Monday, January 12, 2015

Flying A Light Aircraft Over Northern Arizona's Great Landscapes

All photographs on this posting are copyright Wayne Ranney and Ted Grussing

On January 8, I was privileged to fly with Ted Grussing in his light aircraft over the canyons and volcanic fields of northern Arizona. To say that Ted is generous with his time aloft would not convey an idea of the numerous times he has taken anyone up to see the earth from this fantastic perspective. Even those who never ask to go - like me. I never asked Ted to take me me up in his motorized glider plane. He just said to me one day, "I'd like to take you up one day." So in the spirit that I've lived my life in, namely how I've never been able to say "No" to adventure, I said, "Sure"!

On a fantastic "blue-bird" day, I drove down the winding switchbacks through snow-covered Oak Creek Canyon to find Ted pulling his craft out of the mesh fabric hanger it resides in.

Here is a picture of Ted next to his beauty. If you are not aware of Ted or his stunning photographs, you can check them out on his web site here. His work has appeared Sojourns and Arizona Highways, magazines, as well as other well-known journals.

I've always enjoyed flying with anyone no matter what the craft or conveyance. One time on a whim in 1976, I said yes to jumping out of an airplane! It's true I do not always think things out thoroughly. My first inclination is always to say, "YES!" only to find out later that some things are just better left alone. Don't get me wrong - I did not have such thoughts before saying yes to Ted. But when I saw how small the cockpit was, I realized that this was no Cessna flight.

Outfitted with supplemental oxygen, since we were going over 10,000 feet. Heck, I never had supplemental oxygen on Kilimanjaro last summer at 19,000 feet. This was cool.

Taxiing for take-off!

We took-off on Sedona 23 and headed northeast over Oak Creek Canyon. The San Francisco Peaks are in the upper right and the canyon follows the Oak Creek Canyon fault south from their western flank. You can easily see that the west side (left) of the canyon contains colorful, upper Paleozoic strata, more well-known from the Grand Canyon to the north of here. But the east side exposes only basalt lava, suggesting that those rocks were eroded away before the lava flows filled an ancestral valley here. Also, the burn from the Slide Fire can be seen on top of the triangular peninsula on top of the sedimentary rocks. Ted says that he gets much additional lift when gliding over burned areas.

Speaking of burns, there was this a prescribed burn flaring south of Flagstaff. Ted has been outspoken in his opposition to the fires, purposely set to burn slash from forest thinning projects. However, the price to pay is in human health from the particulates and the tainting of otherwise pure mountain air. Ted believes the health risks warrant not burning the piles and suggests they could chip the wood instead. The forest does need thinning but he made me consider if burning is the only option there is to deal with the waste. Perhaps like most things these days, burning simply is the cheapest and easiest thing to do. But, is cheapest and easiest the most civilized thing to do?

There's Flagstaff! In all its clear brilliance on a clear winter day (with the smoke blowing southeast away from town). Note I-40 trending away from the bottom toward New Mexico. Mt. Elden can be seen as the curiously mountain with an "apron" beyond the city.

Here is a close-up of Mt,. Elden with its familiar "apron," actually lobes of dacite lava that formed when very viscous lava erupted from the vent on top. As the lava was extruded it flowed downslope but at an incredibly slow rate due to its viscosity. Tress today have a harder time growing on the solid dacite rock more than the rubble around it and that outlines the distal ends of these lava lobes. All of this occurred around 500,000 years ago in the heart of the Pleistocene epoch (the Ice Age).

Tipping the wings for an unforgettable view of the southwest side of Mt. Elden and its lava lobes.

Flying past the San Francisco Peaks for other volcanic treasures.

Northeast of Flagstaff are the cinder hills, where Apollo astronauts trained for their mission to the moon. Geologists had suspected that the moon would be volcanic and this was a good analog landscape.

There's Sunset Crater, proclaimed a National Monument in 1930 to save it from partial destruction in the filming of a Hollywood movie (it was a screenplay of the Zane Grey novel "Avalanche" and the script called for a western town being destroyed by a mountain landslide).

Note the scenic road that trends through the snow in the bottom left. Ted also pointed out to me the heart-shaped crater or vent on top of the cinder cone. Sunset Crater erupted in the latter part of the 11th century.

Further east we see The Sproul (the elongate cone bottom), Merriam Crater (the highest cone), and North and South Sheba craters. Note how the south-facing slopes are devoid of snow while the north-facing slopes still retain it. These photos were taken about one week after the New Year's Eve snowstorm in northern Arizona.

To the northeast still is Roden Crater, with the Little Colorado River gorge in the background. People familiar with this area will also note the dark colored lava flow in the far upper right-hand corner that may have come from near Merriam Crater to the Little Colorado River (see more about this below).

Zooming in on Roden Crater.

Right over Roden Crater with the wing-tip (upper right) titled almost to vertical for the view. The circular feature in the center of the vent area is a large work of art that is being constructed by James Turrell. You can view images from the ground here. I haver has the pleasure of touring the site and it is incredible but not yet open to the pub lic.

