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To Mexico and Back the EZ Way
By Dan Patch (DeltaPop)
Well, it wasn’t a very promising start. It was an hour past our 10:00
am, drop-dead departure time, and
we were just lifting off from Palomar Airport at the start of a 1000+
nautical mile trip deep into Mexico. We had planned to launch from Montgomery
Field at 7:30 am; but the steady
rain, 700-foot overcast ceiling with multiple layers, reports of hail, moderate
rime icing at altitude, IFR conditions in the desert, and the generally unhappy
voice of the FSS briefer cast a wet blanket, as it were, over our plans.
For a number of years, a hearty bunch of West Coast canardians, under the venerable guidance of Bill Oertel and David Orr have ventured off to warmer climes in Mexico in a quest to dispel a bad case of the doldrums. Despite its advertised purpose as a trip to “Save the Males” (from moping around the house from lack of flying), lady-folk have been both welcome and well represented on these trips. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that they can escape from “airplane talk” simply by heading out for some shopping, taking a walk down the beach, or by discovering something cool to drink at the nearest cantina. As a result, there were as many gals on this trip as there were guys!
So, every year when the trip to Mexico rolled around I would think, “What a great trip! I’m gonna go—next year when I’m not so busy!” This was, of course, a cop out to cover up my real thoughts of, “Cripes, that’s a long trip over some serious Indian country, and I don’t even know enough Spanish to yell ‘help’. Besides, I think I heard a rumor that somebody could mess with my airplane; and if they did, it’s a long walk home!” Well, over the years something like 30 different canardians have ventured into Mexico on these expeditions, not a few pilots with significantly less experience than my 22 years of VariEze time—so it was time for, as the country western song says, “a little less talk and a lot more action!”
This year (2003) the destination was Rincón de Guayabitos located on the mainland coast, 12 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta (by air that is—an hour by bus). My better half, Jill, said, “OK, and I’m coming too—but not that far in the back seat of a VariEze!” Buying a non-refundable airline ticket to Puerto Vallarta and shipping off a chunk of cash to reserve our room at the beautiful Villas Buena Vida put the trip seriously into the category of “well, now we really are committed”
Getting In and Out of Mexico—A Very Short Course
Task number one (after deciding to go) was to round up the required documentation. As it turned out, there are many good sources of information, with Dave Orr’s wonderful trip write-up at http://v2.ez.org/mexico.htm, Bill Oertel’s Mexico trip checklist, and AOPA’s web site proving to be excellent. Of course, none of the checklists are identical, so rounding up everything mentioned, “just in case they might want it” was overkill. Even so, I never did get around to replacing my long-lost Restricted Radiotelephone Operators License (supposedly still required for flight in Mexico), and none of us requested prior permission to fly an experimental aircraft in Mexican airspace (per ICAO rules and my operating limitations; but seemingly ignored as a practical matter, and potentially opening a big can of worms). As a minimum, however, be assured that you will need a passport (or equivalent), proof of Mexican insurance, your pilot’s license and current medical, your plane’s Airworthiness Certificate and Registration, and lots of cash including small bills—they don’t do credit cards or change in Mexico! Read and follow the suggested checklists; only original documents are acceptable; and don’t wait to the last minute to round up what is needed! In addition, to get back into the U.S. you are going to need to buy a $25 decal from US Customs, and you are required to have 12-inch N-numbers on your plane (bring duct tape, more on this later). Be advised that decals weren’t available at Brown Field Customs when I last checked (but Calexico had them), and that ordering one on-line from Customs proved to be fast and convenient.
The best thing to take to Mexico, especially if you are a newbie, is a trusted companion in a compatible plane. It’s safer, more fun than flying alone, you have someone to share the planning chores, and having another set of ears to interpret what the Mexican controllers are trying to tell you can be helpful.
Dave Orr linked me up with Long-EZ pilot, Bob Fuselier several months before our departure. Bob’s O-320 Long-EZ is faster than my O-200 VariEze; but a checkout trip to Chino established that we could make the flight work. Bob had never flown into Mexico either, but we planned to go with the old Mexico pro, Dave Orr. This plan fell through when a late change in Dave’s plans moved his departure day out of our time window.
Bob Fuselier and Ann Landers at Nelo’s Dance Club in Rincón de Guayabitos.
