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2500 words
19 pics
Submitted by-
Rob F. Sanderson
724 Edgewater,
Portage, WIS

Notams Ala Mexicana
(Bucks Below the Border)

Rob F. Sanderson

          Private pilots from the U.S. are proving as much at home in Mexican skies as the native buzzards. If you have four hours gas and 65 h.p. or better, the trip was designed for your sky-buggy.
          Whether you fly to Mananaland to save money on your vacation (it’s cheap), for the unexcelled winter flying weather, to see the picturesque and unusual, or to be really warm during the zero months, a little general info will make your trip more enjoyable.
          Here’s a few NOTAMS corralled by one of your fellow pilots who has made the circuit twice under a safety belt and four times by automobile. Anybody want to buy a car cheap?

Notams Ala Mexicana
(Bucks Below the Border)

           Mexico is no longer news as a sun-plated vacationland for weather weary winter pilots. At airports from altitude to sea level, desert or jungle, registration books are studded with entries of “N” registered aircraft. The entries indicate that anything from Taylor craft to DC-3 can make the trip and like it.

           Most of these entries are written in by private pilots, recorded proof that a competent private pilot can make a Mexican sky tour without worry. Nonetheless, flying a foreign country is like flying the weather - it helps to know just what’s ahead. Items of general information will stand a pilot good stead and make the trip smoother. It occurred to me that some of the information corralled on two sky safaris south of the border might make interesting NOTAMS for a fellow throttle jockeys.

           The most noticeable difference below Brownsville is the scarcity of radio facilities. Radio minded pilots who get lonesome in silent skies can kill time playing that old airman guessing game entitled “Where are We?” and looking at maps. Unfortunately there are no comfy, detailed sectional maps; all navigation is by WACs or strip maps to the same scale.

           These WACs must at times be liberally salted during use. Coastlines are very accurate, but remote interior regions are often vague, terrain altitudes approximate, and over large areas checkpoints are definitely not the leading agricultural crop. Fortunately the visibility is usually good, and with an accurate, stable compass to assist, careful dead reckoning will get the pilot from A to B.

           Red tape in border clearing has been reduced to a palatable minimum. We arrive in Brownsville with nothing but a valid smallpox vaccination certificate in our pocket, and from wheels touch to wheels off takes about an hour if you are “expedited”. Our expediter was L.G. Graves, Customs Broker, and all our cards, permits, and papers amounted to about ten dollars, including a three-dollar expediting charge. Brownsville is a highly convenient place to clear the border, and in lieu of it I would certainly select an international airport where both U.S. and Mexican officials are under the same roof.

           A good guidebook to Mexico is as essential as your air charts. There are many good ones, among which “Terry’s Guide to Mexico” is comprehensive and compact. By not reading up thoroughly in advance a visitor will lose out on many intriguing possibilities for side trips. Since surface transportation in Mexico is often very slow and inadequate, many of the most interesting places in the republic can be reached only by sky-buggy. Naturally, most of the tourist literature publicizes only places reachable by airline or motorcar. If you know your Mexico, when you tire of the crowded tourist spas you can check your mags and soar off to some remote fishing village or mountain retreat and see the primitive natives practicing ancient handicrafts for themselves instead of for sale to dollar-happy monolinguists on their annual migration from the snow country.

           For surface transportation, cars and taxis may be rented reasonably -last year we stopped at a village having no cars and rented horses for a dollar a day. All localities cater to the careless traveler because only a small percentage of persons drive cars from the states. Distances are very vast across the monotonous desert and tiring mountains.

           Although I have never been relieved of a single item except for a funnel the year we could not lock the plane, there is a considerable amount of theft in many parts of Mexico. For peace of mind I carry a floater insurance policy on my personal effects. This past winter we kept the ship locked and lost nothing. Main airports are well guarded but precautions are in order at all times.

           Many airports lack adequate tie-down facilities and a tie-down kit is good hull insurance. We use the screw in type and consider it indispensable equipment. For the motor, a few cans of lightweight oil may prove handy as some offbeat airports stock only transport weight. All gas should be filtered through a felt of chamois if the gas comes in drums, as 80 octanes usually does. The pilot should personally supervise all gassing and oil checks.

           Much of Mexico is remote, isolated, mountainous, or all three. File flight plans whenever possible - at many places you cannot. Under these conditions it might well be several weeks, if ever, before anyone undertook search for the missing plane. Meanwhile, the occupants are faced with the problem of survival.

           Our emergency equipment consists of machete, line, fishhooks, wire, matches, mosquito headnets, two shelter halves (or jungle hammocks), cooking pan, walking shoes, and concentrated food. In addition to first aid kit items of standard type, we include chlorine water tablets, atabrine, paregoric, bismuth, carbosonne, and aureomiacine. Canned fruit juices and prepared food should be handy for lunches in flight, along with a two-quart water container. A DDT bug bomb may be handy.

           Airports of scheduled air transport are well maintained. The curious private pilot, who is always exploring off the beaten paths to see sights not privileged ordinary travelers, is well advised to make detailed inquiry about outlying airports. Some are of recent construction and in excellent condition, others have no right to be represented on the map as anything but an aviation hazard.

           Surfaces of these strips vary greatly. In northwest Mexico they may be dusty as a flourmill and require a tight engine cover for overnight. In southern Mexico I once landed my Luscombe on a jungle airstrip not long after a rain. My landing roll ended on a surface where full r.p.m. would not keep the ship moving. One mountain strip had a nasty combination of sticky clay and small, sharp stones.

