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Aug/Sept 2000

Table of Contents
Green River, UT
Flying to Seldom Used Airports
Planning Makes a Difference
Dream Plane
The Spartan Executive
The $100 Hamburger
The Flight Deck Restaurant, North Las Vegas, NV
Back To Basics
Flying in the High Country
Hangar Flying:
High Field Departures
SWAV News Update

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SW Aviator Magazine
3909 Central NE
Albuquerque, NM 87108
Phone: 505.256.7031
Fax: 505.256.3172
Flying to Seldom Used Airports
Planning is the Key
story by J.T. Crawley

Anyone can find their way to a well-lit, paved airport with twenty-four hour services and a stocked vending machine. However, making a trip to a remote landing site attended only by a dozing rattlesnake that has seen more jackrabbits than airplanes over the past few years takes planning, foresight, and keen judgement. The rewards of flying to the rugged beauty of destinations far removed from "civilization" are well worth the extra time and effort spent to make the event successful. These flights are the experiences that serve as a reminder of why we have worked so hard to earn our pilot’s certificate.

I fly for a company called Native American Air Ambulance, using Pilatus PC-12 turboprops. We normally fly with an ATP rated pilot, a nurse, and a medic onto the various Tribal lands in the Southwest. Our destinations are often remote, unpaved airstrips in places well off the beaten path, such as Kayenta or Crownpoint Arizona. There we pick up hospital patients in various degrees of distress, and fly them to cities like Phoenix or Albuquerque with larger, more advanced hospitals. Because of the nature of our work, obtaining current information about our remote destinations is vital, but getting it can be tricky.

Many of the airports we fly to are rarely used. Some are private, reserved for hospital or Tribal business. Consequently, the Flight Service Station will have little information regarding these airports. Also, information disseminated through normal channels, such as NOTAMs, the Airport Facilities Directory, etc., can be delayed, dated, or even missing entirely. However, the remoteness of these airstrips, combined with the urgency of our mission, dictates we find creative, effective ways to determine airport conditions.

A recent mission highlights the need for thorough preflight planning for a destination. I was flying at 12,500 feet on a black, moonless night looking for a small patch of lights straddling the northwest to southeast road that defines Chinle, Arizona, in the heart of the Navajo Nation. Unfortunately, flying the night shift I did not get to see the kaleidoscopic brilliance of colors reflect off the Painted Desert that slept in the darkness below. Probably just as well, I needed to concentrate on the task at hand. Chinle's hospital held a patient urgently needing a ride to the Flagstaff Medical Center for a CT scan and evaluation.

The weather information I had received prior to takeoff was scant due to the lack of reporting stations in this part of the country. In fact, you will likely receive a better weather picture in the wilds of Alaska than you will in parts of the Four Corners states, due to the lack of PIREPS and scarce weather reporting stations. Based upon the observations at Window Rock (over 40 miles away), Gallup, and Farmington, I expected a chilly wind blowing directly across Chinle's dirt strip. The sky was overcast above, which smudged out any horizon that may have been apparent. I stayed on the gauges, peeking outside only to find those city lights.

After finally spotting the lights marking town, I followed the descent route I had planned before departing Winslow 25 minutes earlier. I had referenced the VFR chart for high terrain in the area, and now knew where not to be on descent into the airport. I could see Chinle clearly, but could not see runway lights where I knew they had to be. Because of this, I leveled off; there was no point in descending further if I didn't know where I would put the airplane. The higher altitude also gave me a better vantage point to find those elusive runway lights. About four miles from the town, and practically on top of the airport, I spotted the eye-straining 1940's version of runway lights right where they were supposed to be.

Gear down and flaps 30, I pitched down and descended into the pattern looking for the windsock. For now though, it didn't really matter which way the wind was blowing, I needed to fly a low pass down the length of the strip before landing to look for things like cattle, cars, people and other objects that could cause damage to my airplane or its occupants. (Our pilots have run across oddities like a flaming bonfire surrounded by multiple individuals on the runway at San Carlos in the middle of the night.) Typically, flying over most animate objects with the landing lights on, strobes flashing, and propeller set to climb pitch will scare just about anything off the premises.