Remember the lava flow from the first Roden Crater image above? Well that flow extends from its source for seven miles to the north where it intersects and crosses the channel of the Little Colorado River, running in this image from right to left (southeast to northwest). The gorge of the river is about 200 feet deep here and when the flow arrived at the lip of the gorge, red hot lava began to pour into it eventually blocking it. The river was forced to find a new channel around the lava dam and in the process created Grand Falls.

I include a ground photo of Grand Falls here, taken on March 2, 2008. Water from the Little Colorado River flows over the Permian age Kaibab Limestone as it re-enters its original channel downstream from the lava dam. The lava dam can be seen at the bottom of the photo and in the far upper right. Note the vehicles and people for scale standing on top of the lava dam near the upper right edge of the photo.

Back in the air with Ted we look downstream from the lava dam to the northwest. Note a former channel of the Little Colorado River opposite (right of) the sharp bend in the modern channel. It is a linear feature likely filled with dark-colored tephra (cinders) from Sunset Crater. Abandonment of this channel occurred some time before the modern channel was deepened.

Strawberry Crater and its lava flow. The typical cycle for these eruptions is: 1) magma is extruded into the air forcefully as droplets by the contained gas; 2) the droplets cool and fall around the vent as tephra, scoria or cinders creating a scoria or cinder cone; 3) the magma eventually becomes degassed and lava then wells up inside the newly created cone; 4) eventually the lava "pool" leaks out of the cone to create a lava flow. Most of the features here in northern Arizona show this sequence of events.

Colton Crater with its resurgent cone (located on the shadow line) within the much larger obvious cone.

Colton Crater below and SP Crater in the distance. Let's go have a look!

SP Crater is obviously a more recent feature due to its fresh appearance on the landscape. Not enough time has elapsed for soil to develop on it or its lava flow. The rest of the area is also underlain by lava rock but those features are much older and have more soil. Thus, the golden grass grows on top of the older features and highlights the relative recent nature of SP Crater.

Great view from right on top of SP Crater. Note how the degassed lava pool that was in the crater leaked out such that the flow extended about four miles downslope to the north.

View of the lava flow only with SP Crater out of view on the right. When the lava flow was active, the margins of the flow cooled first as they were pushed outward. This created natural lava levees that contained the hot flowing lava within. However, in two places this lava overtopped the natural levee toward the west. You can clearly see here two extra lobes of lava that broke through the main levee and traveled downslope into a valley, only to cool and consolidate here.

Turning around over Colton Crater and heading to the main volcano - San Francisco Mountain.

The Arizona Snowbowl ski runs on the slopes of Mt. Agassiz. Mt. Elden is in the background.

The highest mountain is Mt. Humphrey's at 12, 633 feet. I have hiked to the top many times. The San Francisco Peaks are the collapsed remnants of a once much higher cone, perhaps 3,000 feet higher and known as Mt. Coconino.

Coming in on Sedona 3 with glide power. There was not enough thermal lift on this winter day to do much gliding (ratio on this craft is about 30:1) but we did glide from beyond the Mogollon Rim into Sedona. Quiet and fabulous. Many thanks to Ted Grussing who graciously took me up on this fabulous day. Ted, I cannot wait to see what else excites up there!

Some facts about Ted Grussing's Lambada Motorglider:

Wingspan 15 meters with a glide ratio 30/1, or about 6 miles per thousand feet. Empty weight is 750 lbs. (includes oil in engine but not fuel). Two-seat side by side powered by a Rotax 912 ULS 100 HP engine. It is a tail dragger with steerable rear wheel. My normal initial climb rate when alone on an average air density of 6,000' is about 1700 fpm. I have the version with flaperons and it is very sensitive on the stick. Made in the Czech Republic by Urban Air now producing second generation as the Sundancer. Two wing tanks have useable fuel of about 26 gallons giving a range of about 1000 miles under power. Usually cruise cross country at about 80 kts air speed at 12,000' or higher giving me a ground track around 100 kts or about 115 mph and burning about 2.5 to 3 gallons of fuel per hours. My longest pure gliding flight in this ship is around 300 miles +/-.


  1. You took photos of Colton Crater, the most unappreciated cinder cone in the SFVF. May I use one in my geology blog? Geofanology.

    Thank you

  2. Great photos. I see you have several of Colton Crater, the most unappreciated cinder cone in the SFVF. Is it okay if I use one of them in my blog Geofanology?

  3. Mark - Yes, feel free to use the photo with this photo credit - Photo copyright Wayne Ranney and Ted Grussing. Let me know when your posting goes live!

  4. Absolutely incredible photos! What a privilege to do and see that from up there!

  5. Great shots I especially enjoyed the one of Grand Falls area from above. My only criticism, and it is purely personal, is that I wish you had included a few shots of Wupatki just beyond the Sunset Crater.

  6. The benefits of burning outweigh the benefits of chipping. Those forests evolved with fire and taking fire out of them is detrimental to their health. Smoke and forests go hand in hand. If one has a health concern with particulates then one ought not to live near a forest. The forest not only needs the thinning but the nutrients from the carbonized organic matter are good for it. Chipping only breaks down the heavier wood products but does not help with the duff and lighter fuels on the forest floor. Also, a chipper creates its own air pollution which is less healthy than even smoke from a surface fire on the forest floor. I could go on and on. However, nice photos you took and thanks for sharing them.


If your comment will not post, email me with the problem.