Monday, June 3, 2013

DSWT Day 2 - Flying Through - EKO > BCE

Climbing out from Elko, NV.

Alone Over Utah

I've been flying for a while now (tomorrow marks three years in my log book) and the last thing I expected was to feel fear flying nice and high in smooth air on a cross country flight. However, Sunday, on my flight from Elko to Bryce Canyon... I felt a fear I hadn't felt in a very long time.

It was a sort of nameless nervousness that had me constantly scanning the instruments and the skies to make sure everything was OK. It started about 30 minutes off the ground from Elko. I took off very early in the morning to make sure I would get to Bryce Canyon before the heat, turbulence and gusty winds set in. The plane started beautifully in spite of the high density altitude, take off was smooth and climb out, while taking seemingly forever, was at the expected rate. About 30 minutes after take off I was over a VOR and contacted Salt Lake Center for VFR flight following. Center answered quickly enough but said they were unable due to radar being down.

All of the sudden I felt very… very… alone.

I looked around at the terrain I was flying over. My friend suggested this route, it was a good one, getting me across the larger mountains over relatively low passes so I wouldn't have to climb above my cruise altitude of 11,500 to maintain a comfortable clearance. Some of the peaks still had snow on them, but those were few and far between. Most of the other peaks were just peaks - to me they were potential turbulence generators and ridges to cross with either plenty of clearance or 45 degree angles. Between the mountains were broad and mostly flat valleys. Valleys with no roads and no towns, just dirt, brush, and the bright green circles of irrigated crops. I wasn't following roads on this route like I did the day before. This time I could rarely see a road and cars were fewer and further between.

Some of the many mountains
and valleys of western Utah.

Well, at least there are plenty of emergency landing locations, I thought. The next thought that hit me was the fact that yes, I could land safely, but how long would it take for someone to find me in these empty valleys between the mountain peaks? I took out the SpotGPS tracker that I gave up on before takeoff and determined I would make the thing work. I needed some way for people to find me in case of a problem and that's why I bought it in the first place. Yes, I did have snacks, water and even a very light sleeping bag with me in case of an emergency, but I didn't want to have to wait. I got the Spot tracker working (I know… How hard can it be to get something that has all of 4 buttons to work? Harder than it should be! I just do not get along well with small, simple electronics.)

All I had to do was fly the flight plan… but the terrain was very foreign to me. I am used to desert terrain, I grew up in New Mexico and I love the vast emptiness of the desert. But this desert was not my desert. This desert was different… the mountain ranges cut off my view of the vastness and each one became a new barrier to cross, carefully. I used my charts and GPS to get an idea of what was on the other side of each range, where the roads were, where the nearest airports were (not many and not as close as I am used to in California!)

Bryce Canyon Airport

The foreign terrain bothered me. Not having flight following had me feeling as alone as I actually was. The knowledge that, once it got hot enough, it would be rough *and* strange had me on edge. I was not enjoying this flight. I was grateful that it was smooth and I tried to make myself enjoy the vistas around me, but I just wanted the flight to be done. NOW. Only an hour and a half more to go. To add to my nervousness, there was the challenge of Bryce Canyon Airport (BCE) itself. 

The airport itself sits at 7,600 feet with a pattern altitude of 8,400 feet. Flying in California I almost never *climb* that high, not even in cruise, and here I would be descending only 3000 feet from cruise altitude to an 8,400 ft pattern altitude over a 7,600 MSL airport. The runway was very long, over 7000' long but there was only one - 3/21. At least the airport was on a broad plateau with only a few ridges close by. I had been monitoring BCE's weather for a week or more in order to get familiar with what to expect when I got there and help plan the timing of my flight. The winds I've observed in my monitoring varied from almost every direction but the speeds were more concerning to me than the winds. It was not uncommon at all for winds to be 10 or more knots gusting to 20 or more. I tried to time my flight to land before the winds would pick up. As I cruised my lonely way across the Utah desert, I hoped against hope my timing was right.

Closer to Bryce - more signs of life.
An airstrip (on the left) and farming community.

I realized on that flight how all of the cross country flight planning I learned during my private pilot training is very valuable, even though much is not used to the same level of detail on hundred dollar hamburger flights. This type of flying is totally different. I wished I had done an old fashioned flight plan, by hand instead of by app, so I would have engrained in my brain my calculated winds, ground speeds, fuel, ETAs and ETEs and a better feel for my progress. What if the flight was taking longer than it should? I had more than enough fuel, but I was in a race with the winds at BCE.  I used the timer on my sports watch to monitor time between checkpoints and I was staying within a couple minutes of expected time for everything except climb out, also as expected. For some reason I didn't feel that much better.

Then I heard Salt Lake Center announce there was hazardous weather information for the western US available on HIWAS and Flight Service. There wasn't a VOR with HIWAS within 100 NM of my position and when I tried to contact Flight Watch on 122.0 I got nothing. I felt even more alone and wanted to go back to my Private Pilot text book and figure out what I was doing wrong and why I couldn't get potentially important information. Did I mention how much I wanted the flight to be done?

By this time I was within 30 or 45 minutes of Bryce and more airports were in the area. As I passed over each one I picked up the local altimeter and checked the local winds, just in case. It was not uncommon, it seemed, to have pressures vary 1" or more between these airports.  About 20 minutes from Bryce I was able to get the weather there. The winds were from 120 at 11 gusting 19. With the runways at 3 and 21 I didn't need an EFB to tell me I would have a direct cross wind somewhere between 11 and 19 knots. The max demonstrated cross wind for my plane was 15 knots, no more than a Cessna 172. (It has a higher cross wind for take off, don't know why.) OK, I told myself, if I can't land at Bryce lets pick another place to land that has a town nearby. But I'm going to Bryce and going to give it three tries. I passed over a couple more airfields and checked their weather, each had calm or light winds aligned with their runways. I felt better knowing my options.

Descent towards Bryce Canyon.
The terrain starts to change.
I was descending towards Bryce and once I got below 9500 it got bumpy again, just as expected and not as bad as the day before. I checked the winds at BCE every 5 minutes or so and they remained a direct cross wind, going between 9 and 13 knots. I could land in that sort of cross wind, I knew. All I had to do was not mess up the approach at this very high (to me) altitude airport. Density altitude at the airport was broadcast as 9800 feet, the highest density altitude I'd ever landed at as pilot or as passenger.

I got over the last ridge and saw the broad plateau that was the lip of Bryce Canyon itself. The airport was clearly visible. The plateau was just the type of expanse of land I like to see. It was very beautiful but I didn't have time for pictures. I had to fly the plane. I choose to land on runway 21 because that was the simplest approach. The nice thing about a direct cross wind is it doesn't really matter which runway you pick. One last check of the winds and they were reported at 11 or 13 knots direct cross wind.  I knew is I could land that if I did it right. So I resolved to do it right.

I fought off the illusion of moving too fast and flew the instruments instead of the outside world to determine my airspeed. It was strange. I had a sensation similar to the disorientation one experiences in IMC… fortunately I knew how to manage that.  I made sure I was coordinated in all turns and didn't even overshoot the center line. Once on final I had to fight the winds all the way down to landing. It wasn't pretty but it was safe and I landed on my first try. I was relieved and exhausted and proud of myself. I made it.
Skylane 20791 in front of the historic Bryce Canyon Airport Hangar

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