Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Flying in the Grand Canyon

Flying in the Grand Canyon is very different than other parts of the world.  Typically the winds are very calm during the earlier part of the day.    As a rule we did most of our tour business from early in the morning until about 1500 hours (3:00PM) and then shut down for the day if the winds became too strong. .  On occasion in the afternoon a tour bus would arrive with a full load of tourist that wanted to take a flight over the canyon.  The turbulence could be very violent at times.  Not the most enjoyable time to see the canyon, but often these people had traveled from foreign countries and would probably not have another chance.  I would  always explain the conditions in the canyon and warn passengers that it might be a bumpy ride  I would never start a flight from the heliport if it was not safe. If we entered the canyon and the flight conditions had changed, or if anyone asked to be taken back, we would always cut the flight short and return to the heliport.  Sometimes conditions would change rapidly and you had no other choice but to do the best you could.  When this happened,  I know a few times,  I found myself gripping the flight controls very tight.

We would descend into the canyon a couple thousand feet below the rim and sometimes the winds would suck you down lower than you planned, and then it would turn you loose.  During the summer months, the temperature at the south rim would be much lower than at the base of the canyon near the Colorado river.  This would cause a strong updraft near the canyon walls. You could fly a fully loaded Jet Ranger over near the canyon walls and never add any additional power to climb out of the canyon.  The strong winds would just push you out of the canyon.  This really worked well when we were doing what was called river pull outs.  Several tour companies that did rafting trips down the

Rafting down the Colorado river click to enlarge

Colorado river contracted our helicopters to fly their people out of the canyon at the end of their rafting tour.  This would  be at a point at the west end of the canyon called Lava Falls.  In the past, people would either have to hike out or by horse back to get out of the canyon.  It was good business for us and we would fly several hours each time we went down to the falls..  Our company located a fuel truck on the north rim at a place called Tuweep.  The truck was left there until it needed to be brought back to our heliport to be refilled, then returned to Tuweep.  Their was a small dirt strip there where you could land airplanes.  We would pickup people at Lava Falls and then fly them up to the north rim.  They would then board an airplane and either return to Page, AZ or Las Vegas, NV.  The canyon was very narrow at the Lava Falls, so catching the updraft really made it easy to get to the top of the north side of the canyon.  For the same reason, it was equally hard to descend back down to the falls for the next pickup.
More river rafting click to enlarge
You can not imagine how quiet and peaceful it is on the river at the bottom of the canyon.
Some of these trips lasted for several days and they would camp on the river banks at night. I had been invited more than once to make one of the rafting trips down the river, but my objective was to get as much flying time as possible while I was at the canyon. So no time for rafting.

Red circle is landing area at Lava Falls.

Rafting over Lava Falls

Jet Ranger landing near Lava Falls. click to enlarge

Lava Falls looks very calm, but when the rafts go over it, it's a different story.
An exciting ride to say the least. In the above picture you can see the black lava rock on the side of the canyon wall.  When we were doing the transfer of people from the falls area to the small strip at the top of the north rim, you were very busy.  With the fuel truck parked at the Tuweep airstrip, we could keep the fuel loads very light so that our climb to the top would not be a maximum effort.  You could not always count on the updrafts to help you out, so at times it would take longer to get to the top.  Usually I would work by myself.  This meant loading, unloading and refueling while I was there.  It was fun to visit with the people and answer all the questions regarding the news while they were away on the river.  More on flying in the canyon on the next post...........................................

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