Thirty miles out of Chihuahua, the tower calls me. "November 3485 Victor. Frequency change approved. Contact tower frequency, 118.8, fifty miles from Los Mochis. Proceed at pilot's discretion." This is their way of saying there is no radio contact for the next 250 miles until I approach Los Mochis on the other side of the mountains. Even at this altitude, radio contact over the mountains is lost. I stay on the frequency and monitor the commercial jets 20,000 feet above me. They are high enough to maintain radio contact. In an emergency, I can have them relay a message to the ground.|
Flying west from Chihuahua, the Sierras sneak up on you. The ground rises slowly. Valleys lie between the scattered mountains. Some of the mountain tops even look flat enough to attempt a landing.
Then suddenly a wall of mountain peaks stretches endlessly in front of me. The peaks are bare and rocky. Sharp promontories jut hundreds of feet into the air. Deep canyons drop thousands of feet down to the dry riverbeds below. These mountains are not like the Colorado Rockies, softened by green trees and snowy peaks. These mountains look primitive and cruel.
I fly for almost an hour. Below me is Barranca de Cobre, or Copper Canyon. The canyon walls plunge downward nearly a mile. Actually six separate canyons, the entire area is larger than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Almost unknown to Americans and buried deep inside the Sierra Madres, the canyon was virtually inaccessible until thirty years ago. Today, the only transportation is a single railroad that winds its way over the mountains through 86 tunnels and 39 bridges. It was completed by the Mexican government in 1961 after one hundred years of failed attempts by American railroad companies.
The morning air is smooth. Except for the engine's steady vibration, I could be sitting in my living room chair. It seems strange to find such smooth air only a few thousand feet above such violent terrain.
Then, for an instant, the engine stops. Silence for a fraction of a second. I sit bolt upright and instinctively twist the fuel mixture knob. Then as quickly as it went, the engine's roar and vibration resume.
The engine has not failed. It is just a curious idiosyncrasy of the Jacobs engine. Designed in the early 1930's, the engine simply misses a beat occasionally. Nobody seems to know why. Some say that the engine is ingesting a piece of carburetor ice; others, that the leanest cylinder is misfiring. This quirk is jokingly called the "Jacob's burp" by pilots. It must have terrified early passengers.
I continue on, crossing a broad coastal plain. Myriad shades of green lie below and in the distance is the dark blue of the Sea of Cortez. Near the water's edge is Los Mochis, my refueling stop.
Los Mochis is a comfortable-looking airport from the air. Neat, ochre-colored buildings nestle alongside a long, wide runway. Flat fields lie at both ends, almost inviting planes to land. As I turn onto final, a commercial DC-9 jet starts to taxi out. The desolate Sierra Madres are far behind.
I land and refuel. No credit cards are accepted. Two planes have refueled just before me, but the man says he has no change. It is his way of asking for a tip. The difference is 12,000 pesos, or four dollars. I let him keep it.
The next leg is the longest overwater distance I have ever flown. Almost 150 miles. With the headwinds, it will take just over an hour.
I walk around the plane, looking for fuel and oil leaks that could drastically curtail my flight. Everything looks good. I rope together two gallons of water, a flare gun kit, and an empty water container to serve as a float. I place these in the seat next to the door to grab on the way out if I go down over the water. I put on my life jacket.
I sit in the plane thinking about the decision to go. There is a small but real risk. A pilot might have an engine quit once in 10,000 hours of flying. So my hour over the water has maybe a one in 10,000 chance of losing the engine.
If the engine does quit, I go into the water. What are my chances of staying conscious, getting out of the plane before it sinks, and getting picked up? Who knows. Maybe 50/50. I remember the mortality tables my insurance agent showed me two months ago. Three out of a 100 people die every year at my age. Three percent. That is a huge number compared to what I am facing today.
I take off to the north. At 500 feet I bank left and head westward toward Baja California, a small knot of fear in my stomach. Minutes later, I am out over the Sea of Cortez.
Hernan Cortez sailed these waters 450 years ago searching for a mythical island called California. Cortez knew of the Exploits of Esplandian, a medieval romance popularized in a book published in 1510 when Cortez was 25. The legend tells of an island populated by beautiful black women living as Amazons. The only metal found on the island was gold from which all weapons and tools were fashioned. Protecting the women were hundreds of flying griffins, half eagle and half lion, which were fed the flesh of any men taken prisoner.
Like Baja's eastern coast, the island was said to have steep cliffs that made it almost impregnable. In the legend, the name of the island was California from the Greek words "kalli" for beautiful and "ornis" for bird for the island's griffins.
Half an hour out, I get a hint of the shore still 75 miles ahead. A brown haze interrupts the sharp horizon at intervals. I fly ten minutes, twenty-five miles, and the haze barely changes. Then slowly, very slowly, the light brown mountains of Baja California emerge.