My first flight into Mexico was one to remember.
I had bought an old Beechcraft Baron. The Baron had six seats and two Continental 260 hp engines, but it was a little rough around the edges. It hadn't flown in two years when I picked it up in Milwaukee. But after having the props overhauled, fuel tanks replaced, radios upgraded, new tires, battery, etc., it wasn't a bad old airplane. The work would have cost a fortune in a Beechcraft shop, so my friends and I did it ourselves.
My friend Bob looked it over and said the plane was just begging to go somewhere. Since the weather was cold in Tennessee, we decided to go south. Cancun seemed a likely place.
Since it had all those seats, I asked some of my flying buddies if they wanted to go along. It's always good to have some help buying gas. David E. decided to go. He had heard how good Mexican beer was and wanted to check it out. Ray said he wanted to go, but he wanted to drive down and fly back with us. Ray was convinced that driving a car across the country was the only way to really get a good look at it, but he didn't want to drive both ways, so our trip fit right into his plans. He said he would fix up an old Dodge Dart, take along some spare parts, drive from Greeneville, Tennessee to Cancun and then abandon the car in the airport parking lot. It sounded crazy to me, but apparently not to everyone because he found someone to drive with him.
We set a date to meet at the Cancun airport.
The trip down was wonderful. The Baron was lightly loaded and a delight to fly. At twelve thousand feet, we had smooth air, unlimited visibility and a strong tail wind. Our new Loran showed a ground speed of 250 mph. I was so impressed, I took a picture of the readout to show the folks back home.
We spent the night in Key West and bought survival equipment. David E. was worried about sharks and wanted to go all out on rafts and jackets, but Bob and I didn't want to spend the money. So we compromised. We went to Sears and bought the best life jackets, rafts and emergency supplies they had, then we left them in the shopping bags and kept the receipts so we could return them on the way back. If we hadn't used them, of course.
We filed IFR to Cancun via the Vinca intersection and were off. By the time we called Havana Center, the visibility was so good we could actually see Cuba, over fifty miles away. The sky was just the right shade of blue, the air was smooth and the Gulf sparkled like blue-green jewelry. David E. was asleep in the back, Bob was in the left seat and I was fooling with the radios when we noticed the cloud.
I had read about tropical storms and knew they could be rough. I had read about tornado force winds and cumulus tops above sixty thousand feet. But I had never actually seen a tropical storm.
Bob had been humming some tune, but he stopped now and said, "Boy, that's some storm up ahead. Maybe we had better go around it."
I was still fiddling with the radios and had made an uncomfortable discovery. "I'm afraid that storm is right where we want to go, Bob."
The closer we got, the worse the storm looked. And sure enough, it was centered over the Cancun airport.
"What about an alternate?" I asked.
"What about those guys in the Dodge Dart?"
I had forgotten about them. Under normal circumstances, communication in Mexico is almost impossible. In this situation, it would be worse. I could picture Ray in the airport lobby, being paged in Spanish. If we missed this connection, we might never see them again. I called the tower.
"Cleared for the VOR approach," the man said, then added as an afterthought, "Visibility is one-half mile in rain."
The next day we learned that the water was already three inches deep inside the terminal and the runway was flooded. It was coming down at a rate of twelve inches per hour.
Entering the storm was like flying into a dark, cold waterfall. The Baron bounced and bucked as water poured through the cracks and crevices. The avalanche of water on the windscreen drowned all other sounds. Despite Bob's best efforts, we were having difficulty staying within 500 feet of our assigned altitude. Lightning blinded us again and again and the sound of thunder was even louder than the rain.
I reported that we were passing the VOR outbound and felt that we were lucky to have gotten that far, but the tower operator sounded unimpressed. "Visibility is now one fourth mile and heavy rain."
Tracking the VOR outbound, we flew out of the storm. For a brief moment we saw sunshine and an unbroken jungle canopy.
"Well, what do you think?" Bob asked.
"I don't think it can get much worse," I told him.
But it did.
When Bob completed the procedure turn and headed back toward the airport, we were grabbed by a powerful down draft. The Baron dropped so fast the camera hanging from my neck floated up to eye level. Bob said, "full power!" but I was already on it.
The power settings, landing gear and radios were my responsibility. I got everything up to max and noted that we were still sinking like a rock. Not a desirable situation, since we were already down to one thousand feet. I could only listen to the thunder and rain and think about that jungle canopy.
The descent suddenly stopped and we began rising like a cork in water. I pulled off all the power and shuddered to think of those poor cylinders, drenched in water and abused by such heat extremes. Then we started down again. I remember having full power ... no power ... full power ... about three times.
I also remember looking back to see that David E. was wide awake and turning a very distasteful shade of green.
When I called the tower to report passing the outer marker, he replied with, "Visibility now one eighth mile with heavy rain."
Then, when we were at the minimum altitude and one mile out, lightning struck the VOR. I saw the flash ahead and watched the flags come up on instruments.
I called the tower and declared, "Baron 200 Kilo Lima, missed approach."
The tower operator answered with, "airport is closed."
I pushed up the power and Bob headed toward Cozumel. Over the roar of the deluge, the rolling thunder and the scream of the tortured engines, I heard Bob singing. I recognized the tune as something from Wagner, probably from one of those ring operas.
"You must be more scared than I thought," I yelled, "Singing to keep up your spirits?"
"Scared?" he grinned, "Scared? Naw, I was just trying to keep from falling asleep."
The weather was beautiful in Cozumel and after an afternoon on the telephone, we reached Ray. He had been inside the terminal building when the lightning struck and the lights went out. He had heard us fly past, but didn't see us. He couldn't even see the edge of the parking lot.
"Boy, it was really coming down," he told us.
The Baron had lost some paint from the nose and leading edges and the new labels were gone off the props, but after it dried out inside, it seemed O.K.
We went back to Cancun the next day to pick up Ray. He left the Dodge Dart in the parking lot with the keys in the ignition. It may still be there.