Flying to National Parks

One of the things we are trying to do here at AOPA is to increase recreational flying. We can do so by opening up more airstrips, preventing airstrips and airports from closing, engaging in fly-ins and other flying events, introducing new people to general aviation, etc.; however, we can also increase recreational flying by increasing visitation to some of the nation’s most beautiful spots… the U.S. National Park Service system via its airports.

While at EAA’s AirVenture in Oshkosh this year, I attended a great seminar about “flying to national parks” and I wanted to share some of my notes with all of you. The seminar was taught by Cliff Chetwin, retired Park Ranger and Park Service pilot for the National Park Service.

The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) was created in 1916 “…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment…by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” NPS has approximately 401 national park units with over 30 designations, including parks, forests, primitive areas, wilderness areas, recreational areas, national seashores, national monuments, national lakeshores, and national wildlife refuge and range areas. For more information about the Aviation unit within NPS, visit http://www.nps.gov/fire/aviation/

Flying into these magnificent sites and parks is one of the least invasive and most enjoyable ways to get to the parks; however, it does require “careful planning and consideration.”

Careful planning includes all of the normal cross country planning tasks (checking weather, planning a route, looking for alternates and alternatives, etc.) plus ensuring you and your aircraft are capable of operating at the intended airport. Some of these airports are surrounded by mountains, at high elevations, at high density altitudes, etc. and some only have gravel or grass strips with rising or descending terrain. If you need to bring a CFI with you, do it! It is also a good idea to contact the airport prior to departure to ensure you will have transportation upon arrival and that they will have fuel for you, if needed. Some of these strips are pretty remote and getting fuel can take time (sometimes days or weeks). And, while you are at it, ask the airport manager for any arrival/departure tips he/she might have as a local.

Consideration refers to remembering that you are flying into a site designated as a national treasure (regardless of whether it is a national park or a historic site) and that people and animals are there to enjoy peacefulness among other things. You are flying into a noise sensitive area and, as such, Mr. Chetwin recommended following “14 noise rules” as best as possible while remaining safe and using good judgment in addition to reading any specific noise abatement procedures for the particular airport you are flying to:

  1. Avoid noise sensitive areas (picnis areas, camping areas, key sightseeing areas, public areas, etc.).
  2. Don’t overfly trails/rivers since they are usually transited by hikers, rafters, etc.
  3. Plan your route over high noise areas, such as roads.
  4. Fly later in the day when convection will lift your noise.
  5. Fly downwind of noise sensitive areas. The wind will take the noise away.
  6. Fly as high as practical with one mile separation from terrain.
  7. Minimize your run-up as much as practical when near noise sensitive areas and point the aircraft towards that area.
  8. Use Vx speed for takeoff and climb to keep as much of the noise over the airport as possible. You can also climb over the airport (doing 360s) to (or close to) your cruise altitude.
  9. Reduce takeoff power ASAP when safe.
  10. Avoid repetitive patterns (like flying up and down a beach as an example) and high power maneuvers.
  11. Use lower RPM settings. Adjust adjustable props as soon as practical.
  12. Use good, short field landing techniques. Avoid “dragging it in” and having to apply power towards the end and close to the runway because you are low.
  13. Plan rollouts to minimize use of beta/thrust reverses.
  14. Helicopters should minimize descent time spent at 55 kts or less.

FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 91-36D (VFR Flight over Sensitive Noise Areas) also encourages pilots making VFR flights near noise-sensitive areas to fly at altitudes higher than the minimum permitted by regulation and on flight paths, which will reduce aircraft noise in such area. This AC can be found at http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/advisory_circulars/index.cfm/go/document.information/documentID/23156.

You should, of course, also watch for wildlife on airport grounds.

Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) 7-4-6, “Flights Over Charted U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Parks, and Forest Service Areas” (http://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/atpubs/aim/aim0704.html) reads, in part:
“Pilots are requested to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface of the following: National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, Lakeshores, Recreation Areas and Scenic Riverways administered by the National Park Service, National Wildlife Refuges, Big Game Refuges, Game Ranges and Wildlife Ranges administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Wilderness and Primitive areas administered by the U.S. Forest Service.” AC 91-36D mentioned earlier also defines the surface of a NPS area as the highest terrain within 2,000 feet laterally of the route of flight, or the upper‐most rim of a canyon or valley. Simply stated, find the highest ground on your flight path and add 2,000 feet to your cruising altitude over these parks:

