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Silent Giants
Ronald H. Gruner


Occasionally life presents the opportunity to do something very special. For me that opportunity came in the summer of 1991.

I had spent 25 years designing high-performance computer systems: mainframes for General Electric in the sixties; minicomputers for Data General in the seventies; and supercomputers for Alliant Computer Systems, a company I had cofounded and for which I served as Chief Executive, in the eighties. By early 1991, I was ready for a change.
My story begins a few months later, just off the southwestern coast of Newfoundland...

Silent Giants of the Atlantic

Enroute to St. John's, Newfoundland

Out of the gray ocean mist, the cliffs of the Newfoundland coast are slowly emerging. The over water segment from Prince Edward Island is almost over as I loosen my life jacket. It's probably useless anyway. Survival time in the cold water over a mile below is only a few minutes; if the engine quits, your only hope is to ditch near a fishing boat, if there is one.

Banking the plane to the right, I fly east along the coastline of Newfoundland. The gray, rocky coast breaks into steep cliffs that spill downward into the white ocean foam. Deep fjords of dark blue water cut into the cliffs. The bare rock and fjords extend inland until they seem to merge into the low stratus clouds stretching northward to the horizon. Off to the right, misty-white scud clouds skim over the dark gray ocean to the southern horizon.
An unforgiving coastline, as unlandable as the miles of water I have just crossed. And I still must fly 300 miles before landing.
I am flying my single-engine Cessna 195, registration N3485V. Rolled out of the factory on August 8, 1947, this old plane will be fifty years old in 1997—just like the pilot. Graceful, with a long fuselage and a round, radial engine, the plane is easily distinguished from aviation's newer, more efficient offspring. Forty-five years ago, these planes were the workhorses of small airlines and Arctic bush pilots. Today, only a few hundred remain, flown by private pilots who appreciate the deep, resonant rumble of the old radial engine; the gleam of polished aluminum propeller and spinner; the old-fashioned, tailwheel landing gear; and the large interior with front seats like church pews.
The Cessna 195 was the last of its kind, the final evolution of the 1930's classic Cessna Airmaster. The Airmaster flew during the Golden Age of Aviation, the period when Wiley Post, Roscoe Turner, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes set speed and distance records around the world. An era when airplanes had names and a time of great promise for aviation. As a descendant of the Airmaster, the Cessna 195 is a link to that Golden Age.
An airplane like this was built to fly long distances; to destinations the pilot and plane have never been before.
Today's destination is St. John's, Newfoundland, the most northeasterly tip of North America. St. John's reaches out deep into the North Atlantic, as far north of my home in Boston as Florida is south. After spending a few days in St. John's, I intend to fly due southwest, over the Canadian maritime provinces, across the United States, through northern Mexico, past the Tropic of Cancer to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja California, Mexico, the most southwesterly point of the continent.
St. John's maritime weather changes rapidly. Three hours earlier, I'd heard from the Canadian Flight Service that the weather is holding.…Still, a freak snowstorm had covered the city only four days ago, even though it is early June. On this isolated tip of the continent, wind, fog and blowing snow make instrument approaches difficult for even the most experienced instrument pilot. I am not one of those. I earned my instrument rating only two months previously. If the weather deteriorates, my only alternate is Gander, another hour's flight from St. John's. I can reach it—but with minimum fuel reserves. There is nothing else.
I fly for an hour. Below are occasional small fishing villages. No roads lead into them. They must be accessible only by sea. Ahead, clouds obscure the horizon.
I am now over a continuous layer of low stratus clouds, less than an hour from St. John's. How far down do the clouds go? Does this stuff cover St. John's and maybe even Gander? As if reading my thoughts, Gander Center calls: "November 3485 Victor. St. John's weather is 1,500 scattered, visibility 15 miles, wind 260 at 20 knots..." I thank him for the call and relax a little.
The overcast below breaks as I make my approach. St. John's is bigger than I had imagined, more than a small fishing village. But the harbor is tiny and is entered via a strait only 600 feet wide. On both sides of the tiny passage, hills rise over 500 feet. It was from these hills that Marconi made the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission and Lindbergh last sighted North America as he began his Atlantic crossing over almost 2,000 miles of water.
St. John's tower vectors me out over the ocean. I fly out almost three miles and start my turn inbound. Then I see them. Icebergs! Three of them. So white! A brilliant white against the dark ocean. Majestic. And huge. One of them must tower a hundred feet above the water. And so much more is underwater. What do they say, eighty percent? No wonder one of these sunk the Titanic. Silent giants stalking the Atlantic.
In seconds they are gone. Behind me.
The runway is half a mile ahead. Strong crosswind from the left. There's the runway threshold. Now, flare gently. Keep the left wing down. Don't let it drift with the crosswind. One bounce, a second smaller one, and I am on the ground. A mediocre landing, but I have just set down at a tiny spot jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean that was only a remote point on a map this morning.

