Groom Range Flight
By Frank Stamm

Click photos to enlarge.

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Area 51 view spot Tikaboo Peak from the air
Back in May of 1996, when my wife Gail and I were visiting Pat and Joe Travis at the Little ALeInn, we had just finished breakfast when Pat got a phone call. She said to the caller,"Hold on, I have just the person for you to talk to right here", and handed me the phone. On the phone was the sales director for Scenic Airlines in Vegas. It seems they had 25 British tourists who wanted to fly to Rachel and view the gates to Area-51. She asked where they could land a couple of their Twin Otters. I told her the only active strip in the area was a private strip at Penyor Farms and it would be unlikely to get permission to land there. I then mentioned there was a public strip at Alamo, but it was about 45 miles away. That wasn't acceptable from a logistical point of view. I told her to let me look into another possible site and I would get back to her.

On a prior trip out Chuck Clark and I were going out to search thru the F-4 crash site northwest of Tempiute. I had always thought about flying into the Rachel area in a Cessna. To be able to see the terrain and to cut down on the long drive from place to place. The problem of where to land was largely solved by all the roads in the area and Rt. 375 is pretty long and straight. The only consideration would be traffic. On the way to the Phantom crash site Chuck pointed out an old landing strip that was used by the Union Carbide tungsten mine to fly parts and personnel in and out using a Cessna single engine aircraft. The airstrip was cut out of the prairie with a blade and was covered with brush and cow pies. Now with a new purpose in mind for the airstrip, Chuck and I went about getting some data. The edges were visible so I took Mr. Budgets Jeep up and down each runway to measure its length and paced off the width. We used Chucks GPS to get the lat-long and altitude. I then used a compass to get the runway headings. Armed with this rough data I called Scenic when we returned to Vegas and went over the performance data for the Twin Otter and confirmed the strip could handle the aircraft. However, the strip needed to be certified by the FAA for Scenic to legally operate the charter flights.

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The Medlin Ranch in Tikaboo Valley
From my Vegas hotel room I spoke with the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Department of Transportation - Division of Aeronautics, The Nevada Department of Tourism, The Federal Aviation Administration SFO Flight Standards District Office and the Air Force at Nellis. All were pretty straight forward government type conversations except one, Nellis. After going thru several departments I was transferred to the Blackjack sector supervisor. They seemed to be interested in why I wanted to certify an airstrip so close to a certain sensitive area. After explaining that Scenic had expressed an interest in bringing tourists to Rachel, who had been getting lots of interest in the media, I guess he figured that it was inevitable that flights to Rachel were next. Later when I got a chance to talk to the sector controllers (ATC) they had no problem with the traffic, after all Alamo, Lincoln Co. and others are under the Desert MOA.

What is a MOA? Let me explain here about the different types of airspace, and how it affects pilots. The sky above us is huge but it is sectioned off for different types of aircraft flying thru different types of space. Civilian pilots are trained to identify each of the types of airspace on a VFR (visual flight rules) sectional, which is a map of the airspace over a given geographical area, or a chart that depicts routes for flying IFR (instrument flight rules) in instrument conditions. Controlled airspace means the pilot must make contact with the controller on a discrete frequency and receive a clearance to enter that space. In southern Nevada you have all types of civilian and military controlled airspace. For example, the airspace surrounding Las Vegas McCarran (LAS) airport the control zone is known as class B air space. Think of the class B control zone as an upside down wedding cake with the airport in the smaller center and each ring getting larger as you go higher in altitude. Because of the transports operating here, an aircraft must be properly equipped and must contact the appropriate frequency to receive clearance to enter this airspace. The control zone around North Las Vegas (VGT) airport is called class C which has a smaller diameter and lower control altitude. A pilot must contact the tower and receive clearance to enter VGT airspace. Most of the rest of the airspace space is largely uncontrolled till 18,000 feet above sea level (MSL) where an IFR clearance is required.

For the airspace where our military aircraft train there is the MOA or Military Operating Area which also requires clearance to enter. The MOA for the Nellis AFB is called the Desert MOA. Within this MOA are restricted areas over some very sensitive areas. The airspace over Rachel is a MOA but, the Groom Dry Lake Bed lies under an area depicted as R-4808N. The Restricted, or R, airspace requires a very special reason to receive a clearance into that type of airspace when it is active. I have flown thru R space in the east when it is inactive; however, most of the R space near Groom is continuous in its operation and unlimited in its altitude. During the Red Flag exercises even our own military aircraft are not allowed to enter certain R airspace including R-4808N. I had a conversation with a Navy A-6 pilot who said during the briefing for a joint exercise the pilots were told not to even look into "the box" or be at risk of losing their wings (the ones on their uniform, not on their plane). The box was R-4808N. A look at any sectional or aviation chart can find the descriptions of each type of airspace.