Plan “A” was for Bob and his back-seater, Ann, to meet me at Montgomery, clear into Mexico at Mexicali, fly to Guaymus for fuel, and then finish the day with a short (~1 hr.) hop to Alamos, a beautiful old silver mining town. Three hours of flying the next day, plus a fuel stop at Mazatlán, would take us to our destination, El Llano, an uncontrolled field about 5 miles north of Guayabitos.
Conservative flight planning is a good idea in Mexico since night-VFR flight is not allowed (when in doubt, check with Jeppesen for official sunrise/sunset), and you have no control over how quickly (or not!) things happen on the ground. Throw in the possibility that your airport of choice is out of fuel, and allow some extra time to reach an alternate before sunset, and conservative flight planning becomes an excellent idea!
So there I was in IFR conditions at Montgomery Field, while my Long-EZ flight mates, Bob Fuselier and Ann waited at Palomar. Conditions were VFR at Palomar, so Bob was ready to rock—and the clock was ticking! After a bunch of phone calls to FSS (“VFR eastbound not possible”) and to Bob (“Looks great here, what’s the hang-up?”), MYF went VFR at 10:00 am, and I headed up to CRQ since it was obvious that we weren’t going to get very far heading east out of Montgomery (Gillespie was still IFR). With visibility at 1.25 mi. in heavy rain at Palm Springs and IFR in the Banning Pass (and Yuma), a northern route didn’t look good either. However, with clearing at the coast, it was reasonable to at least take a look before we wrote off the day.
With a bunch of twists and turns, some light to moderate rain showers, adequate clear air between layers, and a convenient hole in the low cloud deck at Calexico, we made it into Mexicali by noon. Although it was obvious that Plan “A” was shot (the weather to the south looked grim), it was real progress to have all the critical papers and fees complete, hopefully allowing a clean start the next morning. All the officials in the Mexicali airport were friendly and helpful—it was a good experience. A long (40 minute) and occasionally exciting cab ride into town, a late lunch, and a couple of games of pool (with an appropriate beverage, or two) completed the day. A little flight planning that night suggested that we weren’t going to be flush with excess time the next day, so a 6:30 am launch from the hotel was the plan.
As promised by the evening weather forecast, the new day slowly emerged in near zero-zero fog. No time for breakfast, and off we go on another fascinating cab ride, with both the inside and outside of the windshield fogged up. No problem, just drive really close to the back of big truck and good things will happen! So half way to the airport the sun starts to cut through the shallow fog and it’s obvious we’re going to have a clear sky departure. Finally, things are looking up, and we can sure use the break because we have a long way to go!
Flying in Mexico
Two-ship departures evidently aren’t approved at Mexicali (or other Mexican airports either, as it turned out). Tower cleared Bob (Six-Two-Echo) to back-taxi on the runway for take-off, while I was stuck on the ramp at mid-field. The controller then cleared Two-Delta-Poppa for take-off, obviously confused about who he just cleared onto the runway. It took a lot of convincing, but we eventually managed to “de-confuse” the controller. Once Bob took off, I was cleared to begin my back-taxi. This procedure makes for a challenging form-up given that number one aircraft is long gone by the time number two breaks ground. This was a recurring problem throughout the trip, as Mexico airports generally do not have full-length taxiways, and the controllers usually would not allow more than one plane on the runway at a time. Bob solved the join-up problem by picking out a distinctive field on the ground and circling until I spotted him. Finding another EZ is a lot “EZer” if you know where to look and if the EZ is in a bank! End on—forget it!
Heading for Punta Penasco took us over an amazing array of desert sand dunes that made the steady rumble of the engine a comforting sound—landing in these dunes would not be a happy adventure! I was running flat out minus about an inch of manifold pressure (for better fuel economy) at 8500 ft and Bob was loafing along with me at 2200 RMP because that’s all he needed to keep up with his O-320. My GPS said 150+ kts, which was ten knots above plan. Beyond Punta Penasco, we caught up with the remnants of the weather system—a high overcast and light rain showers that lasted most of the way to our first Mexican fuel stop at Guaymus. Hitting rain in my VariEze was good for an immediate 15 kt. loss in air speed. About three minutes past the last rain there were three sharp ripping sounds as portions of my temporary 12-inch N-numbers shed their surly bonds to the fuselage. Carefully waxing the plane to prevent the duct tape from pulling any paint off may have saved the paint, but otherwise it was proving to be a flawed idea. Although the prop didn’t seem to mind, I’m sure that the tape didn’t survive the encounter!
