|Three EZs Go to the Rincón de Guayabitos Fly-In|
By Dan Patch (DeltaPop)VariEze – N862DP
Once Mexicali turns all of us loose, we are free to link up on the air-to-air frequency. From our Mexicali position reports, it’s not too hard to deduce that the speedy birds are about 70 nm behind me, and they are really hauling the heating oil to grandma’s house, making 188 kts over the ground. I’m gonna be road kill pretty quick at my normal cruise speed of around 145 kts – except I’m making 166 kts. Sweet! A romping tailwind and it holds all the way to MMHO. So I’m still out in front about 50 nm landing at MMHO, proving the adage that a little head start is equivalent to a lot of extra speed.
At Hermosillo I get the paperwork process rolling, and am well along with my flight plan, landing fee, customs, visa application, etc., when the N262E and N183W drive by heading for fuel. I’m nearly done with my paperwork when they start theirs. Since we all agree that time is of the essence, and since I’m the slowest, I get fuel and launch – pronto. Nobody says anything to me about finding oil coming out of 62 Echo’s cowl. I’m about 50 nm out when the speedy birds are up and talking to MMHO departure. Then a side discussion starts between Bobby and Duck about lower than normal oil pressure, and an unknown amount of oil flowing aft on 62 Echo’s cowl. Oh oh, this doesn’t sound good. But Bobby’s oil pressure starts back up in level cruise, and the loss rate appears to be acceptable, so a decision is made to press on, with watchful eyes both inside and outside the plane monitoring the situation. This illustrates why it’s a very good idea to fly with another plane when in Mexico!
With only a three-hour leg from Hermosillo to Mazatlán, plenty of fuel, clear skies, and my heated socks fired up, life is good. We’re all at sitting at 9500 feet and the distance between planes is closing, albeit at less than the anticipated rate. I’m a happy camper not to be holding up the show; but I figure we still need to get in and out of MMMZ by 4:20 PM at the drop dead, latest if we are going to make El Llano by ~5:23 PM – official sunset in Puerto Vallarta. Also, don’t forget the one-hour time change (two hours for Puerto Vallarta!) that runs against you down bound into Mexico – it’s a big factor on this trip. In Mexico, once the sun touches the ocean, the sky belongs to IFR, twins. No singles and no VFR flight in the dark! Landing after sunset is not considered a joking matter, and you never know if a passel of soldiers might be stationed at the field just to keep everybody honest. Since LLF has no lights of any kind, landing after dark would be no joke, in any event.
By 3:15 PM I’m on the ramp in Mazatlán, and the speedy birds are entering the pattern. We need to close our old flight plans and open new ones (filing is mandatory at all controlled fields), get fuel, and pay the landing fees. The Mexican authorities are clearly worried about the time of day when they hear we are planning to fly on to LLF. By their reckoning, we need to be off by 4:00 PM or they can’t let us depart since they aren’t sure we can make LLF before sunset. So they do their best to expedite the process. The tough nut is figuring out the landing fee and making up the three required receipts. Neither LGEZ nor LEZE aircraft are listed in their official, gross weight book, and the receipts must be filled out with various bits of irrelevant information and great care (they’re beautiful, nearly frame and hang on the wall pieces of paper). Duck lowballs them with a gross weight of 450 kg and they settle for it. Getting this detail squared away takes about twenty-five minutes and the charge comes to $7.50… total, for all three planes! By now it’s 3:57 PM and we’re still in the terminal. In the midst of all this, Bob is busy checking on his oil loss situation and rounding up more oil (at ~$8.00/qt.). His cowl and the ramp are seriously soggy, and he’s down 3+ quarts in three hours. Not good, but tolerable for the remaining one hour leg.
4:00 PM comes
and goes, but not by much, before we taxi out as a flight of three and
depart in formation from intersection Delta. Jeez, that was really close;
but we made it, the sky is clear, and the temperature tropical. We never
would have cleared Mazatlán in time to reach El Llano if Ann Landers
hadn’t jumped in to handle paperwork at both stops, while the guys
dealt with fueling and the oil loss issue. Thanks Ann! Special recognition,
however, certainly goes to Donna Oertel. A lifetime of living with diabetes
has taken much of the feeling and mobility from Donna’s legs, so
that getting in and out of the VariEze is a difficult and time-consuming
endeavor for her. With the delayed start, Donna knew that we just didn’t
have any extra time, so she chose to stay in the plane from Chino to El
Llano – over ten hours straight! An absolutely astounding feat!
