Lift off from Runway 25 at Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington, New Mexico, turn slightly west to point the spinner at Shiprock, and you’re on track for some of the most remarkable views in America.
If you’re a fan of old John Wayne westerns, you will already have seen the dramatic rock formations of Monument Valley on the big screen many times. Take away the screen altogether and translate those geologic images to reality, however, and you’ll gain a whole new perspective on what many pilots regard as the most spectacular terrain in the Mountain West.
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Columbia Aircraft had hired me to fly one of the longest and most challenging air-to-air photo formation missions I could ever imagine. Back in 2005, Columbia hoped to compile a library of dramatic inflight images of its then-new Columbia 300, and my job was to put the Columbia 300 wherever the photographer needed it to be to secure the best shots of the airplane with the Southwest U.S. in the background. Our trip turned out to be a 1,800 nm, 20-flight-hour marathon.
The Cessna was flown by the pre-eminent lead pilot above the planet, the now-late John Kounis. At the time, John was editor of Pilot Getaways Magazine, and we’d worked together on a dozen or so photo missions.
The photographer was John’s brother, George, one of the acknowledged experts on air-to-air photography. George was shooting with the door removed, because, as he put it, “There wasn’t much sense in using a pair of $3,000 cameras and lenses to shoot through a $50 piece of Plexiglas.”
Columbia Aircraft was not pinching pennies on this mission. It’d hired a beautiful Hollywood model to ride right seat and smile for the camera while I tried to hide behind the windshield frame.
Unfortunately, no one bothered to ask her if she knew anything about general aviation airplanes. Even worse, her introduction to the western sky would be flying on the wing of another airplane on a circuitous, three-day mission over much of California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.
Sure enough, she was understandably apprehensive about flying in “one of those little airplanes” above some of the roughest mountain terrain in North America. We flew at 110 knots, often 500 feet off the ground, but looking for smooth air wherever we could find it. Apparently, our model needed the work, so she shrugged, smiled bravely and did her job. This was obviously not her first rodeo.
As we droned around the Southwest trying to find the perfect sun line, smooth skies and photogenic terrain below, she gradually relaxed and began to enjoy the experience. She commented that she’d done many yacht and sailboat advertising shoots when she was living in South Florida, and this job at least allowed her to wear something more comfortable than a bikini.
We’d departed Long Beach, California, two days before, flown out to Catalina, circled the “Island of Romance” and made several approaches to the famous “Airport In The Sky,” then routed back across the Los Angeles Basin to the dramatic Owens Valley.
Our two-plane flight followed the Owens north past the tall, knife-edge terrain of the Sierra Nevada, climbing all the while to reach the snow level. I trailed John’s Cessna below the summit of Mt. Whitney and on to Mono Lake and Tahoe.
During the flight north, the roomy Columbia 300 trucked along as if unconcerned with the semi-vertical rock faces below. Never mind what my model passenger thought about the sharp peaks and broken, jagged rock fields, the airplane was easy to hold in formation, despite the fact that it used a left-side stick for roll and pitch control.
Side sticks seem to be favored more and more these days. The Columbia’s is light and responsive, though it ignores the fact that 90 percent of the pilot population is right-handed.
That means it’s almost impossible to trade off control from left hand to right hand. That’s one reason the military continues to equip its aircraft with either a center stick, yoke or a right-side stick. It would be interesting to hear a fighter pilot’s take on a left side stick. Of course, you could always solve the problem by moving to the right seat, though the instrument presentation would remain left-based.
Despite that one little glitch, the Columbia is/was still a nice-flying airplane.
Throughout it all, the big Continental IO-550 out front seemed totally oblivious to the dynamic earth below and ran like an aviation version of a Turbo Porsche with a continuous variable transmission. The engine on this demonstrator showed 30 hours on the meter, so it was well past the infant mortality stage, one less thing to worry about.
As many readers may know, the Columbia was a slick, composite design, conceived by aeronautical designer Lance Neibauer initially as a homebuilt, called the Lancair ES, and later redesigned and certified as a production aircraft. The Columbia 300, later to be renamed the Corvalis and then TTx under the Cessna banner, was strikingly similar to the Cirrus SR22 in design and performance. In fact, it was so similar in appearance, it was often mistaken for a Cirrus on our fuel stops. The airplane was fast and comfortable, and I was happy to have the three-day opportunity to fly the new model over much of the Southwest.
