A Little Desert Flying
Flying in the American Southwest is not for the faint of heart.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Apr 02, 2013
With their wide open spaces and VFR nature, there’s something about the American deserts that seem perfectly suited for flying light airplanes. At the same time, the region, with its sky-high terrain, soaring temperatures and relentless turbulence, is by nature antagonistic to what we do.
I spent the better part of the past week flying around the desert southwest in my SR22, which while new to me is a 2010 G3 turbo with the Tornado Alley turbocharged Continental IO-550 engine. The flying was a wonderful experience, one that put me in touch with my early days in the air and put me face to face with some hard facts of desert flying I’d almost forgotten, despite having learned to fly out west. I remember well my flying in those days, grinding along though the turbulence from Daggett to Needles in 160 hp Pipers and Cessnas, moving in slow motion across basin and range country, thrilled to see hundred-mph-plus ground speeds.
The ostensible purpose for my trip was to attend the Aircraft Electronics Association Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Now, Austin to Vegas is a pretty good hike for an SR22, even if it is a substantially speedier airplane than I flew in my early desert days. The way west is over a lot of high and indescribably rugged terrain — some MEAs are 12,000 feet or more — making it perfectly suited for a turbocharged airplane like the Cirrus.
The rewards can be great. At one point on the trip westward at 10,000 feet I was seeing 185 knots true on 17 gph (while making good on 166 knots over the ground — not bad for flying against the prevailing winds. I’d have flown higher for better true airspeeds, but that day it looked as though I would have been punished for it with much stronger headwinds. I’d take 15 knots on the nose with a smooth ride and a couple of thousand feet between me and the minimum en route altitude.
Along the way, I was reminded that flying in the big granite is a different kind of animal, one that requires great focus and a skeptical mind. Complacency can be a fatal error.
This is true in every phase of flying in the desert, including choosing a route. Often the best approach is to stick to the airways, which one would do well to think of as graphical maps of the lowest terrain between places anyone wants to go. Remember, the airways were invented by and for pilots flying underpowered airplanes, so these highways in the sky are our friends. Should the unthinkable happen and you have to make a forced landing, it's nice to be within hiking distance of some kind of settlement.
The airways make the planning easier all around. Going direct is all very well and good at FL 250, but for me in the Cirrus (an airplane few pilots fly at its certified ceiling of FL250), I file low-altitude airways and take shortcuts when they make sense. The Southwest is also home to more special use airspace than the rest of the country combined, and the airways keep you clear of MOAs and restricted areas alike. For pilots without a lot of experience flying in the desert (and even for some of those more experienced pilots) airways are the way to travel.
Altitude is also your friend, generally speaking. I like to fly high in the Cirrus, plying the mid-teens with a tailwind and settling for 9,000 to 11,000 with a headwind, if the MEAs cooperate, which they often do not. Heading east most days, the turbulence is tolerable; some days, it's not. There are some days, veteran desert aviators knows, when you will simply enjoy a miserable ride no matter what.
Then again, with a little luck and forethought, things can go well. My flight home from the California central coast was beautiful, with only a few light bumps and 30 knots on the tail at 11,000. Once the bumps started in earnest, around Gila Bend, Arizona, I climbed a bit, then a bit more, eventually making my way to 15,000 feet. At that altitude, I enjoyed a good (not great) tailwind, that helped make relatively short work — 225 knots ground speed — of what was a long day’s flying on the way out west. At 15,000 feet, it was a smooth ride too.
It can be pure joy to fly over desert terrain, over landscapes that look monochromatic only to the uninitiated. To the eye of a desert rat, it’s brilliant in 50 shades of brown, with shadows texturing the rough rock cones in the afternoon sun, while brown-gray veins of desperate vegetation hanging until the next thunderstorm — months away, maybe — describe the course of the runoff when it rains. It’s all gorgeous.
Unlike in the flatlands, when the weather is apparently nice in the desert, it can still be a big factor, as the heat and wind and terrain combine to create turbulence up into the flight levels. Down lower, mountain waves can wreak havoc with the best laid plans of the pilots of light airplanes. There’s also density altitude to consider when flying from high-elevation strips. The desert is a cruel mistress.
Just as the people living on the land have scratched out a life for themselves in desert places large and small, so too do we pilots who ply these airways, always respectful of the power of the place and always mindful of the risks. Just like life.