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Feature Article 1


Matt Debski, Aircraft Owner WVFC


All Roads Lead To Vegas

One of my family's most frequent flying adventure destinations is the Las Vegas area.  My wife's father lives in Boulder City, about fifteen miles southeast of the Strip.  We fly our 182 there typically twice a year.  Before it was a place to visit family, Vegas was a fun weekend destination with friends.  Vegas makes a great general aviation destination: some club aircraft can make it there without a fuel stop, the Las Vegas airports usually have good weather, and the airports in the area have great support for the small-plane pilot and ship.  

For most West Valley aircraft, the mountains between the Bay Area and Las Vegas dictate two main routes.  Each of those routes has some choices to make, depending on in-flight conditions.  The two routes either cross the Sierra Nevada north of the highest peaks or south of them.  After discussing the airport options, I'll describe the two routes and their variations.

Once in the Las Vegas area, there are two general aviation airports to choose from.  McCarran, the airline airport, is also an option.

I've never flown into McCarran myself, mostly due to the higher cost of operating there.  Parking is $40 per day and there is a facility fee of $60.  The facility fee is waived if 15 gallons of gas are purchased at a cost of $8 per gallon.  There is an additional security fee of $15.

North Las Vegas and Henderson are two General Aviation airports located 8nm and 6nm respectively from McCarran.  Both towered airports have great FBOs.  An Uber, Lyft, or cab will have you to the strip in about fifteen minutes.  For both airports the parking fee is $15 per day, one night waived with a 20-gallon fuel purchase, and fuel is around $5 per gallon.

So, if you're flying the Southern Route, consider stopping at Henderson.  If coming from the north, North Las Vegas is a good choice.

The Southern Route

The Southern Route heads southeast from the Bay Area towards Bakersfield.  At the southern end of the Sierra Nevada it heads east and then heads northeast near the Daggett VOR.  The trip across the Central Valley, assuming good weather, is fairly straightforward after departing the Bay Area airspace.  Arriving near Bakersfield, the choices begin. 

First, Bakersfield and airports near it are about halfway to Las Vegas.  The airports here are also more tightly spaced, have better services, and cooler temperatures than the latter half of the flight.  All this adds up to a good place to stop for fuel.  There are other options later if you need it, but they're not as good.

The most conservative, reliable route departing Bakersfield is to head toward Palmdale.  The Tejon Pass, a bit farther south of the direct route, is at 4200 feet.  The Tehachapi Pass is at 4000 feet but is narrower.  Either pass skirts the highest mountains and adds about five minutes to the flight. A route from General Fox (KWJF) or Palmdale (KPMD) to DAG remains clear of the MOAs and Restricted Areas before heading into Vegas.  The first few times I flew to Vegas, this is the route I took.  Later I learned of a great shortcut that adds little to no risk to the flight but shaves off a decent amount of time.

The airspace east of Bakersfield is the Edwards Air Force Base R-2508 Complex (there is no R-2508 depicted on civilian charts).  Many of the Restricted Areas are marked as extending from the surface to unlimited and in continuous operation.  Much of the time, however, some of the complex can be transited.  In particular, R-2515 and R-2524 can be traversed VFR at or above 7000 feet.  R-2506 only extends to 6000 feet in any case.  The easiest way to get this clearance is to be on Flight Following before or around Bakersfield.  Once in contact with Bakersfield Approach, ask the controller if it's possible to transition R-2515 and R-2524.  If they're not too busy, they will call Joshua Approach and let you know if you can anticipate the transition.  If they're too busy, you'll have to wait until you're east of Bakersfield, near Tehachapi, to request the transition directly with Joshua Approach.

On the weekend and holidays, I've never been denied the VFR transition.  However, I've also never been cleared to transition any of the R-2502 Restricted Areas.  This means that even with the R-2515 and R-2524 shortcut, there's still a choice to make.  The route to the south of R-2502 is slightly longer than the northern route, but has a lot more civilization: a few civilian airports, I-10 and other large roads, and several towns.  The route to the north crosses beautiful terrain but is desolate.  For this reason, I usually pass south of R-2502.

Note that even in the absence of a clearance, there is a path through the Restricted Areas near the Trona airport known as the Trona Gap.  I would not advise attempting to fly through there without GPS.  Furthermore, if the Restricted Areas are active, there may be activity in the Panamint MOA.  Overall, that is a route probably not worth taking if the Restricted Area clearance is denied.

All three of these routes setup nicely for an arrival into Henderson Executive Airport (KHND).  Las Vegas approach may be able to give you a Class Bravo clearance, but it's also easy enough to stay below the Bravo.  Getting to North Las Vegas from the south is a little tricky.  The Las Vegas Terminal Area Chart publishes two VFR transition routes.  Studying the transition routes and airspace is imperative before attempting them.  At night, Vegas is especially spectacular.  However, the mountains are not well lit and the Bravo floor is not much above the surface.  You should fly in the area during the day before trying a night flight.

The Northern Route

The Northern Route crosses the Sierra Nevada north of the highest part of the range, then crosses Death Valley and enters the Las Vegas area from the northwest.  To get across the Sierra crest and over to Owens Valley, there are two passes.  Crossing over Yosemite and Tioga Pass offers a few advantages: it's absolutely gorgeous and while the route does not offer abundant choices for an off-field landing, at least there are some open spots and roads that pass through the area.

The other pass is just west of the Mammoth airport and the Mammoth Mountain ski area.  Most of the terrain there is lower than the Yosemite route, but it is true wilderness.  There are no roads or civilization.  If I choose the northern route, I always plan to cross over Yosemite.  However, especially in the summer, there can be cumulus buildups over that route that make the pass near Mammoth a better choice.  As always when flying or crossing the mountains, in-flight conditions may demand a detour or landing if the weather isn't cooperating,

Once across the Sierra, the route heads toward Bishop, then lower terrain southeast of Bishop before heading directly to the Las Vegas area.  Bishop is more than half way to Las Vegas and the last chance for a fuel stop.  There are some small airports along the way but they don't have fuel.

The Northern Route offers great sightseeing opportunities and is a reasonable choice if heading to North Las Vegas.  However, due to the mountain crossing and the mostly uninhabited areas over which it passes, it is a riskier option.  In terms of total time, the northern route to North Las Vegas is about the same time as the southern route through R-2515 to Henderson.

Flying to Las Vegas is a great way to combine general aviation with a fun weekend.  In addition to the casinos, restaurants, and shows, Las Vegas offers a wide variety of outdoor activities.  It's also a good stop over or jumping off point to other Southwest adventures.  Choose a route, choose an airport, and explore.

* Please note that all trips to Vegas in WVFC aircraft require a Low Mountain Checkout. If you chose to take the northern route to Vegas, a regular Mountain Checkout is required. WVFC also requires an Extended Rental Agreement for any trips planned outside of California and strongly encourages CFI involvement in planning.