Well, the cows are nowhere to be seen, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence on the runway that they had been around, and not that long ago. Whatever, it’s good to pull up off the runway and shutdown for the day! The silence is welcome, and the half dozen armed soldiers who come out the jungle are friendly enough. Actually, I’m glad they are there – nobody is likely to bother the planes with the Mexican Army camped 25 meters away for the duration of the Fly-In! But mostly, we are glad to see old friends (German, Karen and the rest of the VBV crew) from the Villas Buena Vida Resort, who have been waiting for us to arrive.
By the time we have our stuff out of the planes and loaded up, it’s nearly dark. When the sun goes down at this latitude (21° north) daylight doesn’t linger. So we’re off, with me wedged into the rumble seat of Karen Hofstad’s pristine, fully restored 1930 Model A Ford (powered by a 351, V-8), racing the fading light into town because she doesn’t drive in the dark. Karen’s 2800 mile, ten-day trip from Eugene, Oregon to Guayabitos, Nayarit that ended the week before in ‘Panther Pink’ (Pink for obvious reasons, and nouns precede adjectives in Spanish) is a long story, best told by Karen.
1. The Experimental Aircraft Association had a ten-year program to fly a million kids and we transplanted it to Mexico as a way of giving back something to the community.
After a quick check-in, it’s time to stroll 200 feet down the beach to Tonita’s, a favorite dinner spot with seafood so fresh it’s almost still jumpin’. I’d recommend the shrimp, or the lobster, or the fillet (either Tonita or Guayabitos style) or… well, you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, especially after more than fifteen hours since breakfast. Some reconstituting liquid, like a Tonita Margarita (or two), makes sense. Mike Oertel, who flew down commercially the day before, joins us for dinner so we’re all here except Jill, my wife who’s arriving the next day from Puerto Vallarta – she thinks that seven hours in the back seat of a VariEze, with two stops is a bit too much for one day!
The next morning, hot coffee and pastries are waiting poolside at 6:15 AM for the early risers, and it’s time for a walk up the beach (or down, as the spirit moves) to do a little bird watching, wading and picture taking. It’s cooled down nicely overnight to ~69 °F, so the sand feels hot where the ~84 °F water has washed up on the beach, and the surf is small – as usual. You quickly learn that 7:00–8:30 AM is a good time for a walk, since the temperature starts heading up, and the sea breeze doesn’t really kick in until later in the morning, effectively cooling things back down. A nice place to end your walk is breakfast at Abbey and Miguel’s La Terraza Restaurant, just two blocks away. If that’s too far to manage, Esmeralda’s is located poolside at the VBV, and the food and prices there are excellent. Not being a gourmet eater, I generally limit myself to what I know is both good and convenient, but there are numerous places to eat within walking distance, and I’ve heard a good reports for places that I was too lazy to try out on my own.
More American pilots begin to arrive – Günter & Ann Hagen in their Cougar twin, Don & Carol Luschar in a Mooney Rocket, and Willy & Doris Gephart in a C-182 – so it won’t be just our three EZs representing the U.S. But there’s bad news. Günter, who attended the Fly-In last year, caught a reinforced, concrete fence post on the end of the runway with his right wing landing at El Llano. His engine(s) were running rough on final and failed to gain power when he advanced the throttles, and Günter felt lucky to have made the runway at all. Nobody is hurt, but the Cougar is. The upshot is a substantial hole (several actually) in the bottom of the Cougar’s (formerly) wet wing just outboard of the engine, the right flap is damaged, the left gear over center spring is history, and the prop leading edges indicate that the barbed wire put up a stiff fight. Save-the-day, A&P Bill Oertel now has another project to occupy his vacation time. Some day this poor guy will go to Mexico and nobody will have a mechanical problem… maybe. It looks like the Cougar can be flown back to the U.S. using cross-feed to the right engine, with an aluminum sheet pop riveted over the gashed wing, but this is definitely not good!
