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Fulfilling That Promise - Part One - Getting There!
Daron J Cristy, Contributing Writer & Photographer

It seems like this story has taken a lifetime to put down on paper. The last year or so has turned the world upside down.

So how does someone end up flying the Grand Canyon in a Great Lakes vintage biplane?

For a proper explanation we first need to step back in time to when I was still a student. I received my student pilot license on April 24, 2017.

A very good friend of mine in England named Kevin had been fighting cancer for a while. The cancer and the chemotherapy had beat him up pretty badly in 2017, which meant a lot of hospital stays and treatments.

We often talked about flying, Kevin was very encouraging when I told him I was training to be a pilot. In fact, Kevin had received his glider pilot license when he was a teenager, the youngest person to do so at the time. In the later part of 2017 Kevin mentioned that he was looking forward to regaining some strength so that he could come visit the United States again to complete his bucket list. Part of this list was:

The Grand Canyon airspace is relatively small, but heavily congested with a large number of flight tours. So much so, that it has its very own aeronautical chart. There are strict no fly zones, and varying flight levels that need to be adhered to. Quite a daunting task for someone who was still a student pilot.

But this was a good friend's bucket list, something that was giving him a reason to keep fighting. Of course, I agreed to it. He would get better and stronger, then we would complete his bucket list. What a wild and crazy adventure we would have!

Now if only I could find a plane. It had to be a certain kind of plane and to fit one very specific requirement - it had to fun. You would be amazed at how many airplanes that disqualified.

The lure of a classic biplane had taken ahold of me. Something that screamed adventure, just like in Indiana Jones movie. There were the Pitts, but they were too small and squirrely for a rookie pilot. The Stearmans with their beautiful and massive radial engines, but too big and cumbersome, and with about a 16 gph fuel burn! Every time I kept coming back to one particular biplane, the Great Lakes biplane. Not too small, stable, yet agile, good fuel burn rate, running a Lycoming AEIO360 (so pretty much any mechanic could work on it) and with a wingspan of less than 27 feet, it could even fit inside a normal sized hangar.

I searched and searched for the Great Lakes. Nothing seemed to be the right fit; too old, too expensive, or even the owner not being quite right.

I realized that soon I would be coming up on my check ride, and still had not found my plane!

Then I received the email. The perfect plane had showed up at the perfect time. I got in touch with Kevin and told him bud I may have found the perfect plane.

I flew up to Sacramento in Northern California, and then took a long car ride to Lampson Field (K1O2). Meeting with the owner, we spent a couple of hours in the hangar, a few more in the bar, and then on a gentleman's handshake, made a deal to buy the plane.

On the drive back to the airport to fly home, I sent Kevin some pictures of the plane and said, 'I just bought myself a biplane and it will be perfect for your bucket list trip.'

That was Saturday March 31, 2018. I did not hear back from Kevin.

I soon came to find out that Kevin lost his battle with cancer the following day. Nadine, his daughter, said that Kevin was able to see the pictures of the plane before he passed away. I am sure he would have approved.

I passed my check ride on April 23, 2018, which in fact is St. George's Day, the patron saint of England.

On April 28, 2018, Pawel Miko was piloting Mia Noi, the Great Lakes biplane to her new home at Montgomery Field (KMYF) in San Diego, California.

A few weeks later a parcel arrived from Nadine in England. Kevin had known how determined I was to get my pilot's license that he had bought me a very nice Seiko pilots watch to celebrate passing my check ride.

The plan to fly the Grand Canyon had initially been a couple of friends going on an amazing bucket list adventure, but now instead I had a mission, to honor and celebrate the life of a good friend.

Grand plans were made for a small group of us to go on this intrepid adventure. We had hoped to include all of the elements of Kevin's bucket list, the Indian motorcycle ride, Carneys on Sunset Blvd, the muscle cars down Route 66 and the finale being the flight over the Grand Canyon.

Due to unforeseen circumstances globally in 2020, plans got changed, delayed, and postponed. It looked like the adventure may never happen. But no, the Grand Canyon flight was going to happen. I was not going to let this just fade away, and in early April 2021 I put together some very vague plans for a solo flight.

Vacation time from work was obtained. Everything about the trip was left very open. At the fuel stops in both Borrego Valley Airport (KLO8) and Lake Havasu City Airport (KHII), assessments for the next stage would be made. If need be, a return to San Diego was always a possibility or even an impromptu overnight stay.

The early Monday morning departure was delayed due to a marine layer at Montgomery Field (KMYF), Mia Noi is just a visual flight rules (VRF) airplane.

Fortunately, the clouds burned off, allowing Mia Noi and myself to set off. A mere 35 minutes later we landed at Borrego Springs Airport (KL08). This gave me the opportunity to check out the new restaurant, the Propeller Bar and Grill. Having a restaurant at this airport is great news for the San Diego Hammerheads Aerobatic Club as this is where they hold their competitions twice a year.

A few touch and goes (as Pawel Miko, my instructor, will tell you - you can never practice landings enough), a refuel, and then onto Lake Havasu City (KHII).

At Lake Havasu City airport, a quick refuel and a check on the weather, all looked good. Now, onward to Clark Memorial Field (KCMR) just north of the city of Williams in Arizona, and about fifty miles south of the Grand Canyon Airport (KGCN).

We flew low and slow, a bit bumpy but all in all, uneventful.

Landing on runway 36 at Clark Memorial Field (KCMR) just before sunset, winds were 11 knots with gusts up to 19, but at least it was straight down the runway!

Tied the biplane down in the transient parking, which took a while as a number of the chains seemed to have damaged hooks. In fact, the hooks looked like they had been stretched out. As I always say, it is what it is, just get on with what you have.

With Mia Noi secured it was time to find a hotel! Yes, I had made the trip out without reserving a room. I had checked earlier about availability and there were plenty of hotel rooms. Booking a room was in fact quite easy. The terminal even has public Wi-Fi.

The sun had now set, I just need to get into the town of Williams, which was a mere 4 miles away. This is a lot easier said than done! No luck with taxi service, and Uber service just was nonexistent. The hotel was unable to provide any resources for transport either.

So, after flying all day I ended up with a 4 mile walk in the dark to the hotel. Not at all fun, especially in flying shoes!

Remember, book your hotel, and make a car reservation with Grand Canyon Car Rentals! Your feet will appreciate it.

If you are just stopping by Clark Memorial Field for just a short time, you can contact the airport manager Brad Olsen (928-635-8982) as they do have a couple of pilot cars for short term use.

We had made it, now it was time to rest and get ready to fly the Grand Canyon!

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