During my building years at my home shop, my next-door neighbor, a dentist, would often mention to me that when my project was complete, I should entertain the thought of joining a group that she was a part of called The Flying Samaritans. She described how the “Sams” used general aviation aircraft to support medical/dental clinics in Mexico. One of the strongest motivators to a kit aircraft builder, especially during the dreary stages, is to imagine the future adventures that lie ahead when the project is completed. I had already bucked and sanded to hours of daydreaming about Oshkosh, Johnson Creek, Flo’s Cafe, etc., so this was something new and interesting to think about.
After my RV-10 and I had a couple of hundred hours of getting to know each other, I decided to give the Sams a call and make an inquiry. I was directed to the Sams’ Phoenix chapter website, www.flyingsamaritans.com, where I could read about the Phoenix chapter, their clinic in Adolfo Lopez Mateos, fill out a pilot qualification/aircraft spec application, and even join by paying modest annual dues. A few days later, Charlie Brown, a Phoenix chapter chief pilot, came to visit me at my hangar.
Charlie Brown (left), PHX Sam’s chief pilot (Cessna T210M), and Dennis Gerlach, PHX Sam’s chapter president (Cessna 310R).
Charlie is a businessman with a passion for aviation and doing good works. He uses a pristine Cessna T210M for his Sams trips, but also owns an RV-7 of his own assembly, so he is very familiar with Van’s products. He asked me some questions about my airplane, my past experience, described a typical Sams trip, and answered any questions that I had at the time. He stressed that proficiency in Spanish was a plus, but not a requirement, especially for pilots. Most speak Spanish on a Taco Bell level. I was quite fluent once as a young man, so I looked forward to shaking off some rust.
One thing Charlie said that I will always remember is that all of the Sams participants, pilots, healthcare providers, and helpers, are all “very unique, very good hearted people.” Even though I believed it when he said it, experience has now proven that statement to be true. Charlie explained that the trips occur on the third weekend of each month except August and September, and their preference would be for a pilot to be able to commit to at least three trips a year. He then formally invited me to join them on their upcoming trip, which I eagerly accepted (although I have to admit that he had me at “nice airplane.”)
Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance
Charlie gave me a list of the things I would need to accomplish before the trip. The first was to get a U.S. Customs sticker for the airplane. It is not difficult, but it does take some time. The next thing was to get registered for the now required Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS). The eAPIS process is how trans-border flights get their required pre-approval to operate. Pilots must send their aircraft data and passenger manifests, and get a return confirmation at least one hour prior to departure. One can use the FAA site to register and submit the transactions or use an approved third-party site. Charlie strongly recommended joining the Baja Bush Pilots organization, Bush Pilots International, at www.bushpilotsinternational.com. According to Charlie, the BPI site was the most user friendly of all that he had tried and much easier to use than the government site (go figure). I joined BPI and got my eAPIS registration almost immediately.
Taking a GA airplane to Mexico requires an entry permit, and one of the prerequisites for that permit is insurance coverage. I called my broker, Gallagher & Co., and for $125 they were able to attach a Mexican rider to my AIG policy, complete with a separate policy in Spanish and issued from their office in Mexico City. They also gave me assurance that the two unpaved runways that would be used during the Sams trips were well known and were not in violation of the “unimproved runway exclusion” in the policy.
Bahía Concepción (Conception Bay), just south of Muleg on the Gulf side of Baja. It’s a popular sightseeing diversion on the way back to the hotel from the clinic at Lopez Mateos.
As the day of the first trip approached, I set about making sure that the airplane was in tip-top shape. Obviously, reliability is key on a trip like this, especially when many others are depending upon a successful completion of the mission. I had just completed a condition inspection a few weeks previous, but I still rechecked all of the fluids, pressures, belt tensions, etc. I also equipped the airplane with a backcountry kit of common spares—tire, tube, Piper-plug jumper cables, and basic tools, including the all important, but often forgotten, Schrader valve tool. Tiedowns and a good control lock system are also must haves. Since the trip would encompass two crossings of the Gulf of California, I also equipped with an airline-type life vest at every seat.
Two days before the trip, the co-chief pilot and dispatcher, Don Downey, sends each pilot their passenger list based upon both geographical location in the greater Phoenix Valley and (ahem) weight, knowing ahead of time the declared capacities of each aircraft. RV-10s are known for a healthy useful load. The longest time between fuel stops requires about four hours of fuel for a healthy reserve, so I could easily fill the seats.
Once the pilot has their passenger list, they can fill out the eAPIS information for each passenger and submit the request since all of the required information is included (name, address, nationality, birthplace, birth date, passport number, and expiration date). Another part of the eAPIS submission is the approximate time and location of where the aircraft will cross the border.
Mexico essentially copied the U.S. system for their form of eAPIS, so the return flight can be submitted at the same time. It is absolutely essential that the actual passengers you carry match the submitted list(s). A last-minute change requires a new submission. One nice feature of the BPI interface is that it builds a passenger library of each passenger that you load, so a future trip with the same passenger is simply a matter of selecting their name from the library, and all of their pertinent information loads automatically. Previous flight plans are also stored and can be reused and/or reversed for future trips.
Once the eAPIS submissions were sent, I got an almost immediate confirmation email from BPI that the submissions had been made, followed up about 15 minutes later by a new email forwarded to me by BPI from U.S. Customs and Border Protection with an eAPIS confirmation number, along with the phrase, “Based upon the information submitted, the travelers identified within this manifest are cleared for this flight.”
The last remaining aeronautical task before departure is to file a simple VFR flight plan to the (initial) destination, which in our case is MMGM, Guaymas, Mexico. All aircraft must enter the country at a designated port of entry. The Sams have been using MMGM for decades, so they are on a practical first-name basis with the officials there who are very familiar and supportive of the mission of the Sams. Treats are often exchanged.
On the Thursday evening before the launch, each pilot is required to make contact with his assigned crew and coordinate departure plans. The crews are doctors, dentists, nurses, hygienists, pharmacists, translators, therapists, aides, and even family members on occasion. There are always those on their first trip and old salts who’ve done dozens of clinic trips over many years, if not decades.
Vamonos (Let’s Go)
One thing that I will now interject into the narrative: As I write this, I have completed six clinic trips with the Sams, and the remainder of this report will be a composite of those trips. Yes, I obviously enjoy them very much!
We met up at 8:30 a.m. for a proposed 9:00 departure. It was easier to load the airplane than to shoehorn all of the vehicles into my T hangar. After a quick safety brief, we were on our way.
Flight plan opened, we were on our way to MMGM via direct Hermosillo, HMO, direct. A quick check on the air-to-air frequency had four other Sams replying, with two showing on the traffic display courtesy of my ADS-B and the new Dynon dual-channel receiver.
Approaching the border, Tucson Departure bid us farewell and instructed us to squawk VFR with instructions to contact Hermosillo radio about 75 miles from HMO.
I have to admit, although I have visited various parts of Mexico often and am quite comfortable there, it admittedly felt a little odd and foreboding to fly over the wall. (Yes, parts of the infamous wall already exist and have for years). Not very many airports show up on my Dynon display south of the border, but there is a lot of agricultural land and quite a few crop duster strips available in case of emergency.
Tuning into Hermosillo radio, the uninitiated may be taken aback by hearing both controllers and aircraft communicating in Spanish, but upon call-up in English, they respond back in perfect English, assign a squawk code and, upon radar contact, provide full flight following services, acting as the equivalent of both Center and TRACON all the way until handing us off to Guaymas tower. As Guaymas is situated between two bays with surrounding hills, the flights in and out are quite scenic.
Upon initial call-up to Guaymas tower on 118.6, the controller will supply the equivalent of ATIS information (winds, altimeter, and active runway), and tell you to continue visually for the assigned runway and to report 10 miles out. At the 10-out call, you are either cleared to land and/or advised of traffic to follow. Upon landing, the midfield taxiway leads you right to the ramp, where fuel and customs/immigration are conveniently located.
Sign at entry gate of the Hotel Serenidad for the December clinic. The Sams participants put on a Christmas party for the children of the hotel. One of the pilots wears a Santa suit and gives backpacks filled with toys and school supplies donated by the Sams participants.
Upon shutdown, passengers can disembark but shouldn’t leave the immediate aircraft footprint area until cleared to do so. The standard routine is to pull out all personal luggage and leave it on the ramp near the aircraft. A couple of soldiers will approach the aircraft, perhaps even with a dog that will quickly sniff the luggage. All officials and fuelers are able to communicate in passable English. The passengers will be instructed to take their bags and proceed to the entry door where restrooms are also available.
The pilot will be asked some additional information such as pilot license number and point of origin, and then the fueler will approach and get your fuel order. If not topping off, they prefer an order in liters but can do the math for gallons if needed. If not overfilling fuel is critical, I would do the math myself and even monitor the upload. They also ask if you are paying in cash or credit card. There is a 4% surcharge for credit and perhaps a less-than-favorable exchange rate to boot. Avgas, reportedly sourced from Texas, cost a very reasonable equivalent of $3.86 (cash) per gallon on a recent trip. Most of the Sams pilots buy pesos in the States and pay cash for all expenses in Mexico. At Guaymas, at least, the way they like to fuel is line the airplanes up and manually pull them by a tow bar to the stationary fuel truck.
