“No, don’t worry, that alarm only means we’re almost crashing!” the pilot yelled over a wailing propellor and a strangled electronic bleat from the console. Not that I could hear him, as I hung out the window trying to photograph a race car while somebody held me in the plane by a fistful of shirt.
So we spent the last week of April buzzing up and down Baja, Mexico in a few different Cessna single-prop four-pack airplanes from the 1960s and 70s. The objective: chase and video the NORRA Mexican 1000. That’s a 1,200-plus mile race of vintage trucks, buggies, motorcycles, at least one trike, and a small cohort of trophy trucks from Ensenada all the way down to Cabo San Lucas over tight scrub tracks, infinite beaches, and wide open desert.
That involved a little relaxing flying, and a fair few amazing moments I’ll never forget. Here are some of the latter.
Mighty Wind Versus Puny Airplane
The airport at San Ignacio is nothing more than a mile of chicken fencing, an outhouse, and one long strip of vaguely flat dirt. That’s where a cameraman, a pilot, and myself sat huddled under the wing of our 1975 Cessna Skylane, seeking shelter from a relentless sun and trying desperately to devise an escape plan.
We’d landed at the field to get footage of race trucks coming through a very hot and remote fastblast section (check Truck Yeah for that).
We captured a few amazing 100+ MPH passes after a mildly harrowing trudge through open desert, and were ready to move on to the next bar. I mean hotel. I mean, photo opportunity. Whatever, it was time to get the hell outta there.
Thanks to the kindness of some local construction workers, we got a boost back to the airplane from the scrub in the bed of an exhausted Ford Ranger. But as they disappeared into the endless horizon, the wind kicked up something fierce.
Terry, our pilot, assessed the situation with words of encouragement I’ll never forget: “Guys, I don’t know about this. The wind’s back and fourth between two angles, and one of them we can’t take off in.”
Eric the camera guy and I looked at each other, considered the amount of sleeping space available in the four-seat plane (zero), our laughably inadequate supply of water, and half-full (half-empty?) bag of almonds we’d brought as the entirety of our sustenance.
Wind howled across the plane’s static propellors and we clutched possessions against a hose of sediment like we were car parts being prepped for paint.
We sat on the dirt swapping stories, chewing almonds, and considering which of us would emerge dominant if we had to fight to the death over the last half-liter of water. But before it could come to that, Terry finally decided he’d had enough.
“Alright. Let’s try it.”
His conviction was strong enough to make Eric comfortable, I just figured “Jalopnik Adventure Guy Dies In Plane Crash In Baja” would at the very least pull some decent Internet traffic. So both of us scrambled in and slammed the doors as the engine burped to life and turned the two-bladed propeller translucent with speed.
We got off the ground like a crab riding Mary Poppins’ umbrella, charging to the next dusty waystation with a strong thirst for cerveza and aviation fuel.
Let’s Scare ‘Em A Little, It’ll Be Hilarious
We couldn’t have been more than a mile or two from the San Ignacio airstrip when we caught up with the dudes that’d given us a lift back to our plane. All I could tell at first was that some guys were waving from the roof of a truck, and figured they were in trouble. But Terry recognized ‘em with his hawk vision.
“Ah, no it’s just those are the guys saying hey! Here, let’s give ‘em a little show.”
As he moved some knobs around the plane got a lot louder and a lot lower. He blasted us out over the ocean and swept back in a steep bank toward the Mexicans cheering from the side of the superhighway you see pictured above.
At about 120 MPH we blazed over their parking spot to excited jumping and gestures. I wish we could have bombed them with some Jalopnik stickers, but they were obviously enjoying the hell out of that moment.
So This Is Where “Turbulence” Comes From
Do you know why airplanes feel like off-roaders sometimes? The bumps you’ve probably heard described as “turbulence” are little pockets of hot air that push the plane around abruptly. Not a big deal for an airliner chugging over the ocean at 35,000 feet (unless you’re drinking coffee while working on your computer), but it’s a little hairy when you’re already white-knuckling the controls to avoid telephone polls.
Terry, Eric, and I were circling the farmlands scanning the horizon for dust plumes, as we did at the beginning of every race day because our map of the race course proved exceedingly difficult to interpret. And because it was a lot more fun that way.
Robby Gordon’s rolling rocketship “the Gordini” would generally be leading the pack. That made our lives easy, since its unmistakably orange paint and dust trail reaching to the stratosphere were probably visible from back home in America. Did I mention you could literally hear it over the plane’s propeller when you got within a few hundred feet? It’s quite a car. So we found him.
“I think I see Robby.”
“Oh yeah, got Robby at about one-thirty, take us down!”
Before this trip, I figured all bush pilots were retired military. Flying a plane, and generally a low-performance model, at the limit of its capabilities miles from help requires a level of skill, confidence, and self-reliance I thought one could really only learn by regularly working in life-or-death situations.
