American tribe in the US. It covers more than 71,000 square kilometers, with a population of around 350,000, and has control over a number of highly priced tourist attractions such as Antelope Canyon. Mostly self-governing, the Navajo Nation and others like it are subject to the Federal law of the United States, but generally not to state law of the states that they are located within.
The approach to Page was picturesque, bringing us in over the huge Lake Powell that has been created by the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. As well as storing up to 24.3 million acre-feet of water (whatever that means), it welcomes around 2 million tourists a year, primarily for watersports of course! The Page airport was very welcoming, with the FBO staff coming out on a golf cart to meet us, and offering us a crew car to run into town and have brunch. We took them up on their kind offer and were soon in a diner near the airport, wolfing down American-sized portions of omelettes and toast.
When we returned to the airport, the FBO had fueled the Arrow up for us, so we paid the fees and were good to go. The next flight was one that we had both been eagerly anticipating (even more than the general excitement of these flights) – we would be crossing the Grand Canyon. This would be my fourth crossing of the canyon, and it never ceases to amaze and impress me. Ahead of us, two of the Nanchangs were warming up, and took off in formation. As we took off, we had fantastic views of the Glen Canyon dam to our south, and then the land fell away into the very upper reaches of the Grand Canyon.
The upper reaches, just below the Glen Canyon Dam, are known as Marble Canyon. We could clearly see the road bridge and motel, with dirt airstrip, that sit down inside this part of the canyon. This was somewhere that I had long wanted to land – but, once again, today would just see my flying past it without stopping! We flew south, just north of the canyon rim, towards the entrance to the “Dragon Corridor”, my usual go-to place for crossing the canyon. In 2009 and 2012, my last two visits, the weather had been cloudy giving only glimpses of the chasm below. Happily, this time conditions were clear and we enjoyed spectacular views of the mile-deep gouge in the earth that the Colorado river has carved.
As ever, the crossing was magical, as well as mildly nerve-racking given the lack of emergency landing options. Exposure was minimal, given the fairly high minimum altitude for the crossing, but in most places the best option would probably have been to ditch in the river as close to a rafting party as possible! Before long we were in gliding range of the south rim, which is about 1,000ft lower than the north rim, and struck out to cross the very southern tip of Nevada, and enter California.
As we crossed southern California, the canyons gave way to the desert and mountains of the Mojave. Visible off to one side were several huge solar power plants, a familiar landmark to me in this part of the world.
We were headed for another favourite stop of mine, the town of Tehachapi which sits up in the Tehachapi mountains of southern California. It sits astride a major rail freight route. The airport is a short walk from the center of town, and has a lovely on-airport campsite that is popular with pilots and walkers of the nearby Pacific Crest Trail. All through the night, long double-height freight trains rumble by, blowing their horns, but despite that I always get a good night’s sleep.
Juvy had not camped before, but took to it quickly, and before long had her tent set up and “furnished”. The good thing about airplane camping is that you can carry enough little luxuries to make it comfortable. I set my tent up some distance away; after two night sharing hotel rooms, I had discovered that Juvy’s snoring could sometimes rival the freight trains that would be coming through that night. Camp sites finished, we wandered into town and enjoyed some dinner.
Before we retired to our tents, Juvy broke out the watercolour paint set that she’d brought with her, and captured a sketch of the hills beyond. She had much more energy after a day of flying than I did!
It turns out that I had failed to mention one critical thing to Juvy. The night was so balmy and clear that she decided to remove the rain fly and enjoy the view of the stars. This worked great until the heavy duty sprinkler system that maintains the camping area kicked into action at about 3am. Apparently there was a lot of running around and squealing, but I slept through all of it. When I woke up in the morning, all of Juvy’s belongings were scattered around in the sun drying, and she was asleep in the plane.
We walked into town for breakfast, and wandered around a little, poking our noses into antique stores. Late morning, we returned to the airport and finished loading the airplane, taking off and turning east to visit the Mojave Air and Space Port. This facility was the first in the USA, in 2004, to be licensed as a base for horizontally launched reusable spacecraft, and is best known for its links to Burt Rutan and Virgin Galactic. It is also used as a storage yard for mothballed airliners. As we arrived, the Virgin Galactic launch vehicle and spaceship were out and about, preparing for a test! The weather was hot and sunny; Juvy spent the rest of the trip with a big “X” shape on her back, a tan line from sunburn in the Mojave.
We ate lunch in the on-field restaurant, and then departed back to the west for an afternoon flight back over Tehachapi and down the mountain passes to the coast. We overflew the famous Tehachapi loop, where the railway makes a complete 360 degree loop and passes over itself to gain elevation as it heads up the valley.
We crossed the central valley, and then the lower coastal hill ranges, to end up an another old favourite; Oceano. This unattended strip is just a short walk from the beach and has a basic but adequate on-field campsite; there is usually a biplane or two buzzing around giving rides to tourists.
Today was no exception, and after setting up camp we wandered over to have a look at a few interesting vintage aircraft that were parked up.
Another pilot was visiting, by car on this occasion, and got talking to us about our adventure. Before long he’d invited us out to dinner, and we were in his car headed up to the nearby town of Pismo Beach to eat and have a look around.
We walked along the seafront for a while, and out along the pier, encountering a couple of pelicans up close and personal. After this, our new pilot friend took us to one of his favourite nearby restaurants for dinner before dropping us back at Oceano for the night. He even left us with a box of fresh fruit from his fruit trees! Given the presence of sprinklers at Oceano, Juvy was very careful to properly install the rain sheet of her tent.
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