Little Deuce Coupe

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"Hey, Lane, what RPM are you running now?"

Jeff's question cuts through my headset, muting my in-flight music entertainment for a moment. I glance at the Cheetah's tachometer.

"Twenty-six-hundred," I answer. "What are you running?" "Little over eighteen." There's a pause. I glance over in the sky to where Jeff, in his shiny new RV-6A, is patiently throttled back to try to keep me company. His voice comes through my headset again. "So … would you mind if I went to go play for a little bit, and joined back up with you in a while, here?"

A tinge of jealousy bubbles up for a brief second. But I can't blame him. "Sure," I answer. "Go ahead. I'll be right here." I laugh a little wryly as I hear my unthinking words. That's not literally true, of course. I am moving. But we've got some significant headwinds, so the truth is that I won't really be all that far down the road if he's not gone long.

I watch Jeff's bright yellow and white RV arc up and away from me, dropping down low to follow a river bed beneath us, then zooming up high for the fun of it, zigzagging at various altitudes and angles, all without losing ground to the Cheetah. I sigh. For three years, I'd been the one with the zippy-okay, the only-plane between the two of us. But a few months ago, Jeff bought a really beautiful, two-seat, RV-6A. And while we're not really competitive friends, even though we like many of the same sporting activities, it soon became clear which of us had the top dog airplane.

Don't get me wrong. A Grumman Cheetah has many fine qualities. It does carry four people (from a good runway on a cool day), and it's even a sporty airplane compared to some. But not compared to an almost-new RV-6A that is, at the moment, flying circles around me. I suddenly feel a little like I'm driving a battered family pickup truck next to a Porsche 911. I pat the Cheetah's glareshield to comfort her surely-bruised ego. Poor thing. It's just not fair competition.

But while I am, overall, very loyal to my trusty Cheetah, when Jeff and I made plans to go to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks for a few days of hiking a few weeks later, and he asked which airplane I wanted to take, it took me about three nanoseconds to choose his. There are times when the sedan is the way to go. But there's also something to be said for leaving the family car at home and hopping in a two-seat sportster for a quick weekend getaway … even if it means packing a little lighter.

There were also some good, rational reasons for taking the RV-6, of course. For one thing, it's a fair distance to southern Utah from San Francisco, and the RV is almost 50 percent faster than the Cheetah. In addition, Bryce Canyon Airport has a field elevation of almost 7,600 feet, and we were planning the trip for Memorial Day Weekend. Which, in the southwest desert, can be pretty darn hot. And from past experience, I know that on a hot day, with two people, bags and fuel, my particular Cheetah can be hard-pressed to maintain 8,000 feet msl. Besides. Aside from a couple of quick demo flights at the Van's Aircraft facility in Aurora, Oregon, I'd never flown an RV-6.

In some ways, the RV-6A and the Cheetah bear a kind of resemblance to one another. They're both sliding canopy, low-wing, fixed-gear, nosewheel sport designs. If my Cheetah had a new paint job, they might even appear to be distant cousins, sitting side-by-side on the ramp. But the resemblance pretty much stops as soon as the wheels leave the ground.

Jeff and I get a downwind departure out of Livermore, and I look down on the runway beneath us as we turn downwind after take off and head east. "You know, I just can't make the runway get that small, that fast," I comment to Jeff. He just smiles. Once we're over the San Joaquin Valley, Jeff hands me the controls to let me get a better feel for the plane. The RV-6 has sticks, not yokes, in keeping with its sporty design. But while I've flown a number of old tailwheel airplanes that were equipped with stick controls … the RV-6 makes it clear in short order that not all sticks are created equal. Or require equal inputs. I quickly figure out that this is a plane you fly primarily with small movements of your hand and wrist, unless you want to be all over the sky. Not that I'm complaining. It's pretty impressive, in fact. It just takes a little adjusting.

The trip to St. George, Utah, which is the nearest airport to Zion National Park, is ridiculously quick and easy. We decide to make one fuel stop, but we're on the ground at St. George in just over three and a half hours' flying time. That matters on a trip like this one, because there's actually a whole lot of nothing between San Francisco and St. George. Miles upon miles of brown desert flats that can make it seem as if you're crawling along an interminable and torturous dirt road, even in the sky. I do some quick math and figure that I would have spent almost two more hours looking down on all that brown if we'd taken the Cheetah, and my affection for Jeff's new baby goes up another notch.

We unload our gear and make our way to the terminal, where we collect a rental car to drive to Zion. "It's about a 57 minute drive," the lady at the rental car counter tells us. Jeff and I look at each other. "You sure it's not about a 56 minute or 58 minute drive?" Jeff asks as I work to suppress a giggle.