-       Acadia

-       Alibates Flint Quarries

-       Amistad

-       Aniakchak

-       Apostle Islands

-       Arches

-       Arkansas Post

-       Assateague Island

-       Badlands

-       Bandelier

-       Bering Land Bridge

-       Big Bend

-       Big Cypress

-       Bighorn Canyon

-       Big South Fork

-       Big Thicket

-       Biscayne

-       Black Canyon of the Gunnison

-       Bryce Canyon

-       Canyon de Chelly

-       Canyonlands

-       Cape Cod

-       Cape Hatteras

-       Cape Krusentern

-       Cape Lookout

-       Capital Reef

-       Capulin Volcano

-       Carlsbad Caverns

-       Cedar Breaks

-       Chaco Culture

-       Channel Islands

-       Chiricahua

-       Colorado

-       Coulee Dam

-       Crater Lake

-       Craters of the Moon

-       Cumberland Gap

-       Curecanti

-       Death Valley

-       Delaware Water Gap

-       Denali

-       Devil’s Tower

-       Dinosaur

-       Dry Tortugas

-       Everglades

-       Fire Island

-       Florissant Fossil Beds

-       Fort Laramie

-       Fort Point

-       Fort Union

-       Fossil Butte

-       Gates of the Arctic

-       Gateway

-       Gettysburg

-       Gila Cliff Dwellings

-       Glacier Bay

-       Glacier

-       Glen Canyon

-       Golden Gate

-       Golden Spike

-       Grand Canyon

-       Grand Teton

-       Great Basin

-       Great Sand Dunes

-       Guadalupe Mountains

-       Gulf Islands

-       Haleakala

-       Hawaii Volcanoes

-       Hovenweep

-       Indiana Dunes

-       Isle Royale

-       Jewel Cave

-       John Day Fossil Beds

-       Joshua Tree

-       Kalaupapa

-       Katmai

-       Kenai Fjords

-       Kings Canyon

-       Kobuk Valley

-       Lake Chelan

-       Lake Clark

-       Lake Mead

-       Lake Meredith

-       Lassen Volcanic

-       Lava Beds

-       Little Bighorn

-       Mammath Cave

-       Mesa Verde

-       Mount Ranier

-       Muir Woods

-       Natural Bridges

-       Navajo

-       Noatak

-       North Cascades

-       Olympic

-       Organ Pipe Cactus

-       Ozark

-       Padre Island

-       Petrified Forest

-       Pictured Rocks

-       Pinnacles

-       Point Reyes

-       Rainbow Bridge

-       Redwood

-       Rocky Mountain

-       Ross Lake

-       Saguaro

-       Saint Croix

-       Sequoia

-       Shenandoah

-       Sleeping Bear Dunes

-       Statue of Liberty

-       Sunset Crater Volcano

-       Theodore Roosevelt

-       Timpanogos Cave

-       Voyagers

-       Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity

-       White Sands

-       Wind Cave

-       Wrangell-St. Elias

-       Wupatki

-       Yellowstone

-       Yosemite

-       Yukon-Charley

-       Zion

-       Parks charted by some other device

So, how do you know which parks have airports and which ones you can fly into?

-       Check sectionals

-       Check Airport Facility Directories (AF/D)

-       Check state aeronautical charts

-       Call NPS or check http://www.nps.gov/fire/aviation/

-       Attend one of the NPS aviation seminars like I did

You can fly into any public use airport in or near a park and you can also request written permission from a Park Superintendent.

Some of the more known parks with airstrips are:

-       Big Bend National Park in Texas (3TE3). Private use airport. Permission required prior to landing.

-       Big Horn Canyon (5UF) in Montana which has great fishing. Winds are normally a problem and there is no fuel on the field.

-       Cape Cod National Seashore (PVC – Provincetown Municipal) in Massachusetts

-       Death Valley, California: Two airports are available. Death Valley is one of the (if not “the”) hottest places on earth so density altitude is definitely an issue at both airports regardless of its elevation. It is not uncommon to see temperatures over 110 F. While one of the 14 noise rules said to try to fly later in the day to allow convection to lift your noise… flying earlier in the day is actually recommended at Death Valley due to density altitude considerations and safety.

  • L06 – Furnace Creek. North of the National Park. There is no fuel at the field or tie downs so bring your own. Note its elevation is – 210 feet (yes, minus! 210 feet).
  • L09 – Stovepipe Wells. West of the National Park.

-       McKinley National Park (INR or PAIN) in Alaska

-       Ft. Vancouver (VUO – Pearson Field) in Washington State. Be aware of Portland International’s (PDX) Class B airspace close by.

-       Gates of the Artic (PAKP – Anaktuvuk Pass), Alaska

-       Glen Canyon, Utah: Two airports are available.

  • UT03 – Hite. This is the toughest airport out of the two. In fact, the Denver sectional shows it as “(Hazardous)”
  • U07 – Bullfrog Basin.

-       Grant Teton (JAC – Jackson Hole), Wyoming. One of the better airports in the NPS system; even airliners fly into this airport.

