By Jonathan Paul, MAPA #5549
This story is about our honeymoon trip in our Mooney to the Central American country Belize. Well, it wasnt exactly our honeymoon. That distinction belonged to our young friends and Mooney owners Monika and Morten Boyd. What is interesting is that Monika and Morten (who I will henceforth abbreviate as M&M) invited us, a couple 25 years their senior, to share this special time with them. This is, in itself, a testimony to that special bond that can grow up between flyers.
I met M&M at a Mooney fly-in at Mulegé, Baja Sur, Mexico, in the Spring of 2004. They are a professional couple from Los Angeles who fly a well-equipped 1970 F model, N9344V. Both M &M are of European descent. Monika is Swiss and Morten is Norwegian/Irish. They are charming, fun to be with, and exuding affection for each other.
Meeting Monika and Morten at Serenidad Hotel, Baja Sur, February 2004
Later in the year they joined the Mooney Caravan to Oshkosh and we spent some quality time drinking California wine in the warmth of the Wisconsin evening. It was there that Gayle and I were invited to their wedding. This was very flattering, but not more than when, after the wedding ceremony, Morten said We were thinking of taking our Honeymoon trip over Christmas to Belize. Would you like to join us? The answer was, of course, Why, yes!
Monika and Morten at their wedding
M&M are avid scuba divers and Belize, with its fantastic reef, was a logical place for them to vacation. I am sure, however, that the notion of flying to Central America was somewhat daunting especially for relatively new Mooney owners with only one short trip to Mexico under their belts. The idea of doing the trip with another plane represented much less of a stretch. In retrospect, we both felt a great comfort in the fact that we were planning and executing the trip together. The flying part of the trip was without anxiety and did not differ materially from a long cross country in the United States. For pilots considering a south of the border trip, traveling with another plane or with a group not only adds a significant measure of safety but also provides companions with whom one can share the experience.
Having decided in early September to make the trip, we had over three months for planning. We had agreed on Belize as a final destination, but the rest of the trip was a blank page. Belize lies on the eastern flank of the Yucatan Peninsula, so an obvious side trip would be to visit some Mayan ruins. At this point, both Morten and I used the Internet to gather information about stopover points, accommodations and other arrangements. In Belize much of the tourist area is centered on Ambergris Caye, a narrow sandbar about a half mile from the worlds second longest reef. Accepting recommendations from a guidebook, we made week-long reservations at the Caribbean Villas, a combination beach front hotel and bird sanctuary. As for intermediate stops, we selected Tikal in Guatemala as our destination to see Mayan ruins based on the itinerary of a group trip organized by the Baja Bush Pilots (BBP). I suggested seeing a bit of colorful Southern Mexico, so we scheduled a two-day stopover in the mountain city Oaxaca (pronounced waa-haaca). Finally on our final leg northbound, we planned to spend New Years Eve in Alamos, a colonial town, where the principle hotel has planned a gala dinner and dance.
With these fixed stopover points, we decided to fly south on the eastern Gulf coast of Mexico and northbound on the Pacific coast. Our itinerary looked like this:
Our point of departure from the United States was to be Brownsville Texas where we would meet up with M&M. Thus, for the outbound trip, at least, we would actually cover more miles over the United States than over foreign territory. The northbound half of the trip would cross the mountains in Southern Mexico and then basically follow the Pacific Coast reentering the states in Calexico, California.
Now that the trip is done, I cannot emphasize the importance and helpfulness of the Internet is making arrangements and assisting with our planning. Secondly, I would never make such a trip without a Jeppesen trip kit with all necessary IFR charts and airport diagrams. Even if the trip is strictly VFR, the wealth of information in the trip kit and especially the approach charts is most helpful. The role of Baja Bush Pilots was minor and, in fact, their Airports of Mexico book is disappointing and possibly out of date.
Both Morton and I were very organized about all the necessary documents. We each had a dedicated packet containing everything we needed. These included the following:
Passports and visas
Aircraft airworthiness certificate
Aircraft insurance policy confirming liability coverage in countries to be visited
Permission letter if aircraft corporate owned.
Permission letters from countries that require them (Guatemala)
Monika being a Swiss citizen required a visa to visit Belize. Otherwise, a passport was sufficient identification.
I carried an emergency kit that was left over from a prior trip to Alaska consisting of flares, food, water, a medical kit, and various warm and protective clothing items. To combat common mechanical problems I carried a battery charger, tire pump, fuel siphon, a tool kit (lots of duct tape) and an empty 5 gallon fuel container. I had considered getting training on how to change spark plugs and clean injectors but ran out of time.
