I am 15,500 feet over the approach end of Runway 26L at McCarran International Airport (KLAS) in Las Vegas. I am in a Cessna 340 and not required to talk to anyone on the radio. But for awareness reasons, I have the tower controller on Com 1, who is talking nonstop to inbound airline traffic. On Com 2, I have the approach controller whose frequency I could not get a word in even if I wanted to. But with the transponder code set to 1200 and ADS-B on, I am perfectly legal up here. In fact, I have not keyed the mic even once since leaving Concord back in the San Francisco Bay area an hour ago. This could only be done in America.
Two days earlier, my wife Kari and I left Seattle in our Cessna 340 for an extended personal and business trip through the Southwest. I regularly fly jets IFR in the flight levels and talk with controllers constantly, so when I go on a personal flight, I try to stay in the lower altitudes and avoid talking to anyone. Generally, the altitudes between 12,500 feet and 17,500 feet are nearly empty of traffic. This is because turbine aircraft really need to get into the flight levels for efficiency reasons, and non-pressurized piston aircraft try to stay below 12,500 feet because they don’t want to put on the O2 mask. So, in that one-mile thick slice of airspace between 12,000 and 17,000 feet, pressurized piston twins pretty much have it to themselves. Even when passing directly over major hub airports like KLAS, the Class B airspace rarely goes higher than 10,000 feet seeing as most traffic is either on the surface or away from the space before getting much higher than that. When I get to fly like this, the freedom of airborne movement we have in the U.S. never ceases to amaze me.
Our first stop was the Bay Area of California with Concord (KCCR) as our destination. The weather leaving Seattle was marginal VFR with a lingering cold front creating a visibility of 3 to 4 miles, cloud base of about 2,000 feet and tops of around 16,000. Just an hour before our planned 10:00 IFR departure time, I realized we were running early, so I took out my phone and amended our time to 09:15. Within a minute, I got a text back saying the revised time was approved with the routing BVS, SEA, HIO, direct REJOY (the initial approach fix at KCML). On departure, we called the radar controllers at Whidbey Naval Air Station (the airspace we were under) and were greeted with a courteous “good morning” and promptly given our IFR clearance in the air; no question as to why we did not request it before taking off. Twenty minutes after departure, we were above the tops headed for FL180 and right over the SEA VOR, which is located in the center of SeaTac (KSEA). Only in America could you change your flight plan at the last moment, deal with a military controller on short notice, then fly over a major hub airport – and it all be considered quite routine.
Proceeding southbound, we cleared most of the weather by the time we reached Redding, California, so I canceled IFR but stayed with radar advisories and descended down to 6,500 feet to see more of the Napa Valley. Fifty miles north of KCML, we were switched to the approach controller at Travis Airforce Base northeast of the Bay Area, and right under our direct routing. As we descended VFR down to 3,000 feet, we could see the Air Force traffic underneath us practicing touch and goes in the pattern. The controller regarded our passing as a routine item and shortly switched us to the tower frequency at Concord. Only in America can a small, private piston aircraft fly directly over an active military base and be regarded as routine traffic and sent to another frequency.
A day later, we completed our business in San Francisco and returned to Concord. The weather for the entire southwest corner of the country was CAVU with winds aloft from the west. When I called the ground controller at KCMR and he asked for the direction of flight, my reply was, “Eastbound, VFR.” With no further questions asked, he cleared us to Runway 01L via Alpha and Golf. When we switched to the tower controller, he already seemed to know the direction we wanted to go and cleared us for takeoff with a right crosswind departure. Five minutes later, when I notified him we were clear of his airspace to the east, he cheerily responded, “Have a nice trip,” without having a clue as to where we were actually going (Williams, Arizona KCMR). Only in America would that happen.
Twenty minutes later, we were over Yosemite National Park climbing through 10,000 feet, and down between the left engine nacelle and tip tank, the rock wall of El Capitan was clearly visible. We proceeded to make a couple of 360-degree turns to take photos of this national landmark. As the camera clicked away, I thought where else can a small private aircraft suddenly decide to make turns over a national landmark without requiring all kinds of authorization. Only in America do we have this freedom.
