14 October 1995

Desert Southwest

September 29 - October 14, 1995 September 30: Low and slow in New Mexico. Liz, my mom and dad and I were on a trip to the desert southwest. We were departing from Gallup, NM in a loaded Piper Arrow. It was 75 degrees, 10 knot wind down a slightly uphill (19 foot rise), 7300 foot runway, at 6500 feet above sea level. High altitude and high temperature makes the air very thin and airplane power low. Still the length of the runway was long enough for a safe take off. The take off was routine but as I was flying over the city I noticed that the terrain was climbing faster than the plane. Another mile or two straight ahead could have lead to a crash. The only option was a left 180 back toward the airport. The plane was flying only at best angle of climb speed. Any slower especially in a turn would be dangerously close to a stall. I knew I would loose some precious altitude in the turn but I kept the airspeed constant. At the end of the turn I had lost about 200 feet and was about 200 feet above the airport. The terrain was now descending, we were climbing and the crisis was past. My passengers weren't even aware of the problem. This experience is second only to the December 29, 1983 icing encounter in potential danger. October 2: The strafing. One of the main tires was starting to show some cords, so I asked maintenance at Page, AZ to change the tire. They called us the night before our scheduled departure to Bryce Canyon stating that the wheel was bad and had to be replaced. It would take 2-3 days to get the wheel. We decided to rent a car and drive to Bryce. It was only 57 miles by air but over 250 by car. I hate to admit it but the drive was beautiful. We visited Paria Canyon where The Outlaw Josie Wales was shot. While driving by the brilliant red Vermillion Cliffs, the car began to shudder. I thought we had a major structural failure or at least a blown tire. We were only going 90 mph. Then we saw the silhouette of a military fighter jet pass over us at lower than 200 feet, pull up in a climb, and disappear in seconds! What a show! I climbed on 200 foot sand dunes at Coral Pink Sand Dune state park. We hiked over and in Zion National Park. We spent the next day at Bryce Canyon National Park then drove back to Page to retrieve the Arrow. When we got home, I had the "bad wheel" inspected by local mechanics. They thought it was OK. October 11: The pass. The only way from Alamogordo, NM eastbound (without adding at least 100 miles) was to fly through a "pass". The south side of the pass was artificial. It was part of the White Sands Missile Range restricted airspace. The Missile Range blocked lower terrain. The north side of the pass was mountainous with peaks up to 9500 feet. The loaded Arrow could only climb to 9500 feet. And that was after circling the airfield six times, to watch a coyote cross the runway. The "pass" was only six miles wide. Luckily the weather was clear and calm. I could not have done it under any other conditions.

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