Sunday, November 2, 2008

Flagstaff - Reno / Cessna 182RG II (N7167V) / VFR

I believe this is the longest flight I've undertaken in one of my general-aviation aircraft. It covered more than 580 nautical miles and required five hours.

I took off from Flagstaff with three willing passengers and myself, accompanied by plenty of supplementary oxygen. The airfield alone is already at over 7000 feet. With four people aboard plus a full load of fuel, it took quite a while to gain any altitude; the nearby mountains were even more nearby than I would have liked. However, we still had plenty of margin.

The first leg was a straight line from Flagstaff to the Peach Springs VOR, on V291, itself a distance of 96 nm. I then departed Peach Springs on V562 to the MEADS intersection over Lake Mead, which was another 56 nm. So far, so good. The weather was nice. I flew these legs at 8500 for the most part, descending to 6500 after clearing the Grand Wash Cliffs, and then descending to 4500 as I crossed MEADS.

I got my clearance into the Las Vegas Class B and advised that I planned to take the Cortez transition, following the 249 radial to LAS until I got to the Wash Marina, then up past the El Cortez, then towards North Las Vegas and up northwest out of the Class B. From the Class B, I followed U. S. Route 95, taking care to stay west and south of the highway, which would guarantee that I'd be clear of the mysterious restricted airspace on the Nellis Test Range (home of the famous Area 51). That's when the trouble started.

I had carelessly departed without examining the weather along the way, although I probably would not have foreseen what I encountered, anyway. As I left Las Vegas, the clouds that had been growing thicker for some time suddenly closed in around me, and visibility dropped to perhaps two miles. Los Angeles Center was not online, so I couldn't ask for a pop-up IFR clearance, and the Cessna is not well equipped for instrument flight, although it has the essentials. By an unhappy coincidence, I had planned to fly this particular leg out of Las Vegas by pilotage, by following the highway until at least as far as the Amargosa Valley. But now the highway was gone. In fact, everything was gone—all I had around me was mist.

I put on a good imitation of professionalism for the sake of my passengers, but the situation was worrisome. I knew that rising terrain and mountains hemmed me in on both sides: nearly 12,000 feet to the west, and nearly 10,000 feet to the east … and I was at 4500 feet, which was plenty for following the highway, but did not leave any margin should I stray too far from U. S. 95. Now I couldn't see the highway, so that worried me. At first I tried climbing to 6500 to see if I could get out of the mist, but that didn't work. I then recalled that I had been west of the highway, so I descended carefully back down to 4500 and turned east. A glance at the radial I was on from LAS and the DME seemed to confirm that I was indeed just west of the highway, although it was hard to evaluate this because I couldn't afford to take my eyes off the instruments and the outside view for very long.

After a minute or two of searching in all directions, I spotted lights on the highway, or on a highway—it was hard to tell if it was truly U. S. 95, but there weren't supposed to be any other major highways in the vicinity. I came in low over the highway and followed it, taking care to remain on the west side of the highway. Once I was stable along the highway, I did some double checking against my position with respect to the LAS VOR and also in relation to the Mercury NDB just north of Desert Rock. The results were encouraging: I seemed to be clear of restricted airspace and more or less where I should be with respect to my planned route.

The highway was barely visible below me, so I had to constantly watch it or risk losing it. Every time I looked at the charts and looked back out the window the highway had moved and was disappearing, and I'd have to search desperately for it left and right and then steer back towards it. Too far from the highway and I'd either meet the ground or I'd meet a couple of jet fighters. Gradually, though, I grew increasingly confident of my position, by looking at where I was in relation to LAS and Mercury, and by comparing the twists and turns of the highway to the chart.

I proceeded in this way all up the highway, until the twirling of my ADF told me that I was passing Mercury. By then I was able to receive the BTY VOR, and so I climbed to 6500 and picked the 120 radial from the VOR to keep me over the desert valley and clear of the dreaded R-4808.

Once I had BTY, things got a lot easier, since most of the rest of the flight referenced VORs. From BTY I flew to LIDAT, climbing to 8500, then direct TPH, taking care to make a slight detour to the west to avoid R-4807A. I was trying to avoid high mountains, too, to minimize the amount of oxygen my passengers and I would need. From TPH it was direct MVA, with a reluctant slow climb to 10,500 feet MSL. From MVA it was V584 all the way to CHIME, where I had originally planned to turn west onto V494 to sneak around the mountains. However, with clear air below me (and a cloud deck above) at 10,500, I could see Reno from CHIME, so I just decided to go right over the mountains.

Once I could see that I was clear of the mountains southeast of Reno, I spotted the valley to the south where I had originally planned to make my approach, and descended into the valley to make a right base for 34R. There was a ton of turbulence on the way down (not to mention a bit before that on the way in) and it made us a bit queasy, but I finally got us down in one piece, although some strong gusts just over the runway made it a bit wild in the last few seconds before touchdown.

So, nearly five hours after I took off, I taxied over to a GA ramp at Reno and parked. We were all tired.

Of course, people who have never done serious flight simulation will dismiss this flight as just a game. It doesn't feel that way if you take it seriously, though. Even though you know in the back of your mind that you cannot be hurt in a simulation, it's still a shot of adrenalin to be stuck in solid IMC inadvertently when you had planned for VMC all the way. But it's good practice.

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