Icing, Winds, and Silence

St. John's, Newfoundland

St. John's may be remote, but it's a flurry of activity for pilots. Fifteen hundred light planes leave the United States every year for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, sold overseas as America's general aviation fleet continues to decline. The most common delivery is a Cessna 172, a four-passenger, single-engine plane seen at every airport in America, but everything from two-person Cessna 150 trainers to business jets make the crossing.

The cautious ones fly the northern route: Goose Bay, Greenland, Iceland, the Faero Islands, Scotland. The over-water legs are short, less than 500 miles. Every year, dozens of private pilots fly single-engine airplanes across the Atlantic to Europe and back. Almost all of them make it.
But the professional ferry pilots fly the southern route straight from St. John's to Shannon or even Amsterdam, Paris, or Frankfurt. It's faster and cheaper, but the route includes 1,700 miles over the cold North Atlantic waters.
The pilots are a friendly bunch. Most carry thick wads of cash wrapped with a rubber band in their shirt pockets. It is an all-cash business. The standard uniform is boots, jeans, flannel shirt, sheepskin-lined denim jacket and a ski hat, even in early summer.
Shortly after arriving, I meet John Egaas from Atlanta. Fifty years old, he has been flying small planes across the Atlantic for fourteen years, three times a month. Four days to make the trip, one day to fly back via commercial airliner, and two days off. Your regular five-day work week. He has never had an engine quit in all those years. Now he is flying a straight-tail Bonanza to Amsterdam. He estimates the flying time as twelve and a half hours with two and a half hours of fuel reserves.
What does he fear most about flying? John answers without hesitation, "Dying! Doesn't everyone?"
Denny Craig learned flying and survival in Vietnam. Now he lives in Southern California and mostly flies the Pacific routes—Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Japan. He mentions he has also made roughly 300 Atlantic crossings in small aircraft. The trip he's on now is to South Africa via the Azores. He started a few days ago in Wichita and will have flown about 10,000 miles when he lands in Johannesburg. The customer wanted to save money by having an auto-pilot and most of the navigation equipment installed in South Africa, so Denny is hand-flying the plane the entire trip with minimum equipment.
What does Denny worry about the most? Airframe icing on the Atlantic run. That's the biggest killer over the Atlantic, especially of younger pilots. The icing forecasts are usually accurate; but when they are not, the alternatives sometimes neck down to zero.
The big jets have equipment to melt the ice as it forms, but small planes do not. Without it, moisture in certain clouds freezes instantly to an airplane flying 150 miles per hour. Out the window, you see a thin white coating on the leading edge of the wing. Seconds later, the coating is half an inch thick. Then an inch. Vibration. The propeller is icing up. Now the ice-laden wings slowly lose lift. Your plane begins to lose altitude. The lucky ones descend into warmer air and the ice breaks up. If you are not so lucky, you continue to lose altitude until there is no more to lose; or the wing simply stalls—shortening the trip down.
Over the Pacific, the pilots fear the wind. The headwinds are unpredictable, which makes long legs like the 2,400 miles from San Francisco to Honolulu a dicey proposition. In 1984, Denny ditched into the ocean 50 miles short of Honolulu when headwinds depleted his fuel reserves.
He knew it was going to be close. When the Honolulu controller told him to fly around an aircraft carrier on training maneuvers he told them to move the carrier. It was night when he went in. Impossible to see the water. He set up a slow, gentle glide when the engine quit. The first whap was hitting the water. The second was the plane flipping over on its back. One gulp of air and he was under water. Somehow he found the door in the blackness and got out. A Navy helicopter picked him up. He says his Vietnam survival vest saved his life. Life jacket, flare gun, pistol, radio all in one. He still wears it.
John Penney, the St. John's Shell aviation manager, knows all the pilots well. Quiet and soft-spoken, he tells a famous story about an Atlantic run. "Woody" Woodward has probably made 250 single-engine crossings over the Atlantic. That's a lot, but not exceptional. What he's known for is his bugle playing.
"Seems Woody usually gets bored about half-way across and, unlike a lot of the younger pilots, doesn't listen to Van Halen on a Walkman. So he plays his bugle over the HF radio to entertain himself.
"One time a while back, Woody was making the crossing with several other pilots, mostly younger and less experienced, when one of the planes developed engine trouble. Just as it started to sputter and sound like it was going to quit, the young pilot radioed Woody for advice. Woody keyed his radio and replied by playing Taps on his bugle."
The young pilot made it to Ireland.
Atlantic icing and Pacific winds. John had a third opinion about the greatest fear the ferry pilots quietly carry inside them. "Silence. You're out over open ocean and the engine quits cold. You're only headed down."
Their stories match any in aviation's literature. Why do they do it? The young ones are building flying time to get into the commuters, just like the flight instructor at the local airport. The older ones say they do it for the money, as much as $3,000 net per delivery. I suppose that's as good a reason as any, but if you want to meet the men who flew the airmail in the twenties, set the flying records in the thirties, and flew the Himalayan Hump over the Himalayas in the forties, go to St. John's.

