An Aeronca Flies in Mexico
by John Waymire
"What kind of plane is that, Senor?" the man in the control tower asked. "L-tres," I called back on my hand-held. I fly a 1942 Aeronca L-3, and I was taxiing up to the control tower at Matamoros, Mexico after a ten minute trip from Brownsville, Texas.
I planned to clear my paperwork at Matamoros then fly south, keeping
between the Sierra Madre and the Gulf. I wanted to fly in Mexico despite all the rumors I
heard about light planes south of the border. In airport lounges and around stale coffee
urns from Paducah to Corpus, hanger-fliers kept telling me to stay out of Mexico,
especially in a small plane like an Aeronca. They said authorities would come up to my
L-3, knock out its instruments with the butts of their guns, then send me back to the
States on a bus.
I'd done quite a bit of ground travel in Mexico and never had any trouble. I knew, though, Mexicans inherited a penchant for the Spanish bureaucracy, and that meant I had to have my paper work together for the onslaught of carbon copies and rubber stamps.
Top of the list was a liability insurance policy recognized in Mexico. It's almost a formality. You can't fly in Mexico without insurance, so you buy a policy at the border.
In Brownsville I picked up a 30 day policy from the Sanborn company. That evening in a Motel-Six, I stuffed all my aircraft documents along with my licenses and new insurance policy into a big manila envelope.
So the next day, with envelope in hand, I shut down my engine in front of Matamoros tower then sought out the Flight Service Station. The field at Matamoros looked familiar, like some airport at a good size Midwestern city. A glass and concrete tower stood in front of a terminal building. Off to the end, I saw a collection of maintenance buildings and in the distance a gaggle of general aviation aircraft.
Flight service occupied an office behind the control tower. I went inside, canceled my flight plan, and started practicing my pathetic Spanish. The flight service man countered with equally pathetic English, and so began the linguistic struggles of my journey.
Looking at a wall-size weather map, I noticed the jagged blue line of a cold front stretching across Texas. Weather was moving in, and the sky was growing darker by the minute. Ten minutes in sunny Mexico, and the visibility went IFR.
After finishing at Flight Service, I walked to the operations room at the tower and started the paper work. I took out my manila envelope and dumped the whole mess on the table and let the guy in charge dig through it. The operations man carefully inspected each document, rolled a green piece of paper into his Royal typewriter, then pounded out the most important document a flier carries in Mexico. Officially, it's called a General Declaration. I called it my "green sheet". Around Mexican airports, a General Declaration carries more clout than a passport. When I landed, the first thing Flight Service wanted to see was that little green piece of paper. A Flight Service man told me if I lost it I would be grounded--period. And it would take several days for the officials to crank out another copy.
After operations, I walked to the terminal building and checked in with migration and customs. Each stamped my greensheet, thumbed through my passport, and had me log in as a visitor. The whole procedure at Matamoros took about 30 minutes.
Outside I flagged down a fuel truck and proceeded to top off my tank and couple of gas cans I had bungied into the back seat. I worried about those cans. They looked like they belonged around a Snapper lawn mower, not an airplane. I bought them the day before at a hardware in Brownsville. Fortunately, no one in Mexico said anything about those cans. Carrying that extra fuel helped me cover distances that otherwise would have been impossible.
At that first stop in Mexico I had to decide whether or not to filter my fuel. I finally decided that when in Mexico do like the Mexicans do. During the trip, if I saw a light twin or a 206 topping off without a chamois, I would do the same. But later at the duster strips, when I saw the big Ag-Tractors being fueled through chamois lined funnels, then I would struggle with my plastic funnel and K-Mart chamois.
Encountering a Norte
As I paid my fuel bill, I noticed the first spattering of rain from the cold front. If it's winter and the place is Eastern Mexico, these nortes are not uncommon. They roll down from Canada every few days and can be ferocious. First the clouds, then rain for about 12 hours, followed by a sparkling clear day of 30 knot winds. Those are the days I stay on the ground and sightsee.
The next day dawns clear, and the gale of the day before is a gentle breeze from the east. As the next few days pass, the weather turns more to the south, and the air becomes balmy and tropical. Soon the next norte arrives, and the cycle begins again.
