Thursday, March 6, 2008

Grand Canyon from the Air

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Las Vegas? Well, gaming of course. The whole place is purposely built in such way that casinos are unavoidable. Unfortunately, they still allow smoking in the casinos which makes them off limits for me. Looking at what else was there to do in Vegas, I discovered so many options that we would have to stop sleeping for the duration of our four day trip to do them all. Shows, restaurants, shopping, spas, golf and all the day trips to Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.

I was browsing the site offering various day tours when I saw something that made me sit up and pay attention: there were words “Grand Canyon” and “by air” in one sentence. Blame it on my Russian-taught American geography, but somehow, I did not realize that Grand Canyon was within easy reach from Vegas by airplane or helicopter. Having finished jumping up and down screaming: “we are going to see the Grand Canyon” to the great surprise of my office colleagues, I set upon deciding on how exactly to accomplish that goal.

Flying by myself was out of question. I never flew in the mountains or high density altitudes and was very out of currency to even attempt a checkout. I then considered taking an airplane tour until I realized that, well, it was a CANYON, meaning that commercial tours would have to stay high above it and probably would be too fast. I then looked under ‘helicopters’ and the “sunset tour with a landing inside the Canyon” captured my imagination right then and there and I booked it in the spot.

As the day of tour drew closer, I got a bit antsy remembering my past helicopter experiences in Russia. I used to work for a small charter company and flew on my fair share of old and incredibly noisy helicopters, so I was not sure what to expect. As we got out of the limo that picked us up at the hotel and walked into the helicopter company office, I was instantly put at ease by the atmosphere which reminded me of my flight school, except instead of student flights, there were tourist flights and instead of Cessnas and Pipers there were nice looking helicopters.

Depending on the configuration, the sitting capacity in the helicopters varied from 4 to 6 pax. We were in the larger one. As photographers, we were hoping to get a front seat, but unfortunately, due to Weight and Balance concerns, the combined weight of me, my boyfriend and our camera bag delegated us to a backseat. Luckily, side windows were rather large as well.

As we hovered off and started moving in the direction of the Grand Canyon, I congratulated myself on a right choice. Helicopter moved slower than the airplane and we were flying very close to the ground, much closer than any airplane would allowing for some neat pictures of Vegas suburbs, golf courses and Lake Mead. The views were incredible and they were only going to get better!

Last time I visited Vegas, 8 years ago, I visited the Hoover Dam by bus. This time, we had a chance to see it from air and what a sight that was! It was massive even from the air. What was also very obvious form the air were very low water levels in the Lake.

Leaving Hoover Dam, we headed towards the Grand Canyon. I was looking at the multicolored mountain ridges, blue water of the Lake Mead and the desert that was in between when suddenly I saw something that made me sit up straight bumping my headset off. Grabbing a headset and aiming the camera at what appeared to be a mountain dirt strip, I managed to snap the shot that showed about half of it.

I later asked the pilot was it was and he said it was Pearce Ferry airstrip (L25). It was a back up CAA landing strip in the in the 1930’s but was deserted later. There is no operator on that field, but the one of the Runways is still open. I found a better picture of it here:

As we flew towards the Canyon, the amount of helicopter traffic around us was astounding, even for someone like me, used to busy training airspaces back home. There were at least 7 or so helicopters in our group and there were a few all around us. I figured there must be special rules for flying in that area as well as transit corridors like we have around Niagara Falls and true enough, there were – found this presentation when I get back home. Very interesting read even for those who never going to fly there by themselves.

Grand Canyon and more in the next post…

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