Runway 32 is the preferred arrival at GLL, “el Gallito.” The unpaved strip is next to the Hotel Serenidad in Muleg.
Once a pilot’s ramp duties are complete, you grab your personal bag and proceed to immigration, leaving flight and tool bags etc., in the airplane. At immigration, you fill out the immigration form, the bottom of which becomes your tourist visa. Everyone needs to carefully retain that visa stub as it must be surrendered upon leaving. The pilot pays the visa cost of 500 pesos (approx $29) for each passenger, but there is no charge for the pilot. Right next door in the cramped hallway is aduana (customs). There, each person places their bag on the screening table and presses a red button. If the light comes up green, you take your bag and proceed. A red light means they must inspect your bag. After customs, the passengers are done and can proceed to a waiting area where restrooms are available. The pilot proceeds to the airport commandant’s office (think old school FSS), which is just around a glass partition from the customs exit door.
To fly a small aircraft into Mexico, you need an entry pass. You can purchase a single pass, or for about 1.5 times the price of a single pass, you can buy a multi-entry pass for 1900 pesos (about $102). This is where you present your documentation (insurance, certificates, etc.). It speeds things up tremendously if you have copies already made and just hand them a complete packet. You can also call and prearrange to fax or email copies of the documentation ahead of time.
Once the officer has prepared your entry pass, you reverse course and go back to both customs and immigration, who must stamp it. When you return with the proper stamps, the officer will start filling out your departure flight plan and direct you to the cashier’s office where you will pay for your fuel plus your landing fee, which is about $6.40. Once you have your receipt, you return to the commandant’s office where your flight plan should be ready. For this particular Sams trip, the flight plan is to GLL (el Gallito “the little rooster”), which is about 82 miles across the Gulf of California. The tower clears you to back taxi and take off, and asks that you report 10 miles away. It’s an absolutely gorgeous departure. Now the adventure really begins.
The actual clinic at Adolfo Lopez Mateos. The motor home is a support vehicle that is also a mobile clinic treatment/exam room.
Flying across the open Gulf in a light single-engine airplane, especially one you constructed yourself, is a bit surreal. There is only about half of the 30-minute flight where a dead stick is going to cool you off considerably, but it is amazing how differently you perceive the normal sounds and vibrations of the airplane, including the inevitable (or imagined) coughs and misses inherent to piston aircraft engines. It’s like you hear every tic of every tappet. A seasoned veteran said he copes with it by covering the flight noises with loud rock music, suggesting AC/DC as particularly effective. As enjoyable as the flight is, your countenance and glute clench relaxes at the point where you know that you have the runway made.
The universal frequency for uncontrolled strips is 122.8. GLL is a decades old unpaved strip that serves the town of Muleg, and adjoins the Hotel Serenidad, which is a well-known “resort” (so to speak) to Baja aficionados. Just remember that you’re not in the USA, and don’t flush the toilet paper and you’ll be fine. Time to relax and enjoy.
Upon landing, there is a small contingent of soldiers attached to the airport and two or three will greet the pilot. Don’t be intimidated by the machine guns. They just need to get the pilot’s name and the aircraft’s registration for their records. I guess they technically close your flight plan, but the whole flight plan thing is rather vague to begin with. I wouldn’t count on a VFR flight plan to initiate a search and rescue operation, at least on the same day. I count on the 406 ELT and my fellow Sams for that. The passengers are free to take their things and proceed to the hotel lobby. There are usually children who will approach the aircraft to carry bags into the hotel lobby for tips or treats.
The “waiting room” for the clinic. Most folks walk, some even camp overnight. A triage nurse organizes them into their treatment category, and they are given numbered colored plastic passes.
The clinic itself is at Adolfo Lopez Mateos, which is on the Pacific side of the peninsula and farther south about 110 miles from GLL. The back door of the clinic building is literally feet from the shore of the bay where gray whales birth their calves.
Early the next morning there was a flight briefing for the pilots at breakfast. The weather brief comes from calling down to the clinic and whatever you can find on the internet. Sometimes a marine layer causes a delay. When “clear enough” comes, we launch and proceed in a loose formation to the clinic. It’s another beautiful and rewarding flight.
