Grand Canyon

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.

Jonas in airplane

Getting paid to fly an F-4? Sounds like fun.

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.

Grand Canyon

“We would not fly over the Canyon; we would fly in it.”

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.

20 replies
  1. John Entwistle
    John Entwistle says:

    Many years ago my father’s friend Bill Whitesell flew a Beagle Basset at treetop level through the Grand Canyon while my father filmed and their wives enjoyed the view from the rear seats. That video used to be on YouTube until they pulled it down for copyrighted music. Bill was a Marine pilot who had a collection of WWII fighters and who’s idea of great fun was to call up his friends on the spur of the moment to fly across country for the weekend. Maybe someday I’ll stop off the music and post it again.

    Reply
  2. STEVE BILLINGS
    STEVE BILLINGS says:

    “Don’t tell me there ain’t no God. There is, by God, and He’s one helluva talented painter.”

    What a rude and vulgar statement! Saying God does something associated with hell is a stupid and idiotic attempt at sensationalism. You apparently don’t know anything about our God but one day you will find out what a moronic thing you said when you stand before Him…..

    Reply
  3. Rick Junkin
    Rick Junkin says:

    I showed up at the squadron with my dop kit and three changes of underwear every Friday to be ready to fill the cockpit of the weak sister who invariably fell out of that weekend’s scheduled cross-country. Thanks for a great story and memories of the Mighty Rhino, and the days of Uncle giving us the keys for the weekend with the only admonition of “Don’t do anything dumb or dangerous.” Your words brought a smile to my face, capturing the awesomeness of an era and culture that has fallen out of vogue and is hard for those who haven’t lived it to understand. Salute!

    Reply
  4. William Campbell
    William Campbell says:

    1969, I had not made it to the Grand Canyon yet, but I had made it to Ellsworth AFB, SD. (52Ds) Our planes were not so nimble as the F-4, I can imagine the ride through those rock halls and the memories you still have. Great story.

    Reply
  5. Greg Curtis
    Greg Curtis says:

    I would have liked to do the same as Dick. The closest I came was in November 1993 flying a B-52G and we were restricted to 14,000 MSL. However, the controller was tired giving us recommended vectors so we could enjoy the unbelievable variety of color the Grand Canyon reflects to the human eye that she said the words all aviators hope to hear, “You are cleared to wander aimlessly within the confines of Grand Canyon National Park. Maintain 14,000 and advised when you ready for further clearance.” We spent the next hour converting JP4 to smoke at the taxpayer expense marveling at this Eighth Wonder of the World. After that hour, it was straight south to Davis-Monthan on the final leg of my final flight in the Air Force and the final flight for a great aircraft, 58-0195, The Eternal Guardian.

    Reply
  6. David Sprague
    David Sprague says:

    Dick,

    Thanks for this stroll down the Grand Canyon ‘Memory Lane’. Some of us were lucky enough to do maneuver through there while it was legal.
    Great read.

    Reply
  7. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    I thought the comment of God’s paintings was appropriate considering the grand scale and beauty of the subject. Sadly some folks take offense at just about anything that isn’t expressed quite as would they. Any Vietnam warrior has my utmost respect. Thanks for sharing that pleasurable flight with us!

    Reply
  8. john M glen
    john M glen says:

    Good story, Dick, thanks. Back in the day, I used to fly thru the canyon often in a helicopter. Never had to reduce my speed to 350 knots, normally around 80 or so for a better view ! Often in the CANG we’d fly from Los Alamitos to San Diego to maintain proficiency (and lunch !). Hey, someone’s gotta do it.
    My father used to live in Chino Valley & I love it there.

    Reply
      • Chris Hann
        Chris Hann says:

        You stand yourself up there as some sort of religious guardian of all and you don’t even live the simple things from the bible. Judge not lest ye be judged! If you end up talking to the supreme being you are going to have plenty to answer for. Mostly being awful to other people… at least I hope ragging on people in comments is the worst of your behavior. I don’t subscribe to your fantasies, because of my Catholic education, but I have a good idea you are a heretic in the eyes of my Church, and their claim to superior relationship with the almighty is as good as anyone’s. If you are a Catholic, then go talk to a priest, confess what you’ve been doing online.

        Reply
        • Chris Hann
          Chris Hann says:

          Sorry, that reply ended up in the wrong place because I am an idiot. I expect people can work out where it belongs in this thread.

          Reply
  9. Peter N. Steinmetz
    Peter N. Steinmetz says:

    Great story. Too bad that airspace is so restricted these days. I am up toward Chino Valley a fair amount in my 69 Cardinal. Would love to meet up for a breakfast and a flight some time.
    My email is ndoc3@steinmetz.org.

    Reply
  10. Dick Hahn
    Dick Hahn says:

    I enjoyed your comments concerning your proficiency flight. I attended gunnery school at Luke Air Force Base and the air to air combat school at Nellis Air Force Base in 1957. We also flew into the Canyon until it was discovered that the guano mining operation on the north side had cables stretched from the bottom of the north side to the top of the south edge. No more flights in the Canyon. I’m sure that there was a NOTAM issued at that time. With eight guys in your gaggle, how did you determine who was lead and who had the front seat?

    Reply
  11. Henry C Gullett
    Henry C Gullett says:

    We had the pleasure of Dick and Mary at dinner during our second train trip to the South Rim. GREAT GUY !!!
    Shared war stories and jokes in Williams AZ.
    Wish I had talked him out of his address cause I would love to send him a card each year.
    We fought off the bandidos on the train’s approach into Williams.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *