IF A MITE CAN DO IT WHY CAN'T YOU?
by Ronald Swartley
Reprinted from AERO magazine, 1965, 1974
The place was Ushuaia, Argentina - southernmost city in the world. A little group of curious people had surrounded my little 65 horsepower Mooney Mite as I taxied to a stop. They didn't see a plane this small fly in here every day. Matter of fact, I hardly believed it myself. But it was true. Here I was, two months and 9,000 miles after leaving home, and with my goal almost literally in sight. Cape Horn was just off to the south there, about another ninety miles
I was on a trip by air around the South American continent, with the big goal being to "round The Horn". I had dreamed up the idea while still in the Navy. Yeah, "Join the Navy and see the world," I'd been told, but I never even made it out of the United States. This flight of adventure was designed to make up for that lack.
As I watched the lineman getting ready to top the tanks I couldn't help but reflect back over those last couple of months. It hadn't been dull.
One thing that came quickly to mind was the time only six days after leaving California, when I had to make that emergency landing in a Mexican cotton field (mud dauber wasp makings in the intakes). I'd figured that was about "all-she-wrote" for my long dreamed of flight to The Horn. You only had to take a look at the plane to see that. The canopy was splintered, the nose gear was wrenched all out of shape, the prop was broken, and there were holes in the wings. I'd have to admit to being just a little bit depressed about then. But, then along came Emilio.
You see, I hadn't picked just any old cotton patch to land in. I had enough horse-sense to pick a field owned by this Saint of a fellow, Emilio Moises. Not only did Emilio put me up, feed me, and chauffeur me around while I went about fixing the "Mite" but, and this is pretty important too, he spoke English. If it hadn't been for bilingual Emilio I no doubt would have ended up paying much more than just $2 for landing at an "unauthorized airport".
After some hustling and bustling, and a little ingenuity - plus Emilio's invaluable help - I was back in the air again within three weeks. Hard to believe, but I was southbound again.
The flight down the length of Central America was more interesting, and a lot less traumatic for a change. Banana plantations, volcanoes, deep blue lakes, and the Panama Canal, etc., passed easily and picturesquely under my well patched red wings. It was "no sweat", enjoyable flying for a change.
I wish I could report that the flying continued to he of the "no sweat" variety. Unfortunately that's not the way it worked out. On this particular morning I took off from Turbo, Colombia, bound for Buenaventura further down south. Blue skies turned into rain and fog about forty minutes after takeoff, and you have no idea how hard it is navigating over tropical rain forests in poor visibility and without navigation aids. The fuss I got into was really my fault of course. I'd opted to chop a little time off by going direct - the idea being to try and keep the curving coastline in sight far off to the right as a reference. That was the theory. The thing was, I hadn't figured on having to descend lower and lower over the terrain to stay free of all the clouds that built up. I couldn't break and run for the coast either because there was a low range of cloud covered hills there blocking my exit. So, in no time I was fairly well "disoriented".
To make a long story short, after meandering over the jungle for over four hours, with not much more than jungle birds, anonymous winding green rivers, and thatched native huts for landmarks, I did reach Buenaventura -- with but a gallon and a half left in the tanks. I'd been lucky again. With that kind of luck I decided there was no way I could miss making it all the way to The Horn.
A few days later, and a little further south, there was even more airborne excitement. About half an hour after leaving Arequipa, Peru, on the slopes of the Andes, the oil cap jiggled loose. I remembered immediately that this time I'd forgotten to double-check it for tightness after the man added a litre of oil. So there I was in hot water for the third time, over the Andean foothills this time. and with oil streaming back along the fuselage and flicking up onto the windshield. But as I already mentioned, I seemed to have a lucky streak going for me. After some slow flight at reduced RPM I reached the coast and spotted an abandoned airport shown on my map. I didn't waste any time making a landing and using up the two quarts of emergency oil I carried. You can be sure the oil cap got tightened that time -- and every time afterward.
The terrain I flew over continued to show compelling beauty and contrast. It provided some compensation for the airborne difficulties which seemed to keep cropping up. In Chile I could look east and see the towering Andes, sloping up and up, often to over 20,000 feet. Up there somewhere was Mt. Aconcagua - at over 23,000 feet the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Off to the right was the ever shimmering, endless Pacific. Below, I would often see mysterious settlements sitting isolated and seemingly abandoned on bluffs over-looking the sea. It was here in Chile that I flew down the longest continuous stretch of desert in the world. According to some this desert is the "truest" of all deserts, because nothing at all grows there. I didn't know the truth of that, but I did know I didn't relish the thought of an emergency landing down there. Needless to say, I'd developed by then a very conscientious pre-flight routine.
It was at Valdivia in southern Chile where I became acquainted with the Harold Junck Silva family, and right at the start of the local "Carnival". There followed several days of touring, dancing in the streets, and viewing of Olympic style athletic events. My luck seemed to be holding.
Following that short interlude, and a little further south in Chile, I crossed the Andes into Argentina. The Andes are lower down there, so 10,000 feet was high enough to get me over. Most of the higher peaks are snow capped the year around this far south, and since this is also a land of lakes, the combination made for a bonus of natural beauty.
Esquel was my second stop in Argentina, and that way where I met another in my lengthening string of interesting people. This time it was an ex-World War Two Messerschmitt pilot. As happens in an air war this fellow had shot enemy planes down, and in turn had gotten himself shot down. But since coming to Argentina after the War. Juan had developed into a hero of a different sort. Chile, the neighbor to the west, experienced some pretty lethal earthquakes in its southland during the early sixties. Juan ended up with a lot of national recognition for his humanitarian flying efforts into that beleaguered country. He was a hero to me too - I was the recipient of free gas, oil, and transportation, plus several hours worth of free war stories.
Soon after leaving Esquel I began picking up some of the 60 mph-plus winds I'd been hearing about from other pilots. The little red bird rocked, wobbled, and pitched like a leaf in a hurricane. It was at such perverse times as this that I would start asking what the hell I was doing here. I'd get to noticing the heat or cold too much, or the confinement in the cockpit, or the desolation of the territory I happened to be flying over, and start calling my sanity into question. But it never lasted long. There was always something redeeming just over the horizon.
The biggest redemption of all, of course, came on that day I arrived in Ushuaia.
The gas man finished topping the tanks, and replaced the gas caps. After that there was nothing else standing in the way.
I slipped a pebble in front of the nose wheel and took my accustomed starting position at the right wing root. With the mags "on" and throttle cracked, I reached up and swung the prop -- the engine started on the first swing. As I climbed into the tiny cockpit I noticed the group of people still standing around. Some seemed almost shaking their heads in disbelief. That was the typical reaction I'd been getting all the way down South America: "What's a cute little plane like that doing in a place like this?" they seemed to ask.
After buckling into the seat belt and shoulder harness I gave the throttle a blast to ride over the pebble up front. No worry about radio clearances or green lights as I taxied out, because there weren't such things down here.
It was a beautiful day. The sun streamed down from a clear blue sky, with the temperature in the 70's - nothing at all like the "ugly weather" stories I'd been hearing about ever since I first started planning this junket. It was plain old summer weather. Not that surprising in a way though, since it was February, and mid-summer down here south of the equator.
At the end of the runway I checked the carb heat and mags for the last time, and went through the rest of the check list. It was time to go. On the runway I closed the canopy and gave her the gun. The little Continental engine purred smoothly, and at about sixty she eased into the air. After "gear up", I brought the nose around to my southbound heading and climbed to 2,000 feet. A few turns on the throttle, and a backing off on the prop control and we were in cruise. The indicated airspeed eased up to just below 120. It would take about forty-five minutes to make it to The Horn.
The area down at the bottom of South America is full of islands. There seemed like hundreds of them, big and small. Cape Horn itself is an island - a fact I hadn't known for very long myself. The whole picture of sea, islands and mountains brought to mind the Kodiak Island, Alaska area where I flew some while in the Navy.
I was still a good twenty-five miles out when I spotted The Horn for the first time "it was the last in the "Wollaston" chain of islands. Another "horn" was off my right wing at the time, appropriately called Falso Cabo De Homos. Incredibly the weather was still well above average. There was no evidence whatsoever of the high winds and monstrous waves which made this a ship's graveyard from way back in Magellan's time.
A few minutes later and I was there, over The Horn - me and the little "Mite". I bragged a little to myself about having made it. and did a series of wingovers in exhilaration. I could look north now and say that all the rest of the inhabited world was further north than I. And I could look southward and realize that the only land mass further south was Antarctica. It was an exciting moment, long looked forward to, and never mind how far my, by now "arse of iron", had to go yet before it would have a well deserved rest. It was nice to be here.
I circled for at least forty minutes, all the while taking a whole multitude of pictures with all three of my cameras - for insurance (it would have been too far to come back in case they didn't come out). I transferred most of the six gallons in the aux tank into the main too (at ninety strokes per gallon), just to make sure it would transfer. I'd need some of that aux fuel before making it back to Ushuaia.At the end of about forty minutes I'd shot all the film I wanted, and it was about then that I noticed an ominous black cloud bearing down from the northwest. So, it was time to leave - whether I wanted to or not. I made a last farewell pass low over the southern edge of the Island, and then a circling turn back toward the south. A wingover put me back over again. As the Island passed underneath, I sneaked a last quick look back over the wing. Then I pointed my eyes back over the nose toward the north. It would be all north over the nose from here on . . . another two months and four days to be exact.
Part 2: Return From The Horn
The primary goal had finally been achieved. I'd flown my little, 65 horsepower Mooney Mite to the bottom of South America and rounded The Horn, just as the early explorers had done hundreds of years before. With that done, the next obvious task was to make it safely back the 10,000 miles or more to California and home. The planned route was generally to follow the east coast of South America back to Panama; then head up Central America, stopping at the countries I'd missed on the way down; then up the eastern side of Mexico and on home. With that accomplished, I would have made a complete circumnavigation of Latin America.
On the day before heading north from Ushuaia (world's southernmost town), I borrowed a bicycle from the owner of the pension where I'd been staying, and pedaled out to the airport to see about getting the plane ready. Again, as on that day I'd flown out to The Horn, the gas and oil, plus a meal in the Argentine Navy mess, were donated free gratis. The little red Mite and I had truly become - at least for a few days - the base mascots.
An amateur-style 25 hour check followed the topping of the tanks, and with that done I was about ready to tackle that north-bound journey. The weather had been staying nice the past several days - no storms, and no high winds to dampen the prospects. The only negative note amidst these positive signs was the bike tire which went flat on the ride back into town.
At departure time the next day it was warm with partly cloudy skies. I cycled the wheels into their wells after take-off, and then made a fly-by of the base and town, rocking my wings. As with numerous other occasions on the trip, there were those regrets at having to say goodbye to new found friends. I turned north and started the climb up and over the snow-capped mountains which rim the southern end of South America. The Mite and I were finally on the way back.
That first day saw an uneventful passage over the sullen, barren southland of the South American continent, and ending up at a place called Rio Gallegos on the Argentine coast. Like many another airport in South America, the airport at Rio Gallegos is located some distance from town. So, consistent with my long established money saving practice of latching onto a free ride whenever possible, I waited around the airport for a while to see what might happen along. It wasn't too long before the radio operator got off duty, and mentioned that he was taking a taxi into town. Would I like a ride? Sure. Again I blessed my good, money saving fortune. But six miles from town we stopped, the radio operator got out, and the taxi continued on to my destination -- where I was stuck with the whole bill. Thankfully, such hanky-panky was the rare exception on the four month long journey.
As I continued north the next morning the territory started a gradual transition from the stark, windblown wastes of Tierra del Fuego and southern Patagonia, into the flatter, more life-nurturing grasslands and giant cattle ranches.
I continued to be impressed, meanwhile, by the way the little Mite kept plugging along, maintaining a steady 116 mph. At a fuel consumption rate of something less than 4 gallons an hour, I liked to brag that you couldn't walk around The Horn any cheaper. Aside from the obvious limitations relating to its small size, there was only one other continuing, pesky little problem with the Mite. It all stemmed from that forced night landing back in Mexico, From that time onward (and for reasons unknown to various Latin American mecanicos who tried their hand at diagnosing the problem) the nose wheel had a built-in shimmy to it, which made itself known in a certain speed range during the take-offs and landings so a necessary part of the take-off and landing technique became that of keeping the weight off of the nose wheel as much as possible. This made every take-off and landing a mini-adventure in itself, with that deep-down suspicion that on some take-off or landing it might well vibrate right off the plane. But it didn't. It held up through the whole trip, later to undergo minor corrective surgery back home in California.