Sand dunes near Punta Penasco—not a great spot for a forced landing!
A 50 nm radius TCA surrounds many of the bigger airports in Mexico. The routine is to give a standard, no radar, IFR position report about 50 miles out. With the near universal radar coverage in the US, it had been a long time since I had done one of those “for real”. The trick is to remember that the radial bearing is the reciprocal of your heading when you are inbound. I knew that, of course, but flubbed it twice in a row—embarrassing. Working out the time to reach your next fix before calling isn’t a bad idea either, so that you won’t have to declare “Standby One” as part of your route. Typically the controller will tell you to call again at one or two more inbound ranges, overhead (or abeam), and once or twice more outbound. Remember that you are under radio control, not radar control in most of Mexico. All of the tower and ATC personnel that we contacted spoke very workable English, and we never had a serious language problem. Because Mexican operations are somewhat different, however, there is a real potential for confusion while you are figuring out exactly what they are asking you to do.
Landing at Guaymas, we met our friends, Gunther and Ann, from Santa Monica in their twin who were also going to Guayabitos. They left Tucson the day before, but a bad magneto had them spending the night in Guaymas. Fortunately, service and parts were available, and they were on their way shortly after we landed. Our EZs were a hit with the local airport crowd (including the airport comandante), perhaps because we were about the only live entertainment at the time. This attention gave me my first serious practice in answering questions in Spanish with just a smile and what I hoped wasn’t too stupid a look.
Getting the last gas at Guaymas (sorry about that Beagle) and lots of attention. (Photo by Bob Fuselier)
Fueling at Guaymas was fast and efficient—but paying for fuel and the landing fee inside the terminal was decidedly not fast! The main priority appeared to be maximally complicating the job to justify the need for a full time cashier. While passing the time waiting for the teller (about 35 minutes just for my gas ticket), Bob pulled out his stout and trusty pocketknife to open a bag of potato chips with the head of airport security standing next to him all decked out in a very official looking uniform—oh, oh! After carefully examining Bob’s knife and showing it to the security guy next to him, he handed it back to Bob—obviously impressed with it’s quality—with words to the effect of, “That’s a really nice knife! Have a nice day, Señor.” (Indeed, it was a nice knife—and sharp!) Now that’s my kind of airport security. It sure beats being strip-searched for having a fingernail file; and my little Swiss Army knife felt a lot more welcome in Mexico too.
Well, the time was passing and it was none too soon to push on. We amended our flight plan remarks to indicate that we might overfly Mazatlán and land at El Llano. In Mexico you must file a flight plan whenever you depart from a controlled airport, and the flight plan is a quadruplicate affair that needs lots of official stamps certifying that you are all paid up for fuel, landing fees, etc., otherwise you aren’t going to be allow to depart.
Clear weather and beautiful scenery dominated the rest of the flight down the coast. Particularly impressive were the extensive mangrove swamps and estuaries that extend for several (sometimes many) miles inland from the beach. Approaching Mazatlán, it was obvious that we still had plenty of fuel aboard, but not enough time to reach El Llano before sunset if we stopped, so we announced our intent to press on. In Mexico, flight plans are only closed on the ground in person. Evidently, they just disappear from the system if you divert to an uncontrolled airport (as best I understand it). Their main functions appear to be a way to track airport arrivals and departures (for landing fee purposes?), to irritate pilots, and to create jobs for the filler-outers.
About 25 miles out from El Llano, we encountered a lower deck of clouds over the ocean. A call on Unicom confirmed that El Llano was also overcast, so a quick 360 descent was needed to slide under the edge of the marine layer. The base was high enough for a no-sweat arrival, with 15 minutes to spare before sunset (according to my GPS). Entering the pattern, we were invited to try our luck at a spot-landing contest. Discovering that the “spot” was not that far from the middle of the 3300 ft (very nice, paved) runway, however, we declared that our intentions were for a “practice spot touch-and-go” since the fence and jungle at the end of the runway didn't look inviting if things didn't work out well in the braking department. Bob, being more adventurous, went for the full spot landing after a couple of practice runs—with a distinct smell of hot brakes as he whistled by us on the ramp.
Being handed a “cold adult beverage” by my soon-to-be good friend, Pedro Cadena, as the engine spooled down and the sun dropped to the horizon was a welcome ending to our flight! Given our late arrival, the start of the Welcome Dinner/dance was shifted from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. Did I mention that a full-time watchman was posted at the airport just for us all the time we were there? So much for my worries about security!