I figured the most likely mechanical problem would be with my on-board avionics or the electrical system that powers them. Therefore I also brought my King 99 handheld transceiver and a used Garmin 195 portable GPS that I picked up on e-bay for $100 (what a deal). This latter unit proved so superior to my panel mounted VFR GPS that it became my principle means of navigation. Thirty two double-A batteries were close at hand if required (which they werent).
Morton said he was satisfied bringing a spare airplane (mine) and, so far as I know, he made no special provisions for an emergency.
December is not always the most benign time of the year in the Southwest. But as the departure date approached our trip across the Southern USA looked favorable. On the other hand, the Mexican Gulf coast looked marginal. Satellite images and surface analysis charts showed a persistent low with frontal activity hanging over that part of our route. We discussed a contingency plan to fly south down the Pacific coast of Mexico. However by the Friday preceding our departure, the messy stuff had moved offshore into the Gulf. From California to Texas, a high-pressure area was building and ceilings and visibility were unlimited. As it turned out, we had nearly perfect weather for our entire trip while, in our absence, California endured almost two weeks of torrential rains, snow in the higher elevations, and icing levels below well below 5,000 feet. In short we were fortunate with weather. Although by all accounts, December is one of the nicest months of the year in the tropics and usually is spared the monsoon weather of the summer months.
Gayle is an elementary school principal and her school closed for Christmas break a week before Christmas. So on Saturday morning, December 18th, we took off from our home base in Salinas for our first en route overnight stop, Tucson Arizona. N9208M is a manual-gear 1966 E-model that I have owned since 1984 (along with a 201 and a 231 at various times). It is reliable and simple and with 250 hours on the factory overhaul, would be expected to be trouble free. The airplane, has been carefully packed during the preceding week and had the oil newly changed and all equipment working well.
With only 52 gallons, 08M does not have exceptional range. An unusual 25 knot headwind reduced our ground speed to 120 knots and the fuel computer was predicting 4 gallons reserve at landing in Tucson. So we made a fuel stop in Blythe and landed in Tucson after five hours total flight time. If anyone needs a recommendation for a restaurant in Tucson, the Poco Cosa Restaurant, serving regional Mexican food, served up the best meal on a trip that was characterized by exceptional cuisine. This restaurant, a favorite of ours, was the main reason we planned our stop in Tucson and it did not disappoint.
Poco Cosa Restaurant in Tucson
We departed Tucson early the next morning to avoid the afternoon turbulence and landed after an uneventful 4 hour flight at our second overnight stop, San Angelo Texas where we spent the night with Gayles relatives.
On Monday morning we were up early for an 8am departure for Brownsville where we had planned for an 11am rendezvous with Monika and Morten. Once again, the SE winds and the restricted military areas conspired to delay our arrival at Brownsville by some 30 minutes. But just before noon, we were united with our trip partners who, being young and energetic, had flown nearly all the way from Santa Monica the previous day.
Our Rendezvous at Brownsville Texas
At about 1pm, we took off from Brownsville and opened and closed our DVFR with Brownsville approach control. The airport is about 2 minutes from the border so one call did it all. We then called Matamoros Tower and informed them that we would be transiting their traffic management area en route to Vera Cruz at 7,500 feet. As is normal, they requested that we report in 10 miles to the south as we left their area. We formed up in a loose formation about 500 to 1,000 feet apart and headed south.
N4344V over the Mexican Gulf Coast en route to Vera Cruz
The coast is very flat with sand bars, algae green estuaries, and little signs of habitation (at least from our altitude).
Over the Mexican Gulf Coast
Our flight proceeded southbound without much excitement. We chatted continuously on the radiowhich made for a friendly, connected feeling. After four hours we approached the industrial city of Vera Cruz, our planned overnight stop. 50 miles out we announced our penetration of their large TMA. The English proficiency of all the controllers was excellent (not always the case in Mexico) and we had no problems with any communication except for the occasional request to repeat some instruction.
Vera Cruz has a modern looking airport and terminal with several commercial passenger jets parked at the gates. We were ushered into the customs area where we were informed that there was a special charge of $110.00 for planes arriving between 3pm and 5 pm on Mondays. This had us outraged, but there was little we could do with our Spanish limited to the words baño and margarita. We felt taken advantage of. In fairness, this was the only time during the whole trip that we were ripped off, although it was done with exceptional politeness. As we write this, Baja Bush Pilots is investigating the incident on our behalf, but we expect little relief. Monika summed it up by observing that we (as residents of the States) have so much and the so many Mexicans have so little. It was perhaps only a small measure of wealth redistribution that we could easily afford.
In the excitement of our discussions with customs, we neglected to go through some of the other necessary steps related to arriving at our Mexican airport of entry. This was no problem, but it meant extra work on our departure the next morning.
