A focus on flying rather than gambling
Las Vegas conjures up images of glitz, glamour and excess. The desert city sits on a plain near the Colorado river, held back by the massive Hoover Dam into a huge artificial reservoir (Lake Mead) that provides both water and hydro-electric power. Temperatures often exceed 100 Fahrenheit (40C). Air conditioning is a necessity.
A business trip there provided the opportunity for a day or so flying which was hard to miss. I was much more attracted to that than spending money at the card tables or slot machines.
There were some pretty spectacular views inside some of the resort hotels though. This picture looks like an outside view of a pleasant, busy plaza in Venice. But actually it’s entirely indoors on the 2nd storey of the Venetian hotel – the sky is completely false. The water’s real though, including the gondolas and gondoliers
And it wouldn’t be Las Vegas without the Eiffel Tower….
Considering the options
Initial research revealed that Las Vegas has three civilian airports:
- McCarran (KLAS) is the major one and doesn’t handle GA
- Las Vegas North (KVGT), about 20 minutes drive north, has a couple of flight schools that seemed to be more oriented towards commercial pilot training. WestAir aviation, a Part 61 (i.e. commercial flight training school) might be appropriate but their website navigation was broken and didn’t inspire confidence. They also advertise flights in a Beechcraft Staggerwing bi-plane. You could also rent a Cessna 152 for $75 dry (about £60 including fuel) if you just wanted to fly solo.
- Henderson (KHND), about 20 minutes drive south, and has had over $30 million invested into it – two huge runways, instrument approaches, towered, pilot controlled lighting etc. It has a Part 91 (i.e. flying club) school called Cactus which looked OK. I phoned them and spoke to a friendly instructor who booked me in. He warned me that if I wanted to fly solo, they insist you have renter’s insurance (to cover the $10K excess in the event of a claim). I booked a flight review with them with a view to flying only with instructors.
Another option slightly further afield was Sheble at Needles (KEED), about 100 miles south. Their website was the most attractive. Their training schemes are very comprehensive and even include seaplane/float and tailwheel options. Learning to fly floatplanes in the desert must be quite surreal. If I had had more time, this could have been a good option – the local hotels were very low cost, but I doubt there is anything much else to do there.
My wish list was quite ambitious and included:
- A Flight Review (formerly known as a BFR or Biennial Flight Review). My last one was in Dallas 21 months ago, so would run out in December.
- Differences training/sign off for the Cessna 172. There might be some opportunities to fly one of these in the future, so I wanted that in my logbook. I’d flown one before in Miami and also with Chris to Lundy.
- A little bit of sight-seeing if possible. The Hoover Dam is about 10 minutes flight time away. Flying up the Las Vegas strip through Class Bravo airspace to Las Vegas North should be feasible. Less likely would be the Grand Canyon which is more like an hour each way (and you can’t fly into/through the Canyon itself – that’s restricted to commercial sightseeing outfits).
- Add my European Instrument Rating to my FAA “piggyback” licence. This required sitting a 50 question multiple-choice exam and visiting the local FAA office (FSDO) for the paperwork, but no skill test or flight check.
- If time, some familiarisation with the US IFR system, so I would feel more confident about filing and flying IFR there. I didn’t technically require an IPC (IFR Proficiency Check) to be legal. Instrument approaches are plentiful and free here.
For the first couple of nights before my business meetings, I stayed near Henderson Airport, just a few miles to the south. Good place to crash out after the 10 hour flight and significantly cheaper than on the Strip. The rooms were quiet, the bed comfortable and the free breakfast even included the choice of self-cooked waffles!
Flight Review (formerly known as a Biennial flight review or BFR)
My Flight Review was with Rob, an experienced and capable instructor who clearly enjoyed his job. His attitude was very positive – he wanted students to have a bit of fun rather than just tick all the boxes, but did ensure that all the requirements were met. A BFR mandates a minimum of 1 hour ground instruction and 1 hour flight time. The FAA publishes a useful guide and clearly wants it to be more than a box ticking exercise too. Perhaps my earlier US training flights are starting to pay off because the ground school seemed easier than before – we covered the usual topics and Rob was happy both with my attitude and approach as well as my general knowledge of the differences in the US.
The C172 was perhaps a little tired compared to some I’ve flown but perfectly serviceable. It had the same 13 fuel drain points I recalled from the one I flew in Miami. The avionics were the traditional six-pack dials, a Garmin 330 transponder, ADF, two radios, ELT, and a Bendix King GPS that seemed awkward to use.
Many rows of aircraft where tied down using chains to long cables that traversed the apron. There must have been 20 or more rows (we were row Mike). A few executive jets were parked up too, and there were plenty of hangars around as well. Rob mentioned they’d lost one Cessna 150 in a storm when the winds were strong enough to break the tail tie-down chain and it smashed itself to pieces.
