Desert Regions


Desert flying has its beauties and its dangers, Wind and sun and lack of water are the natural enemies. Take care of the dangers they present the curb the human impulse to do wrong things; then you will enjoy desert flying. 

Every experienced pilot stressed the very great importance of pilot behavior in the event of a forced landing in the desert. They all pointed out what an insignificant appearance a lone man makes on a vast desert when someone in an airplane is searching for him. 

crashed airplane baking in the sun

Their unanimous advice is that pilots, weather veterans on novices, stick to the traveled routes (airways, highways or railroads) when flying over deserts. That advice involves filing a flight plan, of course; and this you will always do, if you’re smart.

Then, if you’re forced down, STAY NEAR YOUR AIRPLANE.

They could not emphasize too much the necessity of carrying water, chap lipstick, zinc ointment, cap with sun visor, and dark glasses during the summer months. Always fly close to the highways. Always file a flight plan, and always stay with the airplane in the event of a forced landing. You cannot survive the desert heat for long in the direct rays of the sun, and you should stay in the shade of the airplane until help arrives.

Likewise, in flying in mountainous and desert regions in the winter, adequate clothing is vital because of the freeing temperatures encountered at high altitudes. Even in summer, desert temperatures at night can be uncomfortably low. 

Experienced pilots advise a solid respect for the desert. It’s much better to stay close to a highway or railroad so that, in case of a forced landing, you will be near civilization and not liable to perish for lack of water. Sometimes you can even see houses in the distance, but in case of a forced landing, it’s very doubtful if you would live to trek across the desert in midday without the water. A few people, who don’t know the desert and how they can be fooled by distances, may think they can walk 15 or 20 miles across the airplanes when they leave for XC, regardless of where they are going.

Experienced pilots in the desert region have some specific advice on the subject of desert wind conditions. 

There is an old axiom that says “What you don’t know won’t hurt you” but desert-flying pilots should revise this to read: “ What you don’t see might hurt you,” They refer specifically to the thousands of 

Airplane running from twistersmall “whirlwinds” or “twisters” encountered over southwestern U.S. deserts. 

In flight, you can spot these “twisters” miles away, as they spiral upward with a characteristic column of sand, dust, and even small twigs and grass. The birds can also spot them, and you will see hawks and buzzards nonchalantly riding these rising and twisting currents of air to great heights. These birds are merely riding the thermals for enjoyment. 

However, if you have wings, don’t emulate these birds. After all, if one of these birds fails to get home in time no one will worry; if you fail to arrive on time, it will give local pilots a lot of trouble buzzing around barren wastes looking for you. So when you see these “twisters” admire them all you want, but alter your course to miss them. 

Pilots say there are “twisters” which you cannot see. It’s very embarrassing to have one flip your plane over the pile it up on the ground while you are taxiing or if you encounter one near the ground. At least you can salvage your pride somewhat by avoiding all those you can see. 

When landing, they advise you to watch for these little disturbances on desert airports. If any are in evidence, land on dirt surfaces because there they are visible and can be avoided. You cannot see them on a concrete runway. Keep plenty of control and speed. Both will help in a case “twister” jumps you. 

It is further emphasized by one experienced pilot that no pilot, while landing a light plane, should continue on such a landing after noticing a “whirlwind” On the airport moving in a direction which might contact the airplane during landing or landing roll. These winds are very turbulent and have put airplanes out of control on final approaches and landing control. 

An airplane would have a better chance against these troublemakers if, when evasion is impossible the airplane were facing them as they approached. In other words, never turn your back on a “whirlwind,” especially while taxiing airplanes of the tricycle-gear type. Pilots should be on the watch for dust and sand storm areas and avoid them when possible. These conditions can suddenly place a VFR pilot on instruments and have caused numerous accidents. 

You are advised not to use full throttle while taxiing or warming up when operating in a sandy or dusty area of an airport. The impact of the sand and dirt on the propeller can ruin the blades very quickly. An excessive amount of sand and dirt may be taken into the engine which could eventually result in serious internal damage and possibly lead to an emergency landing. 