Flying the Gauges

Departing St. John's

Two days after arriving, I depart St. John's. A low overcast covers the city. As I climb through the clouds, the ground and sky dissolve into a white glow. All sense of motion, of up and down, are lost. My senses tell me I am suspended in an immense milk bottle.

My world shrinks to the single square foot of the control panel as I fly by instruments. The artificial horizon confirms my wings are level. The airspeed indicator is steady at 100 miles per hour. The altimeter shows I have reached 1,000 feet and am climbing. Good.
I pay particularly close attention to the artificial horizon in the middle of the panel. Inside, a tiny gyroscope spins four hundred revolutions a second. Just as a child's toy gyroscope returns to its original position when nudged, the gyroscope inside this instrument never moves regardless of what the plane around it does. Attached to the gyroscope is the instrument's face, a symbolic representation of the invisible horizon outside the windows.
As I start a climbing turn to the left, the instrument horizon falls away and drops to the right, just as the real horizon is doing somewhere outside. This tiny instrument has given me a three-inch window into the world outside the clouds.
As I level the wings, my body says the gyroscope is wrong. That it has somehow malfunctioned. I am not level, I am diving to the right. The physical sensation is almost overwhelming. But I believe the instrument, which says all is well. This is vertigo and almost every pilot experiences it at some time.
No pilot can fly by the "seat of the pants" in clouds. Here, your normal senses of feel and balance are useless—and deadly—if believed. You must fly the instruments, not what you feel.
A 1930s Army flying manual makes the point with a story. A military and civilian plane are both flying in a high, thin haze that obscures the horizon and ground below. The pilot of the fast military plane, seeing the civilian plane plodding through the muck just ahead of it, decides to play a joke and rolls inverted. The civilian pilot, seeing the military plane fly past upside down, and not completely sure of which way is up or down himself, promptly rolls his plane inverted.
Today, the Air Force is more formal and calls instrument flying "maintaining visual dominance over spatial disorientation." Pilots simply call it "flying the gauges."
The pilot who does not believe his instruments usually survives less than a minute before his body tricks him into a lethal spiral. A wing drops and the plane begins a shallow turn. The turn steepens. The confused pilot feels his body being pressed down into his seat. A dive! Scared, the pilot pulls back on the control wheel, unintentionally steepening the turn. The g-forces build quickly. If the pilot does not recover quickly, the wings snap, sending pilot and plane spiralling down.
At 5,000 feet I climb out into clear, blue sky. "On top" now at 6,000 feet, I head due west. In less than four hours, I will be in Moncton, New Brunswick, the most difficult part of the day's flying behind me.
To the south lie St. Pierre and Miquelon, the last remnants of France’s hopes of a North American empire. The tiny islands were somehow forgotten when France abandoned Canada for Louisiana after the Seven Years War. Unknown to most Americans, the islands still seat two representatives in the French Parliament.
The 275-horsepower Jacobs radial engine sounds strong. Jacobs engines powered twin-engined trainers in World War II used to train crews for the big B-17 and B-24 bombers. My engine never saw service during the War. It was pickled in cosmolene, a preservative grease, in 1946 and sat in the dry Arizona desert. When I ordered a new engine, it was unpacked, overhauled, run-in, and shipped as a "brand-new," fifty-year-old engine.
An hour and a half out of St. John's, I notice a problem with the fuel. The gauges show the left tank is down more than twenty gallons, but the right tank has not moved at all. I check the fuel selector. It is on Both, which means the fuel should be flowing evenly from both wing tanks.
Something is wrong. Maybe a fuel line is clogged or maybe the right gauge is simply stuck. I must find out. It is impossible to reach my destination on one tank. If the right tank is not flowing fuel, I need to land soon. The closest airport is Stephenville, more than 100 miles ahead.
I flick the gauge with my finger. No change. The only way to be sure is to switch completely to the right tank. If the lines are clogged, the engine will sputter and probably quit, but from my altitude of 6,000 feet I should have plenty of time to switch back to the left tank and restart the engine.
Glimpses of the coast are visible through holes in the clouds, rugged and unlandable. I make the decision to ditch in the water along the coastline if I cannot restart the engine.
I switch to the right tank. If it is clogged, the engine will start to die in less than thirty seconds. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty seconds...a minute. Slowly, I start to relax. Must be the gauge. After an hour, I switch back to both tanks. Moncton is now only an hour and a half ahead over the waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

