Look South, Amigo!

This article from FLYING magazine, February 1954, was sent to us by Dan Shumaker, N4142

A Mooney salesman flies deep into Latin America, and reports: "There's a light plane market south of the border."

as told to FRANK HARVEY

IN MOST Central and South American countries you can't be choosy about how you travel. If you go at all it will most often be on foot, on horseback, or by airplane. Light airplane, usually. There just aren't enough improved roads, railroads and commercial airlines to take you where you want to go.

This is obviously inconvenient for the folks who live in Latin America, but it is certainly a break for a Mooney exporter, which I happen to be. I don't mean I can hop in my little Mooney demonstrator, buzz down the line, and sell airplanes like hot dogs. Everybody knows that most folks in these tropical countries are either incredibly rich (a fraction of one per cent) or incredibly poor (almost everybody.) Furthermore, there aren't any organized flight training schools to speak of; maintenance is of the chewing gum and baling wire variety in most places; gas pumps are scarce; and if you have an engine failure over the jungle you've just bought the shop.

But even considering these drawbacks (and you must if you hope to stay in business) there is a market for light airplanes south of the border for the man who's willing to work. In February, 1953, I delivered a new Mooney to Jim Leaver of Aero-Mercantil Leaver y Cia, Bogota, Colombia. On the way down I stopped off in all of the banana republics, lined up some distributors and took my $300 down payment on five new Wee Scotsmen, as Mooney is now calling his single-seater.

I'm pretty sold on the way the Mooney sold. H. G. Wolf (no relation of mine) of San Juan, Puerto Rico, whom I contacted on my way home via the airlines, signed for a Wee Scotsman without even seeing it fly. I found that people were friendly and eager to do business in most of the countries I visited. The reason: as long as you come from the U.S., representing a U.S. firm, and give the local man a chance to act as middle man—to make a profit off the deal—you are welcomed gladly. Why not?

Looks like a lot of man for such a little plane—but this is John H. Wolfe emerging from the Mooney in which he flew to Bogota, Colombia.

My present representatives, obtained in a single 3-week flying trip, are in Panama City, Panama; Guatemala City, Guatemala; San Salvador, El Salvador; San Juan, Puerto Rico, and San Jose, Costa Rica. Negotiations are open between us and Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. Sam Yrarrazaval, of Santiago, Chile, and Jim Leaver of Bogota, have been distributors for over a year.

What's holding up things in many countries, of course, is the foreign exchange, import and export troubles, and other high-level snafu over which a man in my position has very little control. However, I am right now planting my seeds in these countries, and watering the garden as best I can from long distance. When things do clear up, I'll be ready to move in and start going to town. It doesn't take great foresight to realize that the world is knitting itself closer together, and that population pressures are forcing jungles to be cut, swamps drained, and mountains leveled. South America is a great unexploited frontier. It needs lightplanes—Mooneys, if I have anything to say about it.

If there are any air-minded and adventuresome folks in my audience who are flight instructors and also hold A and E licenses—but can't seem to get anywhere in the U.S.—why not look into the South American situation? It's got to be done carefully and realistically. Don't sell your shop and take off for the border with the idea money is lying in piles down there, waiting to be picked up. A good first step would be a trip in a lightplane—combine a vacation with a business survey. I'll be quite frank. All those engaged in lightplane aviation south of the border are doing it as a sideline. They depend upon a drugstore, a coffee plantation, a traveling sales job, something established and solid, to pay the freight. The lightplane part is considered gravy. If you make it, great! If you lose it, you still have the steady job to fall back on. If you can figure out something that will keep you going until you get set with lightplanes, the Latin American countries are virgin territory.

The thing that has impressed me most in my travels is this: where one man has taken hold and pushed lightplane travel, aviation has caught on. That's all it took—one eager beaver—and I found people thinking and talking light planes for a hundred miles around.

Aviation in the Latin American countries is spark-plugged through Aero Clubs. This is not the sort of Aero Club we have in the States, where a group gets together, buys an airplane or two and flies around. The Aero Club south of the border is a big undertaking involving all air-minded people in an entire area.

If you think CAA is irksome at times, try tangling with the military aviation authorities in the tropics. They want you to fill out reams of paper stating why you have a plane at all, if you plan to mount guns on it, your opinion of the current president. This is understandable when you see folks racing through the streets, waving guns in a local revolution. The Mooney in the wrong hands, might be used as a fighter.

In order to keep from being completely suffocated by regulations, the Aero Clubs band together and go on down town to tell the authorities how they think things ought to be done. It helps smooth the way for aviation growth which everybody, even the military and the president, wants.

Aero Clubs are a sort of combination AOPA and Yacht Club. In addition to their lobbying activities, they encourage lightplane buying, organize such flight instruction and ground school as they can manage, and actually strip down to the waist and go out and hack airstrips out of the jungle. The Aero Club at Bogota, for example, was dissatisfied with their bumpy little grass field so they bought a better site and constructed a 5,000-foot runway on it—not tarvia, but hard-packed earth, much better than anyone had been used to.

Aviation is growing sporadically in the banana republics. Panama, for example, has perfect climate, fairly low mountains and distances large enough to make a plane really useful. A truly excellent airfield, Paitilla, on the edge of Panama City, was one of the pleasantest stops I made. Nobody bothered me. The facilities were good. The field was in excellent shape.

Guatemala now has 73 airstrips. Others are on the build. Coffee plantation owners chop them out of one corner of the property. Aero Clubs hew them out of the woods near cities. Officials of the government are helping with the program. After all, you need but a fraction of the tax money to build an airstrip that you need to blast a highway or a railroad through those tangled forests. These little countries may actually leap straight from jungle pathways into the air, without any automobile or railroad transition. Maintenance of ground facilities in the tropics is very hard. Turn your back on the jungle for a few weeks or months, and there's no longer a right of way! I figure the Mooney fits into this picture because it's fast, easy to hangar and maintain, and sips costly gasoline like a Scot sipping his own whiskey.

Should you consider flying down through Central America, I have a few tips. Write letters ahead, make yourself known, and try to get things lined up from long distance as best you can. AOPA can help you with detailed advice, since AOPA has been working on the matter of streamlining things and has made a good deal of progress.

The flying itself is not recommended to those with faint hearts. There are very few A and N beams, and those that exist are capricious and may not be working when you need them. You had better make some investigations as to which crystals to use in your radio. The Latins don't use the same ones we do. I simply had to turn off my radio after I left Brownsville. Al Mooney has looked into this, however, and is prepared to provide radios with the right crystals in them.

Adequate Maps

The chart situation is good. World Sectionals, prepared by USAF in "strips," will lead you down with wonderful precision. The back of these charts contains excellent tropical and sea survival information should you pancake in a banana tree—tells you how to trap fish in tidal bays, which grubs taste best if you really get up against it, and the best direction to start walking in case of a forced landing in every part of every country. Landmarks are few and far between, but when you do hit one you know it's got to be the right one. For the most part you can follow sea coasts, rivers, or mountain ranges.

I will say this, however. If you go down in a rough stretch of jungle you'd better keep a cool head and do everything right. A pilot crashed 14 years ago, 10 miles from an airport in Honduras. They found him just the other day! Don't depend on flight plans to insure a search-and-rescue party. You file. They forget. The best insurance is a careful preflight check, good 100-hour maintenance, and the basic rule never to take a chance. Tropical jungles are terribly unforgiving to the chance-taker.

Tower at Techo Airport in Bogota, Colombia.

There are some cities where the local CAA treats you fine, others where they practically peel the fabric off your wings if you don't pay off. Papers help, but papers alone very often won't do it. Of course there is always one paper that will work: around six inches long, green in color and carrying the picture of a U.S. President engraved on it.