Patterns not circuits
I rehearsed my radio calls before making them, and Rob corrected me from requesting circuits (but he said they’ll probably know what you mean…) and used the term pattern instead. After startup, we listened to ATIS, called ground to request taxi, then after the power checks switched to tower to report “ready for departure”. Henderson has two parallel runways, and we flew several left hand circuits on 36L then were told to switch to right hand circuits for 36R. You report “midpoint” rather than “downwind”. At times, traffic was cleared to land on both runways simultaneously and there’s the additional US trick of clearing multiple aircraft to land in sequence (e.g. you are cleared to land 36L number 2). They have everyone visible on radar and it all seems to work pretty efficiently. Rob seemed to think my landings were good, so we set off to the practice area to the south west (near Jean airport) where we did slow flight, various stalls, steep turns etc. I had to repeat the power off stall because I didn’t pull back enthusiastically enough at first – Rob wanted to see the “donkey nod” of the stall rather than the mush I was getting. Fly at about 50 knots with the stall horn blaring and yank the stick back so that you feel you’ve just gone over the top of a roller coaster ride. You only need to relax the yoke (not push forward) and power up to recover quickly.
During the hour’s flight, the weather deteriorated rapidly with large dark storm clouds working their way towards the airport. We returned and landed on 18R (the wind had changed direction, picked up substantially and was now quite a gusty 14G25). Walking back to the clubhouse, Rob said he was happy to sign off both my BFR and also the club checkout for solo flight, which I took to be good enough for C172 differences training approval.
Rob pointed out that FAA regulations specifically state that time flown during the Flight Review (and preparation for it) isn’t considered instruction, so I could log this as PIC rather than PUT (pilot under training) as long as my previous Flight Review hadn’t expired.
Having got the formal checks out of the way, it was time for a bit of fun and sightseeing. I’d driven to the Hoover Dam by car (it’s only about 20-30 minutes), so it was now time to fly (about 10 mins), stopping for a touch-and-go at both Boulder City and Jean airports. Boulder city is close to the dam and has lots of helicopter traffic that crosses the runway. Jean’s main feature seems to be the local penitentiary – it seems even they have airports in the USA. Both are non-towered and self-announced – you just make traffic calls to say what you’re doing. I flew with an instructor mainly because I didn’t have the $10K renters insurance cover, but it made it much easier when unfamiliar with the local area and different radio calls compared with being solo. Easier to take pictures too.
I also flew a couple of instrument approaches into Las Vegas North – one GPS (unusually, no glide slope) and one ILS for adjacent parallel runways. This was flown in a different and somewhat newer Cessna 172 equipped with Garmin G1000 and more powerful engine (180 vs 160hp). My instructor was a CFII fresh out of flight school who had just started work as a flight instructor a month or two ago. He was very familiar with the G1000 and knew how to push the buttons. It was a surprise that the GPS approach into North Vegas is non-precision (i.e. no glideslope) despite there being a parallel ILS approach into the adjacent runway. We did both the GPS for 12R and ILS for 12L. I guess they haven’t fully surveyed the approach. The mountains nearby meant we had to climb up to 4000 AGL (about 6200 feet) for the initial approach fix, which took some time – climb performance was degraded in the high temperatures of 100F at ground level. The ATIS recording included the density altitude report which I recall being significantly higher.
As with almost everywhere in the US, we just radioed up, requested what we wanted, and were given almost immediate approval. And of course it was free. This also included a short cut through the centre of Las Vegas in Class Bravo airspace, giving great views of The Strip. The main McCarron airport is remarkably close by. It must be great fun to do this at night. Only a few photos of this section – too busy flying the approaches with foggles on.
I tried to use ForeFlight – the most popular iPad flight app in the USA – but had real trouble getting it to lock on and track the flight. I reverted back to using SkyDemon which seemed to have no problem, despite using the same device. Perhaps it’s just my familiarity with it. Foreflight does have a number of quite advanced IFR features, but SD is catching up pretty quickly and does a few things better (IMHO) too. SD doesn’t do US plates, so I ended up using Foreflight for the IFR plates and SD for everything else.
Having not flown much with the G1000, I’ve still not got fully used to it being able to provide all the information I can get from a tablet. I’m comfortable using it for VFR, easy to tune in the radios, navaids, view the instruments etc. but not yet making full use of the MFD (right hand display) which shows not just moving map position but also live weather and traffic information. The CFII commented that he though I could fly the aircraft and the approaches OK btu would have liked to see me brief the approaches more thoroughly. I’d agree that I need to figure out which Apps I’m going to use for which purpose, and which features of the G1000 I should use versus the tablet.
One “gotcha” was that I only realised towards the end of the flight that the G1000 has a one line display at the top of the screen (pilot side) which prompts changes in direction, alerts etc. This is the same information that appears on our GTN650 at the bottom of the screen. Unfortunately I didn’t see it because it was hidden by the coaming – if I’d known I would have wound the seat down to see it properly.
I was really pleased at being able to tick most of the boxes on my shopping list. There’s not a huge amount else to see (flying wise) in the immediate area except the Grand Canyon (at least a 2 hour round trip flight). The VFR flights I had were good but to be honest I didn’t find the IFR approach practice that worthwhile. Cactus has only recently re-launched under new management with many freshly minted flight instructors so promises to be a lively flight school offering both fixed wing and helicopters. Their hourly rates look very attractive compared to the UK, but are charged on the Hobbs with instructors adding 30 minutes of their chargeable time for pre/post flight briefings. There were no delays waiting for ATC clearance, even for circuits or approaches on request. There were a few teething troubles with my booking/scheduling and it felt strange that some of the instructors (including the CFII) had fewer total hours than I have.