Revolutionaries and Bandits

Chihuahua, Mexico

Four days later, I am over Mexico flying toward the city of Chihuahua. I fly for 200 miles without seeing a house, car, or person. They must be there, as I occasionally see dusty roads criss-crossing the desert. My map shows more than a dozen small dirt airstrips along my route, but I see only two of them. The radio is quiet.

Fifty miles from Chihuahua I hear radio transmissions. Most are in Spanish but one in English tells me that an isolated thunderstorm is passing north of the airport.
Thirty miles out, I see the storm. Its dark gray clouds climb far above me like a huge wall. Heavy rain and lightning obscure the space between cloud and earth.
Even from this distance, the storm is churning the air. I slow down to 120 mph and fly on. The storm is moving northward, away from the airport. Ten miles from the airport, I slow to 100 mph. The air becomes more turbulent, even though the storm is now miles away. Soon though I am through the turbulence as I begin my landing approach.
I land and taxi to the terminal building.
The regulations say I must wait in the plane until the customs inspector clears my entry. I wait five, ten, fifteen minutes. Even after the storm, it is hot. Maybe they do not know I have arrived. I get out and walk toward the terminal building.
Inside I find the customs office. The door is open and I walk in. Three customs officials are sitting around a gray desk smoking. They do not look up as I enter the small room. I greet them in high school Spanish and then, switching back to English, tell them I wish to clear customs.
"Customs office closed," the oldest official tells me amiably.
"I'm sorry. I must have misunderstood. I was told in San Antonio your office is open until 7:00 p.m.," I reply. It is 4:15 in the afternoon.
"Office close at 4:00 o'clock. But we open office in five minutes. Cost $65."
"That is too much. I understand the office should be open," I reply.
"Sorry, mi amigo. Office close at 4:00 o'clock. Cost $65 to open."
I am at a loss. Had he asked $10 to open the office, I would have paid it. But $65 is too much. Not quite sure what to do, I walk out of the office. Outside, beside the door, is a chair. I sit down, lean back and close my eyes.
A few minutes later, the three officials walk out of the office. They wander around the small airport for a few minutes. The older official walks back toward me.
"Give me your papers, senor." He clears me through customs in less than three minutes. I briefly consider tipping him but do not.
For many years, Chihuahua was a city of revolutionaries and bandits. Padre Miguel Hidalgo, the priest who launched Mexico's War of Independence, was captured and executed here by the Spanish in 1811. And 112 years later, Pancho Villa died here in his bullet-riddled car.
Pancho Villa. For many Americans, his name is Mexico. Born in 1878, Villa spent his youth hiding in the mountains after killing the wealthy ranch owner who had assaulted his sister. Embittered by the incredible wealth of a few landowners—one ranch was larger than Belgium—he led numerous revolutions against the government starting in 1910. In 1916 he robbed and murdered sixteen American citizens and then crossed into the United States and raided Columbus, New Mexico.
President Wilson sent General John Pershing into Mexico to capture Villa. Aided by sympathetic countrymen and his knowledge of the terrain, Villa easily evaded Pershing. In 1920, he made a deal with the Mexican government to retire from politics in return for amnesty. He was assassinated on his ranch three years later.
A few other Americans are at the airport. One is flying a perfectly restored 1943 biplane, a Beech Staggerwing named for the rearward position of its upper wing. Sixty years ago, the Staggerwings were the premier executive aircraft and one of the fastest planes flying, faster than many military fighters of the time. Thousands were built during the war to shuttle officers and VIPs around. Today, there are but a handful flying and most are in museums. This plane is fortunate; it is a working airplane, flying its owner monthly from his Idaho home to his ranch near Chihuahua. Sparkling white, it dominates the small airport.
Two others own a gold mine 175 miles to the northwest, deep in the mountains. I joke about Humphrey Bogart in the Treasure of the Sierra Madres. They've heard it before. Asked if it's possible to make a living mining gold in the Sierras, they simply answer, "Oh, yes."
I go to bed early. Tomorrow's flying will be the most dangerous of any I do in Mexico. The first leg is over the Sierra Madre The Occidental mountains are barren, unlandable, inhabited by scorpions and six-foot diamondback rattlesnakes. In the afternoon, tremendous thunderstorms form quickly. Monsters, really. A small plane caught by these storms over the mountains is in for a brutal ride.
The next leg will be much easier flying over water. Pilots joke about their engines switching to "automatic rough" when over water. More than one pilot has started out over the water, sensed something was wrong in the sounds of the engine, anxiously turned back and then, once again safely over land, detected nothing.
The next morning I arrive at the airport at seven. I check the weather. It looks good. A middle-aged Mexican man is standing nearby. I grasp a propeller blade and pull it through counter-clockwise. . One blade. Two blades. What seems like a pint of oil pours out the engine's exhaust pipe. The man is dumbfounded. I continue pulling the prop through. More oil runs out of the engine. The excited man is pointing to the oil, saying something in Spanish. He cannot believe I intend to fly this plane with such an oil leak. I explain, in the only appropriate Spanish I know, "de nada, de nada," it is nothing.
I am simply draining the oil that has seeped overnight into the lower cylinders, a characteristic of all radial engines. Sometimes the amount of oil that comes out is astonishing, even to the pilot. To a casual bystander, it looks catastrophic.
I start the engine. Great clouds of blue smoke pour out as the old engine coughs and sputters. I taxi out, leaving the astonished man staring at the spreading pool of oil.
As I taxi to the end of the runway the tower clears my take-off. Full power. A little right rudder to keep it straight. The plane accelerates slowly. The elevation is 4,700 feet and the temperature is already 90 degrees. The combination starves an airplane's engine. Eventually, I break ground and begin the long climb to 12,000 feet, my cruising altitude over the mountains.

