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Sedona: A Beautiful Airport With Steep Cliffs And Strong Downdrafts

Situated on a 500 foot tall mesa in the Upper Sonoran Desert of Northern Arizona, the Sedona Airport (KSEZ) is one of the most challenging and scenic airports in the United States. High elevation, terrain, cliffs, and unique wind patterns give you simultaneous challenges that you won't face at many airports around the country.

There have been quite a few notable general aviation accidents in Sedona, often resulting in aircraft overrunning the runway and plummeting down cliffs on either side of its 5,100 foot runway. We flew into Sedona in a Cirrus SR22T to learn more.

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The Airport

At 4,830 feet above sea level, KSEZ has a single paved runway that's 5,100 X 100 feet. At either end of its runway, the mesa ends sharply with 500 foot cliffs rolling into the valley below. Immediately surrounding the airport are numerous red sandstone formations, some reaching over 2,500 feet above airport elevation.

There's a single GPS approach to Runway 03. Instrument approaches to Runway 21 would be impossible due to sharply rising terrain to the Northwest. When winds are calm, Runway 03 is generally used because of limited terrain surrounding the approach corridor.

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Windspeed And Direction Makes A Huge Impact Here

No matter what airport you land at, wind speed and direction matters. But at Sedona, the importance of knowing where the wind is coming from is critical to flying a safe approach. Airport notes warn that when landing on Runway 21 during strong southwest wind conditions, you should expect strong downdrafts on the approach end of Runway 21. The same situation should be expected with strong winds out of the northeast when landing on Runway 03.

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Wind rolling over the edge of the mesa and into the valley below is the cause for these strong downdrafts. Flying our approach to Runway 21 on a day with 25 knot winds, we increased our approach speed by roughly 10 knots to compensate for the altitude we were prepared to lose. When approaching airports like Sedona with sharp cliffs and strong winds, prepare for downdrafts by increasing your approach speed. Doing that gives you a higher safety margin over your stall speed, as well as more energy if you need to go-around.

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JetSuite Runway Overrun

On May 25, 2011, a JetSuite Phenom 100 overran Runway 21 on landing, careening down the cliff past the departure end of the runway. The pilots and passengers thankfully survived the accident.

NTSB

According to the Captain's report to the NTSB, "Upon turning final, he thought the airplane was high and reduced the power to idle. The captain stated that as the airplane neared the approach end of the runway, it felt like it was "pushed up" by a wind shift to a tailwind or an updraft and that the airplane touched down firmly near the runway number markings and he immediately applied brakes. During the landing roll, the captain felt that the initial braking was effective; however, he noticed the airplane was not slowing down, and applied maximum brakes... the airplane subsequently exited the departure end of the runway and traveled down an embankment."

According to the NTSB, Runway 21 features a 1.9 percent downward sloping gradient. In addition, Runway 21 features an overrun area of about 123 feet. Beyond the departure end of Runway 21, sloping terrain varied between 40 to 45 degrees, extending about 800 feet to the valley floor. A witness working on CTAF that day tried to inform the pilots that Runway 03 was the uphill runway, and was commonly used in light wind conditions.

Christopher Fox Graham

The aircraft's airspeed as it touched down was about 128 knots, with 123 knots of groundspeed, and an indicated airspeed of 117 knots. During the aircraft's last 30 seconds of the descent, the airplane's descent rate was approximately 1,374 feet per minute. The recorded data showed that the aircraft touched down within the first 1,500 feet of runway.

Given their faster than required approach speed, weather conditions, and airplane configuration, calculated landing distance was 5,624 feet, over 500 feet longer than Sedona's runway. A properly calculated and flown approach speed of 101 knots would've resulted in a 3,112 foot landing distance, well within safety margins.

Reducing Accidents With EMAS?

The crash of JetSuite's Phenom 100 is just one of dozens of runway overruns that have occurred here in the past few decades. On occasion, Sedona sees aircraft as large as Gulfstream IVs.

Lengthening Sedona's runway isn't possible, but installing an Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) could be. EMAS uses crushable, lightweight concrete blocks placed at the end of a runway to significantly decelerate an aircraft as it rolls through the material. Telluride, Colorado (KTEX) has similar risks with cliffs on either end of its single runway and has an EMAS system installed.

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Learning how to manage the challenges at Sedona can apply to any airport. Make sure you're flying the correct approach speed, and always be aware of where you should expect updrafts and downdrafts.

Have you flown into an airport like Sedona? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, commercially licensed pilot with multi-engine and instrument ratings, and a commercial aviation student at the University of North Dakota. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. Swayne's experience ranges from international flights in a King Air F90 to ferrying a 1943 Grumman Widgeon across the country. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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