We took a quick 3-day trip to Las Vegas to attend a surprise 40th birthday party for a friend of ours. The birthday boy and most of the guests live in Boise, so everyone except us flew commercially. We thought about getting in line and letting Southwest do the flying for us … yeah right! For a trip this short our door-to-door time is about the same, perhaps a bit less, than flying with the airlines. It’s certainly more enjoyable and rewarding for us to fly ourselves. We had a great time in Las Vegas with our friends, but half the fun of this trip was the flying itself!
For this three-hour flight we decided to depart at 9am on Friday morning to fly in smoother air. Another advantage of flying in the morning is avoiding the thunderstorms which commonly sprout up in the afternoons this time of year. Our friends who flew commercially didn’t get to pick their departure time. They left Boise around 2pm and experienced a good bit of turbulence due to the afternoon thermals in the desert.
In planning the flight from Boise to Las Vegas there are several large Military Operations Areas (MOAs) that you can either fly through or around. (The MOAs are outlined in red on the adjacent map.) For many of our trips, we tend to fly around the MOAs since the detour typically only adds a few minutes to the flight. It’s perfectly legal to fly through a MOA under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), but it is a bit riskier since it can be hard to see a maneuvering fighter jet. For this trip avoiding the MOAs would have added about 1 hour to our flight time, which was a bigger detour than we were willing to make. We decided to plan a VFR route through the MOAs. From our one previous flight into Las Vegas, we knew that we could expect radar service from Mountain Home Approach and Nellis Approach during most of the time we were in the MOAs. Even with radar service we’re still responsible for seeing and avoiding other aircraft.
The plane was fueled, preflighted, loaded and ready to go within 30 minutes and we departed on schedule at 9am. We got flight following from Boise Approach, who handed us off to Mountain Home approach. When we got out of range of Mountain Home’s radar the approach controller terminated our radar service and reminded us that we were in an active MOA. We were vigilant about scanning the sky for military aircraft, but didn’t see anything. It was nice to watch the little airplane on the GPS show us on the far side of the first big MOA.
Now That’s a Nice Surprise
We’ve flown through this part of northern Nevada several times and we know that Salt Lake Center typically can’t see us on radar until we’re about 20 miles north of Elko, NV. As we neared that location, I had just tuned in the Salt Lake frequency and was getting ready to call them to report our position, altitude and destination to request flight following. Before I could call I heard a radio transmission directed at us, “N201UT, this is Salt Lake Center.” Now this was unusual. Mountain Home approach had terminated our radar service, so we were expecting to have to make a new request for flight following with Salt Lake Center. We responded to the radio call and the Salt Lake controller told us that the Mountain Home controller didn’t delete us from the ATC system when he terminated our radar service. The Salt Lake controller saw a plane pop up on his radar screen about where he expected us to show up and correctly guessed that it was us. It was really nice of him to go the extra mile and call out for us.
As forecast, we had almost a 20 knot headwind which added about 30 minutes to our flight time. The headwinds were the only unfavorable weather we encountered on the trip down. The visibility was unlimited below a scattered cloud layer and we were in mostly smooth air at 11,500 feet. The smooth air was our reward for not sleeping in too late this morning.
An Airshow in the Desert
Salt Lake Center handed us off to Nellis (Air Force Base) Approach just before we entered the Desert MOA. During our 30 minute flight through the MOA, the Nellis controller told us about 3 different sets of aircraft in the area, but none were even within 10 miles of us. We were keeping a good scan going when all of a sudden we saw an F-15 fighter jet come across our flight path making a really cool climbing turn in a 90-degree bank.
He was far enough away to not be a safety hazard to us, but close enough for us to know that he saw us and wanted to give us a little airshow. Our 150-knot airplane (which is actually pretty fast for a single-engine prop plane) probably looked like a turtle to that supersonic jet. I think the maneuver he did was his way of saying, “Hey kid, you are in my sandbox.” Once we got over the surprise of the impromptu airshow we regretted that the camera was tucked away in the back seat.
We got clearance to enter the Las Vegas class B airspace, and were allowed to proceed directly to the North Las Vegas Airport. We didn’t even look into landing at McCarran International (the main aiport) since we knew the fuel prices would be high, and we’d probably even have to pay a landing fee.
When we got within about 10 miles of the airport, I told the Nellis controller we had the airport in sight. He instructed us to contact the North Las Vegas tower. The frequency was pretty busy with at least 3 airplanes and a helicopter talking to the controller before we could call the controller ourselves. The tower controller had us fly to the west just a little bit to give time for the aircraft in front of us to land, then he cleared us to land.
Phil did an excellent job on approach and landing nothing out of the ordinary. The winds were gusty near the surface and North Las Vegas was an unfamiliar airport, but Phil’s landing was like touching down at our home base. Like feathers on marshmallows, it doesn’t get much softer than that.
I had reserved a rental car through First Flight Aviation earlier in the week. The FBO is hidden behind a group of shade hangars, but the ground controller was happy to point us in the right direction. We arrived within 15 minutes of our ETA, but it wasn’t obvious where to park and there weren’t any linemen to greet us. I jumped out to check on the logistics while Phil kept the engine running. (FBO’s aren’t permitted to have communication frequencies at North Las Vegas.) I found plenty of help inside and one employee quickly showed us our reserved tie-down spot just 20 yards from the door.
After we completed the quick paperwork for the rental car we were ready to go. The car was a little pricey ($60/day), but it was definitely more convenient than walking to the Terminal and then taking a shuttle to a car rental agency. Our car was 15 feet out the front door of First Flight and ready to go.
What we did in Las Vegas
Hey, haven’t you seen the commercials? What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!
Ok, here’s a few things we can share. The birthday surprise worked great. Ted did get a bit of a clue when Jaimee took the “wrong” turn on the freeway and wasn’t heading towards the golf course. Ted was getting angrier and angrier with her when she kept missing chances to turn around. Finally she had to show him the airline tickets to get him to be quiet. We had several great meals, and I think there might have been some gambling.
Can’t we play Hookey?
Since we didn’t win enough playing poker to retire yet, we decided we would come back to Boise. We woke up at 7am on Sunday morning, checked weather, filed a fight plan, ate a good breakfast, fueled and preflighted the plane and we were airborne by 9am. Once again we got a clearance through the Las Vegas class B airspace, then back through the MOAs. The Air Force decided to take this Sunday off so the MOAs were pretty empty.
Even though we got a fairly early start, there was a bit of turbulence at 10,500. We had a slight tailwind, and we knew it would be even more of a tailwind if we climbed. Also I suspected the air would be smoother up higher, but that’s not always the case. We tried 12,500 for a while and the air was a little better, but we still had a few occasional bumps so we climbed up to 14,500 where the air was smooth as silk and we had a nice 20 knot tailwind.
The Salt Lake Center controller we checked in with was working aircraft from as low as 10,500 up to at least 41,000 feet. Phil and I were happy to be in nice air at 14,500 as we heard all the jets complaining about the turbulence between 33,000 and 41,000 feet. I was tempted to let them know the air was smooth way down here but I figured they didn’t want to hear that.
We had an uneventful arrival into Nampa, although there was quite a bit of turbulence as we descended out of 14,500. It was a great trip and we both felt fortunate that we had the chance to fly ourselves. We had such fun on this trip that I’m sure we’ll be flying back to Vegas in the future.