Phoenix Sky Harbor to Grand Canyon

I never thought a flight like this would become so routine.

The call came at 9:30 on Friday morning. The voice had a heavy Japanese accent. He wanted to go from Sky Harbor, Phoenix’s busy Class Bravo airport, to Sedona or the Grand Canyon.

“The earliest we can pick you up is 12:00,” I told him. “That’s a little late for the Grand Canyon.”

Flying M Air offers day trips to Sedona and Grand Canyon. The day trip includes roundtrip helicopter transportation following scenic routes, 4 to 5 hours on the ground, ground transportation to Uptown Sedona or into Grand Canyon National Park, and a Sedona red rocks helicopter tour. Grand Canyon is about 45 minutes farther away from Phoenix than Sedona. I’d need to leave either one by about 5:30 PM.

We agreed on a Sedona day trip. I took down his name and weight, his companion’s name and weight, and his credit card information. I’d charge the card before I flew down to get him and he’d sign the receipt when I saw him. Then I hung up and began the process of planning the flight and doing all the paperwork required by the FAA for charter operations. That includes checking weather, creating and filing flight plans, and calculating a weight and balance for each leg of the flight. I do all of it by computer, using Duats for weather and flight planning and my own R44 Manifest form, built with Excel, for the passenger manifest and weight and balance calculations.

By 10 AM, I was done with the paperwork. I changed into more professional clothes, debating whether I should wear a long sleeved or short sleeved shirt. Fortunately, I went with the long sleeved shirt. I packed some hiking shoes and a T-shirt into my day pack, along with my 12″ PowerBook, punched my passengers credit card info into my terminal, and stuck the resulting charge receipt in my shirt pocket. I was ready to go to the airport by 10:30.

At the airport, I did my preflight in the hangar before pulling the helicopter out onto the ramp for fuel. Both Sky Harbor and Sedona tend to have outrageous fuel prices, so I wanted to top off both tanks in Wickenburg. With only two passengers on board, each weighing less than me, weight would not be a problem. By 11:08, I was lifting off from Wickenburg Airport for my passenger pickup point.

Flying into Sky Harbor

These days, most of my big charters are out of the Phoenix area — usually Deer Valley or Scottsdale Airport. Every once in a while, however, I’ll get a charter out of Sky Harbor. Sky Harbor, which lies just southeast of downtown Phoenix, has three parallel runways, with a row of terminals between the north runway and the middle runway. The general aviation FBOs, Cutter and Swift, are on the southwest corner of the field, requiring me to cross arriving or departing airline traffic for my approach or departure.

Sky Harbor, like many towered airports, has a letter of agreement with helicopter pilots called Sharp Delta. Sharp Delta defines terminology and lays down rules for transponder codes and flight altitudes. It used to include instructions and diagrams for landing on the helipad on top of Terminal 3, but that helipad closed down when they began construction on the new tower. I never landed there. I don’t know if it’ll reopen any time soon, but I hope so. It’ll make things a lot easier for my passengers, who have to get transportation to or from Cutter (my FBO choice) to meet me. Cutter has a free shuttle to the terminals, but it adds a step of complexity for passengers who don’t have their own ground transportation.

At first, flying in and out of Sky Harbor was extremely stressful for me. Let’s face it: I fly in and out of Wickenburg, a non-towered airport. I could fly all day long and not have to talk to a tower or controller. The only time I talk to controllers is when I fly into one of the bigger airports in Class Delta, Charlie, or Bravo airspace. And among pilots, there’s this feeling that the controllers at the big airports full of commercial airliners simply don’t want to be bothered by little, general aviation aircraft. We feel a little like recreational baseball players asking the manager of a professional baseball team if we can join them for practice.

Of course, there’s no reason to feel this way. In this country, general aviation aircraft have just as much right to fly in and out of Class Bravo airports like Sky Harbor, O’Hare, LAX, or even JFK as the big jets do. But since those controllers are generally a bit busier than the ones at smaller towered airports, we need to know what we want and where we’re going before requesting entrance into the airspace, be brief and professional with our requests, and follow instructions exactly as they’re given.

The Sharp Delta agreement makes this easy for helicopter pilots flying in and out of Sky Harbor’s space. And, at this point, I’ve done it so many times that it really is routine.

I fly from Wickenburg down to the Metro Center Mall on I-17 and Dunlap. By that time, I’ve already listened to the ATIS recording for Sky Harbor and have dialed in the altimeter setting, which is vital for helicopter operations down there. I wait for a break in the radio action and key my mike: “Phoenix Tower, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima at Metro Center, Sharp Delta, landing Cutter.”

