The flying was from Scottsdale airport KSDL to Sedona KSEZ. I flew with Sawyer Aviation. If you are web searching for flying schools in the USA search for "pilot training". At Bourn I'm learning on Cessna 152's which are OK but struggle to get in the air a little, at least with my weight and a flying instructor, so not exactly the plane you want when flying over mountains. No problem as Sawyer has 172's which I used last year. But this year they allocated me a 182RG. This had a 180 HP engine, retractable gear (hence RG), and a constant speed prop. With 4 seats it was no problem to take a passenger, so this time a friend Will came with me and used my camera to take the superb photos.
I called Sawyer and booked a slot three days ahead. No problems - said I was a student pilot who fancied flying around the local scenery. No questions, they didn't even ask my weight this time. I asked for an early slot as turbulence over the mountains builds up during the day and anyway the rock formations look much better in the early light. Sunrise was around 7.30 am and that's when the slot was booked - N88AA for 3 hours and Clive Martin the instructor.
At 7.30 am the air was very cold, only just above freezing. The walk-around was interesting, seeing a few new features like stall gates for the first time. The steps were too short for me, so Clive had to check the fuel tanks. Inside there were many new dials and levers to get used to, but of course the basics are much the same.
Scottsdale is about the size of Stansted but with no commercial flights - they go into Phoenix Skyharbor about 15 miles south west. Instead this facility is one of the local GA airports with dozens of private jets and piston aircraft, control tower, ATIS, radar and PAPI. A standard feature of such places is a terminal building with car rental desks! This makes visiting far off places very easy. There were around 4 takeoffs before us, all jets or twins off for the day somewhere nice no doubt. Power checks are taken very seriously what with the lack of nice flat fields for emergency landings. The mixture is adjusted at the power check too. Although I have recently got my RT licence in the UK the 'language' in the US is very casual and seemed to bear only a passing resemblance to over here, so we agreed Clive would make all the calls. There was zero wind, infinite visibility with not a cloud in the sky. Runway 03 is the designated calm wind runway so off we went.
We didn't seem to have got far down the runway before the airspeed was at 60 knots and Clive told me to pull back on the yoke. The climb rate at 70 knots was over 1,500 feet per minute, comforting with mountains ahead. Clive had warned me that a lot of rudder was needed with this plane and he was not kidding. It therefore did not take me long to master the rudder trim which works the same was as the pitch trim. I also learnt to retract the gear, holding the switch until the lights indicated the gear was retracted. The forward surge was surprising - I had never realised the drag from the spindly legs and wheels could have been that much.
At a thousand feet and still over the airfield we turned north. I immediately noticed after the turn that the DI hadn't moved. A few slow turns later convinced us it was stuck. I had a DI stick in G-BUEF once so I remember that the phrase 'always trust your instruments' applies only if you have checked they are working in the first place. It didn't seem to bother Clive so we continued using the compass. We climbed to 7,500 feet, something you don't do at Bourn in a 152 as there isn't enough time in an hour's lesson! There is no QFE in the US - you set the area altimeter "aal-tim-eater" - equivalent to QNH. We followed the scenic route to Sedona, via Horseshoe Lake and the Verde river. Once set up and trimmed straight and level I aimed at a distant mountain and checked the compass. I found the rudder trim had to be spot on as trying to maintain even a small constant pressure on the pedals was difficult and resulted in a wander off track.
In the middle of nowhere it was still essential to maintain a good look-out. I guess we would see another plane about every 5 minutes coming from one direction or another. But otherwise we just enjoyed the beautiful view, especially after around 25 minutes when the mountains gave way to the wide canyon with it's eroded red rock formations. We were soon near Sedona airport, which is on top of a plateau or mesa 500 feet above the surrounding ground. As Sedona town is at the northern end, the preferred approach (at least for the local inhabitants) is to use runway 03 for landing and runway 21 for departures. The concept of sharing the approach with departing aircraft was new to me and didn't sound that safe, but Clive reassured me that everyone was extra careful and not to worry. How wrong he proved to be.
We decided to enjoy a cruise around the canyons to the north of Sedona before landing, circling around to the west. A hot air ballon was descending and provided some scale to the scene. Clive was amused at the English pre-landing acronym BUMFICH , but this was the first time I got to use the 'U' and put the undercarriage down. There is a mirror on the right wing to check if the gear is down (see photo Sedona 13). There were several aircraft calling in to Sedona, but no one was manning the radio there so all the calls were blind. But the others were still miles away so we lined up for the approach. For someone used to landing at around sea level with flat countryside all around Sedona was a completely new experience. The runway is at 4,827 feet with the traffic pattern (circuit) height at 6,000 feet. Finding there was VASI to guide the approach was therefore very welcome.
