Eight things I know about flying in Arizona

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1. Do fly over the Grand Canyon

Most people know that Arizona is home to the Grand Canyon. It really is amazing to stand at the edge of this geologic marvel. It is hard to comprehend its scope without having looked out over the edge. But another great way to appreciate this canyon is from the air. There are many commercial helicopter and fixed-wing operators who will take you up for a view, but as a GA pilot, you can make remarkable flights. The Grand Canyon is a Special Flight Rules Area with designated corridors for GA traffic. The Grand Canyon chart is now being updated every six months (the prior revision was from 2001) and contains the VFR corridors, altitudes, and frequencies. Be sure to consider the altitudes you will be comfortable at from an emergency landing perspective.

2. Arizona is a great place to learn to fly

There is a reason there are so many old World War II army airfields in Arizona. That is because the outstanding weather made it an ideal location for Allied countries to train their airmen. In the Valley of the Sun, Phoenix has an average of 310 days per year with sunshine, while Yuma, to the southwest, has 328. Many of the local GA airports, such as Falcon Field (KFFZ), Goodyear (KGYR), and Coolidge Municipal (P08), evolved from army training fields. Given both the weather and the terrain, there is a robust flight training community in Arizona which continues to train both local pilots and pilots from around the world.

Sedona
Sedona is a unique airport – but don’t run off the end.

3. Land on aircraft carrier Sedona

There really isn’t much water for an aircraft carrier in Arizona, but many liken landing at Sedona (KSEZ) to landing on one. The 5130 ft. runway sits on a relatively narrow mesa above the town at 4380 ft. MSL. The approach features the red rock formations for which Sedona is renowned. Food at the on-field restaurant is quite good. Best to use the uphill sloping runway 3 unless there is more than a 5-knot headwind on 21. That direction has caused some spectacular overruns off the steep edge.

4. We’re not kidding about the density altitude

Arizona is well known for its heat as well as its sunshine (but it really is a dry heat). While metropolitan Phoenix is perhaps the best known part of the state at an altitude of 1200 ft., Arizona has a diverse geography. Flagstaff (KFLG) and the top of the Mogollon Rim to the east sit at 7000 ft. MSL. Combine this with high summertime temperatures and Flagstaff will often see 10,000 ft+ density altitudes in the summer. This makes for a very long takeoff run and slow climb out in a 150-horsepower Cessna 172. Best to carefully check takeoff performance and wait for cooler morning temperatures if needed. Springerville (KJTC), at 7055 ft. MSL, was the site of a series of unfortunate accidents in 2010-2011 likely due to failure to account for high density altitudes.

5. You just might want to fly through that MOA

The same sunny weather and wide open spaces which made Arizona a top choice for Allied flight training in World War II make it a prized area for training US flying forces. Arizona has the Luke (KLUF) and Davis-Monthan (KDMA) Air Force bases, Libby (KFHU) and Laguna (KLGF) Army airfields, as well as the Yuma Marine Corps Air Station (KYNL, seems funny for a state with so much desert). Large parts of the state are Restricted areas.

The Goldwater Range, southwest of Phoenix and east of Yuma, is 1.9 million acres used for bombing and firing practice. A look at the sectionals for Arizona shows that about one-fourth of the airspace is restricted or part of a Military Operations Area (MOA). This can make for some very long detours if one simply always avoids these. You can of course legally fly through MOAs, but it is best to check with ATC to see if the area is cold (not in active use). ATC can also can grant permission to fly through restricted areas and will frequently do so for the less active areas.

6. The soaring is superb

Sailplanes Arizona
Soaring is a big deal in Arizona.

Sandy desert surfaces and high temperatures make for frequent dust devils and what glider pilots look for, namely, lift in thermals. This combination of conditions led to the formation of the Estrella Sailport (E68) in 1969, which still operates as one of the more active commercial glider training facilities in the US. The Estrella Mountains just to the north provide regular ridge lift which serves as a launching point for cross-country soaring to as far away as Tucson and Yuma. The El Tiro Gliderport (AZ67) near Tucson and the Godwin Memorial Gliderport (AZ86) near Prescott both have active glider clubs.

7. You actually can fly floatplanes in Arizona

Almost all lakes in Arizona are the result of dams and the Colorado River has its share. Lake Havasu is large enough that Lake Havasu Seaplane at Lake Havasu City (KHII) provides instruction in C172s on floats leading to the SES rating. A fun place to train in the desert which is also near the lights of Las Vegas — and certainly not as cold as say Kenmore (S60) in the winter months.

8. It is hard to train in actual IMC

All of that sunshine has at least one downside when it comes to flight training. It actually takes an effort to find true instrument meteorological conditions to fly GA aircraft in for training. The monsoon season has plenty of thunderstorms but one really wants to avoid these in small planes. The winter can bring cold fronts but in many cases the freezing levels are too low to fly a non-FIKI plane through the clouds at or above the MEA. There are sometimes a few frontal passages in January – March that have high enough freezing levels for some true IMC flying in small planes if one watches carefully. The fact is, however, that most pilots complete their instrument rating in Arizona without any actual flying in IMC. Oh welI, I guess that no location can have ideal flying weather for all types of training 7/8 of the year.

14 Comments

  • Ryan Field was a spectacular place to fly as a fledgling. I knew how to fly Cessna 150’s/172’s before arriving at Ryan Field in Tucson to get the the hours needed (40) – – – to get my private pilots license. My approx. illegal 200 hrs. were moot. I was tutored by an old Albatross at Ryan with more hours than Father Time…we had become friends after I met him at an air show after he had ferried another performers plane there (performer flew commercial), and we were all in the same hangar. He found out I needed the “ticket”, and offered to train at reduced rates. Working for an airline had me from the southeast U.S. to Tucson two week ends a month until the 40 hours were reached. I enjoyed being taught by a real “been there, done that, it happened and we barely made it, yes it scared the crap outa’ me, and Mr. Gravity is not your friend, and yes…Orville & Wilbur did occasionally drink beers” type of guy. Once he saw I could pre-flight, radio chatter, start, taxi, take off, fly the pattern and elsewhere and return and land………he put me through many “emergency” situations and he taught me how to “fly”. The Aerobat 150 he had me in became a spatial disorientation machine – but after a while and ridding myself of some breakfasts and lunches….became a joy to distort around the sky. I am still learning to fly every time I leave the ground. Oh……I loved Tucson…best place to learn…severe clear……CAVU……lots of great memories.

  • Peter, this is a well done representation of our awesome State of Arizona in Air Facts’ series of articles on each state. Nice job.

    Another feature of Arizona is the plethora of opportunities to live at airports. There are quite a few airparks around Arizona, no surprise since we have such great flying weather year-round (sticking to early morning flying during the heat of the summer). There’s no better way to wake up at 6am than to the sound of an airplane taking off several hundred feet outside your bedroom window.

    https://azpilots.org/pilot-info/airparks-of-arizona

  • I’m surprised to see you didn’t mention Kingman Airport, during the war in the early 1940’s Kingman was nothing but a heavily training airport for B-17, B-24, and fighters alike and a gunnery school for hundreds if not thousands of personnel in all these aircraft. It was also the airport where after the war the bombers were brought to Kingman airport for disposal, and burial of most all these aircraft. It is presently a bone yard for commercial airliners, We also suffer from density altitude at times here, the altitude here is 3500 feet on a good day…thanks

  • I lived in Arizona for most of 20 years, and wholeheartedly agree. I flew out of Falcon Field in rented and borrowed Mooneys and Bonanzas before partnering with a friend in a SIAI-Marchetti SF.260. The high elevations and higher density altitudes of much of the state make a higher-performance airplane a real plus.

    I never tired of flying into Sedona. The photo in the article, looking east towards the south end of the runway, misses the point. On final approach to Runway 03 (the preferred landing runway), you’re looking at spectacular red rock formations straight ahead, towering 2500 feet above the field elevation. These are the same beautiful rock layers that form the Grand Canyon 80 miles further north.

    Ahhh, the Grand Canyon! What a tragedy it was for GA in 1999 when the Fun Police, faced with the complaints of hikers and campers about the increasingly intrusive and noisy helicopter flights buzzing around Grand Canyon village, banned everyone EXCEPT those pesky helicopters from flying in and around the Canyon below 14,000 ft. One of the great joys in my aviation life was crossing the rim 50 feet above the trees (far from the Village!), rolling the SF.260 inverted and plunging down into that mile deep by eight miles wide wonderland. I was always jealous of the fighter jocks who did basically the same thing in F-4 Phantoms, F-15 Eagles and, once, a pair of F-14 Tomcats, disappearing vertically behind a rock formation in the middle of the Canyon, only to reappear in a vertical climb a half mile or so away. Wow! But it was the next thing to heaven in the Marchetti. It was even spectacular the first time I tried it, in 1970, in a seriously overburdened, ancient C-172. (The guy in Flagstaff who rented it to me advised that if I got into a downdraft faster than the 172’s anemic climb rate, slide over towards the sunlit side of the Canyon, where there was always a reliable updraft. It worked!)

    IFR currency and proficiency? Yeah, right! Plan on a lot of time under the hood. If it ain’t VFR, it’s because the air is full of impenetrable sand, ice, or a thunderstorm.

    Arizona flying is one of life’s treasures.

  • There’s actually 9 things.. you left out the real dangerous dust devils that occur from time to time that sometimes you can’t even see and the dust storm roll-clouds that come through every so often. I learned to fly out at the Scottsdale airport in 1972 through ASU and these two monsters just about did me in on a couple of occasions.

  • Thanks all for your kind remarks, stories and suggestions. We moved to Arizona in 2005 primarily for my work. Now that I can work pretty much anywhere with a decent internet connection, I think it is fair to say one of the reasons we stay is the great flying here.

  • Peter,
    It is surprising to me, as a long time Alaskan pilot, how much great backcountry flying is available in Arizona. So, it seems, Arizona has something for every pilot.
    David Mersereau

  • We have one more state to post — Wisconsin — and then we need more. Step up and wave the flag for flying in your state or country. Contact John at editor@airfactsjournal.com to claim your territory. We need up to 10 tips, and the rest is yours to do.

  • I’ve lived in Arizona almost 40 years and have been a CFI for most of that time. I would find it hard to live and fly anywhere else, for the reasons stated in the article. Just one comment about the Grand Canyon. If you fly into the KGCN, there is a free shuttle to take you to the Grand Canyon Village, and other shuttles to take you along the Canyon for some magnificent views! But flying across the Canyon, beware: if you look at the upper collar of the VFR chart, you will see the note “Caution: Severe turbulence may occur over rugged terrain.” No kidding! I usually fly north on the Dragon corridor, and south on the Zuni. The worst turbulence I have ever experienced in my 55 years of flying was at VPGCI, turning south on the Zuni. I was in a Seminole, and I was literally out of control at times, pointed straight down toward the river for a few long seconds at a time. The wind was 40 kts out of the west, and I think the geometry of the canyon simply caused air wave resonances, that I got caught in. That was only on one out of about 100 crossings I’ve made, but I won’t even try it if the winds are over 25 kts out of the west!

  • Somehow I think that an IFR rating obtained without flying in any actual IFR conditions is not worth as much a rating with training in actual IFR conditions. It’s not proof, but I knew a lovely couple from Arizona who both had fresh IFR ratings. They came east and crashed in the fog at Mystic, Connecticut on their second approach. They took another couple with them.

    • I think most of us taught here are cautioned not to assume we know how to handle hard IFR from our simulation training. Best to go out and use the rating to descend through a marine layer and fly VMC in the system to gain more experience. Sorry to hear what happened to your acquaintances.

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