Flying Southern Arizona skies


Southern Arizona has many attractions for the private pilot, one of them being the more than 300 flying days in the year.

In the summer, admittedly, these may be half days, since the midday density altitude can reach a number close to the operating ceiling of a low-performance trainer, and your airplane may refuse to climb. But in the cool of the early morning in the summer and just about any time of day during the rest of the year, the Arizona skies are clear and inviting. Sometimes the spring wildflowers, orange patches of poppies visible from the air, dot the slopes of mountain ranges that still have snow clinging to their peaks.

Several Tucson area fields serve as reliever airports for general aviation traffic. One of these is Ryan Air Field (RYN), a towered airport during the daylight hours, with friendly controllers. Ryan was built in 1942 for primary flight training for the Army Air Forces, named after the Army-supervised civilian Ryan School of Aviation, which closed its flight school after the war, though the name stuck.

Just next to the self-service pumps at the south end of the field at Ryan is plenty of transient parking and an excellent restaurant called Todd’s. Chef Todd serves breakfast and lunch and has some specialties such as an Eggs Benedict variation where the hollandaise is flavored with Prickly Pear Cactus fruit.

Todd's Restaurant at Ryan Field If you fly into Ryan in the morning you’ll have time to rent a car, drive to the world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum nearby, tour its extensive collection of animals and plants, have lunch at its excellent Ocotillo Café, and still have the afternoon free to watch reenactments of famous gunfights at the movie studio set called Old Tucson, also only a few miles from Ryan Field.

The same program could be followed flying into Marana Regional Airport (AVQ), another one of Tucson’s reliever airports, also with good FBO service and a restaurant called the Sky Rider Coffee Shop.

Marana Regional Airport

Marana Regional Airport

I spend part of the year in Tucson, and when I’m there I usually rent a Cessna 150 or a 172 from Kelly Stites, the best CFI at Ryan. Her Kelly’s Aviation is an efficient and conscientious operation. From Ryan I might fly north to the airfield outside the little town of Eloy, about 45 nautical miles northwest of Tucson. Eloy (E60) has only a single runway, 2-20, but the field hosts what has become a huge skydiving training and jumping facility. Skydive Arizona has de Havilland Twin Otters, a curious-looking Shorts Skyvan, and several other planes. In fact, it boasts the largest fleet of skydiving aircraft in the world. It also has a vertical wind tunnel a few hundred yards from the field where jumpers can test their free-fall skills. When I fly in, I like to sit on the shaded deck of the Bent Prop Saloon and Cookery, the restaurant on the field, and watch the jumpers land.

Just 11 nm northeast of Eloy is the airfield at Coolidge (P08), where the town and airport are struggling toSkydiving in Eloy find funds for the restoration of a beautiful World War II Army Air Forces hangar. Call ahead to find out when the fly-in breakfasts will be, and to arrange transportation to see the Casa Grande Ruins, just north of the town of Coolidge. Preserved here are parts of one of the largest North American prehistoric structures, built by an ancient Sonoran desert people who left no other artifacts or records.

South of Tucson the ground rises toward the Mexican border, 50 nm away. Just shy of the border, built on a 4,000-foot plateau, is Nogales International Airport (OLS). Despite its name, it is a sleepy untowered field with a 7,200-foot runway (again, density altitudes in the summer require LOTS more runway). You can get a good breakfast or lunch at the Nogales airport, served out of a small window inside the terminal. A rental car here can take you to Patagonia Lake, a dammed reservoir about five miles away with camping, fishing, and waterskiing. Or, if you have your passport with you, you can venture into Mexico at Nogales, a town that straddles the border.

Nogales Airport with Nogales in the Distance

Nogales Airport

On the way down from Tucson you’ll fly over several open-pit copper mines and the town of Green Valley, which is full of golf courses and pecan groves. You’ll also see off to the east Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, a favorite hiking and picnic destination for Tucsonans.

To the east of Tucson is Cochise County’s airport at Willcox (P33). Here Ms. J. Walden runs the pilot shop and also sells Zuni and Navajo jewelry and pottery. Directly to the south, across Interstate 10, is the Willcox Playa, dry for most of the summer but, when covered with a shallow lake in January, a refuge for tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes.

Willcox Playa

Willcox Playa

Another 35 nautical miles to the south is the airport (P29) at Tombstone, “the town too tough to die,” where you can visit the Oriental Saloon and the O.K. Corral. And another 20 nm south will take you to the airport at Bisbee (P04), a mile from the Mexican border. Bisbee was a mining town, home of the huge Lavender Pit Mine. Though the mine is closed, Bisbee flourishes as a tourist village, full of shops, restaurants, and hotel or bed-and-breakfast accommodations, all at a cool 5,000 feet above the southern Arizona desert.

The area of southern Arizona south of Phoenix, acquired from Mexico by the United States in 1853, is known as the Gadsden Purchase. It boasts dozens of public airports and many more sites of recreation, historic interest, and comfortable places to eat and stay than I have been able to describe. And except for a few days of rain in the summer and winter, the skies are not cloudy all day.

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  1. Larry Portouw says

    Very good article.  The flying weather here is consistently amazing (watch for KFHU METARs with a reported 120nm visibility) and many things to do and see.  I was a little disappointed that there was no mention of Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca with Libby AAF; a joint use facility between the US Army and the public with a great ATC crew.  Three runways, one 12001′ long and every instrument approach there is.  Fort Huachuca is the only intact Apache Indian war era cavalry post left in the US. It is a National Historic site with two good museums, great birding opportunities, two great petroglyph sites, and a very long Buffalo Soldier history among many other things. Nearby are many canyons to explore, Kartchner Caverns, and the Coronado National Monument.  Come check it out, and don’t let the R airspace drive you away.  Listen to ATIS and call approach outside the airspace and they will get you in here. Best approach is from the north.  When the tower is closed, the R airspace goes away too.  Good graphic here: There’s more local airport info here:  Again, great article. I enjoyed reading it.  Blue skies!

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