On this pass nothing living appeared to be on the runway, just a lot of blowing dust. When I pitched up at the end of the runway all I could see was this airborne dirt reflected by my landing lights against a background of absolute dark, inky blackness. This gave me a sense of vertigo that would have made Alfred Hitchcock proud, which could only be alleviated by returning to an instrument scan.

The winds creating this dust cloud very slightly favored a landing on the northbound runway. After executing a teardrop return to final I aimed a third of the way down the runway, on altitude and on speed. The reason for aiming that far downfield and losing all that useful runway length illustrates another motivator to diligently gather information on your destination in advance. A call to the local tribal police is a routine part of our planning process, since they visit these airports frequently. During the call prior to this flight I confirmed the existence of a ditch across the approach end of the runway, wide and deep enough to rip the landing gear right out of the wings. Additionally, I also confirmed that had I been landing to the south, there is a police department antenna sticking straight up into the glidepath on short final that I would need to avoid. Any trip to an unfamiliar airport, especially a primitive or seldom used one, is greatly simplified by a thorough briefing from a pilot who has been there recently. I was fortunate to have been briefed in training, and shown in daylight by another Native American Air Ambulance pilot, the position of the mini-canyon running across the runway at Chinle, and the police antenna on short final.

We touched down just past the canyon, and rolled out to the end of the runway on the loose, dry dirt. It had not rained for a few weeks, which is fortunate, since Chinle has a rather odd airport situation. There is a recently built public airport west of the town, with a paved runway and taxiways. However, for reasons lost on me, there are no runway lights, nor is there a road out to the airport. So, Chinle is the proud owner of a brand-new paved runway you can't use at night and that requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach. We would normally avoid a dirt strip on rainy days if there is a paved option nearby, but since an ambulance might get bogged down in the mud coming out to the new Chile airport we have to choose the lesser of two evils. Ground access to and from the airport after landing is another important preflight planning consideration.

After shut down on the dark, windy dirt strip, I dialed up Native American Air dispatch on the cell phone to report our safe arrival, and to send out the patient from the nearby hospital. The cell phone’s curt reply was a "No Service" message, which is fairly common out here where pay phones are few, and cellular towers fewer. If you are a pilot planning to purchase a cell phone, pay close attention to those ambiguous maps that purport to indicate areas of cell service; we have found them to be overly optimistic. Fortunately, I was able to contact Prescott Radio on the local frequency, and they were kind enough to make the toll-free phone call to dispatch. The specialists over at the Flight Service Station are usually very helpful, and provide a great resource to pilots flying in remote areas. If they don't have the information you are looking for, they may have the phone number of a tribal police or search and rescue facility that can help you in your planning efforts.

Shortly after the ambulance’s arrival we were loading the patient through the large cargo door on the side of the ship. The cargo door on the Pilatus is hinged at the top and seems large enough to pass a piano through, making it very convenient and comfortable for the patient. Using my best soft-field takeoff method, we departed Chinle enroute to Flagstaff, Arizona’s Pulliam Field. The groundspeed after we leveled off indicated 260 knots.

I received the Flagstaff weather from Albuquerque Flight Watch. The visibility was down to two and a half miles with a 500 foot ceiling; an ILS approach to runway 21 was likely. Flagstaff is beautiful airport to fly to in daylight, or a clear black night encrusted with stars, since it is up in the high pines of Northern Arizona. The air smells clean and sweet every time we go, but the 12,000 foot San Francisco peaks north of town are notorious weather makers. I've watched the entire state be free of any sort of weather, while Flagstaff airport is at minimums in a raging snowstorm. Roughly thirty minutes after departure, I intercepted the localizer to Pulliam Airport and proceeded down to the runway. The ambulance met us on the ramp and soon after the patient and medical crew were off to the Flagstaff Medical Center. It was good to be back in civilization.

Flights like this to the "Southwestern Outback" are undertaken every day of the year, in all sorts of weather. The vast majority are completed without incident. A key reason behind every successful flight is attention to detail during the preflight planning. Gathering enough information before you leave to assure the trip can be completed safely saves everyone a potential headache later. Use all sources, even unconventional ones, to learn all you can about conditions at your intended destination. Then you can confidently use that pilot's certificate not just for the $100 hamburger, but to truly get away from it all.

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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publishing, Inc. and the staff neither assume any responsibilty for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising out of it. Fly safe.