The Mythical Island of California

Chihuahua to Cabo San Lucas

Thirty miles out of Chihuahua, the tower calls me. "November 3485 Victor. Frequency change approved. Contact tower frequency, 118.8, fifty miles from Los Mochis. Proceed at pilot's discretion." This is their way of saying there is no radio contact for the next 250 miles until I approach Los Mochis on the other side of the mountains. Even at this altitude, radio contact over the mountains is lost. I stay on the frequency and monitor the commercial jets 20,000 feet above me. They are high enough to maintain radio contact. In an emergency, I can have them relay a message to the ground.

Flying west from Chihuahua, the Sierras sneak up on you. The ground rises slowly. Valleys lie between the scattered mountains. Some of the mountain tops even look flat enough to attempt a landing.
Then suddenly a wall of mountain peaks stretches endlessly in front of me. The peaks are bare and rocky. Sharp promontories jut hundreds of feet into the air. Deep canyons drop thousands of feet down to the dry riverbeds below. These mountains are not like the Colorado Rockies, softened by green trees and snowy peaks. These mountains look primitive and cruel.
I fly for almost an hour. Below me is Barranca de Cobre, or Copper Canyon. The canyon walls plunge downward nearly a mile. Actually six separate canyons, the entire area is larger than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Almost unknown to Americans and buried deep inside the Sierra Madres, the canyon was virtually inaccessible until thirty years ago. Today, the only transportation is a single railroad that winds its way over the mountains through 86 tunnels and 39 bridges. It was completed by the Mexican government in 1961 after one hundred years of failed attempts by American railroad companies.
The morning air is smooth. Except for the engine's steady vibration, I could be sitting in my living room chair. It seems strange to find such smooth air only a few thousand feet above such violent terrain.

Then, for an instant, the engine stops. Silence for a fraction of a second. I sit bolt upright and instinctively twist the fuel mixture knob. Then as quickly as it went, the engine's roar and vibration resume.