After waiting out my first norte in a border town, I was more than ready to go flying. South of Matamoros, the next city with fuel is Ciudad Victoria. Unfortunately, Victoria is 175 miles away, too far to stretch a flight in an L-3. About half way down to Victoria, lies the town of San Fernando with a strip east of town where I could transfer fuel.
I left Matamoros and flew over flat farmland, a twin to that in South Texas. After about 20 minutes of following the Pan-American Highway, I could make out the blue line of the Sierra Madre on the southern horizon. I knew Victoria nestled against those mountains and San Fernando lay just ahead.
As I neared San Fernando, the land changed from farmland to the rolling grassland of ranch country. San Fernando is easy to find. It's a fairly large town, and Mexico's lack of pollution controls allow smokestacks to stand as navigation beacons.
At San Fernando, Manual Jestra and his assistant came out to greet me. Jestra is a wiry man with graying hair and looks every bit the hunting guide of which he is.
"We get a lot of people from Texas and Louisiana down here to hunt field birds," he said as he eyed my fuel cans in the back seat. "A DC-3 brings them down from a field in Texas. The plane stays on the runway because it would break through the apron."
I introduced myself by showing Senor Jestra my logbook and flight plan. I pointed out where Flight Service said I could transfer fuel at his field. I asked him if he saw many light planes like mine. Jestra told me he hadn't and seemed surprised to see a plane as small as mine in the area. I found that typical of most places in Mexico. Small planes we associate with recreational flying just don't exist down there. Mexicans take their flying seriously. Their middle-class is too frail to support sport flying as we know it in the States. The typical Mexican pilot is a professional, working for a company or a wealthy individual. He flies a serious airplane big enough to climb over the high mountains.
South of San Fernando, the ranch land, in preparation for the mountains, begins to break up into hills and forests. The Pan-American Highway doglegs off somewhere, so I switch to the VOR receiver in my hand-held. Ahead I see the sun reflect off lake Guerrero. My VOR tells me Cuidad Victoria lays beyond the opposite shore. Guerrero is a huge, sprawling lake who's shoreline is choked with reeds and stumps--perfect for bass. On the north shore, a grass strip receives more DC-3s from Texas. Today the field lies empty, while nearby a guest house awaits. Beyond the west shore, I see a hard-surface strip but I'm too far away to investigate.
Reaching Ciudad Victoria
After Lake Guerrero the Sierra Madre are close enough to reveal shadowed ravines and craigs. Near the base, the sunlight glints off Ciudad Victoria. The VOR directs me to the left, and minutes later I land at a field similar to the one at Matamoros.
Later that afternoon, I would learn these airfields are run by a federal agency called the Aeropuertos Servicios y Auxiliares. The ASA seems like a well-run organization with a pride that is welcomed by the skeptical traveler from the north. ASA personnel wear yellow and green uniforms with a distinct logo. Fuel trucks and equipment carry the same colors.
Walk into the terminal building and you are impressed with its cleanliness and its utter emptiness. These ASA terminals, at least the ones in the smaller cities, are overbuilt. They are like movie sets. Ticket counters stand vacant waiting for line which will never form. Shoes will never scuff the polished floors. The sand in the ashtrays still have ridges, combed in by a janitor months earlier. Mexico wants modern airports and is getting them whether she needs them or not.
Most of the ASA airports in Mexico have a VOR station on the field. I was able to receive those stations with my hand-held radio. I was concerned because my L-3 has unshielded ignition, and my handheld only carries a small rubber-duck antenna. I checked the receiver against a couple of stations and to my relief found no error.
Flying Inland vs. Flying the Coast
After the hill country, flying the coast is relatively simple. Mexico, like the Texas Gulf Coast, has a barrier island with a lagoon system behind. The sweep of the island and its inlets offer themselves as easy references. The lagoons, on the other hand, often can be confusing. Much of the time they're a jumble of estuaries and mud flats, changing with the tides and never quite matching the charts.