Speaking of the limitations inherent in the Mite's size, the minuscule dimensions of that little cockpit are brought no more starkly to home than when you try spending a night in it. One such occasion was at Bahia Blanca, a bit further up the Argentine coast. I had landed, parked, refueled, and then made it into town. But, it was Fiesta time in Bahia Blanca, so no hotel rooms. Back to the airport I went, thinking to sleep in the airport waiting room. But the noise from the antique short wave radio equipment forced me back out and under the wing of the Mite. However the mosquitoes proved so thick out there that it was back into the waiting room again. It was about then that the radio operator finally took pity on me, offering me a place in his bed along with he and is wife after he got off work. After due considerations I declined this invitation however, and that's how I finally ended up "turning in" in the restricted quarters of a Mite cockpit. There was no trouble at all getting an early start the next morning.
The next major point of interest northward from Bahia Blanca is Buenos Aires the capitol and largest city in Argentina. It's a city of juicy steaks, tommy-gun carrying militiamen, picturesque streets, and the place where they tried to charge for 30 gallons of gas (when the Mite only holds 19.5). It was in a Buenos Aires bay that I spotted and proceeded to inspect at leisure, five venerable British World War II Sunderland flying boats, used for a long time to haul supplies and people back into the Argentine back country. They reminded me of my P5M days while in the Navy.
It was some of this same back country that I headed for shortly after leaving Buenos Aires. I followed the Parana River hundreds of miles upstream over seemingly endless stretches of swamps and jungle, to the landlocked country of Paraguay. This is the most primitive of all Latin American countries, and this primitiveness is seen nowhere better than in the forbidding Chaco region in the Paraguayan bush - a true frontier area. At Asuncion, the capitol of Paraguay, is where I met a pair of modern day smugglers. They were both Americans, one flying a surplus B-25, and the other a Cessna 210 - both transporting American cigarettes from the U.S. to the Argentine black market. At a claimed profit of several hundreds of dollars a day, they seemed to be reaping a fancy return for their multiple risks.
Within a half an hour's flying time by Mite from Asuncion is where probably the single most wondrous natural attraction in all of Latin America is located - Iguassu Falls. This spectacular, two-mile wide expanse of plunging white water is found at the point where Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil meet. The setting of unspoiled, unpopulated, pristine jungle makes it an even more impressive natural wonder.
Paradoxically, this first breathtaking introduction into Brazil was also the beginning of some new red tape troubles. First, none of the airports in Brazil had ever received my "Advance Notice" letter, which cleared my plane into the country. So at every airport I landed I was held up for varying amounts of time (up to three days), it didn't take long to find that "Advance Notice" upon reaching Rio de Janeiro, however. About 40 seconds was all it took for the man to find it when I presented myself to Brazil's version of the central FAA office.
Another bit of red tape had to do with the buying of fuel and oil for the Mite. For some reason you had to have a certain credit card in order to buy aviation fuel and oil at airports north of Rio. Since I always paid only in cash, I was in trouble. The only solution lay in circumventing the law by purchasing it from other plane owners at exorbitant prices, or by convincing the gas pumper to take pity and bend the rules a little, or, as in a couple of instances, by getting the gas and oil donated free (my favorite way to fill the tanks.)
Meanwhile, even though there were these unfortunate bureaucratic difficulties, the Brazilian scenery tended to make it all worthwhile. Whether it was flying down low just above the waves, or cruising a bit more relaxed higher up, a continually changing and spell binding panorama kept easing under the Mite's red wings. There would be azure blue coral reefs to gaze at through crystal clear water; fascinating patterns made by groups of fish traps; a diverse variety of native huts, with trails leading off into the jungle; little island cities lying like other worlds a few hundred yards off the coast; and unique, mini-lakes scattered across vast stretches of coastal sand - and more. So Brazil, like every one of the other Latin American countries I visited, had its unique, highly captivating charm.
Among the many interesting people I happened to meet on the return trip was an American bush pilot who flew a Seabee in Guayana, transporting diamond hunters back and forth from the back country. He would accept either cash or diamonds as payment for his services. Evidently the bush piloting competition was very keen, as suggested by numerous incidents of control cables being cut, and jinxed fuel lines, etc.