For the rest of us, there’s an intense agenda of casual reading, poolside visits, swimming, wandering off to eat, and general loafing around in the balmy tropical air waiting for the first of the official Fly-in activities – a fine meal at Thursday’s Welcome Dinner. Flying begins Friday morning (we left on Tuesday) with a spot landing, ribbon cutting, and balloon popping contest. The helium guy doesn’t show up, so the balloon contest is a bust (as it were); Duck and I cut the required top ribbon, no problem; but I do a miserable job on the spot landings, hitting well short of the mark both times. It’s also an opportunity to inspect Günter’s twin to begin formulating a repair plan, and for Bob Fuselier to take a local scenic flight with Ann to check out the prop seal. Well, his prop seal stays in place, but after landing there’s new oil on 62 Echo’s cowl, albeit less than before. What’s up with that? Time to look at the oil separator, which gets a mixed review based on some simple ramp tests. Bob decides to take it out of the system, but now there’s some concern that the problem is actually excessive blow-by from… a broken ring?
Saturday night is the Fly-In Awards Banquet and there is a special treat for us (in addition to the excellent meal). The VBV staff has arranged to have a Mexican folk ballet dance group perform for us. They are Nayarit State Champions who came in from the capital, Tepic; and they put on a fabulous show, with incredible costumes and dancing at the world class level. For the second year in a row, the American pilots break a long-standing tradition of being crushed by the Mexican Pilots. Bill Oertel wins the spot landing contest, and Don Luschar and I take second and first places in the Rally.
Sunday afternoon it’s time to think about heading home. I check the weather using the VBV office computer (there’s no TV weather channel). Scattered showers are forecast over the route between MMMZ and MMHO, with areas of rain inland. All the coastal cities are forecast to be VFR, with a possibility of temporary MVFR in showers. The prog charts for Tuesday look about the same or worse, so delaying our departure doesn’t seem to yield any advantage over Monday. Bob and I plan a dawn launch from LLF.
I sleep in until 4:20 AM, as Ann volunteered to get up early to make breakfast by 5:00 AM. The cab arrives exactly at 5:30 AM, as promised, and it’s off to the airport in pitch dark. The airport gate is locked up tight, but we wiggle through a hole in the fence and load up. The soldiers wake up and come out to see us off at 6:15 AM, just as the sun comes up. The route to MMMZ is reasonably clear with some offshore showers and lightening in the distant southwest. About 40 nm out, Mazatlán approach gives us a left 360 turn for traffic, and then wants another 360 a few minutes later. I request lower instead, since there’s rain off to our left, and that’s acceptable to the controller. We extend our downwind at MMMZ for a jet to land and back taxi, and then we’re on the ground for fuel, flight plans and weather. Bob is only down about 1/3 of a quart of oil. Several showers come through, soaking the ramp – not a particularly good sign. Station forecasts are consistent with, or even a bit better than those from the previous day. The satellite image, however, shows a band of cloud cover with build-ups heading northeast, beginning about 60 miles north of Mazatlán and roughly 60 miles wide. The weather briefer at MMMZ doesn’t recommend VFR, but we decide to take a look.
About 60 nm out of Culiacan we reach the edge of the weather system, as expected. Dropping down over the ocean and running underneath isn’t an option because mucho lightening is at work out there, and we want no part of that. So we opt to head inland toward the northeast where conditions look better. Conditions are better, somewhat; but we can’t find a clear path toward Hermosillo, where we really want to go. I left MMMZ with enough fuel aboard to make San Diego (albeit, barely) under normal conditions, and Bob has even more time in the tanks than I do in his LEZ, so fuel doesn’t seem like it can become an issue; and MMMZ is forecast to remain VFR for the next five hours if we need to return. So we press on to the northeast in search of the fabled ‘Northwest Passage’, with the expectation that conditions on the east side of the mountains are likely to be better. They are, slightly, but we are now far off the direct route, and we haven’t made any real progress toward Hermosillo since we left the coast. Chihuahua is in easy reach, but when Bob calls, they are reporting IFR to the ground. Weather south of us at Torreon is likely to be VFR, but we can’t confirm this with Chihuahua and likely just isn’t nearly good enough for me, since committing to Torreon probably would eliminate our other options. A belated return to Mazatlán seems to be in order; but a turn in that direction and a groundspeed check shows that it’s all up hill, with a spanking headwind. If we can’t go direct to MMMZ from where we are because of weather, my fuel could get really tight. This is not good, at all, and some smarter decisions are needed, immediately. I’m determined not to head for any airport that might be IFR since Bob isn’t IFR rated, or where I might run out of fuel on the way there – obviously! I know that I have enough fuel to make Hermosillo, and that it should be (and is forecast to be) VFR since it’s on the far side of the weather. Alamos and Guaymas are potential alternates enroute to MMHO, but they aren’t very attractive since Alamos is in the mountains and Guaymas is closer to the main weather system.