Crossing the border at Brownsville can be expedited by hiring a good custom's broker who clears you six ways from the middle, greases anyone who may need it, hands you a tourist card and a fatherly pat on the back, and charges $16. It's worth it.

I flew the Mooney from Brownsville to Tampico. This is a coastal milk run. My mags were rough, however, when I checked for take-off in Tampico, so I hired a native boy who fixed things up neatly with a three-foot monkey wrench, a small bag of dried spiders legs and bats-wings, and some very interesting incantation. I think the incantation did it. I tried to weasel it out of him, but he was mum. I wanted to use it up north, in some of those high and mighty A and E shops.

Landing at Turbo, Colombia's port of entry.

Leave Tampico, fly to Vera Cruz on the Gulf, then head across the narrow part of lower Mexico, between the mountains to Tehuantepec. About midway you pick up a railroad and a highway at a small town called El Juile. You could land on the highway if you had to. Tehuantepec is a sweetheart—10,000 feet, hard surfaced, with a lovely wind blowing down the middle. Enjoy yourself here; you're now outward bound!

Fly Past, If Possible

The airport of exit, a few miles from the Guatemalan border, is called Tapachula. This is a good one to fly past, I'm told. They have to pay the rent somehow and you are expected to help —if you land. As a matter of fact, the smart thing to do on a trip where you aren't sure is to fly past all the airports you possibly can—this on the theory that even if they do nick you, the fewer times you land, the fewer nicks.

I got lost a few miles before I got to Tapachula, and managed to find myself again a few miles after passing it. I crossed the border into Guatemala, followed the coastal plain to a large military airport at San Jose, then turned directly inland to Guatemala City. As is almost the rule, there was weather hanging on the mountains that walled in Guatemala City. It was black as night overhead. I'd flown all the way from Tehuantepec, but I was carrying six extra gallons of gas, so I had no fears. I could always go back to San Jose if things looked too bad.

I stuck the Mooney's nose into the pass between a 12,000-foot and an 8,000-foot mountain. Black clouds hid these peaks, but there was a vee of rosy light under the black roof. A highway ran at the bottom of the vee. I bored on through and broke out into a fabulous valley of Shangri La. Guatemala City is a lovely place, not yet spoiled by tourism. The officials did not bother me about the fact that I carried no visas to any of the countries I was visiting. All I carried was an article in FLYING magazine— written, incidentally, by myself—in which I said no visas were needed. I showed this article to the local authorities. They shook their heads a little but all they made me do was go to the palace and get an exit visa—no cost. Guatemala City was a definite bright spot.

My article on no visas didn't work worth a darn at my next stop, San Salvador.

"Where's your visa?" the guy asked.

"I'm just ferrying my plane though," I said. "I wrote you about that."

"Yes, we know about the plane. Now we want to know about you."

"I'm sorry," I said, "but I have none."

"Then get in your plane and get going," he said.

A $10 fine fixed things up. Gonzales, my new distributor, the official and I went out and had a few toddys later on. I'm sure I'd never be fined again for landing there, if I dealt with the same man. I was glad I hadn't stayed longer in Guatemala. After leaving Guatemala City I read in the papers that they'd had a wing ding in the streets with rifles the day after I left.

Managua a Must

The trip to Managua, Nicaragua was easy and pleasant. This is another place you shouldn't miss. It looks as you expect a Central American town to look— narrow, dusty streets, picturesque dives, native color, grime, high spirits—the whole flavor of the tropics. There was one tiny sour note. Pan American—of all people—charged me $6 for landing on their airfield. Claimed the field wouldn't be there if they hadn't built it, and they felt the $6 was justified. I thought it was kind of cheap, myself.

I flew to San Jose, Costa Rica, with no difficulty, but found there the roughest field that isn't a patch of scrub growth I ever saw. It has large rocks lying on it. It has tall grass, and across the runways the whimsical local folks have built many ditches. They have thoughtfully thrown a few rocks in the ditches, but the Mooney nose wheel is allergic to such matters. I managed to land between ditches, hold the nose wheel off until I slowed down. Costa Rica has other very good fields, and the one at their capital is not at all representative.

Gassed and ready for take-off at Turbo.

The normal port of entry into Panama is a little town called David, where a Mooney ferry pilot once landed without "the proper papers" and was tossed in the pokey overnight. You could have all the papers in the Congressional Library at some fields and still not have the proper one. It all depends on how the official feels at the moment. I remembered that David was not supposed to be hospitable, so I flew non-stop to Paitilla, outside Panama City, and everything was fine. Nobody even asked me for my visa. I had the plane checked over thoroughly, for the really hairy part of the trip was the last leg into Bogota.

Leaving Panama City I flew over the top across the isthmus to the Caribbean side, then took the coastline down into Colombia. There were five airstrips suitable for landing along this coastline, some on small islands, all readily seen from the air, but not shown on the map I had. I flew across the narrow lower end of the Gulf of Darien and landed at Turbo, port of entry into Colombia. The Turbo officials treated me well. I almost had a tragedy here, however. An old South American buddy, smiling helpfully, put his foot on the sign saying "NO STEP" on the Mooney's wing, and was just starting to hoist himself up when I yelled. It might have meant a long, long wait if the chap—who really only wanted to help—had shoved a foot through the wing.

There are several ways to fly to Bogota from Turbo. Number I was to go up the coast of the Gulf to Barranquilla or Cartegena and pick up the Magdalena River, which you then followed down nearly to Bogota before taking off over the rocky peaks. This would require an extra day, but was considered to be the safest route.

The second way was to follow a road that led to Medellin, almost on a straight path to Bogota. This road however was usually invisible from the air due to clouds or trees growing over it, and it led through some mountain passes of considerable crookedness and great height. I ran into an airline captain who'd made this jump in a lightplane a time or two.

"My boy," he said, "there's nothing to it. Nothing. Simply follow a heading of 120°. You'll see some weather but you can get over it. You'll see the ground most of the time." (Here the fellow laughed.) "But you'll wish the clouds would close in again so you couldn't."

"It's rough?"

"As rough as they get. But don't worry. In about two hours, flying the speed you'll be flying, you'll come out over the Magdalena river. Follow if south to a big military airfield, then head over the high mountains to Bogota. Got it?"

I said I did. I left at once, before the weather could worsen. Things were not exactly as my captain pal had predicted. I never saw the ground at all after I left Turbo. I climbed to 12,000 feet and all I saw was clouds and a few distant peaks poking up through them. I flew for two hours. Nothing happened. I flew three more minutes, and presto, the clouds opened up and there was the river.

I flew down the river to the military airport and let the Mooney get low so I could surely identify the airport before going over the high mountains.

Then I picked up a 150° heading for Bogota. Clouds closed in at once. I was over the top, only now there was a difference. I did not see the peaks in the distance. They rose up on all sides through the clouds. I went on up to 13,500. Still I was grazing the tops of the peaks. I was now getting to the point where Bogota ought to be. I saw a small hole and started down, spiraling. I got through—and right ahead of me was a big, black, wild mountain peak. I'm not an instrument pilot but I did have a turn and bank. I managed to get headed back out of the hole, then I flew instruments up through the stuff, thinking with each second that I was going to run into a peak. I was just lucky. I finally broke through on top again—completely lost, and with the peaks still rising above me—but at least I could see.

At this point I was panicky. I figured my navigation was off. I knew that the mountains beyond Bogota went to 17,000. I gritted my teeth, took up my 150° heading, and kept going. Suddenly there was a break in the clouds and a small road below. I almost dived down and tried to land on it. But I didn't, somehow. I kept going for 10 more minutes, and—there was Bogota.


March 2002