AOPA Fly-In in Prescott

Since 2015 (I think), AOPA has been carrying out regional fly-ins around the country: basically, getting memberaopaflyins and non-members to come together for a day of aviation stuff. Last year’s (to which I couldn’t go) was quite close — in Chino — but this year’s closest one was in Prescott, Arizona.

There were three reasons I was very interested in going. First, I had been really looking forward to going somewhere outside the LA Basin with a plane. To be fair, I had made a few trips farther out: San Luis Obispo, Palm Springs, San Diego, Kernville, Tehachapi, Santa Barbara, etc. But the longest of these was about 1:20 in one direction (KSBP), and the oddest one still kept me within the realm of the California that I was familiar with. To go to Arizona would require much different flight planning and would challenge me more.

Second, on a related note, I was looking for an airplane adventure as a method of getting time for myself. My wife had gone on a writer’s retreat for a portion of a week earlier this year, and came back saying it was great to be able to get time to herself, and encouraged me to do likewise. I told her that I’d just maybe go on longer flights during some weekends. So this was a way to, well, maybe not relax, but at least change pace. It didn’t help that work issues were incredibly stressful and were escalating towards (and through) the weekend, but I as time got closer I realized that having a couple of days of a break would actually leave me more sane and capable afterward.

Finally, my friend and former coworker Miki was going to be in town. He lives in the Netherlands, and is also a pilot — having learned to fly in Europe. Going on an aviation adventure with someone else who knows what was going on was actually looking to make it a lot more interesting than going by myself.

Our trip, roughly speaking.

Prescott is about a 6-hour drive away, and a slightly more than a 3 hour flight in a Cessna 172, which is what I wanted to fly (it being the only club airplane I’m checked out in — and any other rental situation would have been more expensive by a lot). There were a few considerations during flight planning: a) there are mountains in the way, so I needed a route around them, b) I didn’t want to arrive being anywhere towards low on fuel, so that I meant I needed to stop somewhere, and c) the fly-in had tricky arrival procedures that necessitated arriving from the North. Furthermore, as the day of departure got closer, it became apparent that there were going to be some scattered thunderstorms in the arrival area that day. There were a lot of unknowns, for me: terrain, airport, weather.

The flight plan I ended up with took us from Hawthorne due east. After departure, I was unexpectedly granted entrance into Bravo airspace by ATC: probably due to me requesting an altitude of 9,500ft, and them wanting to keep me controlled as soon as possible rather than flying under their shelf for a half an hour. We climbed to our cruising altitude, and got that way to Banning Pass — clouds, meanwhile, were sitting at 11,000ft, so we were all nice and good. We made a slight course change towards the north, and spent another hour flying over small towns along highway 62. ATC, which has been incredibly busy for the first hour, got a bit quieter at first, but then we got switched away from SoCal Approach and onto LA Center (the first time I got to talk to a Center frequency), which was busy with people from all over the map. At some point they got tired of me following the road, and told me to proceed direct to my destination, which was Lake Havasu City.

havasuThe Lake Havasu City airport is a nice, single runway, untowered airport north of Lake Havasu City (unsurprisingly positioned on the banks of Lake Havasu). I’ve never been anywhere near that area — by car or otherwise — so it was fantastic to be able to observe it from the air and get the sense of the water and land features. The airport was pretty quiet, with another plane that landed just before us. We landed, taxied to Desert Skies FBO and filled our tanks. The FBO had water and air conditioning — which was nice, even if our flight wasn’t actually that dry or hot due to altitude. We paid for fuel, and headed out. Some other airplane on frequency was also heading to Prescott for the fly-in, though I forgot his tail number and so we never met up.

The timing of the flight was a bit off from the start: I had planned to depart around 1pm, but we took off closer to 2:30pm, which meant that we didn’t get into Lake Havasu City until almost 5pm. Sunset was at 6:15pm, and I was nervous about flying in a mountainous region with questionable weather as the world got darker. So, we took off and I tried to fly as directly as I dared. The plan took me north-east towards Kingman, where I rounded a bend in the mountain range and headed east towards Ash Fork, which was the entry stage for the fly-in arrival procedures.

Arrival procedures. We’d be taking the route from the North.

As we flew, we could easily observe the weather (we also had ADS-B In and ForeFlight on my iPad, which meant that we were seeing radar imagery in near-realtime, which checked out with what we saw out the window…more on this experience in another post), but we were not going to make it to our destination before sunset. As we got closer, the land rose and though we were cruising at 7,500ft and had started out near sea level at Lake Havasu, we were now only around 3,000ft AGL or less. Arrival procedures actually called for entering at 8,500ft so I was about to initiate a climb around 30nm from the start when ATC (by then it was Albuquerque Center who had just handed us off to Phoenix Approach) asked us if we were going to the fly-in. After telling them yes, they told us that traffic was light and that we should just proceed direct. This probably saved me a good 15 minutes of navigating by diminishing light, and made the process much simpler. Sunset came and went, and we got close to the airport to see it, though also it got dark enough that I could not see the shape of the airport and had to use its taxi diagram and beacon location to orient myself. A mere ten minutes from violating night flying currency rules, I landed (perhaps less smoothly than intended) at KPRC.
As it turns out, we were basically the last to arrive. With hundreds of airplanes (over 500, as we learned later), apparently everyone managed to arrive during daylight, while we avoided having to follow the prescottcomplex arrival procedure (which disappointed me for the lack of challenge but also made us land sooner), we ended up paying for it in not having a marshall direct us to parking. The tower roughly told us where to find parking and we spent the next twenty minutes taxiing and pushing the plane around using flashlights. Finally parked and chocked, we were surprised to get a visit from an AOPA volunteer on a cart who drove us to the main registration tent — they heard us land, and felt bad that they couldn’t marshall us, so they came to pick us up.

The fly-in itself was the following day. It consisted of some exhibited airplanes, an aerobatics show, a lot of talks and seminars (from education to advocacy), and even some commercial and non-profit exhibitors in a tent. Some meals was served, and generally there was a mood of education and exhibition throughout. I’d say it was a cross between an air show, a conference with multiple tracks, and normal AOPA safety briefing seminars (i.e. the ones that give you WINGS credit). Well organized, for the most part. The whole thing was over before 5pm, and — interestingly to us — people started leaving around 1pm. There were indeed a lot of airplanes, with some on the grass and some on two ramps; there was even under-the-wing camping available for those brave enough to deal with the high altitude, wind, and possible precipitation. We wondered if the people leaving early knew something we didn’t about weather — perhaps they lived closer, or maybe they did indeed fly out early to avoid a small rain that passed through the area a few hours later.

Colorado River in the distance

We headed back early the following morning. After a small adventure getting to our plane and requesting fuel in an airport with two fuel trucks and dozens of planes trying to leave (and fill up), we took off. The weather promised to be fine, though parts of LA were supposed to be under a scattered layer of clouds at 3,000ft, and most of LA was showing expected moderate turbulence. Which, in a light Cessna, is not pleasant for an hour. So, we chose a slightly different route. Since we no longer needed to deal with arrival procedures, we departed basically south-west and proceeded towards Thermal airport just south of Palm Springs (and north of Salton Sea, which I’d wanted to look at for a while). It was a long and slightly monotonous two hour leg: few settlements below us, fairly repetitive terrain. Some rare exceptions was listening to Prescott controllers chew into Embry-Riddle students (KPRC is their home airport), or seeing the Colorado River wend its way towards the Gulf of Mexico.

We arrived at Thermal (again, a landing I wasn’t thrilled about, where I dropped the airplane from too high for my pride) and found the airport very hot, and nearly deserted. thermalComing from high-altitude Prescott and nice-and-cool Lake Havasu and coastal Hawthorne, this was a surprisingly hot place to be. We refueled and checked the weather. On approach, we heard folks complaining of high winds in the Banning Pass — enough that a Very Light Jet was questioning the turbulence — so I wanted an alternate path out. Instead of departing to the north-west, then, I departed to the south. This both gave us a better look at the Salton Sea (not much to look at, from altitude) as well as a trip past Borrego Springs (the valley was pretty flat and empty, in a fairly grandiose way). Funny enough, I kept having trouble with my ADS-B around then, and ATC took longer than expected to have time to talk to me, so I had a slightly uncomfortable ten minutes or so when I was climbing — and had reduced visibility — in a strange area in uncontrolled airspace and nobody was looking out for me except myself. Not that this is wrong to do, but I am so used to flying with flight following or in familiar areas that it felt odd.

The mountains to the west of Borrego Valley are surprisingly tall. We had initially intended to fly over them at 8,500 ft, but the peaks got pretty close to that altitude and were numerous. Plus it was hot and there was a bit of light turbulence, so I wanted to climb higher. In the end I decided to give myself extra room and climbed to 10,500ft — which was not all that easy for the 160hp Cessna that day. Until I played with the mixture, I actually stopped being able to climb entirely. The crossing to the coast was easy enough except a surprising amount of ATC radio traffic, and control instructions. They vectored us for traffic over the mountains, needed to know how we were going to avoid Camp Pendleton’s restricted area, where we planned to be in relation to Oceanside Airport, etc. Turns out there was an active parachute jump zone at Oceanside, so they had to vector me away and right towards the edge of the restricted area. Thank goodness for in-plane and on-iPad GPS to keep me from flying into trouble.

After Oceanside, the rest was pretty straightforward. We flew up the coast, had to comply with some instructions around John Wayne’s traffic, and then ducked under the (lightly scattered) cloud layer to get back to Hawthorne.

This was a fantastic trip. It taught me a ton about flight planning, about dealing with ATC on a long distance flight, about automation in the cockpit (and other non-automated duties, like checking the engine instruments, which I did with surprising to me regularity), about finding and using unfamiliar airports, and so much more. It also finally gave me a real airplane trip: the trip ended up being close to 6 hours in each direction, which was probably close to what it’d take to drive, but it was a ton more fun. It got me to a destination I wouldn’t otherwise visit (or three, if you count Thermal and Lake Havasu), and showed me a bunch of fantastic scenery that I wouldn’t see. It showed me new types of weather: Arizona high desert weather and clouds are quite different from LA. It showed me that you can have a trip be long and not too boring, and be challenging and enjoyable, and have a high workload and be relaxing, all at once.

Some things to consider:

  1. My landings were too rough. Bad days, maybe? They should be smoother.
  2. I could have calculated my fuel better, but instead I chose a plan that got me extra fuel so that I didn’t have to think too hard about limits. This meant that I probably spent an extra hour — or close to it — each way. The origin and destination were close enough to not have to land, and my fuel totals showed that I would been able to land with an hour’s safety margin. I stand by my flight plans, but I wonder if I can do better calculations in the future.
  3. ADS-B and ForeFlight are not perfect. They are incredibly helpful, but don’t replace the need to look and listen.
  4. I need to learn to lean better if I can’t twist the mixture knob. It’s uncomfortable to do this with one hand.
  5. Where else can I go that’s far and fun? I have a tentative trip planned to Grass Valley (KGOO) to visit a friend, but that’s a long trip too.

Totals: 8.7 hrs in C172.

AOPA Fly-In in Prescott