This story is about 30,000 miles of sky-tripping in our 1947 Model 35 Bonanza. That is, this is a "highway" article. In highway stories you should feel the trip more than the destination. In a highway story, the trip is the destination.
In Mexico and the French Caribbean, the controllers and tower people seemed to know one another and there were bits of conversations like, “Brother, great to hear your voice. Where you flying today?” The second speaker would response with a place. “Oh that is nice, don’t forget to say hi for me to Juanita who works at the airport restaurant.” “Okay, I will. I will give her a kiss from you (laughter).” After some return laughter, the next response might be, “Hey you are cleared for takeoff.” In U.S. airspace the chatter was filled with altitude assignments and requests from the younger-voiced copilots of airliners asking for altitude changes. Sometimes it seemed like no one liked their assigned altitude. Most of the voices were just doing a job, but occasionally there would be a very friendly or particularly courteous voice from either the land or air. At the smaller airports outside the USA the pilots often just requested a visual approach as though they were flying a 172 rather than a 737.
As though taking a cue from American ATC, my wife Susane’s comments in the air were most often professional in nature. Someone listening in might think we were flying a small airliner rather than a Bonanza. Her occasional non-flying conversation was usually related to clouds: She is big- time into clouds. And she is wowed to be verbal about clouds: big clouds, little clouds, high clouds, low clouds, scattered clouds, overcast clouds; and white ones, pink ones, red ones and black ones. One comment was that a set of clouds were like those that Samantha and Endora (the witch and her mother in “Bewitched”) sat upon while conversing in the sky.
The planet seen from a relatively low altitude is mind-warping, interesting, varied, and beautiful. The Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madres on our trip from our home in Washington State to Mexico last Christmas were truly magnificent and potentially dangerous. Especially interesting, and the subject of our in-air conversation, was the isolated villages seen high in the Sierra Madres of Mexico. It appeared that it would take days by horse or on foot for the people to reach the nearest road. We learned that many varied dialects are still spoken there.
Flying along the west coast of Mexico, the pleasure of seeing 10,000 foot peaks out of one window and the Pacific Ocean out the other was almost intoxicating. Guaymas reminded my wife of Corfu, Greece. In our recent trips to the Caribbean, the islands were varied, ranging from sand patches in the Bahamas to high mountain peaks thrusting through the sea in the southern Caribbean. The island shapes and textured sea surface were enchanting. The sands under the shallow parts of the sea were patterned as though by an artist. Near Santa Marta, Colombia, the clouds looked like foaming waves breaking against the mountains. Not to be outdone, the scenery of the southwest United States is unequaled in beauty, and our various flights coming and going through Tucson were a vista of colored rock mountains and skies and cactus-strewn deserts. The flight into Salt Lake City was also beautiful.
Regarding road service facilities (ground and air), in my car I often buy gas at truck stops because the atmosphere is usually interesting and the conversations road trip related. The larger airport equivalent unfortunately is not usually as colorful. The
most dependable relief to commercial airport organization and impersonality I found to be out on the line – the gas guys were often chatty and a good source of knowledge about the airport, people who worked there, and life in general. Two thirds of the philosophers encountered on the trip pumped the gas into our antique Bonanza, N3255V. A very notable exception was found at Landmark Aviation in Scottsdale, Arizona. We landed when our CO test button indicated carbon monoxide in the cabin. The staff there was most helpful in repairing the exhaust and also troubleshooting a radio problem that turned out to be an antennae issue. They did the work at a very reasonable cost. In talking to the radio guy, the other job they were completing was for $250,000 of radio gear, but they gave us the same service. We were the only non-turbine aircraft on the line or in their maintenance building. One lone red Bonanza among a world of white turbine aircraft. In spite of my big airport comments, in our long distance travel we almost always landed at the commercial airports because of the convenience of approach control; VASI/ILS guidance; strobing approach lights at night; and FBO terminals with coffee, crew rooms, snacks, and rental cars. The airports in Mexico were a bit more interesting just because of culture.
The tight security and the required multiple stops to visit government officials, however, made them mostly not fun. Manzanillo was different. The government aviation guy was particularly friendly and helpful. In Culiacan I was annoyed with the USA for requiring me to file an online USA and Mexican eApis (airline passenger information) manifest as though the international world is made up of Internet connections. The U.S. eApis system is annoyingly glitchy. The attractive woman to whom I complained while she sat at her desk in the aviation department was friendly and agreed with my complaints about USA/Mexican formalities.
Part of the reason for her jumping on my complaint bandwagon is the very heavy security requirement imposed by the USA for airport certification. Mexican security and procedures are more onerous than in the USA and include dogs sniffing the airplane at most stops. Between drug cartels and Muslim terrorists (so say the Mexicans), they have a large job to protect the USA at considerable inconvenience to themselves. In large measure this sentiment was found in Belize and Guatemala also.
We found that there is a blanket of fear and suspicion everywhere, mostly due to terrorism, which felt like a dark cloak placed over the world. The airport security drama is not fun, but it can be amusing in its extreme nature. And it does yield results. We saw seized N-registered aircraft at every large airport – often for fake or revoked airworthiness certificates.
Concerning pilots, the foreign-based pilots were easier to engage and were more vocal than the U.S. pilots who tended to keep to themselves. I found out early on that nobody quite knew what to do with a pilot in a bathing suit and Hawaiian shirt so I bought an epaulet-bearing pilot’s shirt that reduced the confusion and got us better service and easier access to the ramp.
Good cafes are important on any road trip. After spending hours behind the wheel (yoke), the idea of emptying your bladder and finding some good food and a little coffee can become compelling. This is an area where car food selection has superior options because you can size up the restaurant before pulling into the parking lot. Selecting a café from the air is mostly an unknown. The best food combined with the most interesting conversation that we found were at the employee dining rooms at the Manzanillo, Mexico, international airport, and at the big Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. The food was good, not expensive, and there were local airport people to talk to. Hispanic people tend to joke more, be more open, and will more clearly state their opinion than Americans, in my experience. In Manzanillo a taxi driver at the employee restaurant gave us detailed information about the nationality of the tourists, and in Guatemala City, the three women working in the restaurant joked most of the time amongst themselves as they prepared a hamburger and fries for me. I should mention that both my wife and I are bilingual. In Midland, Texas, there was a good Chinese restaurant at the airport and at the Lakeland, Florida, airport restaurant the waitress was a jokester and very friendly. It was there we ran across the ladies of the Red Hat Society.
In prior issues I have written articles about some of the geographical places (Caribbean, Colombia, etc.) that we have visited in the last year and a half, and there are plans for future articles about Belize and Guatemala and perhaps the French Caribbean Island of Guadalupe (beautiful) and the island of Haiti (tragic). But as a fellow pilot, I think you’ll agree the best place we visited was the sky, and the best experience was the flying experience – the road trip. The sky and experience are real places, one in the air and the other in the heart.
They are perhaps the real destinations for those of us who enjoy the flying, the road trip experience, and the thrill of traveling in our own small plane. To me it is obvious: If your purpose is primarily to get to a place, it is faster, cheaper, and much less work to buy a cheap (compared to flying your own plane) first-class seat on a commercial jet liner. An ex-pilot friend, talking about our most recent trip, told me that piloting a plane is just too much work for the benefit. But I know otherwise.