The runway at Lopez is long and wide, and composed of packed, crushed seashells from the adjoining packing plant, which makes for a nice surface. Upon landing, another couple of soldiers will meet each pilot while the passengers get to work at the clinic. Once again, the soldiers just need the aircraft registration number and pilot’s name and certificate number for their clipboard. At this point, the pilots are on their own. If you speak Spanish, as I do, they’ll put you to work doing something. Others do light aircraft maintenance or fix things around the clinic. You can take a nap, walk into town, and even hire a panga (small boat) to see the whales, if in season.
One thing that you cannot help but be touched by is seeing the large crowd of patients waiting at the waiting room. Most walked, even long distances. Some are in wheelchairs. Some slept on the ground to get in line. For many, clinic days are the only healthcare they receive. It grabs you and rewards you. It makes you count your blessings and makes you glad you came. It is amazing to watch the healthcare providers do their thing. They work their tails off.
As the frenetic clinic day winds down, the pilots get their ships ready for the return trip to the hotel. This is my favorite leg of the journey. Some return direct, some fly low up the Pacific coastline for several miles. I like to cut over to the east side early and then take a low-level tour over Bahía Concepción. It’s a beautiful bay on the Gulf side with some gorgeous coves and inlets where the odd million-dollar yacht may be anchored near pristine beaches.
GLL at Muleg lies just to the top of the bay. On my last trip, upon arrival from the clinic, I took three of the soldiers based at the airstrip for a short loop around the area. Their assignment is dealing with and protecting small aircraft, but they’d never flown in one. They seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.
Saturday nights after a clinic turn into party time. The Hotel Serenidad is famous for their Saturday night pig roasts. There’s nothing quite like the entire Sams crew, locals, other gringo visitors, and even hotel employees singing “Sweet Caroline” at the top of our lungs to live karaoke. Adult beverages flow freely from the patio/pool bar. As a teetotaler, I’m quite partial to a refreshing lemon/limeade they offer.
The next morning we reverse the trip home. It’s a quick leg back over the Gulf to Guaymas to refuel, surrender our visas, and exit the country. At Guaymas we file a VFR flight plan to KOLS (Nogales, Arizona) as our port of entry, having already processed our eAPIS. It is important to be mindful of your original ETA. Hermosillo radio will hand off from flight following about 20 miles south of the border to Prescott radio. Once you update your ETA to the FSS, they issue you a squawk code for the border crossing. As enjoyable as every trip is, there is always comfort and relief when you cross the wall (fence) back to the home side. Reentry at Nogales is a breeze as long as you are prepared. Each person needs a standard 6059B declaration form. The airplane needs to have a current sticker. Each person needs to present their passport, and your passenger list needs to perfectly match your eAPIS submission.
Another hour from Nogales, and we’re home, exhausted, but happy.
So, what kind of airplane is required for one of these trips, and can a kit aircraft compete? Basically any airplane that can fill the seats with normal adults and still carry four hours of fuel can work. I’ve seen Cessnas from 182s up through a 414, Pipers from Dakotas up through a Navajo, and Bonanzas, Barons, and Mooneys. Anything less than four seats and about 235 horsepower isn’t really in the ballpark. Weight-carrying ability is primary to speed, although if you’re slow, there may be some trash talk on the air-to-air frequency.
The unpaved runways are wide and long enough for King Airs. The surfaces are good as long as it hasn’t rained recently. The biggest FOD (foreign object debris) concern is soft clods more than hard rocks, but good backcountry propeller practices are wise—for example, not doing a static runup.
When I built my RV-10, I built the wheelpants around the larger Monster retread tires. I also raised the main pants an extra half inch for more tire clearance. I’ve had no issues with the wheelpants, and I’m very pleased with the performance of the airplane on these trips. It has drawn praise from passengers and other pilots as well.
As far as other kit aircraft go, in addition to an RV-10, a four-seat Bearhawk would do great, as would a sturdy Velocity or similar type. Anything that’s a reliable four-place or better should work, but a 2+2 probably wouldn’t be sufficient.
When the healthcare providers are asked why they pay money out of pocket to treat people for free, they say that it takes them back to why they went to medical/dental school in the first place. When asked why Mexico instead of the United States, their answers essentially boil down to “red tape.” I get it. I feel the same on the pilot side.
For me, it boils down to feeling very blessed to have a passion for flying. Having the means and time to impart some of that passion into giving back by doing good work for others is just icing on the cake. Doing that in an aircraft that you constructed yourself and can compete shoulder to shoulder with the factory workhorses is immeasurably rewarding and satisfying.