Four days later, I am over Mexico flying toward the city of Chihuahua. I fly for 200 miles without seeing a house, car or person. They must be there, as I occasionally see dusty roads criss-crossing the desert. My map shows more than a dozen small dirt airstrips along my route, but I see only two of them. The radio is quiet. |
Fifty miles from Chihuahua I hear radio transmissions. Most are in Spanish but one in English tells me that an isolated thunderstorm is passing north of the airport.
Thirty miles out, I see the storm. Its dark gray clouds climb far above me like a huge wall. Heavy rain and lightning obscure the space between cloud and earth.
Even from this distance, the storm is churning the air. I slow down to 120 mph and fly on. The storm is moving northward, away from the airport. Ten miles from the airport, I slow to 100 mph. The air becomes more turbulent, even though the storm is now miles away. Soon, though, I am through the turbulence as I begin my landing approach.
I land and taxi to the terminal building.
The regulations say I must wait in the plane until the customs inspector clears my entry. I wait five, ten, fifteen minutes. Even after the storm, it is hot. Maybe they do not know I have arrived. I get out and walk toward the terminal building.
Inside I find the customs office. The door is open and I walk in. Three customs officials are sitting around a gray desk smoking. They do not look up as I enter the small room. I greet them in high school Spanish and then, switching back to English, tell them I wish to clear customs.
"Customs office closed," the oldest official tells me amiably.
"I'm sorry. I must have misunderstood. I was told in San Antonio your office is open until 7:00 p.m.," I reply. It is 4:15 in the afternoon.
"Office close at 4:00 o'clock. But we open office in five minutes. Cost $65."
"That is too much. I understand the office should be open," I reply.
"Sorry, mi amigo. Office close at 4:00 o'clock. Cost $65 to open."
I am at a loss. Had he asked $10 to open the office, I would have paid it. But $65 is too much. Not quite sure what to do, I walk out of the office. Outside, beside the door, is a chair. I sit down, lean back and close my eyes.
A few minutes later, the three officials walk out of the office. They wander around the small airport for a few minutes. The older official walks back toward me.
"Give me your papers, senor." He clears me through customs in less than three minutes. I briefly consider tipping him but do not.
For many years, Chihuahua was a city of revolutionaries and bandits. Padre Miguel Hidalgo, the priest who launched Mexico's War of Independence, was captured and executed here by the Spanish in 1811. And 112 years later, Pancho Villa died here in his bullet-riddled car.
Pancho Villa. For many Americans, his name is Mexico. Born in 1878, Villa spent his youth hiding in the mountains after killing the wealthy ranch owner who had assaulted his sister. Embittered by the incredible wealth of a few landowners - one ranch was larger than Belgium - he led numerous revolutions against the government starting in 1910. In 1916 he robbed and murdered sixteen American citizens and then crossed into the United States and raided Columbus, New Mexico.
President Wilson sent General John Pershing into Mexico to capture Villa. Aided by sympathetic countrymen and his knowledge of the terrain, Villa easily evaded Pershing. In 1920, he made a deal with the Mexican government to retire from politics in return for amnesty. He was assassinated on his ranch three years later.
A few other Americans are at the airport. One is flying a perfectly restored 1943 biplane, a Beech Staggerwing named for the rearward position of its upper wing. Sixty years ago, the Staggerwings were the premier executive aircraft and one of the fastest planes flying, faster than many military fighters of the time. Thousands were built during the war to shuttle officers and VIPs around. Today, there are but a handful flying and most are in museums. This plane is fortunate; it is a working airplane, flying its owner monthly from his Idaho home to his ranch near Chihuahua. Sparkling white, it dominates the small airport.
Two others own a gold mine 175 miles to the northwest, deep in the mountains. I joke about Humphrey Bogart in the Treasure of the Sierra Madres. They've heard it before. Asked if it's possible to make a living mining gold in the Sierras, they simply answer, "Oh, yes."
I go to bed early. Tomorrow's flying will be the most dangerous of any I do in Mexico. The first leg is over the Sierra Madre. The Occidental mountains are barren, unlandable, inhabited by scorpions and six-foot diamondback rattlesnakes. In the afternoon, tremendous thunderstorms form quickly. Monsters, really. A small plane caught by these storms over the mountains is in for a brutal ride.
The next leg will be much easier, flying over water. Pilots joke about their engines switching to "automatic rough" when over water. More than one pilot has started out over the water, sensed something was wrong in the sounds of the engine, anxiously turned back and then, once again safely over land, detected nothing.
The next morning I arrive at the airport at seven. I check the weather. It looks good. A middle-aged Mexican man is standing nearby. I grasp a propeller blade and pull it through counter-clockwise. One blade. Two blades. What seems like a pint of oil pours out the engine's exhaust pipe. The man is dumbfounded. I continue pulling the prop through. More oil runs out of the engine. The excited man is pointing to the oil, saying something in Spanish. He cannot believe I intend to fly this plane with such an oil leak. I explain, in the only appropriate Spanish I know, "de nada, de nada," it is nothing.
I am simply draining the oil that has seeped overnight into the lower cylinders, a characteristic of all radial engines. Sometimes the amount of oil that comes out is astonishing, even to the pilot. To a casual bystander, it looks catastrophic.
I start the engine. Great clouds of blue smoke pour out as the old engine coughs and sputters. I taxi out, leaving the astonished man staring at the spreading pool of oil.
As I taxi to the end of the runway the tower clears my take-off. Full power. A little right rudder to keep it straight. The plane accelerates slowly. The elevation is 4,700 feet and the temperature is already 90 degrees. The combination starves an airplane's engine. Eventually, I break ground and begin the long climb to 12,000 feet, my cruising altitude over the mountains.