Day 15 – Out of this World

Sunday, May 24 2020

Day 15

We woke up before sunrise in Richfield and headed to the plane for some early morning shooting of Bryce Canyon, the Canyonlands, Moab, and the unnamed beauty in the expansive, alien landscape between these spectacular places. Richfield at dawn was so peaceful, so still. The surrounding mountains, capped in snow, sat in silent observation of our flight preparations.

We took off just as the sun rose over the horizon and flew Southeast, following a valley down to Bryce Canyon, an expansive, gnarled pit of red rocks. Beautiful in the morning light, I circled in lazy spirals overhead as Filip shot, following the twisting canyon maze. We then pressed on to Canyonland Airport, and along the way photographed some of the craziest landscapes we’d seen so far, including the Grand Staircase and Canyonlands National Park. The most notable thing on this flight was just South of the airport, and barely noted on the chart. I mentioned my new obsession with the salt lakes—these were similar, evaporation pools meant to extract minerals from the waters. They were brilliant blue and soft, buttery turquoise pools gridded out in the red rocks of Moab. Truly looked like someone had taken a paint brush and run it across the ground. Stunning and strange, I flew in varying altitudes above it, until fuel called and I landed at Canyonland.

We explored Moab for the afternoon, grabbed lunch and coffee, and marveled at how, though many of the popular parks were closed right now, the town was absolutely bustling with outdoor fans and tourists. It was probably the most “normal” any place has felt since this trip began (indeed since this pandemic began), which of course in itself felt a bit strange. So we kept our distance and observed, and then headed back to the airport to prep for a sunset flight.

Before going up, we grabbed our camping gear and the airport car graciously lent to us, and drove out into the desert, where we set up camp and noted the location so we could find it upon return. Utah is amazing in that you can basically camp anywhere; we weren’t the only ones wild camping on the desert that night.

We headed back to the airport to preflight, and as I was untying the plane, a pilot pulled up in his car and asked if we were taking the plane across America—he’d seen a post about it online and recognized Old Rusty! We all had a pretty good laugh about it, and then both fired up and took off into the brilliant afternoon light. We plugged 123.45 into our radios and talked to each other throughout the flight—so fun!

We landed and were extremely fatigued at this point, so we headed back to camp, lit a fire and were asleep under the stars by midnight.

Flight Path

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Day 14 – Road to Zion

Thursday, May 23 2020

Day 14

You may ask why we have included no day 13 post here. It isn’t for superstitious reasons, though perhaps it should be. No, day 13 was spent at the FBO in Bountiful, completely rewriting our route to include a diversion to Utah’s incredible national parks to the South, and then looking at the weather and immediately realizing there was no way we could safely traverse the valley passes to our destination that day. Winds gusting 50 knots wouldn’t make for a great mountain crossing experience. We’d really hyped each other up planning this new route and were excited to get going, so being grounded felt extra agonizing. Nonetheless, we headed back to the hotel and prepared to wait out the storm. Day 13 was a wash but we were also grateful that in almost two weeks of flying cross country, we’d only been weathered out for one day. We hoped that luck would hold the rest of way.

The morning of day 14 began with temps below freezing and sheets of icy rain, but as the sun climbed over the Great Salt Lake, things quickly began to look up. We packed our things and headed to the airport to fuel and depart and get started on our delayed adventure. Today was extra exciting because we were headed to shoot Zion National Park at sunset. Of all the places suggested to us across the entire country, Zion might top the charts for most recommended.

We took off from Bountiful and traversed through Salt Lake’s Bravo airspace to the South. Giant, snow capped crests towered over us to our left—the Wasatch Mountain range. After the weather the night before, more snow sat atop the peaks. There was a distinct line of green and white—you could see where the temperature atop the mountains fell below freezing.

As we continued South, right around Provo, we hit some clouds that ranged from broken to overcast right at our altitude. After attempting to climb above them, and realizing they were too high, we descended below them, after checking to make sure the altitude of the terrain along our route and the cloud ceilings wouldn’t pose a problem for us. All clear, we pressed on to Bryce Canyon Airport, where we had plans to land and fuel and prepare for our sunset flying. Once we arrived there, however, we discovered the density altitude was close to 9,500 feet, and decided against such a precarious landing. After circling for some photos of red rocks, we back tracked to Richfield, a lovely little empty field with a couple crew cars, the keys casually tossed in a drawer at the FBO.

