My next December adventure was from Sandpoint, Idaho to Monterrey, Mexico. A gentleman from Mexico bought a plane based in Sandpoint. He asked me if I could help him with some instruction on his way back down to Mexico. I was thrilled at the opportunity since I had never been to Monterrey, Mexico before.
Our trip began with decent weather in Idaho, which, in December, is a rare event. Along the way, we flew over Yellowstone National Park, Red Lodge, MT, and landed in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The weather was not great in Cheyenne and only got worse as we made our way over Denver to Lubbock, TX. Along the Colorado, Wyoming boarder, climbing through 14,000 ft. we began picking up moderate ice and continued in icing conditions all the way to the New Mexico border. Luckily, this airplane was outfitted with deicing equipment and it was a nonissue.
For my non-pilot readers, ice is arguably the most dangerous part of flying. On the ground, precipitation generally comes in the form of rain, sleet, or snow. In the air, it can take many more forms. Clouds, by definition, are visible water vapor. If the air temperature at a specific altitude is below freezing, those small drops of water vapor can be “supercooled.” In essence, in their native state, they are liquid water but as soon as something disturbs them, they immediately turn into ice. Imagine driving through fog, and as soon as the fog/mist hits your windshield, it freezes before your windshield wipers can wipe it away. Soon you would not be able to see out your front windshield. That is what happens to airplanes. Only it is much more dangerous because you cannot just pull off the side of the road and scrap that ice off. On top of that, it also freezes to the wings. A little bit of ice can change the shape of the wing, in essence, it can change the shape so much, the wing will stop producing lift, and you will fall out of the sky. Oh, and it can freeze to your prop and air intake, creating problems for your engine, eventually leading to engine failure. Last, ice is heavy, very heavy. A small accumulation of ice can add hundreds of pounds of weight to the airplane. When an airplane weighs more, it needs to create more lift in order to fly… which is exactly the opposite of what is happening when the ice is changing the shape of the wing. To conclude, a few minutes in icing conditions can wreak havoc on a flying plane of any size. The good news for me was, this particular airplane has a “weeping wing.” The leading edges of the wing have microscopic holes that slowly leak glycol (a form of alcohol). It works in a similar fashion to a soaker hose people use in gardens. The glycol has a lower freezing point then water. As it “weeps” from the wings, it coats them in a film of fluid, which prevents the ice from sticking to the airplane. It also has similar protection on the windshield and engine so ice does not form on them either.
Our flight over Denver was neat because we were vectored directly overhead Denver International Airport. The airport is just barely visible in a few of the photos below. Upon reaching Texas, the clouds began to clear and we were treated with a heavenly, west Texas, sunset.
The following day, the owner, and I loaded up the plane in Lubbock and departed for Mexico. Entering Mexico in a private airplane is straightforward; however, it does take an understanding of the Mexican customs system. Luckily, the owner was a Spanish speaker and was able to help me understand the processes.
As soon as we crossed the border, near Del Rio, I quickly realized my job as an instructor had just become a lot harder. In Mexico, the rules, airspaces, language, and aviation infrastructure is wildly different. As a pilot, who learned to fly in the U.S.A., I have grown accustomed to the aviation luxuries we have here. Here are a few of the luxuries that immediately stopped working once we entered Mexico:
- The XM Datalink completely stopped working. In layman’s terms, the XM datalink is a satellite link that beams certain weather data to the avionics in the airplane. This is EXTREMELY helpful when flying in foul weather. It allows pilots to “see” the weather ahead, avoid the bad stuff and plan ahead – a lifesaver in every sense of the word.
- There is no such thing a GPS Direct. In the States, GPS is everywhere. When flying, direct means a straight line from one point to another. GPS allows pilots in the U.S.A. to fly from one small airport to another in a straight line, without following “airways.” Airways are highways in the sky, but just like roads, sometimes these highways take you out of the way, adding precious time to the trip. While GPS still works in Mexico, the Mexican controllers do not have ground radar to “see” where plans are. The controllers have to be able to “see” the airplane in order to make sure our airplane is not going to hit another airplane. For reference, if we had been able to go “direct” to our final destination we would have save 25 minutes and 75 nautical miles.