           A few in the mountains slope so that landing must be made uphill and take-offs downhill. The approved technique for landing with a quartering tailwind on a narrow uphill strip that terminates against a mountain, is to undershoot with power. On a doubtful field, circle and drag. Windsocks are often absent, likely because it would be bad on the pilot’s morale to know where the wind is coming from.

           Though maps indicate peaks close to 20,000 feet, the general terrain is considerably lower. My standard altitude maximum without oxygen is 12,000 feet; I learned my lesson when my oxygen supply gave out at 18,600 while trying to cross the Ecuadorian Andes in the rainy season. Most of the extremely high terrain is local and can be circumnavigated without substantial detour.

           Because of the altitude flying and airport elevations, my Luscombe was happy to have a lower pitch prop on the nose when sky-touring the sierras. A low pitch prop is an all around advantage at altitude, since above 11,000 feet even this prop would not give us full cruise r.p.m. . This past winter our Bellanca had an Aromatic up front and performed well at all altitudes.

           Usually once a trip you run into official baloney, sometimes fried thick and sometimes fried thin. We were served a nice slice with garlic in it at the Mexico City airport. Three days earlier we had cleared all necessaries at Brownsville, all papers were in order and all baggage bore inspection seals. However, Brass Buttons insisted we encore the entire show again like a dancing bear, even down to hauling our baggage through the customs line for re-snooping. After a half hour of polite conversation we capitulated. While the inspector stood outside the plane I handed him a canteen, a machete, an armful of canned fruit juices, and was passing out more assorted miscellany when he changed his mind, inspected everything in the ship with a coy glance, leaving us as before except for confiscation of some of the forms needed to clear us back into the U.S.

           Mexico City airport did distinguish itself favorably in being the only place south of Brownsville affording us a two-way conversation with the tower. Except for the Mexico City range, our low frequency receiver did no duty, since most towers send and receive on 3105. Our broadcast band picked up any number of local radio stations, most of which were low-output.

           Coming back into the U.S., a radio is very handy. Brownsville will notify customs and immigration for you - otherwise you would have to phone from Victoria or Tampico, and it is doubtful if you could do so without a trip to town. Incidentally, we were told it is unstrategic to clear for the U.S. direct from Mexico City - or the hawkshaws in the aduana will run you through the sieve. Clear for Tampico or Timbuktu, and pilot’s discretion, change your mind if you feel you have to

           Pilots sometimes ask whether a knowledge of Spanish is necessary for a Mexican flight. It helps, of course, but all airport representatives of the Compania Mexicana de Aviacion, PAA’s Mexican affiliate, speak English, and at other places sign language will get you service if you can’t remember the word “gasoline”.

           Gasolina is an important word in Mexico, where a good fuel reserve is essential to safe flying. Airports of any kind are often few and far between and if weather should close your destination the nearest alternate may be your starting point. No airplane with less than four hours range has any business in Mexico. Even with a four-hour range and a 100 m.p.h. cruise, a flight like our 359-mile hop from Tehuantepec to Acapulco is an example of a potential trap.

           Without reliable weather service, the route winds were anybody’s guess. Along the coast were several small landing strips, none of which had refueling facilities, according to CMA pilot. In necessity, however, we figured we could put in on one of these strips and solve the gas situation later. Our trip airtime proved to be 3 hrs: 46, but the punch line is - we had not been able to locate a single one of those strips from the air as we flew along the coast! And we looked hard because we knew we might need them. A twenty m.p.h. headwind would have licked us, as our fuel was 4 hrs: 20. On a previous leg of the trip we recalled an average 33 m.p.h. headwind for almost four hours.

           Weather in Mexico is uniquely excellent on the whole and gives rather minor troubles in the dry winter season. On some days swollen cumulus cloud bands gather around the mountains, and since the mountains are the only identifiable pilot age landmarks in some remote sections, this complicates navigation. In the late afternoon, these orographic cumulus sometimes complicate getting over the mountains into the Mexico City valley from Acapulco. On the east coast, weather is not as well behaved. Early morning scud and ground fog vacation along the gulf coast. Three or four times in Tampico I have been able to get off either just at sunrise or not until the fog burned off at 10:00a.m. This was also true of Tuxpan the one night I spent there.

           Because the cloudbanks in the mountains build up in the day, and because the coast weather may soup up soon after sunrise, our crew strives for dawn take-offs. Too, later in the day in the mountainous interior a pronounced turbulence may develop. A CMA pilot told me the roughest air he has ever experienced was in the valley between Mexico City and Guadalajara on a sunny mid-afternoon.

           Ordinarily we are in the air by seven, putting down for gas between ten and eleven (at some small airports I have been unable to buy gas before 10 a.m.). Between four and five we pull in for the night. As at some airports I have been unable to get fuel after 5pm, late flying may cause morning gas delays an hour. By tying down our ship early we insure an undelayed early morning take-off and also get to so see something of the town in the latter afternoon.

           Expenses in Mexico are nominal. My first flight was a three-week, 5,600-mile affair, which for all expenses cost about five c notes, or half that amount for each of us. Away from the tourist spas and with less flying, you can get by with less. Mexico is substantially cheaper than any sun resort in the U.S. for comparable accommodations and food. What’s more, in Acapulco on the mild Pacifico coast last winter, during six weeks I never felt a temperature below 67 or above 84.

           The rains are a summer affair, beginning in latter May. October is acclaimed the most beautiful month, with clear skies and countryside made green from recent rains. However, with the home airport in the Midwest covered with a couple of feet of snow, by comparison Mexico looks best to me between the January and latter March, and this is likely the time you’ll meet me down there.

           You’ll recognize me easily because I’ll be slightly off course, flying with my left wing low. Just dip your wing when you’re abeam and I’ll know who you are!

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob