Flying the Yosemite Valley in an Open-Cockpit Gyroplane

By Paul Hollingworth, EAA 769031

Ever since I saw Yosemite for the first time, back before I lived in the United States, I thought how amazing it must be to fly over it. I’ve done it in commercial flights of course, but when you’re above 30,000 feet, you can barely make it out. I wanted to fly close to and over it. With the Magni M-16 gyroplane I bought and learned to fly in 2016, that became a possibility. However, the height restrictions over Yosemitie meant climbing up to at least 10,000 feet higher than I had ever flown as PIC of the M-16. I decided during the winter that once the weather got better, I’d give it a go, and in March 2017 I set out to fly over Yosemite.

The weather forecast was very good that Sunday. I left at 9 a.m. and was ready to fly at 10. There had been fog earlier and it was just burning off as I pushed the Magni out. I had worked out that the flight would likely to take around four hours in total and more than 20 gallons of fuel. The tank holds 19 and although I was planning two stops along the way, I took another 8 gallons in two fuel bladders, one of which went in the rear footwell and one on the seat. After checking the weather once more, I donned six of the eight layers of clothing I was planning to take (yes, really) and set off.

It was a beautiful morning and I enjoyed seeing how fast I could stably fly the gyro during the first part of the trip. I knew I’d want to slow down later but the first hour or more would have me climbing to 3,000 feet and crossing the mountains to the east of the Bay Area before descending and crossing the California Central Valley. I’d then head into the Sierra Nevada foothills and land at Mariposa for a break. This all went according to plan. It was hazy with a few clouds as I got closer but nothing that got in the way. I could see the Sierras clearly in the near distance. I landed at Mariposa almost exactly an hour after leaving San Martin — not bad for a gyro flying a 90-mile leg.

After a quick refreshment stop, I set off from Mariposa headed for Yosemite Valley and for the climb. Mariposa is at 2,200 feet, and the surrounding hills go up to 4,000 feet or so. I cleared them and set the gyro in a steady climb further.

As soon I was at 6,500 feet and could see the valley clearly, I made out what I thought must be El Capitan, the gigantic cliff face that is so iconic for climbers. The air was calm and, although it was cold, I was now wearing all eight layers I’d come with, plus a balaclava. The entry to the park is at around 4,000 feet, and I needed to be 2,000 feet above that so I was okay for now, but the ground would continue to climb as the mountains grew higher.  I needed to remain well above them, so I kept heading up.

As I passed into the valley proper, I had spectacular views of El Capitan. I was kept busy trying to watch where I was going, take some pictures and video, look out for other aircraft, and monitor the gauges. The danger in thin air with the Magni M-16 is not lack of power but the possibility of engine overspeed. The max is supposed to be 5500 rpm sustained, with up to 5800 only for a maximum of 5 minutes. In a previous long cross-country from Texas, I had noticed that as the air got thinner the prop would spin faster; even without use of the turbo, you can still see revolutions over 5500, so I was monitoring closely.

I passed El Capitan and headed toward Half Dome. The sun was shining brightly and although it wasn’t falling on the vertical face, it looked amazing with snow blanketing the top. I was pushing 10,000 feet as I passed it on my right and looked out at the Sierras further east and toward Nevada. Getting past those mountains would have to come another day.

As I began to circle Half Dome, I was pretty nervous, and frankly nothing but a slow and very careful circuit was going to happen. There were no bumps and nothing was going wrong, but I was very conscious of being many thousands of feet above the ground in an open cockpit with a simple lap belt holding me in and with a lot of nothing beneath me. It felt like being in a silent cathedral with these colossal stone mountains all around, with the eerie feeling that they were somehow watching. Fanciful? Yes I know. You try it and let me know how you find it!

I headed back down the valley, now with Half Dome on the left. Half Dome is 8,800 feet high so I had reached 10,600 as I flew closer to avoid breaking the altitude restriction. I didn’t want to go higher, so I throttled back a bit to begin a descent. If you really have to stay 2,000 feet above the nearest point within 2,000 feet, I wondered if I could fly down the middle of the valley at a much lower altitude, (provided it was at least 4,000 feet wide), but decided not to try.

As I left Yosemite Valley and the snowy areas behind, I breathed a little easier. There were still no good landing sites, but it just felt less intimidating, somehow. I headed for Turlock, a small airport in the Central Valley another 50 miles away.

I landed there and had a great chat with a guy who had grown up there and whose dad was very involved in Turlock years ago. He had two kids with him and they were fascinated by the gyro and couldn’t get over the idea that I’d just flown Yosemite. I had some lunch and took off several of the eight layers; it was much warmer down there. Then I took off again and headed home for San Martin.

The Yosemite flight was the best I’ve ever had and I’ll remember it the rest of my life.

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