Airwork: San Pablo Aerodrome

Tom tries to help one aviation enthusiast get a flying club off the ground.

(July 2011) It was a silence I wasn’t used to. Actually, it wasn’t all that quiet what with the whirr of hummingbirds’ wings, the braying of burros and the cooing of doves. But what I wasn’t hearing was the sound of airplanes. For the two months I spent in Oaxaca, Mexico, last winter, the skies were virtually void of the “sounds of freedom.” It seems local general aviation activity is nonexistent in Oaxaca. A couple of times a day there are commercial flights in and out of Oaxaca, but that’s about it.

The lack of airborne activity doesn’t mean there’s not a nascent groundswell of interest by aviation aficionados. We hadn’t been in Oaxaca for more than a couple of days when Tony Raab, a neighbor who runs a vacation rental property with his wife, Rebecca (and her eight dogs, five burros and a horse), stopped by to greet us, and the talk turned quickly to airplanes and flying.

“You know, there’s an RC runway over that second ridge, there,” Tony said, pointing to the north as we sat on the terrace sipping some of his home-brewed mezcal from little gourd cups called jícaras.

“The radio-control airplane guys use it on Sundays, but there’s a runway there that could be used as a runway for a real airplane,” he said excitedly.

Tony’s enthusiasm was infectious, and he took it upon himself to act as an aviation evangelist. On Thursday nights when the Bodega Boys band got together to entertain themselves and a small group of fans, Tony talked up the idea of a flying club.

“You know it’s like a couple guys getting together to work on an old VW. We could hang out at the airfield and tinker with our airplane,” he said. “We could get an ultralight, something we could work on ourselves and fly it to the coast in an hour.”

Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s west coast is just slightly more than 100 miles from Oaxaca, but the trip by car through the mountains takes some six or seven hours. He had a point.

“I’ve always wanted to fly down to Tierra del Fuego,” he said, on a roll. “Can’t you just imagine it?”

Tierra del Fuego? Did he mean the archipelago off the southernmost tip of the South American mainland, across the Strait of Magellan? Yep, he did. Tony’s dream was an aerial trek from Mexico down across Central America and then the length of the South American continent — a journey of more than 6,000 miles each way. Oops.

Of course, long flights in ultralights aren’t unheard of. Without realizing I was encouraging him, I bragged to Tony about a friend of mine, Omar Contreras, who made a number of long-distance flights in an ultralight. I first met Omar at AirVenture in 2001 after he and Yelitza Mendoza had flown an Air Creations Clipper (YV-40X) flex-wing trike from Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I remember how thrilled Omar was that he had met Francis Rogallo (credited with the invention of the Rogallo wing, or “flexible wing”) at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on his way to Oshkosh and had gotten him to sign the trike. After AirVenture Omar flew the trike back to Venezuela, completing a trip of more than 11,500 miles. The book Flying America, a TV series and the film Flying South, which won first place in the documentary category in the 2005 Festival del Cine del Yelmo in Spain, were inspired by another long-distance flight, a 10-month, 19,500-nautical-mile solo expedition Omar made to 182 cities in 21 countries from New York to Patagonia, Argentina, “to unite America through flight.”

(At the time Tony and I were fantasizing, I wasn’t aware that Omar Contreras had been killed in a crash on Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest mountain (20,700 feet msl). Omar was completing an aerial adventure, “The Conquest of the Andes,” in support of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to save the environment. During the flight he planned to fly over the most famous peaks in the Andes and South America. Reports of the accident suggest that he might have suffered from hypoxia or another medical problem that caused him to lose consciousness.)

Tony began recruiting potential members of what we were starting to think of as the San Pablo Etla Flying Club. Geno Hanson, owner of El Estudio, the house where Judith and I were staying, who had been a partner in a Piper Cherokee Six and had often flown in Mexico, liked the idea of the club but kept half joking that the club airplane should be a Piper Malibu. On a more realistic note, he admitted an ultralight could satisfy his desire for an aerial camera platform.

Tony approached Allan Gunderson, who with his wife, Teri, catered the Academy Awards broadcast at Casa Sandi with a selection of Thai food that compared favorably with Bangkok’s best. Although Allan’s dream airplane is a Mooney 201, Tony added him to his list of possible club members. Alberto Zamacona Esparza, a medical doctor and percussionist with the Bodega Boys, deferred to Tony’s invitation to join the club but would consider the possibility of an aerial ambulance. Tony worked on enticing Stuart Plotnick, who had sold his Grumman Cheetah to buy a van, back into the air, and Rachel Golden, who’s game for anything, including a horseback trek across Mongolia, agreed to join if she could learn to fly.

Although membership was building slowly, Tony remained optimistic that once the club gained some traction, it would attract other pilot wannabes or pilots who had hung up their headsets.

I tried not to dampen Tony’s enthusiasm, and before I knew it, he had me searching the Internet for a suitable ultralight for the flying club.