The next morning they moved the landing “spot” to a more canard-friendly location near the end of the runway, and we had another go at it—as well as trying our luck at balloon burst and ribbon cutting events. Having skipped our fuel stop at Mazatlán the day before, a short side trip was in order over the spectacular foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental Range to the very modern airport at Tepic. Bill “Duck” Oertel borrowed Bob’s Long-EZ for the contest, and he took the Tepic airport comandante along on our formation fuel-flight to Tepic. Dave “Beagle” Orr arrived at El Llano at 3:00 pm in his Long-EZ with a friend, Mary, having left LA at about 6:20 am. This was an amazingly fast time, considering the hour lost to the time change, and the need to make two stops (the first in Guaymas for customs and a second stop at Ciudad Obregon because Bob and I evidently got the last gas at Guaymas)!
Dave “Beagle” Orr and Mary just in from LA trying to explain to Bill “Duck” Oertel how they got to El Llano by 3:00 pm in one day!
The third morning of the fly-in we headed out on a ~140 nm rally. This was a new experience and a lot of fun! We were given the Lat.-Long. coordinates of ten points, a map, and ten photos in random order. Our task was to find and arrive over each point on time, based on our declared cruising speed (no GPS allowed!), and to match up each photo with the correct point. Beginners luck and a good map (J-24A) carried the day for me.
The last day of the Fly-in we flew 75 Young Eagles, with EZ-pilots (Duck, Beagle and me, “DeltaPop”) accounting for 30 kids. The 9-place twin was tough competition since we had to fly them one at a time! The local community really turned out for the fly-in, and our Young Eagle flights were a way to pay back the outstanding hospitality that we all experienced in Guayabitos. I know that this experience was a big deal for most of the kids that we flew!
Spectators and one of my Young Eagles with her Dad at the Guayabitos ’03 Fly-In.
I planned to relax at the beach on my last day, but a 20-minute trip to the airport with Duck turned into a three-hour project while we repaired a Lancair’s semi-detached wheel pants (all three!) and inflated the nearly flat front tire. I’m told that Duck can’t make a trip to Mexico without ending up fixing someone else’s plane. Before we arrived at El Llano, Duck’s “Cozy-like” retractable, “Stiletto” had one of the blades broken on its $8k constant speed prop when somebody attempted to move it in the dark, and ended up dumping the plane over backwards. So, as soon as he can round up a fixed-pitch ferry prop and associated hardware, Duck gets to go back to Guayabitos to work on his own plane too. Major bummer.
Bill “Duck” Oertel (sitting) doing his usual thing—fixing somebody else’s airplane.
The flight back up the mainland coast was close to perfect, with great weather and a flight of three EZs—Beagle, DeltaPop and Bob Fuselier. After we departed El Llano, Beagle asked Bob what he was using for a call sign. Bob admitted to having successfully avoiding getting one so far but ‘fessed up to his old ham radio handle “Metal Arc”. Perfect thought I—I can just picture Bob buried in a wild stack of radios with the sparks flying everywhere! It was a big disappointment when I realized that it was actually “Meadow Lark”! For future use, I vote we use Metal Arc!
Beagle in formation heading up the coast of Mexico.
We left El Llano about 6:40 am and stopped for fuel and a bite of breakfast an hour north in Mazatlán. From there it was on to our second fuel stop at Hermosillo. Guaymas was still out of gas, and Las Mochas never did get fuel, so checking ahead saved us a wasted landing (or two) and lot of time. Before leaving Hermosillo, I used my handy roll of duct tape to replace the missing pieces of my N-numbers. Next time, I’m not going to wax the plane, and I’ll wait until the last stop in Mexico before putting on N-numbers.
We arrived in Calexico at 3:40 pm, where we cleared customs without any problems. We finished the flight just after a beautiful sunset. It was a great trip and I’m ready to go again. Next time, however, I am going to stay longer to increase the relaxation to flying time ratio!
Of course there was much, much more to the trip than just flying activities. We had a great time, our hosts were truly wonderful, and the resort was great—but that’s another long story. So how about going on next year’s trip to Mexico? Don’t wait as long as I did or you’ll be sorry that you didn’t go sooner. Just be sure your plane and pilot skills are up to the trip, link up with some compatible flight mates—then go for it!
DeltaPop approaching the Laguna Mountains at the end of a great day of flying!
(Photo by Bob Fuselier)