The engine has not failed. It is just a curious idiosyncrasy of the Jacobs engine. Designed in the early 1930's, the engine simply misses a beat occasionally. Nobody seems to know why. Some say that the engine is ingesting a piece of carburetor ice; others, that the leanest cylinder is misfiring. This quirk is jokingly called the "Jacob's burp" by pilots. It must have terrified early passengers.
I continue on, crossing a broad coastal plain. Myriad shades of green lie below and in the distance is the dark blue of the Sea of Cortez. Near the water's edge is Los Mochis, my refueling stop.
Los Mochis is a comfortable-looking airport from the air. Neat, ochre-colored buildings nestle alongside a long, wide runway. Flat fields lie at both ends, almost inviting planes to land. As I turn onto final, a commercial DC-9 jet starts to taxi out. The desolate Sierra Madres are far behind.
I land and refuel. No credit cards are accepted. Two planes have refueled just before me, but the man says he has no change. It is his way of asking for a tip. The difference is 12,000 pesos, or $4. I let him keep it.
The next leg is the longest overwater distance I have ever flown. Almost 150 miles. With the headwinds, it will take just over an hour.
I walk around the plane, looking for fuel and oil leaks that could drastically curtail my flight. Everything looks good. I rope together two gallons of water, a flare gun kit, and an empty water container to serve as a float. I place these in the seat next to the door to grab on the way out if I go down over the water. I put on my life jacket.
I sit in the plane thinking about the decision to go. There is a small but real risk. A pilot might have an engine quit once in 10,000 hours of flying. So my hour over the water has maybe a one in 10,000 chance of losing the engine.
If the engine does quit, I go into the water. What are my chances of staying conscious, getting out of the plane before it sinks, and getting picked up? Who knows. Maybe 50/50. I remember the mortality tables my insurance agent showed me two months ago. Three out of a 100 people die every year at my age. Three percent. That is huge number compared to what I am facing today.
I take off to the north. At 500 feet I bank left and head westward toward Baja California, a small knot of fear in my stomach. Minutes later, I am out over the Sea of Cortez.
Hernan Cortez sailed these waters 450 years ago searching for a mythical island called California. Cortez knew of the Exploits of Esplandian, a medieval romance popularized in a book published in 1510 when Cortez was 25. The legend tells of an island populated by beautiful black women living as Amazons. The only metal found on the island was gold from which all weapons and tools were fashioned. Protecting the women were hundreds of flying griffins, half eagle and half lion, which were fed the flesh of any men taken prisoner.
Like Baja's eastern coast, the island was said to have steep cliffs that made it almost impregnable. In the legend, the name of the island was California from the Greek words "kalli" for beautiful and "ornis" for bird for the island's griffins.
Half an hour out, I get a hint of the shore still 75 miles ahead. A brown haze interrupts the sharp horizon at intervals. I fly ten minutes, twenty-five miles, and the haze barely changes. Then slowly, very slowly, the light brown mountains of Baja California emerge.

A Small, Dusty Airport

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

I fly over La Paz, the Baja's largest city. The Pacific ocean is clearly visible 30 miles farther west. I fly toward it. Below me, scattered parcels of land are cultivated, green and flat. The plane and I fairly skip along knowing the land below us is friendly and open.

