In June of 2021, our family flew a Piper Cherokee Six 1,300 miles from Louisville, Kentucky to Flagstaff, Arizona. The trip was amazing from the start to finish, but the highlight was a scenic flight over the Grand Canyon.
Sightseeing tour flights and private aircraft often make the airspace over the Canyon very busy. To reduce collision risk and control noise pollution, the FAA designates the Canyon a Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA). Pilots must follow the rules and carefully plan their routes over the National Park.
I spent a few months researching this trip. With a little bit of planning, flying over the Grand Canyon is a breeze.
This article is a companion to 2700 Miles in a Cherokee Six, which covers the entire journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Flagstaff, Arizona.
Disclaimer: Obsolete Information
This article is by no means exhaustive and the information provided should be considered obsolete; but it’s a good place to start.
Pilots should read Subpart U – Special Flight Rules in the Vicinity of Grand Canyon National Park, AZ. The link provided is the current Code of Federal Regulations pertaining to the SFRA.
With every chart update, the FAA can change frequencies and procedures. Make sure to review up-to-date charts before flying into the Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area.
Start With A $4.30 Paper Chart
I have embraced the (nearly) paperless cockpit. My airline moved all of its manuals and charts to the iPad and I love it. When I fly our Cherokee Six, my iPad Mini has everything I need. I hadn’t purchased a paper chart in years… until I started planning our Grand Canyon flight.
Buy the paper Grand Canyon VFR Aeronautical Chart. It’s printed on heavy-weight paper in a large scale and is loaded with critical information. You can’t beat spreading out the chart on the dining room table to get the big picture. Charts are valid for 56 days; be sure you have the current version before flying. Sporty’s Pilot Shop stocks current Grand Canyon charts.
The front side of the chart shows the corridors and procedures for general aviation aircraft. The flip-side has commercial air tour operator routes. The ForeFlight app includes only the general aviation side. Studying both sides of the chart is helpful; it’s nice to know where other traffic will be.
Download the Chart
The FAA publishes two digital versions of the Grand Canyon chart; a PDF, and geo-referenced TIF. Both files are large and cumbersome to view. I downloaded the PDF early in my research but its size makes it difficult to view on a laptop or iPad. The paper chart is far easier to use for planning. If you still want to give the digital chart a shot, a link is in the Resources section below.
There are four VFR corridors that transit the Canyon north and south. Each corridor provides a unique view of the park.
- Tuckup Corridor
- Fossil Canyon Corridor
- Dragon Corridor
- Zuni Point Corridor
It’s possible to fly the corridors visually with the published VFR Checkpoints. Not being familiar with the Canyon, I found it difficult to identify the visual checkpoints (I was also overwhelmed by scenery). Straying off a corridor into a magenta Flight Free Zone is an FAA violation. A far better way to navigate is to set up a route in ForeFlight and/or your aircraft’s GPS.
Setting Up the Route
For our flight, we flew northbound in the Zuni Point Corridor, then southbound through Dragon before returning to Flagstaff. A flight zig-zagging through all four corridors should take about an hour and a half in a single engine aircraft.
Two VFR waypoints define each corridor. Waypoints have a 5 character ID that will be recognized by most flight planning software and GPS navigators. Coordinates are included if needed. It’s a breeze to set up a route in ForeFlight.
Programming our flight in the GNS-530W took about 10 minutes. With the route in the navigator, I used the autopilot to fly the course while I enjoyed watching for traffic and scenery.
Point Imperial is the highest overlook on the North Rim. It’s located just north of the Bright Angel Flight Free Zone. A three mile diameter circle around the overlook is a Critical Noise Sensitive Area; flight over this area is prohibited.
Flying a direct route between the northern Zuni Point and Dragon fixes (VPGCI – VPGCG) clips the northern edge of the Point Imperial no-fly area. I altered my course slightly to stay clear of this airspace.
The key to separating air traffic over the Grand Canyon is altitude assignment. Air tour operators fly lower altitudes. General aviation aircraft fly above the air tours.
To further separate traffic, different altitudes are assigned for northbound and southbound traffic.
Northbound general aviation corridor altitudes are 11,500′ or 13,500′; southbound altitudes are 10,500′ or 12,500′ [as of June, 2021 – check a current chart for changes].