- The VHF radio’s that we use to talk to the ground controllers are less numerous than in the states. This meant that the first 45 minutes of our flight we had no form of communication with the Mexican controllers. This sounds bad, though we knew the route of flight we were supposed to take so it was not a huge deal… until the weather got bad. Since we had no other way to know what the weather was doing ahead of us, our last resort was talking to people on the ground who could look it up for us. However, when we were not able to speak with them, we had no way of knowing if we were flying into a super storm, or just a rain cloud. (Obviously, during our preflight weather briefing I checked the weather and knew it was not that bad, but it is still disconcerting to fly into a dark cloud and not know just how big and bad that cloud is).
- Once we were able to speak with the Mexican controllers, I realized they did not like to speak English (which, by law, they have to be able to do). We began receiving instruction in Spanish, which I do not know fluently. Luckily, the owner knew Spanish; however, it made instructing extremely difficult!
- They have fewer approaches to the airport. An “approach” is the way a pilot navigates the airplane from altitude down to the ground. This is a complicated set of coordinates, altitudes, lines, and frequencies that a pilot must follow in order not to hit terrain, towers, or anything else while we are in the clouds. In the U.S.A., there are multiple approaches to every runway at each airport. GPS approaches are the norm, and are easier because they are already preloaded into the GPS Avionics Unit. However, in Mexico there are NO GPS approaches. This airport only had ONE VOR approach (which, for the sake of simplicity, is MUCH more difficult than a GPS approach).
This day, Monterrey, was socked in with fog and high cloud tops. Fog is the most difficult thing for a pilot to land in. Flying an approach where we are “blind” (i.e. in the clouds) to only 200 ft. above the ground is very dangerous. Unfortunately, this is exactly what we had to do this day. Being new to Mexico, I was unfamiliar with the geography surrounding Monterrey. About 50 nm outside of the city, I began to see dark peaks on the horizon. I quickly realized these were the tops of very tall mountains. As I zoomed into our terrain database, I realized Monterrey sits in a valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Today, these 6000-8000 ft. peaks were obscured by clouds, except the top few hundred feet (as you can see in the photos below). This is not necessarily comforting when flying in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar person, in an unfamiliar language.
We also were faced with a circling approach. This means that the runway in use was not the runway the approach lined us up for. Once we got below the clouds, where we could visually see the airport, we had to circle to another runway. This just adds to the hectic-ness during landing. Luckily, my student was a seasoned pilot and between the two of us, we got the plane on the ground safely.
If that was not adventure enough, the real adventure began once I was on the ground. We spent 4-5 hours going through Mexican customs, and getting the paperwork sorted out with the airplane. After the plane was legally in Mexico, we spent the rest of the afternoon getting it into the hangar, cleaning it up, and touring Monterrey.
Next, my student had his driver take me to my hotel, near the bigger, international airport. Monterrey is an interesting city. Income inequality is unlike anything I have seen before. There are slums, upon slums, upon slums, then in the middle of nowhere there will be a neighborhood that would seem more at home in Beverly Hills. In addition, the roads are unbelievable. There were speed bumps in the middle of a highway, roads would suddenly just end, a highway would end into a city center, some streets would go from 4 lanes to one lane, and don’t even get me started on the drivers. I will say that everyone seems to be okay with it. Even with the chaos, things seem to get along just fine.
The following day I flew to Los Angles, California for another work engagement. I had some free time that evening and decided to go down to Newport Beach in Orange County to check out the annual Newport Beach Christmas Yacht Parade. This ended up being a neat event! Before the parade, I walked around Balboa Island and admired the Christmas lights on all the beautiful homes. The parade itself is unlike anything else I have seen. These folks put thousands of dollars’ worth of lights and effects on these boats. It is unbelievable. One even had a fire-breathing dragon. I definitely recommend this to anyone in the area for Christmas!
The following morning I spent some time in Malibu enjoying peace and serenity on the beach. I was also greeted with an incredible sunset as I left LA for Seattle.