Phoenix TAC

My usual route.

The tower usually comes back with something like, “Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima, squawk 0400. Ident.” This means I should turn my transponder to code 0400 and push the Ident button. The Ident button makes my dot on the controller’s radar stand out among all the other dots so he can see exactly which dot I am.

“Zero-Mike-Lima identing,” I reply as I push the button. I don’t know if ident can be used as a verb, but other pilots do it, too.

I keep flying toward the airport, heading southeast toward Central Avenue, waiting for clearance. The controller might give an instruction or two to a big jet landing or taking off. Then he comes back on the radio. “Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, radar contact. Proceed via Sharp Delta. Remain west of Central.”

That’s my clearance. He must say either “proceed via Sharp Delta” or “cleared into the Class Bravo airspace” for me to enter the surface airspace for the airport. Because I’m a helicopter using Sharp Delta, I get the Sharp Delta clearance. An airplane or a helicopter not on Sharp Delta would get the other clearance.

I continue toward Central Avenue, the main north/south avenue running down Phoenix. Most of Phoenix’s tall buildings are lined up along this road. I need to stay west of Central and descend down to about 1800 feet MSL (mean sea level). That’s about 600 feet AGL (above ground level). When I’m lined up a block or two west of Central, I turn south and head toward the buildings.

If I have passengers on board, this is usually pretty exciting for them. I have to stay low because of other air traffic, so I’m not much higher than the building rooftops. These days, I have to watch out for cranes for the few buildings under construction downtown. But it gets better. By the time I cross McDowell, I have to be at 1600 feet MSL — that’s only 400 feet off the ground.

Somewhere halfway through Phoenix, the controller calls me again. “Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, contact tower on one-one-eight-point-seven.”

I acknowledge and press a button on my cyclic to change to the south tower frequency, which I’ve already put in my radio’s standby. “Phoenix tower, helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima is with you on one-one-eight-point-seven.”

“Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, proceed south across the river bottom for landing Cutter.”

I acknowledge. At this point, we’ve crossed the extended centerline for the airport’s north runway, which is less than 5 miles to the east. Commercial airliners are either taking off or landing over us, depending on the wind, which will determine runways in use. I’m always worried about wake turbulence, but it’s really not a problem because we’re so far below.

I cross the extended centerline for the other two runways and approach the bed of the Salt River. It’s usually pretty dry — dams upriver have trapped all the water in five lakes. I’m only about 300 to 400 feet off the ground here and need to keep an eye out for the power lines running along the river. Once across, I turn left and head in toward the airport. I make my approach to the west of Swift, follow the road that runs between the taxiway and the FBOs, and come in to Cutter. They’ve usually heard me on the radio and have a “Follow Me” car to guide me to parking. I follow the car in until it stops and a man jumps out. He uses hand signals that tell me to move up a bit more and then to set down.

That’s all there is to it.

Well, I should mention here that I’m seldom the only helicopter in the area. One of the medevac companies is based at Swift and has two or three helicopters going in and out of there. I also pass a few hospitals with rooftop helipads. And if there’s traffic or an accident or a fire or an arrest going on, there’s usually at least one or two news helicopters moving around. So although I don’t have to worry about other airplanes, the helicopter traffic can be pretty intense.

That’s how it went on Friday. I shut down the helicopter and hitched a ride in a golf cart to the terminal. My passengers were waiting for me: two Japanese men. My contact was probably in his 30s and his companion was possibly in his late 50s. After making sure they both spoke English, I gave them the passenger briefing.

“Can we go to the Grand Canyon instead?” my contact wanted to know. “We really want to see the Grand Canyon.”

I didn’t really want to fly to the Grand Canyon, but there was no reason I couldn’t. Changing the flight plan would be easy enough and I’d already checked the weather for the whole area. I warned him that we wouldn’t have much time on the ground and that we needed to leave by 5:30. I didn’t want to cross any mountains in the dark with passengers on board.

So I did what I needed to do and we departed for the Grand Canyon instead of Sedona.

To the Grand Canyon

I won’t bore you with the details of leaving Sky Harbor. It’s basically the same but backwards. South departure, west until I’m west of Central, then north low-level over the river bottom. They cut me loose when I’m clear to the north.

My two passengers enjoyed the flight through Phoenix, even though they were both seated on the side opposite the best views. (They’d get the good view on the way back.) They both had cameras and were using up pixels with still and video images. We crossed through the west side of Deer Valley’s airspace — with permission, of course — and headed north. I pointed out various things — the Ben Avery shooting range, Lake Pleasant in the distance, the Del Webb Anthem development, Black Canyon City. Once away from the outskirts of Phoenix, I pointed out open range cattle, ponds, roads, and mountains. We saw some wild horses grazing near some cattle in the high desert past Cordes Junction.

