A Morning Flight to Prescott
Last Saturday I took a quick flight with a friend of mine who’s thinking about becoming a pilot. Some members of The Phoenix Pilot Group were headed up there that morning to have breakfast, and see some of the airplanes on display by Cessna, Cirrus, Piper, Beech, Diamond, and Mooney at the Prescott stop of the Arizona Aircraft Expo. My friend wanted to take a flight, and since this was going on, we thought we’d head up there to check it out.
The weather was sketchy here in the usually nice Phoenix area. For a few days we had a weather system passing through that brought a lot of moisture and unstable air. That meant humid mornings with lots of clouds and possible scattered thunderstorms in the afternoons. I had been following the weather, and when I woke up that morning I took a look outside, and sure enough, there was what looked like a couple of layers of clouds, some as low as 1500 feet from the ground. My weather briefing confirmed that, but it looked broken enough to get out, and the weather in Prescott was supposed to be better, so off to the airport we went. My youngest son, Trey, accompanied me as well.
After the pre-flight, we were off. My usual course of action to head north is to immediately open my flight plan on departure from Stellar Airpark in Chandler, AZ, and then quickly get over to Phoenix approach to request a northbound transition through the class Bravo airspace directly over Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. I did this, and quickly got a left 360 for spacing before being cleared into the airspace. The approach controller cleared me to transition over Sky Harbor (KPHX) at 5000 feet MSL. As I was climbing and approaching the transition, it became obvious that I wouldn’t be able to maintain Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and climb to 5000 feet. I contacted the controller and let him know that I was unable to comply with the request and maintain VFR. I told him that I could maintain 4000, and maybe go higher later, and he accepted that, and cleared me on the transition at 4000 feet. Later, I actually had to drop down to 3,500 ft to remain clear of clouds, and the controller was kind enough to coordinate my transition of Deer Valley’s (KDVT) class D airspace.
It turned out there were several layers of clouds that day, scattered at about 4000 feet, broken at about 6000 feet, and overcast at 8000 or so. Visibility was also terrible under those layers, which is very unusual for Phoenix. While flying the transition I probably only had about 8-10 miles of visibility. In contrast to what I normally fly in, which is 10 times that, this seemed rather limiting. My passenger actually asked me if I was concerned as we dodged clouds over Phoenix in poor visibility, and I thought for a second, and realized that I wasn’t really. We had many outs, and were on radar and in contact with Phoenix approach. Even if we couldn’t get out of the valley due to low clouds, or a thunderstorm in our way, we could have landed at half a dozen airports that were either in sight or would be in a few minutes if we flew toward them, including even PHX right below us. Also, I was still pretty confident that we would be able to climb out of the valley toward the better weather north of us.
It turned out I was right. After crossing over Deer Valley we were able to continue climbing and the low clouds did disperse the farther north we went, and we were able to fly between an overcast layer above us and a scattered and dispersing layer below us. While flying at our assigned altitude (I think it was 6,500 feet) heading north, we had a Southwest Airlines 737 fly directly over us as they headed into Phoenix (approach had warned the other pilot and me, and we had each other in sight, and the controller had us separated vertically). After traffic was behind us and no factor, the controller gave us a higher altitude after cautioning of wake turbulence from the three-seven. At this point we were good to go and continued on toward Prescott. The ride was cool and smooth for a summer flight in Arizona and we were cruising at about 8500 feet.
As we approached Prescott, we heard on the center frequency that we were being followed on that another airplane was cancelling their VFR approach into Prescott because of weather. We were about 15 minutes out, so that worried me a little…but from my vantage-point, it looked like I could easily duck under a layer that was hanging around the area, and get into Prescott. We continued on, and cancelled flight following as we turned westbound at Prescott Valley so we could get ATIS and start talking to PRC tower. Sure enough, visibility under the 8000 foot layer that we ducked under was pretty good, and rain showers washed the plane a bit as we approached the airport. The wind was kicking up pretty good, over 20 kts, but almost directly aligned with a smaller cross runway (runway 12) that they have at Prescott, and that’s where I was headed, so the wind would not be a big factor. There was a bit of gusting, but I would just come in with a little extra speed to compensate. Even this smaller runway 12 was still 4400 feet long, so I wasn’t worried about that.
Besides asking for the tower to call my base for traffic I knew was on final, but couldn’t see, the approach and landing was pretty uneventful. With the wind coming at me, normally it would have seemed like a slow approach, but KPRC is over 5000 feet in elevation, and with the heat of the summer, density altitude is routinely over 8000 feet, the approach seemed pretty normal (the thin air compensated for the headwind, making it seem sort of normal). The same thing happened a couple of hours later on our departure; the headwind combined with the high density altitude cancelled each other out, and it felt like a normal takeoff in the valley. Interesting.
After landing and parking near Legend Aviation where the event was taking place. We were a bit late to meet up with Phoenix Pilot Group members, but we ate a nice lunch at the restaurant there, and then got to browse around some nice, new airplanes from Cessna, Mooney, Beech, Piper Diamond, and Cirrus. Man, those are all nice airplanes. Then, it was time to go.
The weather had actually improved a bit in the valley, but was still pretty low in Prescott. It was easy to get out, though, and on the way back my passenger snapped a few photos, which I’m including here. When we arrived back at Stellar, the air was hot (and humid by Arizona standards), but we had enjoyed the nice cool air in Prescott for a few hours, had a nice meal, and had seen some beautiful airplanes. A good morning of flying for sure.
Sky Harbor (KPHX) looking down the runways