Sagebrush Cessna
by Ron Fox

EDITOR'S NOTE: The business of hauling consumer goods (contraband) into Mexico with airplanes into grass strips avoiding the outrageous Mexican import duties has been going on ever since airplanes were put into commercial service, that is, until 1989 when Mexico repealed most 100% duties on imported goods. These are the stories of aviator/smuggler Ron Fox, who along with his pilot commrades, based in Brownsville to fly unregistered cargo into Mexican airspace.

THIS WEEK: Part II: Sagebrush Cessna...

As much as I liked the Cessna 402, a small sleek twin engine cabin class airplane, it was not very well suited for the bush. Its wheels were small and narrow and didn't give very much support on dirt, especially soft dirt. Its landing gear struts and supports were rather spindly and didn't hold up too well on rough terrain, especially terrain which was also rocky. I found this out firsthand one morning with Bob Downs. We were victims once again of Felix, our most unreliable receiver.

Felix had come to Brownsville just a week before with plans to open up a "new" strip. One which, he insisted, would be safer than our established landing strips because it was unknown and had better perimeter visibility.This should have been the clue that raised the red flags in our minds, but we were a very ccommodating outfit, always eager to please our customers. Trips were getting harder to come by since the peso had devalued, and our can-do spirit brought us all the trips we needed when other outfits were shrinking. We were shrinking too, but due to lost aircraft and pilots, not for lack of business. Pilots and airplanes could be easily replaced, trips for customers couldn't.

It was always the norm that we used either airplanes worth less than the revenue of ten trips or someone else's airplane, whichever was available. In this case, our Cessna 402 was owned by a dentist from Reno, Nevada who needed a place to put it with revenue-generating work, it's $110,000 value notwithstanding. It was difficult to get more than about a ton and a half of contraband in it due to its small cabin, so its revenue was restricted to about $2,500 per trip. It was a joy to fly compared to most of the wrecks on the border, so we had a soft spot in our hearts for it. The soft spot was really in our heads, though. Like I said, it was no bush airplane.

Felix, leaning over a sectional chart stretched across Amy's desk, placed an X on the spot marking his new strip. It was the same spot marked the previous November that I had tried to find when I crashed our T-Bone coming out of the Hacienda strip. This new strip was about five miles south of the southern ring of mountains which marked the edge of the high plateau east of Mexico City. We were to come in from west to east and land toward the headlights of Felix's pick up truck, over the other car which would mark the western edge of the strip. We would not need any other lights or smudge pots as this would be a dawn arrival.

Bob Downs had recently come onboard our outfit and I was to show him the ropes on how we operated. An ex Air Force colonel, Bob was the adventuresome type who had come to the border to fly this 402, kind of baby-sitting it for his Reno dentist friend. He had previously flown it in freight operations for the dentist and had delivered it to Brownsville for Gus to use flying contraband. As a seasoned freight dog, I knew he was better suited to this type of flying than many of the pilots coming to the border to try their hand at the bush.

Bob was very professional in his preflight planning, weather analysis, satellite photo reading and aircraft preflight inspection. The conditions for this mission couldn't have been better. Clear skies, mild temperatures, and just a little wind gave us confidence this one would go off without a hitch. We took off near 0200 and headed south, directly out over the gulf in a straight line for the Posa Rica mountains on top of which was a weak VOR navigation radio we would pick up an hour or so out of our destination. The location of the strip would be no problem as I was very familiar with this area.

I pointed out to Bob all the visual points I could think of from which pilots could check their position on the charts. I explained to him the concept of controlled descent to a beach landing in case of an engine failure in an overloaded airplane. There were the colored lights of Tampico. We could even see the bright lights of the nuclear power plant on the coast east
of Jalapa, over one hundred twenty miles away.

As the black of night slowly turned to the azure blue of predawn, we began to pick up the VOR at Posa Rica. When the needles settled down, we picked up a bearing and flew it to the fix. Passing over it, we headed right for the Jalapa mountains which ringed the high plateau. Passing over the Hacienda strip, I pointed it out to Bob, describing its dimensions and suitability for large aircraft like the DC-3. I also told him about the power lines running along the dirt road going into the hacienda itself and about my crash.

We passed over the southern ring of mountains and began a westerly heading, looking for Felix's vehicles on the flat terrain. We spotted them almost right away, even from ten thousand feet and started descending. We made a pass right over the strip at low altitude, not believing our eyes. There was Felix's truck all right. And there was the other car which "marked" the strip. Only there was no strip. No strip, no road, not even a foot path. There wasn't even a flat area clear of sagebrush. It was open range, just like the desolate open range that the highways pass by, mile after mile throughout south Texas and Mexico.
We made another low pass, lining up just to the side of the "strip" to look it over carefully. We were looking for holes, depressions in the ground, rocks, pieces of wood and anything that might wipe out an airplane on landing. It looked all right, but from thirty feet or so, doing over a hundred miles an hour, we could have easily missed something. We couldn't tell how soft the ground was, but it didn't look soft. We should have known better.  

