My First Flight to Mexico

The following photo sequence summarizes my quick trip to Mexico in October 08. I had 12 days off from work and wanted "to go somewhere!". While I worked on small improvements and fixes to the planes, I made plans to visit relatives way east of Calif and, to have a contingency plan, I also made up a rough flight plan to the Seattle area. I finally decided it was time to quit messing with the plane and get outta town but that point occured just as both the east and the north received serious clouds and rain. So I dusted off my old plan to go to Mexico and off I went.

Next time for sure, I'll allow myself more time to enjoy my destination. I've included other trip notes after the photos.

This was taken shortly after leaving Napa. The air was still moist from the recent rain these rare lenticular clouds were low, between 4 and 7 thousand feet. Later in the flight, I noticed the rpm kept dropping. It took me a while to realize the plane was forming ice in the carbuerator! That's the first time I've ever encountered that, in any plane.

Eager to get underway and wanting to avoid Napa's high price for avgas, I hadn't topped off the tanks so I decided to refuel just shy of the Tehachapi Mountains. I landed at Shafter-Minter airport and the front tire went flat as I turned off the runway. I pushed the plane for 25 minutes to get it off the long taxiway. I had just fixed that tire in Napa and assembled the wheel such that the tube's stem collided with the wheel's fork. I imagine the collisions hurt the valve stem enough on takeoff that there was little tire pressure by the time I landed at Minter.

But some luck was working on my side, too. I had brought a spare tube and I quickly found someone who gave me the phone number of the airport manager, Herman Ruddell. Herman drove out to the airport and hauled me to a motel in Bakersfield where I spent the night. He was a gem.

The delay caused by this tire had a big effect on my trip. Instead of crossing the border early on Monday, I was leaving Bakersfield mid-morning.

I flew non-stop from Bakersfield to Calexico where I made a planned stop to review my papers with U.S. border officials. There's no requirement to do such a review; I just thought it prudent since this was my first crossing with a plane.

This photo was taken when I was only a few miles from the airport. Minutes before the Loran had given up, claiming it had to "change grid" but, whatever it did, it became useless at a time I was really needing to know where the airport was. Accidentally flying across the border without permission would have been an expensive mistake. Calexico airport has a VOR, however, and I had two GPSs as backups to the Loran. I had a surplus of navigation aids; the Loran just died at an awkward time.

I wish someone had painted yellow lines etc to show me the border and the airport!

This photo was taken from 8500' over the Sonoran desert not far south of Mexicali. It's a little difficult to see but those are huge sand dunes below and they stretched for many miles. This view was to the east and doesn't show that the road wasn't very far to the west of my line of flight.

Not long after leaving Calexico and passing over the Mexicali area, you encounter the northern start of the Sea of Cortez.

The haze in the photos went up to about 8000' for most of the path through Mexico. I found that I could typically identify hills and mountains 40-50 miles ahead.

I was an easy 20 miles from Puerto Penasco (pronounced Pen Yas Co) when I took this photo. I was squinting to see if I could figure out if I was really looking at MMPE (its airport designation) and I realized I was looking straight down a runway! I was on a "20 mile final"! Although MMPE is an AOE (Airport Of Entry), it's an uncontrolled field. A pilot's first stop in Mexico must be at an AOE.

While I could have followed my 20 mile final straight to the airfield, I had kept a lot of altitude to let me confirm that this was the right place etc. It seemed overly cautious, given that there's not exactly an alternative airport anywhere in sight.

The GPS, VOR etc all confirmed this was MMPE so I arrived with lots of altitude to get rid of. While descending I cruised the area and found that the town is really composed of several very different parts. This photo shows what appears to be a shanty town on the beautiful point. My new notion is that this is the old town portion of MMPE. At the top of the photo, you can see the chain of tourist hotels and left of the photo area, out of view, is the airport and a grid of houses.

