Easier than they say: flying a Cub from Idaho to Baja Mexico

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It’s never been easier to fly your own plane to Mexico

A white Suburban, dust trailing, pulls onto the tarmac. Sporting the quintessential Mexican mustache and glasses, the driver sizes up the dad unloading his family and the Stationair. Using a gun, the mustached man tells the wife and children to get their things out, and looks back at the dad: “I was hoping we might be about the same size. Leave your suitcase. Your clothes should fit.” Within moments their trip to Mexico goes the way of a B-movie script and their Stationair is soon speeding down the runway for a low altitude turn-out towards the mountains.

This is the familiar story we have all heard about flying south of the border. Thankfully we can retire these to film or history, as it’s never been safer, or easier, to fly to Mexico.

Leaving the snow.

Recently a friend and I had cause to celebrate a newly earned PPL, so in the midst of winter, we left snow-covered Idaho for a 4000-mile trip to the tip of Baja and back. A Super Cub is not the ideal plane for this mission. With only 46 gallons of usable fuel and 31-inch backcountry tires, our speed was limited to 100 miles per hour. This journey was going to be on Mexican time: low, slow and off the beaten path. We had read about the hassles of border crossings and the decline of general aviation in Mexico. And of course, theft. We didn’t even know if it was possible, but she needed the hours and stick time and I needed to get out of the snow.

We spent two full days doing research. We gathered up the documentation and tried to make sense of all the contradictions. A radio operator’s license? Really? What is that even? Logbooks with weight and balance certification? I’m not taking those to Mexico in a fabric-wrapped plane that doesn’t lock!

Finally we stumbled upon an organization with a David versus Goliath ethos, the San Diego-based Baja Bush Pilots. These guys have worked tirelessly for almost half a century against the behemoth that is the state government of Mexico. If you are reading this dispatch looking for a quick and easy “how to,” look no further. For $99 you get access to a web portal that streamlines the whole thing. They even send you a plastic briefing card with all the radio comms and exact procedures to tuck away into your door pocket. If only the Cub had a door pocket, sigh.

Let’s cut back now to our scene with the white Suburban on the tarmac. Flying to Mexico—and especially to Baja—hasn’t changed much in 50 years. It’s like seeing California when Clint Eastwood was mayor. The stories about plane theft have been replaced with much larger prey, including a recently stolen jetliner out of Mexico City (that was later crashed at a remote airstrip). A quick search on Google for plane theft in Mexico yields only a story in the LA Times dating back to 2008. With drug cartels operating more like modern day supply chains piston aircraft can take their place among the old Ford pickups that were used to ferry bushels of marijuana back and forth. Why mess with a useful load of 1000 lbs when you are busy building your own submarines?

There is one other “innovation” that took place back in the 1980s, and for all the stupidity of some of the Mexican requirements, the Civil Air Authority did one very smart thing: they limited the sale of avgas to towered airports. This would have been a real disappointment to a backcountry pilot like myself but it probably saved general aviation in Mexico. Drug trafficking stopped almost overnight. In our naivete, we decided to stow away two empty jerry cans to extend our range but so successful is this Mexican regulation that when we landed to clear customs, the only things they wanted were those cans. “You must understand,” said Daniel, the Commandante at San Felipe, “off-airport refueling is how they moved contraband. So we take this very seriously.”

Crashed airplane

Abandoned airplanes and airports are still visible in Mexico.

At one time Baja had more than 250 aistrips. Many of these can still be seen from the air, including the remnants of palm-covered resorts that failed due to hurricanes, the decline in GA, or both. A few strips are disappearing into the dunes and we landed at several. For Baja still holds in abundance its lawless grit, which has captured the imagination of Hollywood, prospectors, writers and ranchers. Even Steinbeck chose Baja as the subject of one of his last books, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, lammenting “it would be good to live in a perpetual state of leave-taking, never to go nor to stay, but to remain suspended in that golden emotion of love and longing; to be loved without satiety.”