"No, it's about a 57 minute drive," the lady replies with perfect deadpan seriousness.

Welcome to St. George, Utah.

In truth, it takes us about 73 minutes to get to the park, but then, there was construction on part of the road. In any event, it's well worth the drive. Zion National Park consists of a spectacular, winding canyon that was cut into steep red-rock walls of the surrounding high plateau by the Virgin River in the Triassic and Jurassic eras, back about 130 million years ago. And looking up at the sheer, striated colors of the towering monoliths and cliffs surrounding us, I understand where the description "staggeringly beautiful" comes from. As I stand on one of the park's narrow cliff-side trails and look up, my head begins to spin from the disorientingly vertical landscape. Staggeringly beautiful. Important not to gaze too long, or stagger too much, however, because on many of those trails, the first step off is a real doozy.

We spend the day winding our way up switchback trails cut into cliff walls and clambering through narrow rock openings into canyons with waterfalls, pools, greenery and soft white sand-little oases lined in shades of pink and orange sandstone, hidden 2,000 feet above the main canyon floor. A couple of hikers we meet tell us that to really appreciate Zion, we also need to attempt the most challenging trail in the park, up a narrow precipice trail to a sliver of an overlook. "It's the only way you can really see Zion from above, see the big picture of the park," they tell us. Jeff and I don't say anything, but we look at each other and smile, reminded once again about how lucky we are to have wings.

Sure enough, the next morning we get up early and climb back in the RV-6 for a "big-picture" tour of the area en route to Bryce Canyon, which lies a mere 85 miles away but 5,000 feet further up in the sky. By following I-15, we can stay just outside the official boundaries of Zion while still getting the birds-eye view of the canyon and its dramatic surroundings. The airplane also allows us to see a remarkable geologic progression that, I suspect, is impossible to observe on the ground.

The Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon are part of something called the "Grand Staircase"-a series of increasingly high cliffs and plateaus that rise, in steps, from the Grand Canyon to the south to the higher Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon to the north. Once all the same elevation, the sedimentary layers in the region were deformed by geologic uplift about 10 million years ago, displacing the different sections, in sequence, by several thousand feet and leaving some really stunning cliff faces open to the air and the eye.

Every park guide in the region talks about this "Grand Staircase," but most visitors only get to see one, or at most two, steps in the sequence. From the RV-6, however, Jeff and I can see the entire panorama of rising layers of cliffs and plateaus stretching from south to north, which lets us visualize the formation of this unique, vast landscape far better than we ever could on the ground.

Bryce Canyon Airport, when we finally get there, is reporting a density altitude of 9,750 feet. Once again, I'm glad we're in the Porsche. But the airport has easy approaches for all its altitude, and it's really a charming place. There are two fairly new but appropriately rustic log buildings on the field … the terminal/FBO, and a large barn/hangar with a steeply-slanted roof that has "Bryce Canyon Airport" painted in large yellow letters on one side, and "SLC" with a big yellow arrow pointing the direction to Salt Lake City on the other side. Once upon a time, of course, rooftop markings of location and direction were common - quiet signs of a community on the ground that cared about getting its pilots safely home again. Circling over Bryce Canyon's well-marked hangar, I smile, because those markings tell me all I need to know about this airport. And I'm glad we're landing here.

After a day and a half of hiking among Bryce Canyon's towering "hoodoos" (picture those wet-drip sand castles you used to make as a kid enlarged to 1,000-foot-tall monuments and cities), Jeff and I climb back in the RV-6A for the flight home. Once again it's uneventful and we're still doing almost 160 knots across the ground, even with headwinds. We'll be home in time for a late lunch.

But I do wonder a little, as we make our way across the brown Nevada desert, if I'm maybe overstating the RV's place in the world a bit by comparing it to a sport coupe or Porsche. After all, it's not a Midget Mustang, a Lancair IV or anything along the lines of serious speed demon airplanes. But just then, the Las Vegas controller's voice breaks into our headsets.

"Uh … six-two-mike-golf, you're a Centurion, right?"

"Negative," Jeff answers. "We're an experimental, RV-6A."

There's the briefest of pauses.

"Ah, right," the controller replies with a lovely combination of respect and wistfulness in his voice. "The sports car."

I laugh out loud. But it's even better than that, I realize, as I look down at all the cars making their way along the seemingly endless stretch of hot desert highway beneath us. For Jeff's RV-6 isn't just a sports car. It's a sports car with wings.