Terry was no serviceman. He was just a successful guy who thought airplanes were awesome and flew them for fun. But he punted that forty-year-old Skylane around the air like we were getting locked-on by a hostile F-22, which I realized when I got slapped in the nose with my camera viewfinder and had my guts left at our 3,000 foot observation-altitude as he hurled us into a dive to around where we could catch cacti in the landing gear.
“More hot air down here!” I heard through the intercom, as we started bounding up and down as hard as we would have been driving on the race course down below.
The engine tractored along as we got abreast of some race car (Robby Gordon had long left us in the dust) while Eric and I trained our cameras, Terry bounced us over prickly flora like a bigass Flappy Bird game.
Later I was told the “electronic lamb” we kept hearing behind the steering yoke was a stall warning, indicating we were flying too slow to stay in the sky. Our pilot wasn’t fond of letting it stay on too long.
“Oh crap! Power lines, we’re going up!”
Shoved back by momentum as the wheels cleared the obstacle, I was really regretting that sixth Tecate from the previous night’s party, and of course the feeling intensified after a few more hours “just barely” in the air.
Pump Your Own Damn Airplane Gas
The town of Loreto, Baja is fairly cosmopolitain compared to the rest of the peninsula, but their airport is still pretty much just a few paved strips and a big ol’ quonset-hut terminal.
The general aviation refueling station was long since rendered out of commission, so to get gas you’ve gotta pay some dude with a giant tank and hose setup mounted on the back of an old International chassis truck. A truck that he had no idea how to operate.
I handed our gas man a wad of Pesos that looked like I ripped them from a convenience store cash register before bolting out the door. He disappeared to a control panel. Promptly after that, high-octane (highly expensive) aviation fuel started spraying from the nozzle that was haphazardly laying on the tarmac.
Watching our money paint the ground, we yelled to him “Amigo! Alto! ALTO!”
But no sense of expedience was conveyed to amigo, who sauntered over, inspected the situation, arrested the fuel flow, and shoved the nozzle into the aircraft’s filler.
We looked around and tried to ask him what the hell happened, but he didn’t seemed fazed enough to do anything but return to the truck and reactivate the fuel flow. Which worked out great until the Cessna’s tank was full and the nozzle popped out, painting the entire aircraft in gasoline.
At least it evaporated by the time our colleagues in another aircraft rolled in behind us, who we warned to be vigilant of the process.
Wait, Was That Dent There Before?
“Afternoon gentlemen. Looks like your aircraft’s been in the sand quite a bit, huh? You’ve been randomly selected for a full search, let’s have a look at that equipment and some IDs, okay?”
Of all the border guards I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in the course of my job, and there have been many, Americans are categorically the most enthusiastic about their work.
When myself and two other unshaven, unwashed miscreants rolled out of our dust-and-dent-covered Cessna at Brown Field Municipal Airport (just a stone’s skip across the border) the US Border Patrol saw fit to meet us with a garrison of no less than seven armed individuals, who respectfully denied my request to get their photo.
The agents separated us and quizzed us about our life story individually. “Why don’t you come with us, Mr. Collins.” Why not indeed.
[Looking through passport] “Australia, Bahamas, lotta back and fourth around South America I see. You’re quite a traveler. What’d you say you did for work?”
“Well I’m a journalist, I guess?”
“Shouldn’t you be in Baltimore?”
“Hah, no, no I’m an... uh, car and... off-road journalist. I pretty much just party and tweet at #brands. Hah, nah... I mean I write about vehicles and races.”
“Right. Okay. Criminal history?”
“Let’s have a look at your airplane.”
The border patrol agent and his friends from the FAA took our pilot on a tour of the Cessna and all six square feet of its interior space, poking and prodding at every loose thread in the fabric and dent on the fuselage.
“You know I could ground this aircraft for that,” Mr. FAA said to our pilot, tapping the tip of his pencil on a baseball-sized crater in the tail rudder.
“Ah, it’s been like that better’n ten years!” our pilot said, desperately hoping avoid a fine or presumably larger repair cost.
“Get that sorted out and email us a photo of the tail, fixed, by Wednesday. And you guys are free to carry on. Welcome home.”
Hilariously, when the finally let us go it took about three minutes of cranking to get the Cessna’s engine fired again. Each and every agent working at the checkpoint stared at us as we struggled with the fuel mixture and throttle to make the plane crank over.
When it finally fired, they offered a line of toothy smiles and thumbs-ups before they marched back into their office and we took off for nearby San Diego.
We had some wild times with the Baja bush pilots, in their planes and at the bars (in that order, don’t worry) but I’m not trying to be ironic when I say their aircraft felt like some of the safest things I’d ever ridden in.
Every pilot I talked to and flew with knew his plane like an extension of himself, maintained perfect calm through dynamic conditions, and flew with exceptional professionalism.
So yeah, 10/10, would ride with these guys again. Can’t say the same for the gas station guy.
Images by the author. Top image by the author with graphics via Emily Mathews, Spacedust Design, Steve Brown & John Verkleir and Aleksander Markin from their respective Flickr creative commons contributions.