We reach the Pacific shoreline. Banking left I head south towards Cabo San Lucas, the very tip of Baja California. Flying over broad, white beaches for fifty miles, I do not see a single person.
And then we are there. The rock arch that marks the end of the 800-mile-long peninsula is just ahead. I drop the plane down to 1,000 feet. A cruise ship lies at anchor in the bay. Motorboats pull skiers suspended under parachutes while sailboats cut white wakes heading out into open ocean. I wonder if the tourists below me are as surprised to see this old plane circling above them as I am to see this miniature Acapulco below me.
I circle the harbor twice and land at a small strip north of the city. There is nothing at the airport except a tiny adobe building. Above it swings a blown-out windsock. I think briefly about taking off and flying thirty miles to the new international airport that now serves the city, but decide to stay.
The building is empty, no furniture, not even a telephone. A dusty road leads into town through the desert. I start the four-mile walk. Soon a rancher stops and offers me a ride in his antique pick-up truck.
Four hours later, I am walking through the small town looking for a quiet place to have dinner. I am tired from the day's flying. I find a small cafe and sit down at one of the outside tables along the street.
I start to study the menu when a waiter comes over. Would I mind if two ladies join me? An unexpected question. Well, of course not. Maybe they would like to hear a few of my flying stories.
They are from Los Angeles, mid-thirties. They arrived yesterday and expect to stay three or four days. I get the impression they are on a flexible schedule. The tall one with short blond hair tells me that she lived in Mexico City as a singer for five years but today is back in the States and is a holistic masseuse. I am wondering what that is when her darker companion introduces herself.
"So, where's your wife?" she asks, seeing my wedding ring. The woman is a master of small talk.
Being too slow to respond with anything clever, I simply say, "Well, I'm down here by myself. I just flew down from Boston and my wife doesn't care much for flying and stayed home." I must sound like an idiot.
"You mean your wife's in Boston and you flew down here by yourself?" She's not doing much better. "Yes, that's right," I reply, beginning to consider the unexpected moral dilemma that seems to be developing.
Two Mexican men in their mid-twenties come up to the table. The blond seems to know one of them. They introduce themselves. During the day, they drive one of the motorboats that pulls parasailers around the bay. They buy the table a round of margaritas.
The small band begins the next number. One of the men takes the blond's arm and escorts her to the dance floor without bothering to ask her to dance. The other smiles at the darker girl and she is up and walking to the dance floor with him.
They say Cabo San Lucas is a great town if you are looking for action. But you have to move quickly.
Two days later, driving to the airport in a taxi, I worry about my plane. It was foolish to leave it at that isolated strip. Seeing the poverty driving out of town away from the resort areas, it seems almost inevitable that my solitary plane will have been robbed.
Approaching the plane, I see that indeed something is wrong. The door handle is broken off. Opening the plane's door, I see the broken handle has been carefully placed on the plane's floor. It apparently had fallen into the dirt when broken. The intruder must have picked it up and put it into the plane, perhaps assuming I could repair it.
Inside, the interior is much like I left it, except certain items are gone—my survival kit, four gallons of water, jacket, flashlight, tool kit, sleeping bag, calculator. My maps and log books are untouched. The intruder took only what would be useful; otherwise, the plane is intact.
I take off from the small airstrip. The compass swings to the northeast as I turn homeward thinking about the man who picked the broken handle out of the dirt for me to find.

The Pearl of Loreto

Homeward Bound

Flying east out over the water, I look down to my left. Six-foot waves pound the long, empty beaches. It seems ideal for surfers but there are none. From the air, the ocean floor is clearly visible. Soft white near the shore, the shallow floor changes to a light blue as it slowly descends.