-       Kalaupapa (PHLU), by Maui, Hawaii.

-       First Flight Airport (FFA) in North Carolina. A daytime only airport… this is one treasured landmark for pilots, where the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight. AOPA donated a pilot facility in honor of the Wright Brothers’ 100th Anniversary of Powered Flight. FMI about it: http://www.aopa.org/News-and-Video/All-News/2003/October/5/AOPA-donated-Pilot-Facility-opens-at-Wright-Brothers-Memorial

-       Lake Mead National Recreational Area, Nevada: Three airports are available. A seaplane base is also available.

  • 0L9 – Echo Bay
  • L25 – Pearce Ferry (in Arizona)
  • U30 – Temple Bar (in Arizona)

-       Tuskegee Airmen (06A – Moton Field Municipal), Alabama. Nice, attended airport.

-       Wrangell/St. Elias, Alaska: 68A (seaplane base) and PAWG (airport).

-       Isle Royale in Lake Superior, Michigan: Two seaplanes bases, one at Rock Harbor and another one at Windigo.

-       Dry Tortugas, Florida: Because of sensitive resource issues, any individual wishing to fly a private seaplane to the park must have a Special Use Permit (http://www.nps.gov/drto/parkmgmt/specialuse.htm) issued through Everglades National Park. There are no facilities at the Dry Tortugas National Park so all seaplanes must have enough fuel and supplies for a round trip flight.

Remember that you can always find more information about specific airports at http://www.aopa.org/airports/ or on FlyQ (http://www.aopa.org/Flight-Planning/FlyQ).

And, with that, let’s do some flight planning and go flying! I look forward to visiting some of these airstrips.

3 thoughts on “Flying to National Parks

  1. Fate of California’s Chicken Strip airstrip open for input

    Park Service offers five alternatives

    http://www.aopa.org/News-and-Video/All-News/2014/January/29/NPS-seeks-comments-on-future-of-Californias-Chicken-Strip-airstrip.aspx

    January 29, 2014

    ByBenét J. Wilson

    The fight to save California’s Chicken Strip, an uncharted 1,350-foot dirt strip that provides fly-in access to the warm springs area of Death Valley National Park, continues. The National Park Service is seeking public input to help inform and shape alternatives for a management plan and environmental impact statement for the area near the strip.

    In July 2012, AOPA and the Recreational Aviation Foundation weighed in on the park service’s scoping notice for the Saline Valley Management Plan (http://www.aopa.org/News-and-Video/All-News/2012/July/19/Pilots-urged-to-save-Death-Valleys-Chicken-Strip.aspx). More than 500 comments were submitted, which led to the creation of the National Park Service’s five alternatives. Under four of the five alternatives, the Chicken Strip Airstrip is kept open, while in the last, it is removed. The alternatives are no action, minimum management, community engagement, recreation management, and restoration.

    The no action alternative would continue the current management of the area with no changes. Minimum management would retain much of the current management of the area (no action alternative), while ensuring compliance with applicable public health regulations and the superintendent’s compendium.

    The community engagement alternative would engage user groups in management of the area to provide visitors with the types of experiences they currently value, while working cooperatively to protect park resources and ensure compliance with applicable public health regulations and the superintendent’s compendium. Agreements would be developed between the park and user groups to identify responsibilities for water quality monitoring, maintenance of facilities, maintenance of the airstrip, and protection of park resources.

    Under the recreation management alternative, recreational activities would still be allowed at Saline Valley with some restrictions (including the superintendent’s compendium), and more management responsibilities being borne by paid park staff. Activities that are currently carried out by the camp hosts and user groups would be the sole responsibility of paid park staff under this alternative.

    Finally, the goal of the restoration alternative would be to restore the springs as close as possible to their natural condition, with no or minimal development. The tubs and associated infrastructure would be removed, as would the airstrip. Camping would continue to be permitted but would be more restricted. This plan would require extensive park staff support during implementation for education, enforcement, and restoration activities.

    “While the community engagement alternative provides the best option for the airstrip, AOPA is reviewing the alternatives and will submit comments to the record. We will continue to work with the NPS and the Recreational Aviation Foundation to ensure the strip remains open,” said AOPA Manager of Airport Policy John Collins. “Meanwhile, AOPA encourages members who use Chicken Strip to review the alternatives and then comment via the online form (http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=297&projectID=39438&documentID=56823).”

    The National Park Service is also asking for comments at three public meetings in February in Death Valley, Lone Pine, and Ridgecrest, Calif., from Feb. 4 through 6. Specific times and places are online here: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/meetingNotices.cfm?projectID=39438.

    Meanwhile… did you know Chicken Strip is one of the very few “clothing optional” $100 hamburger destinations?

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