I chose the Ford, and took it for a bit of a joyride, then headed into town to grab lunch from a little local Richfield cafe, “Little Wonder.” After enjoying some of Utah’s finest, we headed back to the airport to wait for the light, then hopped in the plane to head to Zion.

It was absolutely incredible descending into Zion, the red rock cavernous formations bursting out of the Earth with a stoic ferocity. The sun was sinking lower into the sky, casting a golden hue over the land and making flying above such a place feel magical and sacred.

After about 45 min circling above, we wrapped up shooting, and with freezing hands climbed to altitude to head home. We landed just as the sun sank below the horizon. Another solid, beautiful day.

Flight Path

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Day 12 - Salt of the Earth

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Day 12

The night in the tent with a half inflated air mattress, soaked clothes from a karmically inspired, semi evil sprinkler system, and a train that passed by every hour on the hour wasn’t exactly restful, so when our alarms went off pre 5 am, there was a moment of pure dread. But we remembered where we were and what we were doing and got up, packed up, and took off into the rising sun.

We had plotted a route through high peaks that took us through winding mountain passes and restricted flying areas and led us directly to the venerable Death Valley, in the northern Mojave Desert. The expansive desolate stretch of land was vast and intimidating and I descended into it with a sense of respect bordering on awe. The ground below us was actually below sea level. It is one of the least inhabitable places on Earth (I had insisted we pack more water for this stretch of the trip, just in case). I had some indescribable fun doing slow descending steep turns into the desert as Filip shot out the open window. Besides flying through Glen Canyon above Lake Powell, this flying took the cake for the most extreme and visually exciting to date. We even saw a crazy drone flying across the valley. We flew the valley northbound and then cut across the Spring Mountains, talking to Nellis approach, bypassing some military training flights, and landed at Northern Las Vegas for some fuel—both for us and the airplane.

We had lunch at the airport restaurant Tailwinds and Sunshine, which was filled with old flyers catching up with friends. Servers wore masks, but beyond that, very normal; the atmosphere was friendly and had a small town airport feeling, someone was celebrating a birthday, and they gave us all a slice of their cake to celebrate.

We finished lunch and some photo work, and went out, fueled up, and headed up for our next leg, a long, desolate, high altitude one with no possible fuel stops and lots of peaks and valleys to weave our way through. This kind of flying is still new to us in the Skyhawk, and it’s been an interesting challenge learning limitations, running performance numbers, and gauging energy based on wind, terrain, altitude, temperature, and weight. For example, getting out of Vegas required us to do a climbing 360 degree turn to gain altitude before pressing on to our routing, we simply weren’t climbing fast enough to get to our cruising altitude before steep terrain rose to meet us.
It was a beautiful leg winding our way North to Wendover, an old air force base with a lot of interesting old airplanes and a little museum. After we fueled there, we were stoked to see four military trainers barreling in—they taxied over and parked right in front of us in a line. Such formidable looking machines, they seemed extremely fun to fly.

We taxied our mighty Skyhawk away from their impressive lineup to runway 26 and I took off to do some of my favorite flying of the trip—low and slow over the Boneville Salt Flats. This place has always fascinated me in photos I’ve seen, the color that the waters take on in the salt lakes are a turquoise blue like that of the Bahamas, and this paired with the white, salty earth—is there anything better? I had some fun staying super low over the pools and flats; circling as Filip took photos from the window. It was a Utopian alien tundra of a place, and getting to fly over it as we pleased was spectacular. We saw people out enjoying the day on the expansive white salt pan, they looked so small and isolated when placed in such an environment, we circled over them, observing them observing us.

After some wonderful flying there, I pressed on to Salt Lake City where we would be spending the night in Bountiful, Utah. To my utter delight, though perhaps I could have guessed from the name, more salt lakes awaited for us there! I can feel an obsession growing. These shining colorful pools of water, gleaming and reflecting the sky, were incredible to fly over and photograph, every turn I made revealed more interesting beauty to see and shoot.

That rush of pure wonder really gave me the lift I needed to get me through the fatigue that had begun after a long day of nearly 9 hours of straight flying and a night with less than adequate sleep—the controllers at Salt Lake were super helpful in directing me through their I80 VFR transition to the field at Bountiful, and I landed softly on runway 35 as the sun set on another day.

Flight Path

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