On this special 1000 mile spit of land, everything seems to be either on its way up or on its way down. The Transpeninsular, the highway that connects Cabo to San Diego, was built in the 1970s and was considered a state miracle. Before the construction of the road, Baja was so remote it was thought of more like an island. Mexico’s Hawaii, some say. This remoteness paired well with a Southern California culture shaped by the aerospace industry and post-war self-reliance. Pilots came looking for adventure.

We expected most of this to have disappeared. Long past were the Saturday night pig roasts in Mulege attended by John Wayne. The famous Serenidad Hotel where you could land a twin-engine Beechcraft on a dried marsh and taxi up to the bar. Self published books from San Diego and Los Angeles-based doctors spoke of houses that had private hangars, of landing at oases that would fill with mud so that when you departed you kept your gear down until you could land again at a paved airstrip and find a bucket for water.

I’m happy to report much of this, and more, is still available in Baja.

We flew every bay, remote island and oasis from the outlet of the Colorado River to the southern cape. We landed at the Serenidad Hotel and even found new resorts with active pilot communities. We landed on beach runways that terminated into hotel bars. We flew with our doors and windows open, wearing shorts and bikinis, over turquoise waters dotted with whales and dolphins. We shared stories with other pilots over margaritas at night and left for early morning hikes up arroyos with hot springs and fresh water pools to swim in. We never locked our plane and often just found planes secured with nothing more than bike locks.

Sleeping

Getting cozy in a Cub.

Our first leg from Idaho was to Las Vegas, which was unplanned due to headwinds that ground our speed down to 75 mph. “Three pairs of sunglasses and no underwear,” my companion said, frustrated to not have clothes that bridged the parkas and bikinis. We overnighted and used the time to call down to San Felipe Airport (Mexicali being another easy alternative) to confirm they had avgas and make sure they knew we were coming.

“Con gusto!” the Commandante said enthusiastically.

We departed Henderson the next morning VFR and quickly picked up the Colorado river, flying S-turns at low altitude. About 30 minutes north of the border we climbed to 2500 ft. and called Flight Service. They helped us file a flight plan en route, double checked we had the correct frequencies, and then handed us over briefly to Yuma for a squawk. Our chores behind us, the cockpit quieted and we flew on as if flying for a new world.

Far off in the distance a line appeared in the desert. On one side, verdant agricultural land of sparse settlement, and on the other, appearing as a kind of dystopian illusion, squalor mashed up against a dark line. We had reached the border. Houses and buildings crouched like flotsam, as if blown up from the distant sea on an invisible barrier. Beyond Yuma, the Colorado River spread out into an alluvial fan and eventually dumped its dark waters into the turquoise Sea of Cortez.

Yuma handed us off: “Contact San Felipe Approach on 118.5; at your altitude it might be a while before they hear you.”

For another twenty minutes we flew in silence. I thought about what the great dystopian author Cormac McCarthy said about the border at El Paso and Ciudad El Juarez, at the time the most dangerous city in the world. “I was sitting in a hotel room watching my young boy sleep. The trains were coming and going, and I thought to myself, the world won’t always look like this.”

We couldn’t pick anybody up on the radios so my co-pilot settled back down to near sea level, our balloon tires almost skimming the water surface. We aimed for a fisherman working a net off the rear of a panga, waving as we flew at eye level, doors and windows open. We breathed in the warm salty air. Unquestionably we were in a different country.

“Bievenidos a Mexico,” we finally heard on the radios, a greeting we won’t soon forget.

River

The views are hard to beat in a high wing airplane.

San Felipe Tower switched seamlessly to English and asked us to report at 10 mile increments. This is probably the first difference US pilots will notice. Tower communications always include distance (presumably because of the lack of radar) and it’s important that you follow their pattern orders correctly. We did not and we got a stern warning. Otherwise, radio communication in Mexico couldn’t be simpler.