Usually a flight down a Mexican beach will reveal an abandoned airstrip. Don't be tempted and land. Those strips have a reputation as way-stations for narcotic traffickers. From the air anyway, Mexico seems serious about stopping the drug traffic. Authorities have placed many of these coastal strips out of commission by devious use of barbed wire, ditches, logs or sand-filled barrels. In the lagoons patrol boats prowl, constantly looking for smugglers. You fly down the coast, and the narcotics police will be watching. Fly low and you can bet they'll be on their radios. Land, and they'll pay you a visit.
If you must land on the beach, get prior permission from Flight Service. Have them put the name of the place on the flight plan and get plenty of documents telling who you are. If a patrol pays you a visit, keep cool and show then what they want.
Meeting the Drug Patrol
It happened to me once. I landed on a beautiful island in the lagoon south of Tampico. I had just finished transferring my fuel when a detachment of marines came bolting down the sod strip. The commandante pointed at my plane with his machine gun. It was clear he wanted me to empty my plane--and pronto. I took out everything including a brown apple core from Mississippi and a pencil I lost during a recover three years ago. I did a kind of show-and-tell, describing in detail every tiedown rope, every flashlight battery, and every ancient camping permit from Oshkosh. By the time I got to the Kopectate and Lomotol, the mood had changed from intimidation to bursts of gold-toothed laughter. After repacking, I requested to the commandante that in a week I again needed his island to transfer fuel. The next time, I told him, I wished I could come and go unmolested. He agreed but instructed me that at that time I should fly low over the barracks to announce myself. He demanded I give a buzz job, and the next week I did it with relish. Then the squad assembled in a truck and drove to the strip, waving at me all the while. At that second visit, the commandante signed my logbook with a great flourish worthy of a quill pin. Hands were shaken, thumb-around-thumb, then off I flew to Tampico.
Away from the coast, if I couldn't scratch up a VOR I would try to follow a railroad. Mexico has great railroads, not just abandoned right-a-ways, but real railroads that shine in the sun for miles.
Following the Tracks From Victoria
I followed such a right-of-way from Ciudad Victoria. I flew east in the morning, keeping the Sierra Madre to my right. The track made its way around the northeast shoulder of the mountains then headed south. I found myself in farm country, where grew sugar cane and something in neat rows that looked like pineapple. Small towns slid by, each with a sugar refinery and its column of black smoke. I discovered a couple duster strips and noted them on my WAC chart.
An hour later near Ciudad Mante, the morning fog still lingered over the cane fields. It was thick enough to raise concern about finding my airport. I remembered a paved ag-strip about fifteen miles back up the road. I did a one-eighty and discovered the strip was located at Xicotencatl (pronounced something like he-co-tink-co).
Eusituio Soto is commandante at Xicotencatl. He's a stout man with enough authority to know all that happens at his field. He walked from his operations hut and beckoned me with a huge Bob Cratchet ledger book. He had me log in my name, then I explained my dilemma with the fog.
"Uno momento" he said, then walked over to one of his pilots warming up an Ag-Cat. They talked, then he returned. "You wait here one hour, pilot come back," the commandante said as he gave my green-sheet the once over. I killed time as ag-planes came and went. Soon my Ag-Cat returned. The pilot gave a thumbs-up to the commandante, the commandante gave a thumbs-up to me, and I was on my way. Minutes later I touched down at Ciudad Mante.
At Mante I discovered It's not easy to fuel up through a chamois skin. Fuel takes forever to dribble through animal hide. Two men were pulled away from a duster operation to help me fuel eight gallons. Big barrels had to be rolled around. Eighty octane splashed into five-gallon plastic cans, then seeped through my chamois into one of my two-and-a-half gallon K-Mart cans. I hefted the cans up to my tanks then repeated the whole process. It took 45 minutes to transfer that eight gallons. I held my breath for the fuel bill, and sure enough the operator bumped up the price about 20 percent, still a small price to pay for a lot of hard work and inconvenience. Even with labor tacked on, I still paid less than a buck-and-a-half a gallon.
If I planned on staying a while and the field was large, someone would direct me to the general aviation area. Otherwise, I would tie up next to the ag-planes along the runway. Usually, I would find a concrete apron with hard points built in but never with tiedown ropes. I brought along a gunny sack of half-inch rope and aluminum stakes for such occasions. Besides being ropeless, hard points at Mexican fields seemed to be placed with 747s in mind and not for Aeroncas with 35 foot wing spans. I spent much time tying lines together and maneuvering my plane to reach the hard points.
