Learning to fly is still one of the greatest adventures, even in this modern high-tech digital era. And the first solo is for most pilots the most memorable flight. I was so euphoric when my instructor climbed out of the Aeronca 7AC and told me to take it once around the pattern that I forgot to push the carb heat knob back in after our last landing and took off with less than max available power. But without a 200-plus-pound instructor in the back seat, the eager Champ seemed to literally leap into the air. Though it was decades ago, I can still remember the chilling thought after reaching pattern altitude that getting safely back on the ground, now 1,000 feet below, depended solely on my newly acquired and never-tested skill and judgment.
It took another 10 months to complete the required private pilot dual and solo flight time. Prophetically, the FAA examiner who filled out my new certificate told me that I was now licensed to “learn to fly.” But in the same 10 months, I had married and taken a lower-paying job as an engineering instructor at Cal Poly State College (now a state university). I was putting my bride through college, and renting an airplane was not in the budget.
Since I had graduated from college before getting drafted, the solution was to use my GI Bill benefits to pay for advanced flight training. Working my way up to a commercial license with instrument and multiengine ratings kept me in the air, building hours. I ended up with a CFII certificate, which blended well with my new position as faculty adviser to the school’s Mustang Flying Club.
Flight instruction is the ultimate teaching environment. The combination of eye-muscle coordination and a working, gut-level knowledge of the physics of flight makes for a complex learning situation. The challenge was stimulating to the mind, and each student who completed his or her ticket was a reward to the soul. But after taking 25 students through the program, even that began to lose its luster.
Fortunately, I shared my feelings with Rick, a dentist friend who had just started working with a Baja California medical mission. On three-day weekends every other month, they flew 400 miles south of the border to a combination orphanage/clinic to perform free services for the local population who had no other medical options. He invited me to go on the next trip after explaining that nonaircraft owners paid $180 each to help defray the expense of travel and lodging.
Of course I accepted. And three weeks later, on a Thursday evening, we hopped aboard a southbound Bonanza to the small, uncontrolled airport in Corona, California. There, we were met by Carlos, the mission director, who put us up for the night at his home.
The next morning, we drove to the airport for breakfast at the small cafe. It was crowded with about two dozen medical and support personnel including volunteer aircraft owners and pilots. This was going to be a six-aircraft mission, including four single-engine airplanes and two twins. Since I had a multiengine rating and the mission’s insurance required a copilot in each twin, I was assigned the right seat in an older high-time Piper Aztec.
Ralph, my “captain,” explained that the right engine was rather “tired,” burned oil and tended to overheat in a climb. No problem, I thought. I had flown my share of older, poorly maintained aircraft.
Our first leg was from Corona to Mexicali, Mexico. We lined up for takeoff behind the slowest fixed-gear airplanes. We were the second to last to depart, and after starting our initial climb, Ralph opened our border crossing flight plan with the local FSS. At first, the Aztec performed as expected, but by the time we reached 4,500 feet, the right engine oil temperature hit the red line. Ralph leveled off and reduced MP to 20 inches on both engines. While this slowed us a bit, the right engine cooled enough in 10 minutes to resume our climb to 6,500 feet.
We made our “10 minutes to border” crossing report to the San Diego FSS as we passed El Centro and headed straight for Mexicali International. The tower controller was exceptionally proficient in bilingual radio communications and cleared us for the downwind leg. Looking over the airport environment while still in the air, I noticed the lack of a taxiway for the long jet runway. Ralph joked that the funding for the taxiway went into some official’s pocket and that “back taxiing” was the rule here.
All of the mission pilots lined up for the less expensive Pemex fuel while the passengers went into the terminal to clear customs and obtain visas. Carlos advised us to tip the agents doing the paperwork $2 each to “grease” the process. I had much to learn about doing official business in Mexico.
Back in the Aztec, Ralph went through an abbreviated checklist and called out “clear right.” He hit the starter but nothing happened. We pulled the nacelle upper cowling and a quick check of the system indicated a burned-out starter motor. A quick check with the local mechanics indicated that a replacement would have to come from the U.S. side of the border.
