Wisconsin To California Via The Grand Canyon

by Woody Minar

It was on our flight home from Sun ‘n Fun in his Cirrus SR22 when Paul Durand said he was flying to Anaheim, Calif. in a week for business and asked if I wanted to get some mountain flying experience and fly over the Grand Canyon. It took no convincing. Paul did all the flight planning because he had made the trip once before. What neither of us had done was fly over the Grand Canyon, so Paul ordered the Grand Canyon corridor chart.

We met at 7:00 am on April 21, and as he packed our gear and my golf clubs, I talked to Minneapolis Approach control to see if we could get a quick climb clearance to 8,000 MSL to minimize the icing potential that we learned from Flight Service’s briefing and PIREPs. Even though he has a TKS, we didn’t want to press our luck. We were wheels up at 7:28 am – Paul flew and I worked the radios. We got our clearance and were expedited to 8,000. Due to some turbulence and light rime icing, we requested and got 10,000, which put us in the morning sun.

Cruising with the autopilot on, it was time to define the details of our routes through the Grand Canyon corridors and enjoy the flatland views through Iowa and Nebraska on our way to Liberal, Kansas (KLBL). About an hour out of Liberal, the alternator light started to blink intermittently. Something wasn’t right and inflight troubleshooting wasn’t resolving the problem. I advised ATC we had an alternator failure. What I didn’t tell them was that this was my 14th!

We shed as much electrical load as we could. Paul exchanged texts and calls with Jim Barker, lead mechanic and owner of Aviation Vibes in Cumberland, Wisconsin, and Kevin Fenske, his Cirrus Center Service rep at Wisconsin Aviation, Inc. in Watertown, Wis. It was comforting knowing that Paul was using as many resources as he could to resolve the problem in the air. We found out after we landed that Barker was in France conducting Cirrus training. Now, that’s service and technology!

We decided to divert to a Class D airport with the thought that they would have a larger maintenance facility and an alternator. Garden City, Kan. was along our route and 49 miles short of Liberal. As luck would have it some broken clouds came in quickly so we got vectors for an ILS. We were fortunate to spot a huge hole in the clouds, cancelled IFR, and landed VFR.

The maintenance folks at Garden City were extremely helpful. After an hour of phone calls, they found an alternator in Liberal. Go figure! We departed VFR and 20 minutes later when we got to Liberal, Paul said, “I have no flaps and no trim” and the multi-functional and primary functional displays were blinking. We thought about the ILS we almost had to do.

Three hours later, the alternator was replaced and we were on our way to Grand Canyon Airport (KGCN). At an elevation of 6,609 feet, the density altitude and mixture settings are much different than we flatlanders are used to experiencing. Was the mixture too lean or too rich? After refueling and programming the corridor coordinates in the 430 and iPads, we departed.

Seeing the Grand Canyon’s depth, breadth, and colors from the air as the sun was setting was awesome and beholding.

Flying the corridors at the specified corridor altitudes was easier than imagined; two pilots allowed us to navigate easier and sightsee more. Because it was now late in the day, we departed the Grand Canyon towards Anaheim (John Wayne Airport – KSNA). ATC kept us busy with numerous reroutes. Once they asked us to fly to a particular VOR, fly outbound on a Victor Airway, and intercept another Victor Airway. We couldn’t figure out how to do that to save our lives as the two airways seemed to parallel each other. We asked two controllers for clarification and we even offered an alternative airway to no avail.  Finally, with prodding, the second controller sent us to a fix. That was easy, but the next controller cancelled all this stuff and gave us vectors to another airway.

We made it over the mountains at night. We commented that if we didn’t have ATC and the terrain clearance altitude, one could easily slam into terra firma. We also noted that if we had that alternator failure at this time in our trip, we would have declared an emergency. We soon started our descent into Anaheim with more ATC reroutes.

What a beautiful sight coming into the southern California basin with the city lights glimmering. We checked in: “SoCal Approach, Cirrus 224BB, 11,000.”

ATC: “Cirrus 224BB, SoCal Approach. How’s it going?” That made our long day better.

Even though we had visual contact, Anaheim had a small overcast layer over the field making it IFR, so with numerous vectoring, ATC lined us up for an ILS.  When cleared for the approach, we repeated back “…maintain 2,500…” and SoCal Approach said, “Whoa! Where’d that come from? Maintain 3,000…”  PILOTS: “Sorry, long day.” ATC: “Know what you mean.” Friendly folks!

For two days, Paul conducted his business and I played golf and visited Disneyland. After getting a long departure clearance that took about 10 minutes to decipher and program, we were on our way home. Once again, we received numerous reroutes. As we got closer to a jumping off fix, we cancelled IFR and used VFR Flight Following to tour the remaining portion of the Grand Canyon that we had missed on the way out.

The trip was fantastic from the standpoint of being a General Aviation pilot and being able to see these sites, experience mountain flying, and share the passion with another pilot. Paul said he’s flying to the East Coast in August to get training on flying the busy New York corridors. When he asked me to come along, I asked “Can I bring my clubs?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Woody Minar is a DPE, Master CFI, CFII, MEI, and CFIG at the Osceola, Wisconsin airport (KOEO). He is also a Great Lakes Region CFI of the Year and FAASTeam Representative of the Year.

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