San Felipe’s beautiful 5000-foot runway stretched out into the desert. We were told to enter a left downwind and then directed to park at the base of the tower once landed. There was a Jet Ranger helicopter with cameras (San Felipe is the start of the Baja 1000) and a Katmai 182 on the apron. Thanks to my female PIC flying at the controls of a bush plane, we were ensured a small welcoming ceremony. Machine gun toting men in fatigues sauntered up, eager for a photo. From the crowd a neatly uniformed Commandante stepped forward and introduced himself as Daniel, who I had spoken with the day before. Daniel was a pilot himself and spoke impeccable English.

We entered the terminal and made our way through a series of people sitting at desks taking various fees, which seemed to accumulate in $5 dollar increments. Receipts were given and each one pointed us down the line until we arrived at the Commandante’s office. Daniel was a wealth of information but mostly helped settle our anxiety. He filled out all our paperwork, including a flight plan (required between towered airports) and we were done in about 15 minutes. “I’m not going to a towered airport,” I said looking at my flight plan for Loreto. “Exactly,” Daniel said. “But eventually you will need fuel. So I put in the next towered airport. In Mexico, what you do in between airports is your own business.”

I was starting to see the functional beauty of Mexico’s bureaucracy.

Navigating Baja by air is pretty simple when you are limited to 46 gallons of fuel. You stick to the coasts and the coasts are where the airports are. We took an intersection departure at San Felipe, banked low over the town, and then flew south along the shore. It was unnerving at first not having our familiar ForeFlight map so we unplugged everything and just focused on flying. Steinbeck must have sensed this freedom when he wrote in his logbook, “the compass simply represents the ideal, present but unachievable, and sight-steering a compromise with perfection which allows your boat to exist at all.”

Beach

This is the Mexico many pilots come for.

Your first stop south along the Sea of Cortez will be exactly what you hoped for in a Baja flying experience: a crescent strip of white beach holding a translucent bay, dotted with a few fishing shacks and a small hotel at the north end. This is Bahia de los Angeles and those shacks are mostly owned by current or former pilots. No surprise there are several landing options, including one on the beach itself (though supposedly closed). We taxied right up to the hotel, drank an espresso but resisted diving into the ocean. We still had to make Mulege.

The oasis of Mulege is one of the best known in all of Baja. Unfortunately it has taken several beatings by chubascos or hurricanes. There is still a robust community of extranjeros (foreigners) that hang on but property prices here trade at significant discount compared to the rest of Baja. Chief among the several institutions is the grand Hotel Serenidad, mentioned earlier. This is probably the greatest fly-in resort in all of Mexico. Even though its raucous days are behind it, it has aged with grace and the staff make you feel like you’ve earned your own photo among the many that cover its walls.

Flying in, the main airport (now out of use) is easy to spot on the north side of the estuary. We had to circle the town several times before we convinced ourselves that the dried marsh at the mouth of the river was actually “El Gallito,” the hotel’s airstrip. We dragged it north to south, waking both cows and the military outpost. It was hard to imagine light twins using this airpstrip, but at the hotel bar there’s a photo of a C-130 taking off. Perhaps the tall palms have had time to recover.

We taxied right up to the beautiful white stucco arch proudly announcing the hotel and shut down. A small cohort from the army hut walked over with video cameras and clipboards—all standard procedure we learned. They asked for our licenses and where we came from and where we were headed. Our few bags were briefly searched. One soldier asked how much the plane cost before wishing us a buen viaje.

We settled into the wicker chairs at La Serenidad and watching the sunset were overcome with a sense of accomplishment. We had flown our small Cub from the winter of Idaho to the perpetual summer of Baja Mexico. The walls of the Serenidad spoke through hundreds of framed photos: of the parties, the planes and of an era when self-reliance and do-it-yourself confidence was more common. The staff was grateful to see us. They washed our plane and made sure there was always perfect guacamole and cold beers nearby.

La Serenidad

La Serenidad is a classic Baja fly-in hotel.

The next morning we took a run on the beach, working out the previous day’s flight and perhaps one too many margaritas. (There’s a saying in Spanish: “one is not enough; two is too many; don’t ask me about the third.”) My co-pilot preferred what they say in Argentina: “A la mesa y a la cama, se llama una vez” (to the table and to the bed, you call them only once.”)