After talking it over a short while we decided to touch down and see how it felt. What the hell, there were no power lines, buildings, ditches or any other obstructions larger than a three foot sagebrush to hit. If we folded a gear we would probably survive, so we went for it. We could have bit into soft dirt and been pulled down with the drag, but we didn't think so. I told Bob about one of our pilots landing on a grass strip going up a hill along the coast. His only problem had been four-foot tall grass which ate his Beech Baron whole, resulting in a collapsed nosewheel and two bent props.

I came in on a long straight in, rather flat, going as slow as I dared with this much weight, about ninety knots with full flaps carrying power. As I passed over the car at the close end, I set her down gently on the ground. It was a surprisingly soft landing, most of the noise coming from the sagebrush that whipped around the plane, thrashing against its shiny paint job. About half way to Felix's truck, the terrain got a little rougher, with the airplane starting to buck up and down like a bronco. I was pumping the brakes which seemed to add to the bucking, but up ahead we saw a slight depression with some rocks in it. It looked almost like a small pool, the water in which had dried long ago. It was hidden from the air by several sagebrush bushes, but we were looking at it from below the arms of the plants. I stood on the brakes and almost got her stopped before we hit it. We weren't going very fast when we hit it, but when we hit it, the airplane came to an abrupt halt.

Holding my anger at Felix, probably due to my own responsibility for making the decision to land, I jumped out of the plane right behind Bob. Upon examination of the nose gear, everything looked fine. The tire was not cut and nothing seemed out of place. The light winds made it possible for us to attempt a takeoff going the other direction so we had the ground  crew help us push down the tail to turn the aircraft around after we unloaded it.

I tried to ask Felix why he hadn't at least cleared a landing area of sagebrush and rocks, but with his lack of understanding of much English I don't think he understood me completely.

Bob and I climbed back into the plane and fired her up. Everything checked out all right so I applied full power, holding the brakes until takeoff power was achieved. Releasing the brakes, the empty airplane literally lunged forward for a short distance. After that, it was still lunging, but not forward. We had begun turning in a gentle wide circle to the left against all of my efforts to straighten the plane with opposite rudder and even taps on the right brake. By the time I realized I couldn't straighten the plane, we were already going pretty fast, about half the speed we would need for liftoff. I yelled to Bob that I couldn't straighten the plane but that since we were going so fast I would continue the takeoff. He yelled back, "Go for it!".

Felix and his crew must have thought we were crazy to be tearing off across open range like that. The airplane was jumping up and down with the terrain, its nosewheel off the ground as I was holding it off as best I could to avoid it digging into the ground on the downswing. We were picking up speed rapidly as we crashed through one big sagebrush after another, half expecting to hit something solid at any time. I yelled at Bob to give me full flaps and, as I saw the switch go to the down position, I yanked the airplane off the ground in a shudder. We were airborne!

With the adrenaline coursing through our veins, we were both grinning from ear to ear, congratulating ourselves on our remarkable luck. The trip home was uneventful but we were worried about our landing back in Brownsville. We talked it over and elected to use a crosswind runway which would help correct our left-turning tendency. I held the nose off the runway as long as I could. When it came down, I commenced maximum braking with the right brake which held us straight for a short while. When the aircraft started to turn toward the left side of the runway, I stomped on both brakes and we skidded to a halt, close to the edge.

The tower had advised our ground crew to prepare a tow for us into the customs hot inspection area where we quickly cleared customs and were towed to the hangar.

It turns out I had indeed bent the nose strut assembly requiring its replacement. It also turns out that this was to be my last flight for Felix. It was a line finally drawn which I was to never cross over again. Unfortunately it was a line that Bob crossed over one more time which, as it turned out, was to sing our beloved Cessna's swan song.

It was only a short time after my one and only circular takeoff that our Cessna met its end, and it was, of course, at the hands of Felix. Bob had agreed to fly a trip for him into what was described as a much better strip than his last one. It turned out to have indeed been a much better strip than his last one, but Bob was just a little less lucky than we had been on our last one. He hit a depression in the ground, shaped in just such a way as to place a twisting moment on the right main landing gear that caused it to fold. Bob was not going very fast when he hit it, so there was very little aircraft damage when the gear collapsed. The right wing just sort of descended gently to the ground and rested on its slightly damaged wing tip-tank.

After a discussion with Felix, over Bob's objections, Felix burned it.

After retrieving the FM hand held radio, (the cheapest piece of gear in the entire plane), Felix put the torch to it and its funeral pyre was the last ever seen of our sleek little sportster.

Bob was taken to a nearby town where he caught a bus to the border and then walked across the bridge into Brownsville. It would be the last trip Bob flew for Felix, but it wasn't our outfit's last. That last trip for Felix, taken by Gus a few months later, after Bob and I had left the border, cost the outfit more than just another plane and pilot. It was the end of Gus, our friend.

Copyright 1998, BUSHPILOT, all rights reserved

Watch for more Ron Fox Smuggler's Tales in the weeks ahead - Editor
Reprinted with the permission of the author
For this and other stories online, visit Ron Fox BushPilot Web site.