The West from above

The North American Monsoon.

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Our plan was simple: explore Utah’s canyons from the air. The monsoon had other ideas.

Okay, I’ll admit, I had no idea there was a North American Monsoon. Its very existence was hotly debated through much of the 1970’s, but meteorologists now accept that the southwest of the U.S. is annually affected by a legitimate monsoon. A shift in summer wind patterns under intense solar heating draws low level moisture from the Gulf of California and upper level moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. The result, deluges in the desert, flash flooding and one grounded AirCam.

Sticking to a schedule, Bob and Cathy headed due east towards Oklahoma, avoiding the storms and marking the end of the”West from Above.”

Thanks for following along. Thanks also to Bob, Cathy and Melinda for an eye-opening exploration of the west.

#nevada #aerial #aircam #adventure #joshnewman #lakemead #westfromabove

Grounded by rain?

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According to the US Drought Monitor, most of the western U.S. is experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions. Farmers across California are drilling for groundwater, and in Tonopah, Nevada (the middle of the desert), the Aircam is grounded by massive thunderheads rolling through the landscape, belching thunder and lightning along the way. Apparently it’s not an uncommon sight at this time of year; this is the monsoon season.

Watching and waiting, Bob finds a way through the abstract patterns on the weather radar and turns the plane south to Lake Mead, where water is once again sparse. Currently at its lowest level since filled in the 1930’s, the Hoover Dam’s problems are written in a white mineral band often compared to a bathtub ring. 

Maybe it’s time to stop watering the golf courses?

#solar #aerial #aircam #westfromabove #nevada

Patterns in the desert

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“Holy cow, you can see where water has been but isn’t.”

Leaving the mountains and flying south, fire and water once again become themes of the landscape. The hills to the southeast of The Dalles were alight as we passed through, fire crews battling on the ground, while a helicopter dropped water from the Columbia to slow the blaze.

South in the Nevada desert, the historical evidence of water was everywhere. Dry lakes, empty stream beds and huge outwash plains gouged by the flow of water nowhere to be seen.

Unsurprisingly, sunlight is plentiful, making the desert an ideal location for solar power. Like something from a Sci-fi movie, Crescent Dunes C.S.P. (Concentrated Solar Power) project is impossible to miss. Projected to go online by late 2014, the plant concentrates solar radiation to heat molten salt, hopefully providing 110 megawatts of on-demand, renewable electricity.

#westfromabove #aircam #cascades #mountain #aerial #joshnewman

“You meet good people in aviation.”

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Maneuvering through lines of huge, partly built, Boeing aircraft, we casually mentioned to the first person we saw that we planned to spend a few days on the ground near Seattle.

Minutes later, Three-Two-Five-One-Echo was tied down in front of Terry’s F.B.O., Castle and Cooke. There was Bob’s homebuilt plane rubbing shoulders with private jets (and drawing more attention). Terry went out of his way to make sure our aerial-adventure-machine was well looked after and didn’t blink an eye at the long line of passengers that lounged on his couch while they waited their turn for a joyride over Puget Sound

Seattle being our northern most point we turned south towards Mt Rainer with two new crew members, Bob’s wife Cathy and his daughter Melinda. Adding Cathy, Melinda, and a car, allows the Aircam to land at airports that don’t have gas, opening up a new world of possibilities.

Over the rain shadow : Wenatchee to Seattle

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Which are the most beautiful mountains in the U.S.?

That’s a question sure to start a debate. The Rockies are huge, Sierras famous, Wind Rivers barely known and coastal Alaska’s fiords’ spectacular. Then there are Hawaii’s volcanoes, Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, as well as the Adirondacks and Great Smoky mountains on the east coast. The list, like the country, is vast. If you ask a Washingtonian, the answer is almost always, the Cascades. Why? Probably a little bias, but mainly it’s the relief.

Young and energetic, these mountains rise from the once glaciated landscape of Puget Sound at an aggressive rate. In the process, they create a rain shadow that collects the region’s famous rain (and world record snowfall) and feeds it to the forests below. In a blink you transition from eastern Washington’s high desert to western Washington’s emerald forests. The change is dramatic.

#mtsthelens #aircam #aerial #mountain #volcano #westfromabove

Following the Cascade Volcanic Arc. The Columbia River, Mt St Helens and Mt Adams.

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It began without planning when we flew around Mt. Shasta.

By choosing the most interesting route north, we have shadowed the Cascade Volcanic Arc, a line of volcanoes that stretches over one thousand kilometers from northern California into British Columbia, Canada. Part of the “Ring of Fire,” the Cascade Arc includes the well-known volcanoes Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker and Mt. Adams, but it’s Mt. St. Helens that stands alone in its recent activity. From the south, the peak appears to be a perfect cone, but from the northwest, the scale of the 1980 eruption becomes immediately obvious. It’s as though someone took an enormous icecream scoop and removed half of the mountain.

Competing with the mountains for scale, the Columbia River and its tributaries form huge arteries carving through the landscape. From the air, the area’s dependence on the river is clear; farms, vineyards and orchards all draw irrigation water from it, hydroelectric dams slow its passage, heavy industries line its shores and bulk cargo ships navigate its waters.

#oregon #threesisters #aerial #aircam #westfromabove #earthpix

Fire in the east. Crescent City to the Dalles.

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“They can’t decide where to send us – there are fires everywhere. My battery’s going to die from all the calls I’m getting.”

That was what we overheard as we walked into the Medford F.B.O., an acronym for Fixed Base Operations, the aviation equivalent of a gas station/lounge. It seems that large areas of Eastern California, Oregon and Washington are on fire, and the guys dressed in green sitting across from me are charged with putting them out. They form ground crews that get helicoptered in to the front line of fires, armed with chainsaws to cut breaks and to control the blaze. They camp out for several days at a time. It sounds like one heck of a job, and I’m not sure if I’d sleep easy knowing that there was a massive forest fire headed my way.

Not much later, flying north to Crater Lake, we easily spotted smoke from several fires, including one just to the south of Crater Lake itself. There, in the distance, was a tiny helicopter full of firefighters heading off to work.

#mtshasta #aircam

Mt Shasta to the Coast

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“Does it run on gas or do you have to pedal?”

Everyone has something to say about the Aircam when you arrive at an airport. People just can’t help themselves. “Have you seen that goofy plane out on the ramp?”, “Did you fly here in that?” and “Is it solar powered?” have all been asked. The general response though, especially from other pilots, is joyful curiosity. The bright yellow and red Aircam screams fun. What keeps pilots talking, and talking,  is it’s technical ability. With 2x 100hp Rotax engines and a large wing area, Three-Two-Five-One-Echo (the plane’s call sign), climbs fast and can fly surprisingly high. Comfortable at 14,000 feet, over the summit of Mt Shasta high, which, by the way, is pretty cold.

On our way to the coast, not far from the town of Weed, California, we came across a lot of what appeared to be glass houses built on small clearings in otherwise dense forest. We have a hunch what they may be but are curious to know for sure. What ever they are, they’re very easy to spot from the air.


Running on empty

By | The West from above, Uncategorized

The West is dry, this year more than most.

Flying low over California and Nevada, the heat burns into your mind just how precious water is, especially out West. Leaving San Francisco’s refreshing ocean breeze and heading into the central valley you’re hit by a blast of heat, even at 6500ft. Irrigation canals, fires and salt plains paint a tapestry of the decisions Westerners make about their water use. In the context of a changing climate the stakes seem especially high in this part of the world.