Decision made, we set a direct course for Hermosillo and do what we have to do to get there. Thoughts of mistakes made under similar circumstances (e.g., Gus Sabo) come to mind, and definitely not for the first time this day. Scud running would be suicidal in this jagged terrain, and I rule out going higher than 11,000 ft because I don’t want to spend any fuel climbing that I might need later (when it’s gone baby, it’s gone!). It isn’t an easy flight, and visibility at times is, shall we say, very limited. Conditions begin to improve about 100 miles out of Hermosillo and we land in the sunshine, with a few stray showers lurking in the area. I land with a full reserve tank (~40 minutes of fuel at cruise) and pay for 26.4 gallons of gas. The mains hold around 28 gallons with the nose down.
Well, it’s a lot later than we planned2, we need to clear Mexico before dark, and it’s still a two hour flight to the border. Bob rounds up 3 quarts of oil with some difficulty, and we feverishly begin sticking the 12-inch N-numbers on our planes that are needed to enter U.S. airspace. Meanwhile, Ann, bless her heart, does all the paperwork for us and we’re good to go. Well almost, as it turns out. After we are cleared onto the runway for takeoff the tower calls again, “Somebody left their passport!” Well, that was a close call! We taxi back to immigration at a sprightly clip to retrieve it.
Flying in Mexico is like a step back in time – it still has a lot of the wonderful freedom that has been lost in the more structured and busy airspace of the U.S., particularly in Southern California with its layers of Class Bravo airspace, ATC, etc. But Mexico also has a higher level of responsibility that can challenge the complacent pilot. Weather information can be spotty to nonexistent, paved airports are few and often very far apart, mechanical assistance may be limited to what you can do for yourself, and there are few, if any controllers to hold your hand and help pull your fanny out of the fire if you insist on warming up your underwear. In short, conservative flight planning with a flexible schedule is required. I knew this before I left, but I know it even more after returning from this trip!
As was the case last year, I found all of the officials at the Mexican airports to be very friendly and helpful. Of course, they have their regulations and procedures to follow (it’s their country and their job, after all); but they did their best to expedite and guide us through the process. Just be sure to do your part by bringing the required documentation. Having lots of cash in hand, including small bills helps too – Visa not accepted! Over the past seven years, our friends at the VBV resort have developed an enjoyable mix of relaxation, social activities, and flying events3. I’m already looking forward to my next trip to Mexico. How about joining the fun?
Even before we departed Monday morning, Günter had already rounded up a perfect replacement for the damaged gear overcenter spring on his Cougar at the local auto parts store (in the drum brake department). Over the next two days, wizard A&P, Bill Oertel modified the formerly wet, then dry, and finally the semi-wet right wing by adding eighty-eight pounds of water ballast, and pop riveting an aluminum sheet over the damaged wing skin. The ballast was contained in a large number of Individual Fluid Containment Modules (IFCMs)4. With the addition of wing ballast, the Cougar’s roll trim system had sufficient authority to compensate for the full range of fuel levels in the left (operational) tank. Günter was able to fly the Cougar all the way back to Santa Monica on Wednesday with no problems, making four fuel stops on the way.
With everyone else safely home and out from underfoot, Bill and Donna were finally able to kick back and enjoy their remaining nine day stay in Guayabitos. Coming home on the 27th, they had beautiful flying weather with favorable winds to Guaymas, followed by head winds but good flying weather all the way to Palomar Mountain just east of the LA air basin. Unfortunately, their home airport, Chino was IFR in rain (1/4 mi. visibility and a 400 ft. ceiling) so they had to leave the plane at the French Valley airport, less than 40 nm from Chino to be collected later in better weather. Duck noted that the final leg home by car took as long as the ~540 nm flight from El Llano to Guaymas!
3. See Guayabitos
Fly-In for more information on the Fly-In and the El Llano airport.