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Hwy 375 and the Black Mailbox
So this started my quest into opening the "Rachel Spaceport and Aerodrome", a public airstrip where Scenic Airlines or any smaller aircraft can drop in to view the sights. It would also add a valuable resource to the community and county.

Where to start? Forward to May 2004, on that trip out I had an application from the FAA FSDO to apply for an airport operation, an outline of a letter to apply to the BLM for the land rights, a long conversation with the chief pilot of Scenic Airways and an inquiry to a Nevada aviation insurance broker. To make a presentation to all the above parties they needed to know the exact location of the airstrip and it's proximity to Rachel. That was the reason for Joerg and me to fly from VGT to over Rachel, so we could photograph the airstrip and the surrounding area. Now I get to plan for and actually fly the trip I had thought about for years.

Let me say that this trip is not uncommon. General aviation aircraft go in and out of this area on occasion. A group of tail draggers landed on the ET Highway for burgers at the Inn once. Pat has pictures of a C-182 parked near the ALeInn sign on Rt. 375 that also dropped in for lunch. A local resident said his son flies up from Vegas now and then. Our flight was to be flown at 8500' or 3500' above ground level for the photos. That's in the weapons school airspace so I wanted ATC to know where we were.

First I needed an airplane. After searching online and talking to several FBOs in Nevada and Arizona, I chose First Flight at VGT. They had several newer C-172s and had a good reputation for maintenance and training. I would have to complete a knowledge test and flight check with an instructor before the flight.

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The Rachel landing strip in the foreground, with Rachel and the road leading to the Area 51 "Back Gate" in the back
The evening before the flight I assembled my flight plan and contacted the Nellis controller supervisor to outline the intended route and arrange for clearances. I knew from conversations since 1996 with sector controllers that aircraft that approach R-4808N will get their attention and can be checked out (intercepted by fighters) if they don't make ATC aware of their intentions. I wanted them to know who we were, what we were doing and how we were going to get there. I was given a frequency to contact Nellis after departure from VGT.

The next morning I showed up at First Flight for my check ride at 0900. I took the knowledge test (and passed) then went for a one hour flight check (also passed). This is required by the insurance companies to insure rental pilots are proficient enough for solo flights. After having loads of fun doing slow flight, stalls and spot landings I checked again with Nellis for our clearance. Joerg arrived and we set up for departure.

It was 1200. A group of fighters were scheduled for entry into our intended area at 1300 local so we launched for Rachel. After departing VGT runway 7 North Las Vegas tower handed us off to Nellis ATC. The controller was aware of our intentions and assigned us a squawk code which I set into the transponder. This code would identify us on the Nellis radar screen. We were instructed to stay below 5000' till we flew under A-481 which is an airspace corridor for high performance climb-outs and descents to and from Nellis. I requested flight following, which means ATC will call out other aircraft in our vicinity. Climbing as we flew north the onboard GPS showed the R space clearly. We could also see and navigate over local known land marks. We flew parallel to I-15 north and then over Rt.93 north towards Alamo in what is known as Sally corridor, climbing up to 9000'. Leveling off our airspeed accelerated to 120 knots. We flew over Rt. 93 looking down on the thin black asphalt Joerg and I have driven many times. We identified the Pahranagat Lakes and Wildlife Refuge as we flew north. Over Alamo airport we headed direct to Tikaboo Peak flying over it by 500' or so. On our headsets we could hear Nellis ATC communicating with their arrivals and departures as well as the group of weapons school fighters forming up over Texas Lake. Because we were so low it was hard for Nellis to keep radar contact on us so I reported our position to her as we proceeded.

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"Downtown" Rachel
Once over Tikaboo, off to the west, we could see a large dry lake bed. From our altitude with the naked eye we could see into R-4808N, and saw the infamous top secret facility at Groom Dry Lake. The large hanger, fuel tanks and other buildings were clearly visible. The facilities on top of Bald Mountain were almost even to our altitude. With Hancock pass on our right we flew into Tikaboo Valley. Following Rt. 375 I could pick out Groom Lake Road, the White Mailbox, Mr. Medlin's Ranch, White Sides and Freedom Ridge. When we reached Coyote Summit, Joerg arranged to call Chuck Clark on a FRS radio. Chuck was sitting at the intersection of the runways at the Rachel Spaceport. From 8500' his Jeep looked like a dot. As we orbited I shot a series of pictures showing the airstrip with Rachel in the distance. We next orbited over Rachel and shot the Inn, Quick Pick, Joerg and Chuck's estates and the rest of the village. On our second orbit ATC notified us a flight of "high performance aircraft" was cleared into our area. These guys come thru at 400+ knots compared to the 117 knots we were indicating. I decided we should leave. We flew back on the north side of Tempuite where we had a good view of the multiple entrances to the tungsten mine. Heading towards Tikaboo we could hear ATC calling us out to the weapons school and notifying us of their presence. We scanned the sky for the fighters but never saw them. We turned south back thru the Sally corridor over Alamo. Looking east into Arizona all there was were mountains and prairie for as far as the eye could see. When we started our decent ATC called out a group of four F-16s descending near Apex, which is a reporting point for Nellis arrivals. We were then handed off from Nellis ATC to VGT tower. Cleared into the controlled zone we set up an approach for runway 12R. We landed at 1500 and taxied to the ramp.