We boarded a taxi for our drive to our downtown hotel. The driver must have thought he was trying out for the Daytona 500 because we had the taxi ride from hell all the way to the hotel, running red lights, passing into oncoming traffic, honking and playing chicken with pedestrians. Gayle, always the teacher, said she wanted to spank the driver. The downtown hotel, affiliated with Howard Johnsons, was pleasant and colonial. We slept well.
The next day, we arrived at the airport at about 9am to get an early start. However it took nearly two hours to get all our paperwork straightened out. This included obtaining a multi-entry general declaration ($50), filing a flight plan ($10), paying for overnight parking ($10) and buying fuel ($4.00/gal). This set a pattern for most of our airport arrival/departures. Morten and I ran around filling out paperwork and paying out money while our wives sat around the airport guarding the baggage and being bored. We departed at about 11am and followed the shoreline south.
South of Vera Cruz there are some substantial mountains that come almost to the shoreline. They were very picturesque and very green. We kept generally offshore until the city of Minititlan where we picked up a nearly direct easterly heading for Belize City across the Yucatan Peninsula. I was somewhat disappointed with the jungle. I expected to see an unbroken canopy with dangerous looking vines rising up to snare the unsuspecting aviator. Except for the last 100 miles or so, there was considerable cultivation and villages. We crossed several rivers that looked swollen and brown.
About an hour out of Belize City, the scattered clouds below us (we were again at 7,500 feet) closed up to form a pretty solid undercast. We were not flying so close as on the previous day since that was somewhat tiring and it was more relaxing to more alone. We occasionally saw the sun glint off 4344V about 2 miles ahead. Morten caught the Belize City ATIS which was reporting 2500 foot overcast in light rain showers. It this point, we had to make a decision. Get down through one of the infrequent breaks in the overcast or continue on to Belize City and try to get a pop-up approach into the airport. We really did not know if the latter was possible or considered good form outside the U.S. As was typical on our flight, I chose to descend and Morten chose to continue at altitude (secretly hoping for an instrument approach). We came across a nice hole about 75 miles west of Belize City and descended to 2500 feet. This altitude was well above any of the small hills in the area and I was perhaps 500 feet below the cloud layer. There was occasional drizzle and the visibility was relatively good at 7-10 miles. I reported to Morten the conditions and he too found a hole (a virtual hole he admitted later) about 25 miles out of Belize City. Several airliners were shooting the VOR approach into the airport.
Our route to Belize City was not exactly direct as we had to make a slight dogleg to the north to avoid Guatemalan airspace. On this trip, Guatemala was the one country that required prior permission to fly in their airspace. When we received our faxed authorization, it was very clear that it applied only to certain days and that at all other times we were forbidden to fly into their country. Our authorizations did not become valid for a week, so we made a point of not antagonizing the Guatemalan authorities. I doubt if they would have scrambled F-16s to intercept us. In fact, I doubt if they even knew we were nearby. But better to be safe than sorry. So our GPS units kept us five mile or so north of the Guatemalan border.
Our arrival into Belize City differed from those at Mexican airports in two respects: 1) we had to get the approval of at least a ten governmental functionaries and 2) we were greeted by helpers who were to see us through the formalities. My helper was a tall and gentlemanly fellow named Javier who whispered that he would only charge us $50 dollars for his services ($25 on arrival and $25 on departure). Considering the number of rubber stamps that we had to obtain and forms we had to fill out, this was a bargain. He earned his $25. Once again, Gayle and Monika waited patiently as Morten and I scurried around hither and yon getting approvals and paying out money.
We decided not to get fuel as it was getting late in the day, about 4:00 pm and we still had to fly to our end destination, San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye before dark. So we filed a flight plan and received a briefing for the 26 mile flight across the bay. The briefing was kind of silly because one could figure out all the information such as departure and Unicom frequencies from the maps. But it was required and we listened patiently.
We took off, Morton ahead, and headed directly to San Pedro and its 4,000-foot paved strip. The flight was totally over water. It turns out that a fleet of Cessna Caravans fly almost constantly between Belize City and San Pedro ferrying tourists to the popular resorts on the Caye. We saw several coming and going on our short flight. We landed behind one who seemed a bit wary of these wayward Mooneys flitting around their private territory.
Short Final at San Pedro
San Pedro Airport is a bit odd. It is adjacent to the town. At the northern end of the single runway is a taxiway that carries on for another 1,000 feet to a ramp area that is right in the heart of the business section. In fact, the terminal building looks just like another storefront on the main street. We were advised to avoid that ramp area and parked off to the right of the runway on a grassy patch. Waiting for us was the representative of Caribbean Villas with a super sized gold cart.
Tied down at San Pedro Airstrip
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