Carlos was used to problems like this. The Comanche B that was part of our group had left on the second leg of our flight about 30 minutes before the starter failure. Its pilot, George, was a certified engine mechanic. So, the next plane to leave, a Cessna 182, was to contact the Comanche in the air and request that he return after discharging his passengers at the clinic. That should get him back in time for another trip in case the Aztec was grounded for the rest of the day. Time was critical because in Mexico, twins can fly at night but single-engine aircraft cannot.
So we waited while the other airplane returned stateside to pick up a rebuilt starter. The Comanche made it back first. He had really stretched his fuel reserves, and it took more than 60 gallons to fill the tanks. Carlos then decided on our final course of action.
Since I had time in a Comanche 180, I would fly the B model with most of the remaining medical personnel and Carlos in the right seat to help navigate. He said if we left immediately we would have sufficient remaining daylight. George agreed to stay and help repair the Aztec. He reported that the weather to the orphanage was ceiling and visibility unlimited.
With that pirep, I made the wrong assumption that I had all of the preflight information needed and hopped in behind a familiar set of instruments and controls. The passengers boarded, with two smaller dental assistants occupying the narrow third row. A call to the tower cleared us for an intersection takeoff to the south. With a 270 hp Lycoming, I had no doubt that the 3,200 feet available would be more than enough for our needs.
Wow — what a difference that extra 90 hp made. As we cleared the airport environment and adjusted the power for a cruise climb, Carlos directed me to simply follow the dwindling Colorado River until it emptied into the Gulf of California. To me, this was a flying adventure of a lifetime. Leveling at 10,500 feet, we continued along the east coast of Baja until we came to Punta Final. There, we turned 10 degrees to the right and aligned with two dry lakes about 50 miles ahead.
It was then, about an hour into our flight, that I became concerned about how low the sun was getting. The sectional for the area showed we had another 200 miles to go. The Piper’s true-airspeed dial indicated we were doing about 185 mph. How much daylight did we have left? It didn’t help when Carlos explained that all of the airstrips between us and our destination belonged to the military and we would face arrest if we landed on one, even in case of emergency. We were out of range for any help by radio, and I started feeling guilty. Our quick change in plans had made me the PIC, and I failed to obtain an important piece of information for the safety of this long cross-country leg.
Fortunately, my engineering background suggested a solution. I asked Carlos to hold a chart plotter upside down along the horizontal portion of the instrument panel while I put the right wingtip under the sun and leveled our “bird.” I then put a pencil in the hole of the protractor portion and read where its shadow crossed the markings. Carlos thought I had gone nuts, but my crude sextant showed that the sun was about 20 degrees above the horizon. I then explained to my puzzled passengers that with Earth turning at 15 degrees per hour, we should have about an hour and twenty minutes left before sunset.
At our present speed, that would be cutting it too close. I didn’t want to chance trying to land on a dirt airstrip I’d never seen without a chance for a missed approach and a second time around the pattern. But we also had the advantage of being at a relatively high altitude — potential energy to put to use since our destination was at 60 feet msl. So I trimmed the nose down slightly and advanced the power to give us a rate of descent of 200 fpm and a TAS of 200 mph. That should do it.
In about 20 minutes, we spotted Baja’s I-1 on the Pacific coast. I turned early to save a few miles, which allowed us to gradually merge with our ground path to the clinic. In another 15 minutes, Carlos, who had made the flight dozens of times, was able to give me a direct bearing that would save us another few miles.
When we arrived over the 40-acre compound, we were down to 1,000 feet msl and the sun was kissing the horizon. We made it with little time to spare.
Unless you have visited the Vizcaino Desert, you cannot appreciate the lack of twilight between sunset and total darkness. There are no nearby hills to reflect the rays of light still streaming above ground level. Fortunately, our first approach worked, with no trouble in judging our critical height during round-out and touchdown. But by the time we had taxied to the parking area, tied down and walked to the dining hall, it was pitch-black outside.
The congratulations from the pilots inside didn’t keep me from mentally kicking myself. It was only a week from the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year — and I had flown almost 400 miles into unknown territory with a different set of flight rules and without a complete briefing, which would have included the local time of sunset. Lesson learned!