The photos taken are part of the presentation I will make first to the BLM to apply for rights to the acreage around the airstrip, if it is available. I hope to then present the application to the FAA after BLM approval. The same photos will help the state and insurance company assess the location for the operation. Not being a Nevada resident it's kind of difficult to conduct business from the east coast. I would like to start these processes sometime in 2006. In the future maybe myself or someone else will start up an air taxi or sightseeing service so all could experience the same views Joerg and I saw on this flight.

If any pilot would like to make a sightseeing flight thru the Desert MOA, I would suggest these items be included in your checklist:

  1. Study the current charts and plan a route. If you plan on viewing a specific area know where the R space boundaries are and use moving maps or GPS in the aircraft will help keep you from busting the restricted airspace.
  2. In your current sectional are frequencies for the controllers in each space, have them available for quick reference. On my chart Desert MOA is 124.45, Nellis control is 126.65, Las Vegas APP on 125.02 or Nellis APP on 124.95. These frequencies are for the VGT area. Check for current frequencies prior to flight.
  3. Find a current phone number and make a call to Nellis and speak to a supervisor for the Desert MOA and state your intended entry time and destination. They may or may not outline the day's activity. Pilots can get the number from ATCT, TRACON, ARTCC phone number directories or the phone book.
  4. Before departure I would suggest these items on board;
    1. Water - at least a gallon for each person.
    2. Handheld ATC frequency radio.
    3. An adequate survival and first aid kit for the high desert.
    4. Make sure to include these items in weight and balance.
    5. Plan for adequate fuel.
  5. Check weather carefully, early AM is usually smoother and often clearer.
  6. Brush up on your mountain flying technique. If none or no recent experience get an hour or two of dual with a local instructor. Well worth it!
  7. Fly your plan. If you wish to orbit use your turns-about-a-point technique to stay near the intended route.
  8. Use flight following from ATC. They will call out traffic and are a quick contact should a problem occur.
  9. Aviate, navigate, communicate AND hydrate. You are over a desert.

If you aren't a pilot and want to charter a sightseeing trip into this area I will offer these suggestions:

  1. Call around and see who is willing to fly the route. Not all pilots or fixed base operators (FBO) will fly into the MOA.
  2. Check with the pilot to see if he is using a similar checklist to the above. It may be his license but it's your butt in the seat. He may have done this many times before. If so, there should be no problems.
  3. The cheapest may not always be the safest. Experience counts.
  4. A high wing lets you look down; a low wing lets you look up. Pick the right airplane. A Cessna 172 has four seats but will be marginal at best with 4 people aboard. Pilot and two passengers should be ok. A C-182 has a better load capability, but is harder to find and more expensive.
  5. Let the pilot know what you want to look at, it would be very disappointing to spend lots of cash and time only to hear the pilot say "he will not go there" once you are airborne.

As I said in the trip report this was a fascinating flight for several reasons. First of all is the vastness of this part of the country. For as far as the eye can see it is nothing but open unsettled land, except for the small ribbon of asphalt and a handful of small communities, there is nothing but desert and mountains. Second, the beauty of this geography is stunning from the air. The mountain shadows merging with the prairies and valleys are very photogenic from an artistic point of view. Third, knowing this area from the many road trips I have taken makes me think of the early settlers, miners and especially the Native Americans who lived here. I have a whole new respect for the toughness they needed to exist, and also why some didn't survive.

I want to thank Chuck Clark for his assistance. As a resident of Rachel he is one of the most knowledgeable people on this part of Nevada that I know of. Thanks Chuck for your contributions to this story and your help in gathering the data on the airstrip. Thanks also to Joerg Arnu for his help in getting this flight set up and contributing his time to this story. His website, DreamlandResort.com is the best source of info for this region and the activities at Area-51.

I hope you all get a chance to visit the southern Nevada region. From the ground or the air the view is unforgettable. I hope some day you will view it from the air on a flight to Rachel.

Related Trip Reports:

About the author:

Frank Stamm Lives in the Pocono's of Pennsylvania. He works for United Airlines at Newark Liberty Airport as a Lead in the Ramp Service department since 1978. He also founded and was president of Stamm Aviation, an aviation facility maintenance and aircraft support business, from 1980 till 1992. In 1979 he obtained his pilots license and started Stamm Photography producing aerial photographs. He and his wife Gail have been visiting Rachel since 1992 and exploring southern Nevada since 1985. He can be reached at Flyer97977@aol.com


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