At every airport, any plane is quickly greeted by 3 or 4 rifle-carrying, young soldiers. This photo was taken at Hermosillo, an industrial town 90 minutes shy of my eventual destination, Alamos. These soldiers seemed especially friendly so I asked their commandante if I could photograph them. He allowed it, so long as their rifles weren't shown. Perhaps the absence of rifles and the large smiles were to make sure the resultant photo portrayed Mexico as friendly. The tower had guided me to this general aviation portion of the ramp.

The rifles certainly get a lot of press but the soldiers seem to mostly concentrate on simple bureaucratic matters. One of them carries a clipboard and will want to fill in the boxes corresponding to your landing. He needs your tail number, the General Declaration form you purchased at the AOE, your pilot's license number, and where you last came from. Most of this information is contained on the flight plan you also purchased at the last stop. So, you can accelerate the process by handing him the two documents just mentioned.

Everywhere I stopped, curious onlookers would follow the soldiers out to the plane to ask about it. It sounds silly but it actually slowed me down a lot in trying to get out of these airports! On the good side, the people were extremely friendly. On returning to Hermosillo from Alamos, my initial call to the tower was greeted with "Welcome Back!"

This is another view of my assigned tie-down area at Hermosillo, showing that the commercial traffic uses this GA area for taxiing. Some of the airlines were ones I had never heard of, like this "Volaris".

An official at MMHO questioned my insurance papers so that evening I sent email to the head of the BBP (Baja Bush Pilots) from whom I had purchased the insurance. I never heard back from him though I have a generally good opinion about the group itself. It all worked out, however.

I had landed in MMHO (Hermosillo) because I was uncertain that I could make it to Alamos by dark. VFR pilots are not allowed to fly at night in Mexico and I had heard that IFR in Mexico requires a copilot. I'm not sure that's correct but didn't want to push the issue.

This photo was taken Tuesday morning as I was about 20 minutes north of Alamos. I didn't know it at the time but the town turned out to be at the indicated part of the photo. The terrain south of Hermosillo had gradually turned very green. Every spot of land seems to grow anything without human intervention, in stark contrast to dry Walnut Creek.

In this photo, I'm back-taxiing on the Alamos runway. Both sides of the runway are thick with vegetation and a few little dwellings. At the south end of the field, barely in view, are the hangar, airport office, and military area.

A couple of weeks before my visit, Alamos was the center of a big Mexican TFR (Temporary Flight Restricted area), one for their president! The governors from all 26 states, plus the president, were supposed to meet in Alamos! Over 50 planes converged on this little airstrip.

The honchos in Alamos are trying to upgrade this airport to become an AOE and it seems that they certainly know the right people to help get that done!

Alamos had the largest contingent of soldiers I had yet encountered. It seems that Alamos is located near enough to the rugged but verdant drug-making valleys of Chihuahau that the military gets a lot of action. Just northeast of Alamos is the start of Copper Canyon where Pancho Villa managed to hide for so many years. I once tried to coordinate a mountain biking trip into Copper Canyon only to be told that I would need an armed guard who knew how to keep us out of the drug areas. Upon hearing that, I quit making plans for Copper Canyon; it didn't seem like a vacation any longer.

One of my reasons to visit Alamos was to check out the famous "Hacienda de los Santos". One of the benefits of signing up for the hacienda was the free hangar space. My interest in such was the result of watching the Alamos area satellite video loops. The area appears to get hammered by big thunderstorms and I'm not completely sure the plane is water tight. Next time, all things considered, I'm going to park it outside as I did in Hermosillo.

The streets of Alamos are paved with cut stone. They're narrow, apparently dating back to horse and carriage days when Alamos was a rich, silver handling town. The town probably has a population around 25000 but it's really unusual to see even a single car moving. Most of the people walk, especially in the morning when it's cool. A smaller number of people bicycle around town. I didn't see a single obese person there.

This photo of the hacienda does not do it justice. It was the most flawless lodging I had ever seen. That said, it was still not worth the nearly $300/night they charged. I combined my 2007 and 2008 luxury hotel budgets and spent it in one night. The food and drink served there were equally flawless.

