The first time I ever saw the Grand Canyon was in 1969, on a trip to Nellis Air Force Base on my first cross-country flight to Las Vegas, Nevada. I was a young fighter pilot in the US Air Force, assigned to duty as an aircraft commander in the F-4 Phantom II at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, New Mexico. I was a new veteran of the Vietnam War, having flown 125 combat missions in the Phantom, prior to coming to New Mexico.
Cross-country is a wonderful jet fighter institution. On the TDY (temporary duty) orders in your g-suit pocket it says “Navigational Proficiency Flight.” Tattooed across your fighter pilot forehead it screams, “FUN!!! FUN!! Fun! FUN!!!”
I mean, now get this: They give you a multi-million dollar, very high-tech, supersonic flying machine on Friday morning and tell you to go get navigationally proficient by traveling all over the country. And try to be back by Sunday afternoon.
Oh. I almost forgot the credit card.
Your machine has the world’s worst MPG—something on the order of 0.5. It is going to burn one helluva lot of gas on this four-thousand mile trip. They give you a credit card and tell you to fill it up every time you stop. So you do: in Oklahoma City, Miami, New Orleans—it is pure coincidence that this is Mardi Gras weekend—and Las Vegas.
We departed Holloman Air Force Base, our homedrome on the edge of the White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico. It was a four-ship flight of Phantoms from the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing. We drilled up to Denver for an overnight and a fuel stop, courtesy of the Colorado Air National Guard at Buckley Field.
It was the fall of the year—October, I think—and we went at tree-top level straight up the Continental Divide. That time of year the Rocky Mountains resemble a gigantic flower garden. The leaves are turning and the first snow has fallen and the view is utterly magnificent!
Don’t tell me there ain’t no God. There is, by God, and He’s one helluva talented painter. There’s only one way to peruse that canvas—from a fighter cockpit at close range.
Out of Buckley the next morning, our four screaming Phantoms were westbound across the Divide, sweeping by Durango and Farmington. Shiprock broached the distant horizon, and we ran a 90-beam, visual intercept on the mast. Thundering across its bow, I looked to the left at eye-level with the top of the sail, and gazed in wonder at this mysterious rock formation standing tall out of New Mexico’s northwestern desert.
Our four fighters, in arrowhead formation, skimmed the desert floor for another hundred miles or so until the sandy brown horizon turned to a brilliant blue in the waters behind Glen Canyon Dam.
From this point on, until we popped up over Sunrise Mountain to land at Nellis, we would be navigating, not with sophisticated avionics black boxes, but with the downstream flow of the mighty Colorado River. We were going to fly the Grand Canyon from Lake Powell to Boulder Dam. We would not fly over the Canyon; we would fly in it.
Leader bent the flight southwestward around a cone-shaped island. He called for an airspeed reduction to 350 knots calibrated. At 350, we would be able to maneuver comfortably up to four or five Gs, and still be at a reasonable sight-seeing pace.
He porpoised his machine, which was our signal to fall back in extended trail formation. With about 800 feet spacing between aircraft, we had more freedom to maneuver, which would be important as we gyrated down the Canyon, reducing the likelihood of running over somebody. Plus, there can’t be many things much more fun than rat-racing down the Grand Canyon, chasing each other’s tailpipes like a bunch of playful puppies. Riding this multimillion dollar mobile grandstand seats you right in the middle of the action at the eighth wonder of the world.
Well, that was a little over 50 years ago and aircraft flight rules in the Grand Canyon area have become somewhat more restrictive over the years, even for military operations. You can’t do that anymore; if you tried it today, the military authorities would rip those cherished wings off your chest, and the civilian authorities would throw your butt in the pokey.
I was very lucky to have been a fighter pilot 50 years ago. That nav proficiency flight was one of the highlights of my career. Any other visit I ever paid to the Grand Canyon since that day has been damned ho-hum.