A careful preflight always is a good idea, but it was a life-or-death necessity during the years of Rent-A-Plane’s existence at Van Nuys Airport. In preflighting an aircraft rented from Rent-A-Plane, it was not unusual to find batteries missing, dipsticks gone, tires flat and beer cans under the rudder pedals. Its motley assortment of aircraft always was listed on the roster as “ready to go,” and because the rental rates were the lowest of any FBO on the field, its planes, despite their imperfections, stayed busy.
A lone mechanic, Clem, maintained the fleet. Tall, gaunt and hostile, he distrusted all customers, especially those who had just returned from a journey in one of the planes, usually with a list in hand noting things that needed to be fixed. He greeted all complaints with disbelief unless the supposed fault had caused a forced landing, in which case he might reluctantly concede that something might be wrong. His response to all other complaints was to mutter something about the “plugs,” and wander off. To Clem, every mechanical problem, whether it was some terrible vibration or a power loss on takeoff, was attributable to plugs. It was a mystery to all who relied on his mechanical skills how, and why, he had become an aircraft mechanic. Clem was the only person Pooh Bear, my girlfriend’s Chow pup, had ever disliked immediately. Pooh took one curious sniff, growled and slunk away, always avoiding Clem thereafter.
The high school girls hired by Mel, the owner, to run the office were trained only to make sure a cash deposit was made before an airplane left the ramp. Once this was done, they cheerfully handed over whatever keys they had. Because their knowledge of aircraft was limited to distinguishing the planes with two engines from those with one, they often came up with the key to an airplane being overhauled that had none, or cheerfully surrendered the extra set to the Mooney that had gone to Tucson that morning. It usually took several trips from the office to the ramp before a flyable, available aircraft was found. Attempting to reserve a particular plane in advance usually was futile. Not only was it impossible to determine over the phone whether the plane could be flown – “ready to go” was the invariable answer – but any reservation could be pre-empted by someone showing up first with cash in hand.
It was a sunny September morning as three of us and Pooh Bear arrived at Rent-A-Plane with the intention of flying to Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico. Looking over those aircraft that appeared capable of such a journey, I entered the office and emerged with keys to several of them. Starting with my first choice, I tried the Twin Comanche and found the right propeller would turn only a few inches before stopping. It had been plagued with an intermittent starter problem for weeks and today it wasn’t going anywhere. The old Aero Commander 500, next in preference, had an unusually large pool of hydraulic fluid under it – too large for a trip into a country where problems are easy enough to find without taking them with you. Turning to the singles, I dismissed the Comanche 260 because I knew from experience it only would go three hours before losing pressure from loss of oil. The two Vikings were unsuitable for our trip – the first because its only reliable instrument was the magnetic compass, while the second was the victim of a recurrent fuel system problem that caused it, several weeks later, to become a ball of wood and tubes on a San Diego street.
Several small Cherokees and Cessnas remained, along with a Turbo Arrow IV. The smaller planes were impractical for our 1000-mile trip, so I turned unhappily to the Arrow, our last possibility. I hated that plane. It was new, but the only thing about it that functioned consistently was the pretty velour upholstery. I had flown it several times before on trips to Tahoe, San Diego and Truckee, becoming more impressed each time by how easily the radio knobs came off in my fingers, the erratic reading of the gauges, and how slow it flew in return for the prodigious quantity of fuel it consumed. The engine had a disconcerting habit of suddenly misfiring and running rough while in cruise, a trait which always startled the passengers and left everyone on edge. There also was a glitch in the automatic landing gear system which allowed the wheels to extend abruptly halfway down, an event which invariably occurred just after carefully trimming for cruise and at irregular intervals thereafter. Cycling the landing gear switch several times would bring the wheels up again, and I had become adept at catching them before speed and trim had deteriorated very far. As with most of Rent-A-Plane’s aircraft, it was difficult to relax in the Arrow.
Checking with Clem, I asked if the bugs had been fixed since the last time I had used the plane. “It’s ready to go,” he answered, “that engine roughness was only the plugs.”
I began a preflight, noting the unbroken paint around the cowling fasteners. Clem had not even had it off and I knew I again would be carrying gremlins – unwelcome passengers ready to surprise me the moment I forgot they were there.
Karen, Pooh Bear and Harry, a friend we were taking to Culiacan for business reasons, climbed on board as I added two quarts of oil and cleaned the windshield. I started the engine and taxied into position for takeoff, intending to top the tanks at Mexicali, where we would handle the formalities of entering Mexico and where fuel was cheaper. Not far into the takeoff roll, I noted with no great surprise that the airspeed indicator was hovering at 220 knots. Because it was a choice between the Arrow with no AI, or baking all day in a Cherokee or 172, I let our momentum carry us through the takeoff and climbout toward Mexicali. I had checked weather before leaving and found it to be the usual CAVU along our route to Culiacan. The airspeed indicator was dispensible… so I thought.