We circumnavigated the bottomless blue of Lake Tahoe and continued west toward the San Francisco Bay area. Our backdrop of choice was the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the Bay’s most iconic, scenic landmarks from above or from sea level.
Circling the Golden Gate, I was reminded of another photo shoot I flew in early October 2001. I’d flown a new Piper Saratoga HP on a much shorter air-to-air mission above the Golden Gate, this time for Plane & Pilot. The bridge director spotted us overhead, called the FAA and complained that two “suspicious” airplanes were circling his bridge.
The director’s paranoia was understandable considering what had just happened three weeks before in New York City, but his concern was misplaced. Our lead pilot on that shoot was talking to Bay Approach throughout our photo flight, though Bay had advised him the airspace above the bridge was not restricted at our altitude.
We made several circles near the bridge, arced out to Alcatraz and shot the spectacular San Francisco skyline in the background, then turned back out over the Pacific and headed to our perch at the Piper dealership in Palo Alto.
In a classic demonstration of government left hand/right hand confusion, the FAA called the Air Force, and they scrambled two F-16s to intercept us. Apparently, they arrived about 15 minutes later, after we were long gone. No one bothered to call Bay Approach and ask if they knew anything about two airplanes circling the bridge.
My photographer, Jim Lawrence, and I landed back at Palo Alto, transferred to my Mooney, and flew home to Long Beach. The following morning, I received a call from the FBI, which’d already sorted out the details and determined that we hadn’t done anything wrong.
Taking pity on me for what I might be thinking, the congenial agent opened the conversation with, “Mr. Cox, this is agent James Henderson with the FBI (gulp!), and no, you’re not in trouble.”
A predictably well-dressed woman agent came by the house two days later, and took my statement, reiterating that we’d done nothing wrong but that the Bureau had to investigate so they could close the file. As she was leaving, she asked if I’d seen the video. Apparently, a San Francisco TV station had been shooting a story at Fisherman’s Wharf, near the base of the bridge, and had captured us circling overhead. I never saw the video, but I still wonder if somewhere back in Washington, D.C., there’s a file stored with my name on it.
Fast forward to 2005. We flew down the Pacific coast to Monterey and Big Sur and, finally, hopped back across the Sierra Nevada to Las Vegas for the first night.
The next morning, we were up well before the sun broke the horizon for a short run down the Las Vegas Strip to get photos of glitzy Vegas with the sun in the background and the Columbia out front. Photo ship pilot John Kounis had been up late coordinating our plan to depart very early and fly a semi-night formation down the Strip, then make a right turn across Sunrise Mountain and depart the area over Lake Mead.
We drifted east along the north side of the Grand Canyon, crossed over to the south side, then made a colorful levitation above Arizona’s Painted Desert. Again, John Kounis kept us out of trouble with the feds. We continued into Santa Fe for fuel and a late lunch, then departed northwest to Taos and finally Farmington, New Mexico, for the second round.
On the final day of the Columbia shoot, we leaped out of Farmington and headed back to Long Beach by a zigzag route across Monument Valley and over the domed edifice of Navajo Mountain and the other-worldly movie location Lake Powell, made famous in the Charlton Heston sci-fi hit “Planet of the Apes.”
From there, it was back across the Grand Canyon, south to Arizona’s Meteor Crater and Sedona, home of the most dramatic late-afternoon red cliffs you’ve ever seen.
My passenger had a few minor bouts of queasy stomach on the first day, but after that, she settled down and began to actually enjoy what we were doing. Like most people, she’d only witnessed the Earth from 35,000 feet or higher; she’d never had the opportunity to see the views we take for granted in the bottom 10,000 feet of sky. From that low station or less, she was entranced by the mystical Lake Powell and the overwhelming spectacle of the Grand Canyon.
Photographer George Kounis got something like 4,000 photos of the Columbia 300 traversing some of the most spectacular mountain and desert terrain in the West. He showed our model some of the photo outtakes over Catalina, Lake Tahoe and Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon, and she was dutifully impressed.
We were, too, but most importantly, so was Columbia. For me, it was some of the most challenging formation flying I’d done, operating a relatively new breed of aircraft in an unusual mode of flight.
Little did I know that a few months later, the successful photo mission would lead to a chance to ferry another new Columbia from Bend, Oregon, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
But that’s another story.
Check out more Cross-Country Log flying stories from ferry pilot and Senior Editor Bill Cox.