A year or so ago I made a late attempt at a new career, that of a commercial pilot. This venture ended up leading to a dead-end, due in part to the huge financial outlay needed and also to the fact I just didn’t believe I was good enough. However part of this experience led me to a pretty incredible adventure while in Las Vegas. Normally we focus this blog on things you may want to do yourself and write about tourist attractions and common activities that appeal to a broad range of interests. This is a little more Niche, very few people will ever get an experience like this, but it’s so amazing I just wanted to share it with you.
That said, there is absolutely nothing stopping anyone from copying this idea and hiring a plane yourself, one of the conditions of the rental was we hired an instructor to come along, and while I did most of the flying, the instructor would have happily just taken us out for a scenic flight, So if this seems like something you really want to do, feel free to contact the Flight School and see what they can offer.
So What is all this about? As part of my Flight Training, I was building hours and getting experience, so when we visited Las Vegas on our yearly trip, I thought booking a light aircraft and flying it over the grand canyon would be bucket-list destruction material! Seriously who gets to fly themselves over the GC!
In fact, I had done this hundreds of times already, being a flying geek I have flown thousands of hours on flight simulators, and one of the first places you go to in a Sim is the Grand Canyon. There really is nothing better than skimming over the rim and plunging down into the canyon! But this time it would be for real!
I began researching the idea and quickly found out that any flight inside the canyon is highly restricted, only the odd chopper flight is allowed inside the rim but you can still fly over the Canyon, and besides, the whole Las Vegas area is pretty awesome to fly around so I contacted a few flight schools to get a price on hiring a plane. It soon became clear I would need an instructor, I was training in the UK and didn’t have a full PPL yet, However, an instructor is a really good idea anyway. A local instructor handles the Nav and does the radio work which is subtly different from the EU/UK.
We contacted a company called West Air Aviation who were more than happy to rent us an aircraft and provide us with an instructor to take to the skies and see Vegas and the GC like never before.
North Las Vegas Airport.
Naturally, we would not be flying out of McCarran so we headed up to the much quieter North Las Vegas Airport where West Air Aviation is based. Their premises are pretty modest and we waited in the small reception area for our instructor to arrive. It was a hot day, even by Vegas standards, the end of May had seen a heatwave hit, and even at 10 am the temperature was getting towards 110°f (45°c) and would top out at 120 °f (48°c) for the day! When we got back to our (black) car after the flight, it took 20mins with the AC on full blast just to get the car cool enough to sit in!
Our instructor arrived and after some brief paperwork and a briefing about the flight route, we headed out to our plane. We had hired a Cessna 182RG, and this would be the fastest, largest, and most complex plane I had flown. Most of my training had been in tiny 2 seater planes (Piper Tomahawk PA-38) so this was to be quite an experience. It was also the first time Kate had flown with me, so her nerves were a little on edge.
The Hire cost was $210/hr and the flight time was an expected 2 hours and on top of this, we needed to pay $50/hr for the instructor. $520 seems a big chunk of cash but remember this is for the plane hire and instructor, not per person, and in relation to other tours and Grand Canyon experience such as Maverick Helicopters $449 per person flight, and it is remarkable value! And the truth is we go SO much more than we bargained for, Read on.
Part of the reason for the low cost is we don’t have to pay a Pilot, I offered my service for free! But this meant the Pre-Flight work had to be carried out by myself. The experience was carried out like any normal flight lesson and I was responsible for all the pre-flight checks and such. Fortunately, the stands are shaded but the baking Desert heat made this hot sweaty work. With the Checks done and the engine fired up, and power checks completed, Our instructor, Van Stennis, Made the radio calls to the tower and we began the taxi.
The cabin was unbearably hot and out in the sun, the cockpit heated up like a Greenhouse. The heater set to max cool just blew the roasting desert air onto us with nearly zero cooling effect. Still, Van assured us it would be cooler once we got some altitude.
The route we were taking took east out of NLVA and over towards Nelis AFB keeping well clear of the military Airspace. The flight would then take us over Lake Mead and over the West Rim of the Grand Canyon, we would then head back via Hoover Dam, Boulder, and a choice of the Las Vegas Strip or Red Rock Canyon depending on air traffic.
Our Flight Path (Approx)
Once cleared for take-off, we lined up, rolled the engines forwards, and took to the skies.
Due to the immense heat, the priority was to climb hard and get us, and the plane’s engine, up into the cooler air so we climbed quickly up to about 5,000 feet. From the plane’s cockpit at 5,000feet the Las Vegas basin had never looked so incredible. The inversion layer that had created the heatwave made things a little hazy but the sky was incredibly blue once in the air and the view of the city was mindblowing.
We then headed out over Lake Mead. Van Steenis knew the area like the back of his hand and Navigation was as simple as “point it at that mountain and fly straight and level”. Lake Mead was stunning from this height, the surface of the water took on a real shimmering quality and looked like blue glass, perfectly contrasted against the endless desert, like a Topaz jewel in the monotonous sea of beige and browns.
We flew over Celine Dion’s house and watched the boats sailing across the water like miniature little ants as we continued our flight across the blue above them. By the end of Lake Mead, the ground started rising up to meet us and we finally got our first views of the incredible Grand Canyon.
