Take-off to Doom
Bahia de Los Angeles on the eastern coast of Baja is not such a bad place to get weathered in. "Bay of LA," it's called, in the radio parlance of American pilots.
On our way north from La Paz, my nine-year-old son Harv and I saw the huge build-ups in the distance and decided to check in with Papa Diaz, a name famous among pilots and known to us even before this trip. This was our first flight to explore a primitive land -- a mountainous strip of desert that seems out of place in the Pacific Ocean. In his book about Baja, The Forgotten Peninsula, Joseph Wood Crutch described a forlorn place with gentle inhabitants unmolested by modernity.
Sure enough, there it was. Through the windscreen on final, we could see it: beyond the lodge adjacent to the gravel strip, a tiny stone chapel surrounded by flower-beds, which Papa Diaz had built years ago for the wedding of his daughter -- twice. According to the anecdotes traded among aviators, the local authorities had made the man tear down the first structure for not securing a permit and, no doubt, for neglecting to pay la mordida (the bite). We were eager to meet this legendary figure.
He greeted us at the gas pit with a handful of callouses and a grin that terraced his entire face, addressing my nine-year-old son as "mi amigo," an honor not given to many. He called me and everyone else "muchacho." A rotund man of indefinite middle years, with full head of touseled Mexican hair and graying moustache, Papa Diaz watched and calculated while a line boy atop a rickety step-ladder strained fuel through a chamois from a dented can into our wing tank. In all my trips to Bay of L.A., I never saw our host write anything down. Instead, he simply pulled a wrinkled slip from his hip pocket and presented it to each departing pilot. We shook our heads in amazement and paid what always seemed like the correct amount for lodging and meals, drinks and fuel.
There were only a couple of rooms left in the lodge but
no more tie-downs. Winds were gusting, so my son and I borrowed some rope
and fashioned our own, using the biggest rocks we could find for ballast.
We were really glad to be on the ground for the night. Here's why.
The only weather reporting in Baja was what you obtained from other pilots. Throughout the afternoon, planes from the south landed and, as we did, asked anxiously about conditions further up the line. It was Sunday. Some wore the symptoms of "get-home-itis," a perilous affliction suffered by private pilots, especially those returning to work and families after a weekend in Baja. In the lodge, we all kept our ears cocked for the sound of approaching planes.
Eventually, a Cherokee from the north wheeled in the sky and landed. A dozen pilots gathered around. The door opened and two passengers disembarked. The pilot crawled out onto the wing and stood up. We strained to hear his report.
"Squall line across the whole peninsula," he said. "We didn't try to climb above it. Rain nearly pounded us into the Gulf."
Was there wind?
"Tail-wind, best we could tell. Glad I wasn't flying against it."
Anybody else coming south?
"Couple of guys heading toward Mulege. Everybody else we talked to turned back."
Each of us went about coping with the situation. Several took off for points further south. At least one group prepared to camp out under the wing of their plane. Harv and I were set for the night. All we had to do was ask Papa Diaz to crank up his ship-to-shore radiotelephone so we might notify our people.
Throughout the world and since the beginning of manned flight, weather has been a frequent factor in aviation incidents. Light planes in particular spend nearly all their time in the bottom two miles of the atmosphere. That is where the really interesting weather develops. The previous week, for example, had seen the loss of a Lockheed Lodestar near La Paz at the tip of Baja in a weather-related accident. A cash reward had been offered for finding the crash-site. Some of the south-bound planes were doubtless going down for the bounty.
We learned later that what was left of the Lodestar was found in shallow water near a prominent old shipwreck. Ironically, Harv and I had the previous day actually flown low over that shipwreck but did not then know about the Lodestar or the reward.
Several of us sat around on the porch overlooking the runway in the darkening afternoon and swapped stories. The build-ups toward the north grew grey and dank. It was good to be on the ground.
The middle-aged pilot of Niner-Three Charlie, a venerable Cessna 170 tail-dragger, gazed out over the gulf. He and his partner speculated that the rain reported by the Cherokee might well have spent itself by now. They decided to make a northbound try at 500 feet over the water.
A group of four guys, all unshaven, wearing scruffy clothes, strode past us hefting duffle bags. They loaded their gear in a yellow-and-white Skymaster 336, the unique twin manufactured by Cessna for only a few years. It had "center-line-thrust" -- a "pusher" engine in the rear and a "tractor" engine up front. I watched them load up. Harv un-chocked the wheels for them. The plane was in a shabby state, oil stains around both engine cowlings. The left wheel fairing had been removed. It lay upside down in the baggage compartment crammed full of fishing gear.
"Hey, what's that old 170 doing?" asked the pilot, a curly-haired chap in his forties, as unkempt as his plane.
Niner-Three Charlie had started its engine nearby, kicking up dust. "He's going low," I shouted.
The Skymaster pilot nodded. "We're going over to the West Coast," he said. "See ya."
My son and I went into the cantina for a couple of Mexican colas then decided to monitor the radio chatter in Two-Four Fox for awhile. We came outside in time to see Niner-Three Charlie turning toward the Gulf, beacon flashing.
The Skymaster, Eight-Eight Whiskey, was taxiing out on just the rear engine. As it approached the end of the runway, the front engine started cranking. The plane whipped onto its take-off roll as the front engine caught and coughed.
"Not much of a run-up," mused my son.
It made me shudder to think that we had just witnessed one take-off to doom. Maybe two.
The late afternoon sky was crowded with great weather formations to the north and painted whisps high above us. Harv and I reclined the seats in the plane and listened to the crackling radio. Every few minutes Niner-Three Charlie would make position and weather reports in the blind.
"Rain heavy at 400 feet, moderate gusts."
Skymaster Eight-Eight Whiskey was not inclined to talk for the first quarter hour. Then, "Yeah, we're climbing through ten," shouted the pilot into his microphone. "Solid instruments."
We could not make out Niner-Three Charlie's response. Flying low, the little 170 had become unreadable in Bay of LA.
"Hah," exclaimed the Skymaster, "you think rain is bad, we got ice!"
"Loading up fast."
"Gotta turn back . . . try for a pass."
That was the last transmission we heard from the Skymaster. I shut off the radio to save the battery. Harv and I closed up the plane and returned to the lodge. We sat on the porch and watched the fading light. By and by, we heard the sound of an airplane engine.
It was Niner-Three Charlie. A bunch of us gathered around for the weather update. The pilot of the little 170 ducked under the wing and shook his head grimly. He confirmed that Eight-Eight Whiskey iced up and was forced to descend over the mountains. We waited until dark before going in for the traditional family style dinner put on by Papa Diaz.
The wreckage of Skymaster Eight-Eight Whiskey was not found for several weeks. No survivors.