It was an interesting exercise. As with the purchase decision of any airplane, the primary mission — how it’s expected to be used — should be a major factor in the decision.

Except for Tony’s fantasy of flying over to the coast and down to Tierra del Fuego and Alberto’s air ambulance, the airplane would be used for local sightseeing flights in good weather.

Tony and I made an exploratory excursion to the field that the radio-control enthusiasts were using and that we were referring to as the “San Pablo Aerodrome.” We each paced off the length of the field, which at one time had been paved, and both came up with a length of about 600 feet. At an altitude of some 6,000 feet, the length wasn’t going to allow a great deal of margin. The runway did slope down, and Tony was good about surveying the terrain in case an aborted takeoff became necessary or an engine failure occurred during the climb-out. A gentle turn to the west would allow a descent through a gorge toward a dirt road and level field. That was reassuring.

Our requirement was for a two-seat ultralight and, in the interest of my well-being, one with a ballistic recovery parachute. I investigated the QuickSilver GT500, which, from my point of view, had the advantage of looking like an airplane. According to the specs, the 80-horsepower Rotax 912-powered GT500, with a maximum takeoff weight of 1,100 pounds, had a payload with full fuel of 366 pounds. At sea level it required a ground roll of 244 feet (621 feet over a 50-foot obstacle). It would be tight with two people at 6,000 feet msl, but the service ceiling of 12,500 feet would provide sufficient capability to cross the mountains on the way to the Pacific coast.

I found a 2008 GT500 that was priced at $50,000. Kits for a GT500 with the Rotax 912 engine were priced at $44,000, and $31,000 for the 582-Rotax-powered version. It was a bit pricey since we were hoping to get airborne for something well less than $20,000.

I looked into the Air Creations Tanarg flex-wing trike. The prices ranged from $50,000 to $85,000. Ouch!

Given our situation, I thought maybe an AirCam would be ideal. Robert Goyer has frequently written positively about the twin-pusher Rotax 912-powered airplane specifically designed to be able to climb on one engine and loiter as a camera platform. With a useful load of 640 pounds, a rate of climb of 1,500 fpm (300 fpm on one engine) and a takeoff roll of less than 200 feet, an AirCam would be more than adequate. Unfortunately, there aren’t many for sale, and the only one I found was a kit without engines priced at $58,000.

Although there were used ultralights closer to our financial requirement, I kept thinking that we could get a Cessna 150 for the costs we were considering for the ultralight. In a recent Trade-A-Plane, asking prices for used Cessna 150s ranged from about $12,000 to $25,000. Of course at 6,000 feet, the 150 wouldn’t be happy with only 600 feet of runway.

It wasn’t looking good. Added to our problems was the change in the ultralight regulations that occurred in September 2004, when the Light Sport Aircraft rules were promulgated and required, as of Jan. 31, 2008, that all two-seat ultralights and “heavy” single-seat light aircraft become Experimental Light Sport Aircraft (E-LSA). With the new rules, pilots of two-seat ultralights are required to have at least a Sport Pilot certificate. As an effort to find out the bureaucratic problems that might face the San Pablo Etla Flying Club, I contacted Rick Gardner of Caribbean Sky Tours (caribbeanskytours.com). The first question he asked me was whether the airplane would have a U.S. registration or be registered in Mexico. It seems that if it’s registered in the United States, the entry permit is good for only 180 days, after which the airplane would have to leave Mexico. You could re-enter Mexico and get a new 180-day permit but it would mean physically taking the airplane out of Mexico every 180 days.

Gardner said the rules don’t contemplate driving an unassembled airplane into Mexico in a trailer and reassembling it. The expectation is that an airplane flying into Mexico will make its first stop at an international airport, where an entry permit will be obtained.

“If you do drive across the border,” he said, “then it’s dutiable cargo and you have to deal with Mexican customs and the value added tax, which wouldn’t apply if you flew the airplane into Mexico.”

If the airplane is registered in Mexico, you eliminate the need to remove the airplane from Mexico every 180 days, but in order to fly it, any pilots would have to have a Mexican pilot’s license. It is possible to convert a U.S. pilot’s license to a Mexican license, but Gardner suggested it could be a difficult bureaucratic exercise.

A new advisory circular (AC 90-109 Airmen Transition to Experimental or Unfamiliar Airplanes) from the FAA appears to be very timely. It was created to address a number of accidents that occurred when experienced pilots first flew an unfamiliar airplane, especially as the second owner or pilot of an experimental aircraft. If we ever purchase an airplane, AC 90-109 will be required reading for all club members.

From my investigation, it doesn’t seem it’s going to be easy to get the San Pablo Etla Flying Club and the San Pablo Aerodrome off the ground — literally. But Tony’s not easily dissuaded when he sets his mind to something. I’ve seen how patient he can be when he’s brewing a batch of mescal at his still, so I wouldn’t bet against the future advent of aviation activity at the San Pablo Aerodrome. I’m looking forward to it.


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