The West Rim is the least impressive part of the Canyon, but that is not to say it is not a mighty impressive feature. The gigantic scar in the earth’s surface is a monumental thing to witness where ever you see it. From above it is truly remarkable, you really see the way the canyon tears the ground in two like a massive crack ripping through the surface.
We flew to the West rim Visitors center where we dropped our altitude slightly and circled around the airport and watched the people walking the Skywalk, taking in the incredible magnitude of the place. Our instructor then asked if we wanted to drop down and maybe take a look at the old airport and even drop down into the canyon!
It was around this time we realized we were going to get a bit more of an adventure than we planned, like flying yourself over the grand canyon isn’t adventurous enough, Our instructor had other ideas! Van Stennis was an old-school kind of guy, he had been flying the area his entire life and remembered the days when the canyon was open for planes to fly through. Several horror crashes and fatalities meant the FAA hammer came down and no one but the odd helicopter is allowed below the canyon rim now, but rules can be bent slightly it seems.
First off we headed to Peirce Ferry aerodrome. This is little more than a strip of smooth dirt perched on the edge of the canyon. Van Stennis regaled us of times he used to frequent here often before the newer Grand Canyon West Airport opened up. He talked about how they always took off the same direction, and if you had a tailwind by the end of the runway you did not have enough speed to take off. Instead, they flew the plane down into the canyon, the descent giving the planes the speed they needed to pull out of the dive!
Hairy stuff, he then declared he could show us! We descended to the airfield and performed a touch-and-go, but we didn’t throttle back up fully so at the end of the runway we were below V2 (takeoff speed) but still airborne, just and out of runway!
As we crested the cliff top the canyon plunged away below us as we pushed the nose of the plane down into a steep dive into the canyon, this built the speed, and raised the heart rate, as we were now back at proper flying speeds and able to pull out, Again Van Stennis had more exciting ideas!
We continued the dive down into the canyon below, heading for the river. A quick explanation followed. We are not allowed to fly into the Grand Canyon anymore but this section was a tributary of the canyon and not covered by the minimum floor on the flight charts, so here we were free to fly low well below the canyon walls and for all intents and purposes, we were flying through the Grand Canyon. So many bucket list items ticked off on one short space of time, we had actually flown directly over the rim, just like all those sim flights before, and were now practically flying along inside the Grand Canyon!
We were not done yet either. Back home flying out of Liverpool Airport there is a hard floor of 1000 feet, wherever we fly. Only on landings do we ever sink below 1000ft, and in truth we usually fly much higher for the majority of the time. 1000ft is not very high for an aircraft, but it’s high enough to be in that other world, one where groundspeed or trees and buildings are way inconsequential. Van Stennis doesn’t fly that way.
We were now down to around 100ft, the canyon walls towering above us. As the ground got closer and closer, the 120mph flight speed suddenly became very apparent as we skimmed along the river, getting lower and lower. More precision Navigation instructions were given.
“Just follow the river until I say, I’m going to look out for burrows!”
So I was in full control as we screamed along the river at 12omph at around 50ft, while Van scoured the banks for wild horses. We didn’t find any horses but the flying was one of the most exhilarating things I have ever done! Eventually, we pulled out of the river and into another canyon where Van Stennis explained he used to have to fly loads of TNT in for mining operations, he pointed out the old airfield but there was very little trace left.
We then began climbing again as we flew back across the blue jewel of Lake Mead. We crested ridgelines and mountain tops as we made our way towards Hoover damn. We flew a few laps of the famous structure, one that seems a little small and underwhelming from the altitude we were flying.
Finally, we made our final turn back towards Las Vegas. Van Stennis has asked if we wanted to take a direct route back to the airport, cutting straight across the Las Vegas Strip or take a detour to look at the stunning Red Rock Canyon, as tempting as the canyon was, nothing would compare to low and slow over the strip!
Unfortunately, the restrictions on flying the strip are pretty strict. Unless you get direct clearance from McCarran Tower it is a no-go. The chances of this were unlikely, with endless helicopter traffic and the commercials flying in and out of McCarran. but if you don’t ask, you don’t get so Van got on the radio and requested a transit.
When they called back giving us the clearance we were over the moon and we soared along just to the west of the strip with stunning views of the strips hotels below us. A magical end to an incredible experience. All that was left was to put her back down on the tarmac and log the flight, one entry in my logbook I will NEVER forget!
Want to try this for yourself?
As we said this is a pretty Niche article and one experience not really geared to tourists, anyone with a PPL should really give it a try, even if you are still in training as the complex parts were all covered by our excellent instructor, I just performed the basic maneuvers while Van took care of navigating and Radio, and assisted or took over when things were tricky!
But as we said you don’t have to be a pilot to rent a plane and an instructor. The company offers pleasure flights and the whole experience of flying in a light aircraft is like nothing you have experienced before. It is exhilarating and breathtaking, and you get to see the whole area like never before. On this trip to California and Vegas we saw blue whales, drove the PCH, hiked in Yosemite, and lived it up in Vegas, nothing we did came even close to this flight, it really is the sort of thing people do not even dream they can do!