Then an abrupt edge and the floor drops into nearly black water. The steepness of the drop is startling. You can actually see the ocean floor drop off a cliff into the deep ocean. I remember reading that the waters off these shores plunge to over 9,000 feet, some of the deepest water in the Pacific.
I am now flying over a shipwreck near San Jose del Cabo. There is an amusing story about one of the shipwrecks somewhere around here. This may be it. Years ago, Japanese fishermen were fishing in Mexican waters illegally. They would come in at night, set their fish traps and mark them with radio buoys, and sail back into international waters by morning.
The next night they would home in on their traps, harvest them, and then safely wait out the day once again in international waters. With only simple farmers and ranchers to worry about, they were doing well.
Now as the story goes—which may or may not be strictly true—one moonless night the simple farmers roped a buoy and dragged it a quarter mile up the beach. When the trawler came in to collect its traps, it beached itself hopelessly. The embarrassed government never reclaimed the ship and the hulk has remained there for over thirty years.
Minutes later I am flying over Cabo Pulmo directly on the Tropic of Cancer. Gently banking left, I begin the 800-mile journey northward up the peninsula. I land and refuel in La Paz. Here John Steinbeck told the tale of Kino, the pearl diver, finding a great pearl, The Pearl of the World, and the death and misfortune that followed it until this symbol of greed was again returned to the sea. Today, the city is the commercial center and capital of southern Baja. But I do not stay; today's destination is Loreto, the oldest settlement in Baja.
I arrive in the late afternoon. The small hotel is filled with American sport fishermen, a friendly and gregarious bunch who are bemused when they hear about my solitary flight across the continent. Over dinner, they tell me of the day's fishing. Most of the stories must be true as I am sharing their dinner, part of the day's catch.
Afterwards, I walk along the shore of the wide, crescent bay. Waves gently lap the rocky beach. The setting sun behind me casts a soft pink glow on the haze between the dark water and light blue evening sky. Across the bay, the light brown hills of Isla del Carmen blend with the pastels of the water and sky. Off to my right, pelicans call to each other as they dive for fish in the still sea.
It is an ancient and beautiful scene, unchanged from the time when the priests chose this location for their first mission in all the Californias.
That was in 1697, over 150 years after Cortez. At first, it was a miserable existence for both the Jesuits and their Indian disciples. The Jesuits had hoped to make each mission self-sustaining by teaching the Indians farming. But as nomads, the Indians had lived for centuries traveling constantly in search of water and food. The idea of working today for possible results in the distant future was incomprehensible to them. They were right about farming without irrigation; both they and the priests were left to a diet of insects and snakes when the crops failed, which they did regularly.
But the early priests were selfless men and they persevered. Their persistence and compassion slowly won over the land and the Indians. Within a few decades, they had established 23 missions in Baja, California, each roughly a day's journey apart.
But in 1768 the Jesuits were forced out of Baja California when their order was expelled from Spain for court intrigue. They were replaced by the Franciscans, who saw little opportunity in Baja California and abandoned the peninsula for the land above it, what we now know as the State of California. The Baja began a slow decline. By 1900, the population of Baja California, a peninsula larger than Italy, was down to 9,000. It would take the steady trickle of tourists starting after World War II to reverse the decline begun almost 200 years before.
I walk farther up the beach. Boys laugh as they turn handstands, running and diving into the water. Old men talk quietly as they fish along the water's edge. I continue walking and turn toward the town's plaza as the bells of the old mission ring the hour.
The plaza is empty, quiet. It is lined on four sides by small adobe buildings. The town offices on one side, an ancient grocery store and modern bank on another, simple homes on the other two. In the center is a small park. A gazebo, park benches. There is no grass, only dry dust that is the same light brown color of the mountains in the bay.
I walk down the street leading to the twin spires of the old mission. The street is dark and dusty. Turning the corner, I see people standing outside the church, listening quietly.
The doors to the church are open. From the dark street, the bright interior of the church is like a pearl in the center of this brown, dusty town. The entire back wall radiates brilliance. A white statue of the Virgin and Christ in the center. Paintings framed in gold and silver are on the sides. Vivid murals of the Nativity and the Crucifixion above. The altar is gilded in gold with brilliant white inlays, perhaps mother of pearl from La Paz. White flowers sit on the sides. In the middle is a gold chalice.
The bare adobe walls and domed ceiling are painted a plain white. Ceiling fans suspended from long rods turn slowly, their movement contrasting with the stillness of the people below.
The church is full. There is not an empty seat. People are standing to the sides and in the entryway. Couples, children, old people, mothers nursing babies. No one is talking. There is a sense of reverence here that I have never seen or felt before.
The priest's voice is kind and gentle. Slowly rising and then falling softly as he makes each point. The priest stands alone without a pulpit in the center of the church. Unguarded. His vestments are light green, a color that seems unworldly in this dry barren land.
He speaks with his hands folded. Not piously as if praying, but directly to the people. He spreads his arms and his vulnerability seems to implore you to trust and believe. As he speaks, I feel I am looking into what religion can be: kindness, compassion, gentleness.
Half a dozen American college kids are coming down the street swearing loudly, drinking bottles of Corona beer. They stop abruptly in front of the church. At first, they seem bewildered by the presence this church radiates. They must feel it too. They listen for what seems a long time and then walk away quietly.
The next morning, I depart Loreto and fly northward through upper Baja. I visit Guarrero Negro where the ship Black Warrior with its millions in gold lies somewhere yet to be found. At 10,000 feet, I fly along Picacho del Diablo, Baja's highest mountain and then, much lower, over Tiburon Island—where as recently as 1956 two ill-fated fishermen fell victim to the cannibalistic Sari Indians.
Soon I leave Baja for the United States. I have flown almost 6,000 miles since departing Boston for St. John's a continent away. My memories are strong: the dark fjords of Newfoundland, the brutal Sierra Madres, the deep blue waters of Baja California, miles of ocean and desert and people even more varied than the geography I flew over.
So as I fly homeward, I find it surprising that two memories overwhelm all the others: the brilliant white icebergs drifting quietly in the dark Atlantic and that gentle priest in the small Loreto church.
  


It's been almost six years since my flight. I still fly as much as possible, but haven't made a trip like my St. John's to Cabo flight since. Mostly it's business flying to places like Teterboro, Cleveland and Philadelphia. Both N3485V and I celebrate our fiftieth birthdays in 1997. I don't have much planned for mine, but am looking forward to giving N3485V a new interior and paint job.

As for another flight to faraway places in an old airplane, I've recently bought maps of northern Canada. A circumnavigation of Hudson Bay...well, that's another story.

Copyright  1997 by Ronald H. Gruner. All rights reserved.

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