More red tape was to greet me upon entering Venezuela. Up 'till then I'd succeeded in flying almost all the way around the South American continent without using a radio transmitter or receiver (the two battery operated sets never would work). Landings had been made at some of the largest international airports, including those at Panama City, Santiago, Lima, and Rio to name a few. But now, here at the first stop in Venezuela, I was advised that I couldn't proceed through the country without a working transceiver. Well, considering my well depleted financial reserves at the time, and the Mite's total lack of an electrical system, plus the probable lack of expertise of the local radio mechanic at working on my primitive type of equipment, the prospects seemed dim indeed. There was definitely no way I was going to fly clear back around the way I'd just come either. But, as with so many times before, a way was found to let me make it to that next airport; and then to the one after that; and the one after that. One successful method for obtaining take-off clearance was to give the impression I was working for some major American magazine. I would then proceed to take the picture of the particular tower operator in question, as if for publication. Then before he had time to reconsider the permission to take-off he'd given me, I would be expeditiously on my way. Needless to say, I was very relieved after making my last Venezuela take-off. I'd strongly advise having a workable transceiver before flying into this South American country.
After Venezuela it was one stop in Colombia; then across a stretch of open water to Panama; and then on up to the northern part of Central America. By the time I hit Guatemala I was getting pretty close to home again (relatively speaking), and I more or less figured there would be no more excitement; no more surprises. But I was wrong. There was one final airborne episode of a somewhat non-standard nature which served to shake me out of an "over-confidence" condition which had gradually set in.
The place was the Guatemala City Airport, and the particular day in question still had that hazy look as I taxied out for a take-off. The haze had' increased somewhat while flying westward from Tegucigalpa, Honduras earlier that day, but it hadn't been that much of a problem for my dead reckoning nav. I didn't figure it would be any more of a problem on the next leg to Belize, British Honduras.
I climbed east-northeast to intercept the Rio Matagua river valley, which, in addition to the river, had a railroad and highway running its whole length. The plan was to follow the valley to the Gulf of Honduras on the Caribbean Sea, then turn north and follow the coastline to Belize.
As I climbed out, however, it became obvious that the haze and smoke had gotten thicker. The bluish haze permeated the air in every direction, cutting visibility down to no more than three or four miles.
Upon reaching my mountain-clearing altitude of 8,000 feet, I spotted what I figured was the Rio Matagua Valley. I could see a road leading down between two ranges of hills, and it was heading in about the right direction. I couldn't see the railroad, but railroads are often hard to spot anyway, even when the visibility is good.
But whether it was indeed the Rio Matagua or not didn't seem to matter too much at the time. Because after all, look at where I'd just flown-plum around The Horn. Yeah, I was a seasoned cross country pilot now, man. No pesky little thing like mere haze and smoke would be enough to spoil the parade at this late stage in the game.
Two hours later, as I flew up this valley and down that road, frantically looking for a sign, any sign, of where I might be on the WAC chart, I was forced to admit that my "seasoning" had been far from complete. I was lost.
Twenty minutes after that I crossed this main highway angling off to the left. Since by this time it was getting late in the day, I decided to drop down low and follow that highway, figuring I could land on the road if I had to before it got dark. Getting caught after dark over unfamiliar Latin American territory, without a radio, was a thing I was not about to do (I'd already tried that once, with decidedly negative results).
About ten minutes later, with the sun just touching the horizon, I spotted what was obviously an airstrip. It looked empty, with weeds starting to take over the edges of the runway, but I was in no position to be particular. I landed.
It didn't take long to find out that I'd flown back into Honduras - without a flight clearance or valid visa - in all that smoke, and landed at the "old" airport at San Pedro Sula. So another "hot water" flight had come to a happy end with no particular thanks to my "seasoning."
Just a few more days of determinedly uneventful flying and the little red Mite and I were home-landing to a warm welcome at the Calistoga Airpark in California. I was truly proud of the way the little red bird had carried me over those vast stretches of territory. But I was also happy to crawl out of that cramped cockpit for a long and deserved breather. There would be no poring over of WAC charts tonight; and no take-off over strange territory tomorrow morning. It was nice to be home again.
Swartley's Mite was N4186, Serial No. 351. The following is taken from the MMOA Bulletin of March 1967, written by Fred Quarles:
"John P. Crossman of Clear, AK tells of the last flight of his Mite. Soon after landing at Fairbanks last fall to have work done on the heat exchanger, a "pilot" borrowed the plane without permission and flew once around the pattern. He hit a wire on approach and the Mite was TOTALLED. The adventurer was not injured. This was formerly Swartley's Mite that had made the "Good Will Tour" around all of South America two years ago."
August 4, 2001