Once past Yosemite, a direct line from there to KCMR takes you over the corner of the BISHOP Military Operations Area (MOA), outlined in magenta on the chart. Now, crossing through a magenta MOA in America without talking to anyone is quite legal but not often wise. So, in keeping with my desire to stay away from the microphone, I put a slight dog leg in the routing to have us pass over the BISHOP VOR which kept us clear of the MOA. Another reason for my doing this was there was a large forest fire near Taboose Pass about 40 miles south of BIH with a surrounding TFR. Although we were above the TFR’s limits at 15,500 feet, there was a lot of smoke I wanted to avoid. Listening to the frequency posted for the area, we could hear no end of fire spotting and bombing traffic working the site. Again, even though we were close enough to easily see the smoke and fire, absolutely no communication from us was required. Only in American does that happen.
The next area we crossed was directly over the city of Las Vegas at 15,500 feet, with the airport under the left wing. No communication from us was required, expected or even desired. The controllers down there were busy enough without getting involved with a small, piston-powered aircraft flying VFR in mostly empty airspace above the airport. Working our way east, we then passed directly over the Boulder Dam that backs up water for a critical amount of the southwestern U.S. In other parts of the world, you could not fly anywhere near an item of such national importance. And yet, at 15,500 feet, or about two miles above the terrain, we peacefully flew along with our Dolby headset microphones over our heads as we each ate an apple.
Further east, about a half-hour outside of Williams, we passed over the western side of the Grand Canyon National Park. The airspace below 12,000 feet is closed to most air traffic, but the terrain is nearly 5,000 feet high. So, we flew over one of the most spectacular geographic features of the entire world at just 5,000 to 6,000 feet above the terrain. Again, only in America could you do this without any special permission or advance notice.
Williams, Arizona is a small town of about 3,000 people some 30 miles west of Flagstaff. However, the airport (KCMR) has a newly paved 6,000-foot runway and new terminal building specific for general aviation, with parking and chain tie downs supplied (all for $8 per night). After landing, my wife and I needed to get into town a couple of miles away, so the airport manager offered to rent us a brand-new Enterprise car he had already parked on the ramp. Or given we were the only airplane there, he also happily offered to drive us into town himself and give us a free tour in the process. We chose the free ride and tour. Only in America can you find runways and hospitality of that size in a small town.
The next day we took the train from Williams to the Grand Canyon National Park site. We were accompanied by mostly Europeans who couldn’t believe all the open space along the way, plus that we ordinary citizens had flown our own airplane into the place without much ado at all.
The following morning we took off for Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I was scheduled to speak to a group of pilots. Upon arriving, we were met by the FBO’s (Jet Center) “follow me” truck and escorted to our parking area where we found our rental car with the engine running, air conditioner on and trunk open. We were not required to sign any paperwork or meet with any official – just kindly instructed how to exit the airport gate. Only in America do we have that kind of service.
Two days later, speeches having been given, we departed Santa Fe back for home. There were thunderstorms scattered around the airport and I decided to file an IFR flight plan. However, when getting the clearance, I could see that the instrument departure route would take us through an area of heavy rain that I could see both out the window and on the iPad. On short notice, I told the ground controller I decided to depart VFR but would accept radar following. Not a problem, he said, and we soon made our way around the scattered thunderstorms in visual conditions with the help of the departure controller. Fifty miles northwest of KSAF, when clear of all the weather, I thanked the radar controller for his help and changed the frequency to 121.5. For the next two hours, we flew 500 nm across the vast Southwest, with rare evidence of human habitation and the frequency completely silent.
While en route to the Salt Lake area, Kari and I discussed where we should land for fuel and lunch. Ogden on the north end of Salt Lake is always a nice stop, but then Boise was only another 45 minutes to the west and we knew of a really good BBQ restaurant not far from the airport. And so, while airborne and needing permission from no one, we chose our destination almost on a whim. Only in America can that be done.
The next morning, we departed Boise in bright sunny conditions. But knowing there was a cold front on the west side of the Cascades with low IFR conditions throughout the Puget Sound area, we departed Boise VFR but with an IFR flight plan we planned to pick up along the way. The switch from VFR to IFR was handled as an everyday event by the Seattle Center controller, and we were soon bouncing around in the rain and clouds as we descended to 5,000 feet over Paine Field (PAE), the IAF for our approach into KBVS. We were switched to our old Whidbey Naval Base controller, greeted warmly, and cleared for the GPS 29 approach into BVS. Upon breaking out of the overcast and seeing the airport, we closed our flight plan in the air and landed without incident. Only in America do we have such a flexible air traffic management system that permits that sort of operation on a routine basis without any folderol at all.
From time to time, I fly jets internationally and after putting up with all the rules and bureaucracy other countries require, I fly trips like this and am reminded just how free we are America to operate our aircraft as we choose. It is a freedom we should always cherish and always defend.