As with mountain flying, desert flying has its enthusiastic boosters. One experienced pilot points out some of the pleasures of desert flying. In his opinion, one of the nicest features about flying in the desert regions is the fine weather that prevails almost the entire year. By fine weather he means absent of haze, smoke and precipitation. Visibility in general so good that distances are deceiving. A landmark or range of mountains, while appearing close, actually may be twice the estimated distance from the observer. 

One experienced pilot, in describing the country between Ogden and Elko, says this is mostly typical Nevada desert, except for the 50 miles between Elko and Wells, Nevada. He assumes the pilot is following 

the Southern Pacific Railroad and points out that about 10 miles west of Ogden, on the shore of Great Salt Lake, this railroad ‘goes to sea”. It crosses the lake on a combination of earth fills and trestle bridges. The first part of the lake between Ogden and Promontory Point, where there is an emergency field is generally shallow the safe to cross at lower altitudes. The major portion of the lake between Promontory Point and Lakeside reaches a depth of 40 feet, and it is advisable to fly at an altitude which would enable the pilot to glide in for a shore landing in case of total power failure. The safe altitude is generally considered to be at least 8,000 feet, which will give a 4,000 foot clearance between the airplane and the water. At this altitude, the time over the middle of the lake at which it would be impossible to glide to shore can be measured in seconds. 

In the event of a forced landing in the lake it might be possible to land on a railroad trestle, as it is wide enough to support double tracks at several points. The water in the lake is 26 percent salt, and an attempt to swim rapidly, dive, or splash would result in strangling. By merely drawing the lower part of the legs upward it is possible to sit in the water and float like a cork with the head and shoulders protruding. In warm weather person might float indefinitely. 

The advice already given on planning mountain and desert trips in the early morning holds very strongly for most flights in desert areas; from Salt Lake to Elko to Rena, Salt Lake to Las Vegas to Los Angeles, El Paso to Tucson to Phoenix, etc. 

Flying across southern Texas offers no particular hazard since the terrain is low and smooth. In the western section, however, the State has lots of hill country, covered with timber, mesquite, sagebrush, and sand dunes. Human habitations are few and far between. This is a good argument for sticking to the highways where rescue will be easier in an emergency. 

Novices in desert flying should count on much longer runs for takeoff and longer rolls in landing as a general practice, Many of our deserts are at fairly high elevations and all of them, of course, run high temperatures. Both conditions seriously affect the performance of any airplane (since they both contribute to a high-density altitude condition), and there are many opportunities for the pilot error. 

No formula has been worked out in simple enough detail for use in this kind of flying. The novice may be pretty much on his own in his first landing on a high-altitude field, or a hot desert field. However, he should check the landing performance chart in his Airplane Flight Manual or Owners handbook to determine the predicted landing distance under the expected or forecast conditions at destination. If at all possible, he should discuss the change in flying conditions with an experienced pilot familiar with these conditions. Having learned from him the fundamental differences, the novice should familiarize himself with the behavior of his own plane under the new conditions. Heated are rarefied air is no friend of a pilot. Prior to taking under these conditions, takeoff and climb performance charts in the Airplane Flight Manual or Owners Handbook or the DENALT computer should be checked for predicted takeoff distance and rate climb under the existing conditions. 

Generalities about desert flying are not enough. There are routes over deserts which may be poison to the light plane with short range. This terse description by one experienced pilot describes the straight-line route between Tucson and San Diego. 

This route is not suggested for light aircraft in summer months due to high winds, terrific turbulence up and down drafts, and the distance between service facilities as well as coastal fogs. It is suggested that the route be planned instead via Phoenix, Blythe, Los Angeles, and San Diego. If the trip is necessary it should be planned for early morning hours, taking into consideration winds aloft and fuel supply abroad, after complete check of coastal weather information. 

This ought to be enough to warn the novice to check in advance with an experienced pilot before every flight attempted over desert country.

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