The military was back at the plane waiting for us and we signed some logs but otherwise didn’t really understand this formality. We preflighted the plane for signs of cow and goat interference and departed to the south. The flight between Mulege and Loreto is perhaps the most picturesque of all with large inland bays, offshore islands, and remote beaches. The water is shallow and clear enough to read a paper through.

By this point we were down to a few gallons of fuel so we were eager to get to Loreto. As with San Felipe, they asked us to report inbound in increments of 10 miles but this time we found a first class airport with a lot of private jet traffic. Loreto represents the first colonial foothold in Baja and its central square could appear just about anywhere in Latin America—or a Marquez novel. Still, it’s small and seems quite apart from the remoteness of Baja.

We took a taxi into town for the night and ate a hearty marisco soup with poblano pepper-spiced margaritas. It was a Saturday night and the malecon, or boardwalk along the sea, was alive with music, vendors, and parading cars. We walked along hand-in-hand towards a building moon.

When we returned to the airport the FBO the next day, the staff had our flight plan already prepared to La Paz. We could have easily skipped the commercial stop at Baja’s capital city but we wanted to top off for fuel as this was a constant worry. As it turned out, La Paz was the most difficult of airports to navigate. It receives a large amount of commercial traffic. While the fuel is cheap, its bureaucracy is bloated and we found ourselves rushing around, having to chase the fuel truck down, find the flight planning office, and paying the various charges. In the end we only picked up 10 gallons of fuel (which later we would make good use of) but it took us almost an hour. We were glad to be on our way.

Police

Flying in Mexico often means dealing with welcoming committees… and paperwork.

Our next stop was Punta Pescadero, a fly-in resort still in its prime. Thanks to a group of Mexican investors who are also pilots, we got to see what flying in Mexico during its general aviation heyday might have looked like. Here we met a dapper couple that flew in on their Cessna 421 from Lake Tahoe. They deplaned in fedoras and heels. We were eager to know who they were so we looked for them at the bar and spent the evening with them dining poolside and talking about flying in Mexico. Turns out they were frequent guests and for thirty years they had been flown all over Central America, even with their young daughters.

We had a few days of downtime planned so we decided to rent four-wheelers and use Punta Pescadero as a base to explore what’s known as the East Cape of Baja. This is a special side of the peninsula that sits east of Cabo and slightly north. It’s a marine sanctuary and offers world class snorkeling (one of the islands is named after Jacques Cousteau). Punta Pescadero is a 5000 ft. paved runway with a small community of pilots, some whose houses have attached hangars. While more than one home has been seized by the Mexican government (presumably drug related), we met part-time residents from Ireland and even our native Idaho. South of Punta Pescadero, other less fortunate fly-in resorts abound and we had a great time landing at several strips that had been partly reclaimed by the sand dunes. There’s even a Four Seasons hotel going up, which stood in juxtaposition to the old fishing resorts that still dot this coastline—all with their own airstrips.

It was time for our long journey back north. Because of the cub’s limited fuel capacity, we were forced to retrace our route but an alternative would have been to fly the Pacific side, stopping in Guerrero Negro to see the whales. There are fly-in resorts alive and well per other reports and flyers we saw posted. Our journey was 2000 miles from Idaho to the southern tip of Baja. It took us 10 days and maybe a few thousand dollars. We had several days of no flying at all. We kite surfed, mountain-biked and sat in hot springs.

Our last night was staying back at the Serenidad and when I went to make our log entry to the hotel airstrip registrar, our entry of ten days earlier still stood as the most recent. I thought to myself that this place, empty as it was, might not be here the next time we came. Then I read the entry above ours, and it was a generation 4 Cirrus SR22T—a million dollar plane. Maybe it’s just a different kind of person that will take up the baton of general aviation. After all, Steinbeck said it best:

“Men really do need sea-monsters in their personal oceans.”

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