Sometimes if the field was small, I would have to tie down in the sod. In that case, I pounded the anchor rods into the ground and tied onto them. I know I use over-kill when it comes to tiedown ropes and stakes. But there's nothing worse than having a 40 Knot wind wake you from a tequila haze in some Veracruz hotel, and you wonder if your plane is on its way to Guatemala without you on board.
Security at the Airports
Most Mexican airports are secure. At the bigger fields, officials would most likely direct the transient planes to a small area surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire. Sometimes huge sodium vapor lights played down into the area. I would leave a few thing like my fuel cans and extra luggage in my unlocked plane. I would return days later and the plane would be as I left it. At the small fields, duster maintenance continued until late into the evening, then afterward a guard dozed in a nearby hut.
Getting into Town
Getting a ride into town was never a problem. If I arrived near the end of the day, I could usually catch a ride with some of the officials at the field. At some places, a minibus hauled the workers to and from the town. Never did I find a van that hauled airport passengers. There were not enough people to make it worth while. Taxis were always available, but the drivers figured arrivals were loaded with pesos so they charged accordingly.
Usually across the road from an airport, someone operated a food stall. Around it always stood a group of people waiting for a bus. Every few minutes, a Bluebird school bus would come by, and for a few pesos I could get a bumpy ride into town. Sometimes small collectivos also operated in the area. These mini-busses meander through every dirt street in every barrio between the airport and the plaza. Finally, if all else fails, hitchhiking is perfectly safe and acceptable in Mexico. Just stand along the road and someone will give you a ride. If its a truck, everyone will scatter out of the cab and you can travel with comfort with the driver. Because of the lack of cars, drivers seem obliged to give rides.
As in the States, when one leaves an airport he is expected to pay his tiedown fee. In Mexico, paying the dollar or so a night is a ritual akin to closing on a piece of real estate. Again, rubber stamps, Royal typewriters, and great swirls of signature. Its not just handing the guy in charge a few pesos then being on your way. It takes about 20 minutes to go through all this and when you leave you take with you a bundle of receipts and documents that mean nothing.
Flight Service Stations, on the other hand, are quite efficient. They are run by professionals who are willing to help you have a safe trip. Senor Agula mans the station at Tampico. He's a busy man, but when its your turn for a briefing, you have his undivided attention. I told him I was going to need a field to transfer fuel. He thumbed through a clipboard of papers. "Cerro Azul would have been good," he said, "but it off limits now--military operations. Let me make a few calls, I'll find you an airport". He does, and later I have my field. Finally, after helping me sort out my way, he recommends a hotel in town. Then in the evening, he calls my room to tell me a front will move through and there may be wind.
Senior Agula knows how to run a Flight Service Station. Although this kind of attention is an exception, still the typical Mexican FSS man will give you service you can hanger-talk about for years.
After flying in Mexico for some weeks and starting to learn its rules and regulations, the return to the States offered up a whole new set of problems. Primary concern was that of the US Customs at Brownsville and their obvious scrutiny of private aircraft from the south. Earlier at Brownsville, I saw stiff fines levied on a couple of Mauls because of what seemed like a minor infraction--the Mauls had arrived too soon after calling in from Mexico.
Customs want an aircraft to wait a minimum of 1 hour before landing in Brownsville. They're serious about this holding period and want no exceptions. Flight Service at Matamoros has US Custom's number taped to their telephone. You call across the river then cool your heels for an hour.
Earlier I read through a pamphlet from Customs advising people how to spot potential smugglers. The pamphlet warned to be on the lookout for fuel cans, hand-drawn maps, and muddy wheels. My plane fit the profile perfectly. Apparently, however, I did not. Customs officials scrutinize those with latin features. My Midwestern potato face garnered only a brief wave-through, while moments later a concerned Mexican family stood aside as inspectors examined their craft with white-gloved scrutiny.
Such is the way with bureaucracies on both banks of the Rio Grande. Each a little frightening and each sometimes unfair. But they are only organizations and shouldn't defer the traveler from visiting fine neighbors and lands beyond.
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