Flying a normally aspirated (non-turbocharged) aircraft? Density altitudes can be high over the canyon in the summer. A pressure altitude of 12,500 feet can easily exceed a density altitude of 16,000 feet. Some general aviation aircraft simply won’t climb that high at any weight. Be sure you know your aircraft’s capabilities.
Although it’s legal to fly without supplemental oxygen at 12,500 feet pressure altitude, expect to see signs of hypoxia.
A fingertip pulse oximeter is useful for monitoring oxygen levels of pilot and passengers. We also carried disposable oxygen canisters.
The image below shows the three VHF frequency regions of the SFRA as published on the 17 June 2021 Grand Canyon chart. Check a current chart for updated boundaries and frequencies.
Don’t confuse frequency boundary lines with isogonic lines (magnetic variation); the symbols are similar. I was fooled the first time I looked for the frequency boundaries.
Communication in the canyon is straight forward. Monitor the frequency for your sector and report your position and altitude in the corridors. Example:
- “Piper 123 entering Zuni Point Corridor, northbound at eleven point five.”
- “Cessna 321 abeam Gunther’s Castle, Zuni Point Corridor, northbound at eleven point five.”
- “Piper 123 exiting Dragon Corridor southbound at ten point five.”
It’s similar to flying at an uncontrolled airfield. Report your position and monitor to keep track of other aircraft.
Grand Canyon Airport Class D
Keep an eye on the Grand Canyon airport (KGCN). The tower and Class D airspace operate in the daytime. Transiting the Class D requires a call the tower to say hello. Although the Class D only extends up to 2500 AGL, there is a parachute jump area within the Class D that extends up to 17,500 MSL. Don’t fly over the GCN airspace without monitoring tower. Colliding with a skydiver will ruin your vacation.
Communication Strategy For an Emergency
While monitoring and transmitting on the proper sector frequency, I kept the Grand Canyon tower frequency on standby. If needed, I could quickly switch to tower for help.
Fly In The Morning
Wake up early (I know it’s vacation, but it’s worth it). We took off from Flagstaff at 6:25 and were over the Canyon by 6:55.
Grand Canyon peak season begins in early June. I was surprised that we were the only aircraft over the canyon when we arrived. It was amazing. I suspect most general aviation folks aren’t interested in a 5 a.m. wakeup call. Commercial air tour operators start flying at 9:00.
Flying the canyon early provides cool, smooth air. Good for aircraft performance and a better experience for passengers. If you are early enough to catch the golden hour (right after sunrise) your photos will be stunning.
After our early morning flight, we hit the Galaxy Diner in Flagstaff for a dynamite brunch.
While You’re In the Area…
The Grand Canyon is beautiful by air, but be sure to experience it from the ground. Take a hike along the South Rim, enjoy a historic restaurant, and shop for cool souvenirs. Grand Canyon Village is accessible by car, but backups of two hours are not uncommon during peak season. There’s a better way…
Take the Train
The Grand Canyon Railway is a painless way to reach the South Rim. Several classes of service are available for the round-trip (they’re all fun). All coaches include live entertainment and access to drinks, snacks, and restrooms. Best of all, no lines to enter the park. Round trips depart daily from Williams, AZ.
- Code of Federal Regulations, Subpart U – Grand Canyon SFRA
- Grand Canyon Aeronautical Chart – FAA Raster Chart Downloads
- Grand Canyon Paper Chart – Sporty’s Pilot Shop
- Grand Canyon Railway and Hotel – TheTrain.com
Our flight over the Grand Canyon was a small part of our trip to Arizona. Read about the entire journey: 2700 Miles in a Cherokee Six.
Thanks, Captain Ken, for yet another brilliant post. We took the tour by commercial aircraft a few years ago, so it’s fascinating to see what navigation procedures were being followed. Thanks also for the beautiful video – yes, the very early start certainly paid off for you in terms of colours. Our flight was early afternoon (we were staying in Las Vegas) so the contrast was much less by then.
Hi Mike, thank you for the kind words. The Canyon is truly an amazing place and I’m glad you experienced it from above!
Thank you for sharing your experience! Great job, very helpful, easy to follow along. The video was spectacular! Thank you!