However, once I was successfully lined up, trimmed and around 1.5 miles out Clive and I noticed a brief flash about half way down the runway. It was difficult to make anything out and I said I thought someone must have just taxied off the runway. But about 10 seconds later Clive shouted that it was an aircraft taking off towards us! We had made the blind radio calls to no avail. Clive tried to raise the other aircraft but no response. They were obviously blind as well as deaf as we had landing lights and strobes running. I was ready to do a right turn and apply power but Clive eased us down below the normal glide path and we watched as the departing aircraft - a twin - climbed overhead about 200 feet above us. I decided to let Clive carry out the landing, and he left me to do the swearing!
We parked up with about a dozen other visitors and walked to the restaurant for breakfast. The location is wonderful, with views of the mountains, and everyone turns their heads to see the latest visitor land. We were lucky to get a table (at 9am!) as this spot is very popular. The food was also very good. It was a real effort to want to get up and head back, but I guess we had to.
The departure was uneventful and we climbed and turned south back to Scottsdale. I was starting to get used to the strange features and the rudder trim was now second nature. More confusing was the variable pitch propeller with the constant speed unit. For take-off at full throttle the propeller rpm is set for maximum. When reducing power you throttle back first, then reset the propeller to 2,100 rpm. But when increasing power you have to adjust the propeller pitch to maximum rpm before increasing the throttle or you run the risk of over-revving the engine, not the thing to do even in a rental plane if you are over mountains.
The flight back to Scottsdale seemed to go quite quickly. The DI was occasionally working now but was obviously faulty. Clive told me his next trip was a practice check ride with an experienced pilot, so he'd not mention it and see if he spotted it as quickly as I had. It also came out that Sawyer had just failed a FAA inspection on a technicality - some errors in maintenance records - and that the 'punishment' was no solo student flying for the weekend!
Scottsdale was quite busy and the tower told us two other aircraft were ahead of us in the pattern. 'Tally-ho' was Clive's response. When I'd stopped laughing I pointed out we weren't in a Spitfire! But he was really surprised to learn that we don't use the term in the UK. They use it there as an unofficial way to confirm the sighting of traffic. It is clear that getting used to the US radio language - both official and the casual implementation - is essential for flying in the US. They have also never heard of an overhead join. At Sedona most aircraft were saying they would overhead mid-field and join downwind.
Propeller pitch fine, throttle back, undercarriage down, flaps down, trim, and turn on to finals. The runway is 100' x 8,249', that is 30m x 2,475m. This makes landing a little easier than at Bourn, although the 'picture' is a little different! I looked for a shed to judge my height, but couldn't see any, so I had to use the PAPI. Flared nicely, three back and holds and we landed almost perfectly.
I can strongly recommend trips like this to any student pilot. If you have 10 or 12 hours you probably know enough to enjoy it. Florida is the usual destination for training but is flat like around Cambridge and not very green. Give me the mountains any time. Even an experienced pilot will want some mountain flying training though. BA flies direct to Phoenix for around £320 or cheaper if you can pick up an offer. I normally fly Virgin to LA and then a short hop on America West. America West's hub is Phoenix and they have cheap flights to most parts of the US. Car rental and hotels are cheap, but remember their 'season' is November to May - outside those months it is way too hot.
Sawyer has C-152's for rental at $65 per hour wet, that's £36 at the exchange rate at the time of writing this. I splashed out with the C-182RG at $125 an hour (£68). For two hours flying, an instructor at $50 an hour, headset hire and tax the bill came to $336, around £186. The scenery was free!
Actually, the other strange thing about these airports with all of their facilities is that there are no landing fees! Maybe this is explained by the value they recognise of having a local airport. Scottsdale is around the same population as Cambridge, England and maybe the Cambridge planners should take note. This is from Scottsdale's town website:
"Scottsdale Airpark, the 2,600 acre commercial area which surrounds the Airport, has become a national model for airport-based business parks. This model has been achieved through the efforts of numerous City of Scottsdale civic and community leaders. Several important factors have contributed to the success of the Scottsdale Airport/Airpark - it is headquarters for over 25 national/regional corporations; home to more than 2,200 small to medium-sized businesses; workplace of more than 42,000 employees; and has easy airport access and seven miles of taxiway access. The workforce within its boundaries has tripled in the past decade, making it the second largest employment center in a community of approximately 212,000. One of the most significant aspects of Scottsdale Airport is the major economic stimulus that it provides to the City of Scottsdale and north Valley region. A recent study indicated that the airport generates more than $182 million annually in revenue to the region's economy and the combined annual impact of the airport/airpark is approximately $2.5-3.0 billion."
Here are some useful links:
US airfield guides http://www.airnav.com/
Sedona airport web site http://airport.sedona.net/
Sawyer Aviation, Scottsdale www.sawyeraviation.com
Live audio stream of Scottsdale Tower (remember the -7 hour time difference!) www.squawkvfr.net/sdl.htm#
Great UK flight training www.rfcbourn.flyer.co.uk
Thanks to Clive Martin the flying instructor at Scottsdale, Will Eve passenger and photographer and of course Trevor Gilpin FI for making the dream a reality in the first place.
February 14th, 2004