Beagle (David Orr) later emailed me that they stay in a converted convent which is cheaper and closer to the plaza. I suspect that describes a hotel named Casa de Los Tesoros but I haven't confirmed that.

I heard 10/12 that the hurricane had flooded the hotel. This photo was taken from a bridge over an arroyo which separates the two main sections of the hacienda. A photo inside the hacienda shows the arroyo full of rushing water on another occasion. I suspect this arroyo caused the most recent flooding (of the hacienda itself). A map of Alamos shows that there is a much larger river which runs through town.

The largest of the five pools within the hacienda.

Having used up some of my vacation nights in wonderful surprises like Bakersfield and Hermosillo, I could only stay one night in Alamos. I had expected to stay one night at the hacienda then seek out cheaper lodging in the neighborhood. There's supposed to be a small pamphlet available in Alamos which lists B&B type accomodations.

The photo shows the town from the south end as I was climbing out of Alamos. It also shows the lush greenery of the area. Alamos is around latitude 27.

I left Alamos on the morning of 10/8 and the town was hit by hurricane Norbert 10/11. Twenty people from the little town are missing, 4 are known dead, the hacienda is closed, and the condition of the runway is unknown.

Passing customs in Calexico was a breeze since they had just seen me two days before as I reviewed my papers with them. The customs interview went something like "Fruit? no. Purchases? no. Goodbye!"

This photo was taken at the north end of the Imperial Valley which contains Palm Springs, the Salton Sea etc. The photo shows the "Banning Pass", somewhat famous for turbulence and it's a gateway into the LA basin. At 8500' the radar controllers can hear your radio in the pass area; any lower and they ask you to retain the same squawk and go to a hand-off frequency at the other end of the pass, 5 miles away.

After entering the LA basin, I turned north, climbed to 10.5 and flew over the hills towards Hesperia and Apple Valley. Shortly thereafter I crested the Tehachapis and was greeted by the thickest haze I can remember. The photo here was taken much later, abeam San Luis Reservior as I got my first glimpse of Mt Diablo, a sign I was nearing home.

Mount Diablo is shown in silhouette against a late afternoon sun. It was as pretty as the picture looks. The landing at Napa was wasn't long thereafter - and I got to use my landing light (wasn't really needed...).

 Notes, surprises: 
AvGas was $5.40/gal in Calexico and $4.60 at Hermosillo. 

The Mexican radar controllers don't bother with English when they know the 
listener is a fellow Mexican. Since I was unable to follow along with what 
they were saying, I didn't have the same level of "situational 
awareness" I do at home.  I started to pick up some of their terms:
"Authorizado" someone is being cleared to do something. 
"Mantega" a pilot is being told to maintain an altitude 
or position on the runway. 
"Cruz" Cross a fix at a certain altitude.  

Their "TCA"s are pretty informal affairs. You have to check in with 
a radar controller and he'll assign you a squawk code.  But when you're 
through the areas he's interested in, he'll ask you to squawk 1200 and he'll 
say 'goodbye', all while you're still well within the TCA itself.  The 
Hermosillo TCA is shaped like a big racetrack and each northern half has a 
different frequency than the southern half.  Flying north out of Alamos, you 
quickly encounter the southern part of that TCA but I never could raise anyone 
on the advertized frequency - and there was no chatter on that frequency with 
other planes.

Surprisingly, numbers were even hard to understand even though they're one of 
the first things you learn in Spanish. They say them so quickly, it was hard 
to keep up with the Spanish numbers. And a woman tower controller's English 
was so bad, I couldn't understand the squawk code she was giving me; I had to 
repeat it in Spanish, digit for digit to make sure I had it right.  I wasn't 
even certain when it was ok for me to roll onto the runway.  I could see a 
jet on 2 mile final so I sort of knew the answer but asked her anyway 
"Puedo ir?" (can I go?). "NEGATIVO! MANTEGA SU POSICION!" she responded. 
She seemed to try harder after that.

file: planes_mexicoOct08.html