I took them along the east side of Mingus Mountain and showed them the ghost town of Jerome and its open pit copper mine. Sedona was to the east; I told them we’d pass over that on the way back. We climbed steadily, now on a straight line path to Grand Canyon airport, and reached an altitude of over 8,000 feet just east of Bill Williams Mountain. From there, it was a slow descent down to about 7,000 feet. Our path took us right over our place at Howard Mesa, which I pointed out for my passengers, and right over Valle. I called into Grand Canyon tower, and got clearance to land at the transient helipads.

At the Grand Canyon

Once inside the terminal, I asked my passengers if they wanted to go right into the park or take a helicopter overflight. I’m not allowed to fly over at a comfortable altitude, so if my passengers want to overfly, I set them up with Grand Canyon Helicopters or Maverick Helicopters. Both companies fly EC 130 helicopters — the Ecostar — which are much nicer than the old Bell Long Rangers I used to fly for Papillon. I prefer Maverick these days (for mostly personal reasons that I’d prefer not to go into here).

“What do you recommend?” my passenger asked.

“Well, if money is not a concern, I definitely recommend the helicopter flight,” I told him. And that was no lie. Everyone who can should experience a flight over the east side of the Grand Canyon. It’s the longer, more costly tour, but if you don’t mind spending the money, it’s worth every penny.

“Okay,” he said simply.

I didn’t have Maverick’s number on me, so called Grand Canyon Helicopter. A long tour was leaving in 20 minutes. I booked it for two passengers and we walked over to Grand Canyon Helicopter’s terminal.

The helicopter returned from the previous tour and they switched pilots. The woman pilot who climbed on board was the tiny Japanese woman who’d been flying for Grand Canyon Helicopters when I was a pilot a Papillon. I told my passengers what her name was and that they should greet her in Japanese.

Grand Canyon HelicoptersThen they got their safety briefing and were loaded aboard. I took a photo of them taking off. Then I hiked over to Maverick to meet the Chief Pilot there. I had 45 minutes to kill and planned to make the most of it.

I was back at Grand Canyon Helicopters when my passengers’ flight landed. They were all smiles as they got out. I called for transportation into the park and was told it would be 20 minutes. As we waited, the Japanese pilot came into the terminal and spent some time chatting with us. She’s 115 pounds of skilled and experienced turbine helicopter pilot — a dream come true for any helicopter operator. This is her fifth year at the Canyon. They call her their “secret weapon.” When the van pulled up, she bowed politely to my passengers, saying something to them in Japanese. I think they really liked getting a reminder of home so far away.

We took the van into the park and were let off at El Tovar. It was 3:20 PM. I told my passengers to meet me back there at 5 PM. It wasn’t nearly as much time as I like my passengers to have, but our late start had really limited our time. I left them to wander the historic buildings and rim trail on their own and went to find myself something to eat. I hadn’t eaten a thing all day and was starved.

What’s weird about this particular trip to the Canyon is that I don’t think I spent more than 5 minutes looking into the canyon from the Rim. I didn’t take a single picture. This is why the word routine comes to mind. It’s almost as if the Grand Canyon had ceased being a special place. A visit like this was routine. It was something I’d do again and again. If I didn’t spend much time taking in the view this trip, I could do it on my next trip. I think that’s what was going on in the back of my mind.

The time went by quickly. I had lunch, browsed around Hopi House, and took a seat on El Tovar’s porch to wait for my passengers. I was lucky that it was a nice day — I didn’t have a jacket. Several people told me it had snowed the day before and there had been snow on the ground just that morning. But by the time we got there, all the snow was gone and it was a very pleasant day. Not even very windy, which is unusual for the spring. But as the sun descended, it got cool out on the porch. I was glad when my passengers showed up just on time.

I called for the van and was told it would take 20 minutes. That’s the big drawback to taking people to the Canyon — ground transportation. I’d rent a car if there was a car there to rent. But there isn’t, so we’re at the mercy of the Grand Canyon Transportation desk. The fare isn’t bad — $5 per person, kids under 12 free — but the service is painfully slow, especially during the off season. It’s about a 15-minute drive from Grand Canyon Village to the Airport in Tusayan, but between the wait and the slow drivers, it stretches out to 30 to 45 minutes. That’s time taken away from my passengers’ day at the canyon.

Back to Sky Harbor via Sedona

We were in the helicopter and ready to leave the Grand Canyon Airport at 5:45 PM. At that time of day, the airport was dead. Tour operators have a curfew and cannot fly over the canyon past 5 PM this time of year; that changes to 6 PM in May. So there wasn’t anyone around. Fortunately, the terminal was still unlocked with people working at the Grand Canyon Airlines desk when we arrived so we had access to the ramp.

I’d put in a fuel order before we left earlier, so both tanks were topped off. We warmed up and I took off to the south. I set the GPS with a Sedona GoTo and the direct path took us southeast, past Red Butte, east of Howard Mesa. We saw a huge herd of antelope — at least 50 to 100 of them! — in an open meadow about 10 miles north of I-40. It was the same meadow I’d seen antelope before.

We climbed with the gently rising terrain. The forest ended abruptly and I followed a canyon east and then south, descending at 1000 feet per minute into the Sedona area. The low-lying sun cast a beautiful reddish light on Sedona’s already red rocks. The view was breathtaking. My passengers captured it all with their cameras.

We flew through Oak Creek Village, then turned toward I-17. I started to climb. There was one more mountain range I needed to cross. Although a direct to Sky Harbor would have put us on a course far from I-17, I prefer flying a bit closer to civilization, especially late in the day.

At one point, I looked down and saw a single antelope running beneath us, obviously frightened by the sound of the helicopter above him.

We watched the sun set behind the Bradshaw Mountains as we came up on Black Canyon City. There was still plenty of light as we came up on Deer Valley Airport. I transitioned through the west end of their airspace and continued on.

Sky Harbor was considerably busier when I tuned in and made my call. But my approach was the same as usual. My passengers took more pictures and video as we passed downtown Phoenix just over rooftop level, then crossed the departure end of the runways and made our approach to Cutter. It was just after 7 PM when we touched down.

We said our goodbyes in Cutter’s terminal, where I got my passenger’s mailing address in Japan so I could send him a receipt for the additional amount I’d have to charge him for the longer flight. They called a cab for their hotel and I paid the landing and ramp fee Cutter sometimes charges me. (I don’t mind paying the $17 fee because my passengers nearly always use their free shuttle and I rarely take on any fuel.) Then I hurried out to the ramp for the last leg of my flight, back to Wickenburg.

Flying Home

It was dark by the time I was ready to leave Sky Harbor. This was the first time I’d depart Sky Harbor at night. Of course, just because the sky was dark doesn’t mean the ground was dark. It was very bright, well lighted by all kinds of colored lights.

I launched to the south just seconds before a medivac launched from Swift. We were both told to squawk 0400 and Ident. I never caught sight of the helicopter behind me, but he had me in sight. Together, we flew west to Central. Then he headed up Central Avenue and I headed direct to Wickenburg. The north tower cut us both loose together as we exited their space.

The flight to Wickenburg was easy. I simply followed the bright white line drawn on the ground for me by traffic heading southeast on Grand Avenue. The road goes from Phoenix to Wickenburg and is the most direct route. At night, it’s lit up by traffic and very easy to follow. When I got closer to Wickenburg, the red taillights heading to Las Vegas far outnumbered the white headlights heading toward Phoenix. After all, it was Friday night.

I set down at the airport in Wickenburg and gave the helicopter a nice, long cool down. I’d flown 4.1 hours that day and was glad to be home.

4 thoughts on “Phoenix Sky Harbor to Grand Canyon

  1. Hi Maria,

    Just thought I’d let you know the Sky Harbor Terminal 3 Helistop is open again. Means you can pick up and drop off at the center of the airport – a bit more convenient for passengers coming off commercial flights.

    How’s business, I see you in and out of Scottsdale from time to time.

    Safe flying


  2. I came across this story today while searching for info on the Grand Canyon. As a lifetime resident of Phoenix I have made many trips to Wickenburg over the years and I live about 1 mile away from the Deer Valley Airport.

    The landmarks mentioned in the story are very familiar to me and I was delighted to read such a descriptive and informative story about my own little part of the valley. Really enjoyed reading about what it’s like to fly a charter helicopter – much more complicated than I would have thought!

    I wonder if the engineers on the Grand Canyon Railroad and the Xanterra employees ever get so used to their surroundings that they don’t stop to notice. Thanks very much for sharing your story and I hope you have many more wonderful adventures!

  3. Thanks for sharing this information. I am at work right now but have sent the URL to my home email address so I can read more. You guys have a ton of stuff on this web site.

What do you think?