Other than the occasional interruptions of the gear dropping unexpectedly and the engine momentarily thumping, our leg to Mexicali proceeded normally. After taking fuel and obtaining our General Declaration and tourist cards, we proceeded to Culiacan, enjoying the beautiful combination of browns and blues below. Arriving that afternoon, we rented a car and took rooms at a hilltop motel which afforded us a view of the city and which lay within exploration distance of the shops and streets. Harry left us to arrange a business conference the following day while Karen, Pooh Bear and I sampled those distinct sensations available only south of the border.
The morning of our third day, I was completing my flight plan back to Mexicali when the official assisting me pointed to a roughly dressed campesino nearby and explained that he had been trying to return to his village where his wife was due to give birth. The road into the mountains was impassable because of washouts and the peasant had been waiting patiently to catch a ride with the irregularly scheduled mailplane to Tameapa, his home. “Porque es la misma direccion de su vuelo,” the official suggested, “quesas sera posible?” Checking the chart, I found the village was indeed directly on our path, and that stopping would cost us very little since it lay at 5500 MSL, about 15 minutes north.
I added our new passenger’s name to the flight plan, stuffed his old straw bag behind the rear seats on top of our luggage, and we were off to Tameapa. It wasn’t long before I spotted the tiny, rain-corrugated dirt airstrip perched upon a flattened mountain ridge. It was clear why the mailplane, a Cessna 185, had been avoiding the place lately. Not wishing to disappoint our hitchhiker, nor waste the time and fuel necessary for a return to Culiacan, I looked the strip over and decided it was possible to land. It was slanted steeply – a one-way strip – and the combination of gravity and brakes stopped us in a few hundred feet. Our grateful campesino invited us to stay for lunch, but we had many miles to cover before the day was over. I taxied to the highest point on the 1000-foot-long gash on the mountain, ran it up until the overboost light glowed steadily, and let it go. We accelerated quickly downhill. I had not missed our malfunctioning AI on our journey so far. Throughout the trip, the needle had danced around the dial, sometimes resting at zero, other times sitting on the peg. I had judged our approach and rotation speeds by feel and outside visual reference, but had neglected to consider the interconnection between the automatic retraction/extension system and the airspeed indicator.
Most of the airplane’s weight was on the wings as we rolled across a furrow somewhat larger than the others about halfway through our takeoff run. Bouncing slightly, the momentary lack of weight on the wheels fooled the “foolproof” gear system into performing its duty. The left wheel, now unlocked and slightly off-center, collapsed as the plane’s weight returned to the wheels. The left wingtip struck the ground, causing us to swerve to the left and off the runway. The other gear leg snapped off and the prop, with the throttle now closed, stopped as it dug into the dirt. We slid across the narrow margin that separated the runway from the edge of the mountain. I flipped the master off and Karen closed her eyes as we dived off the edge and began sliding down the mountainside. The thick underbrush and trees soon caught the wings, stopping our slide and saving us from plunging into the valley below.
Karen sat frozen next to me in the sudden silence. Harry, sitting in the back, kept whatever thoughts he had just then to himself. I slapped Karen’s thigh and said, “Out!” She opened the door and clambered outside as I pulled her seat forward so Harry and Pooh Bear could climb through. I turned off everything and retrieved our luggage, which we then struggled to carry back to the top, grasping at branches and bushes for support. While I was securing what was left of our airplane and grappling with the bags, Karen was taking pictures. These pictures show a red and white Arrow, incongruously sitting within a sea of lush, green vegetation, hanging by its leading edges from the side of a Sinaloa mountain – a plane, with its small wheels, faulty systems and marginal power, totally unsuited for what I’d attempted to use it for.
The passenger we’d delivered arranged for horses to carry us out of the mountains on what turned out to be a 14-hour expedition to the nearest highway. With everything in bloom, the streams swollen with water, the verdant hillsides dusted with yellow wildflowers, our passage through the mountains and valleys provided a beautiful and unexpected gift of misfortune. Upon reaching the highway late that night, we soon encountered a truck which made room for us amidst the produce in the back. At Culiacan, we hired a taxi to take us to Mazatlan, where, the next morning, we boarded a jet for Los Angeles. From there, I called the “jefe” at the airport in Culiacan and reported the accident. I’d flown enough in Mexico to know the safest procedure in case of accident was to flee the scene. He was understandably annoyed that I had not notified him in person and that I no longer was in Mexico. With us safely in Los Angeles, he could hold none of us for ransom, nor could he extract any fines or “damages.”
I brought the keys, logbooks and the pictures (having had them rapidly processed) back to Rent-A-Plane where Mel greeted my gifts with an incredulous, “Where. . .!” He flew down immediately to see what could be salvaged, but after I’d filed the accident report with Culiacan, “officials” had flown in and stripped the plane of its radios, instruments, seats and whatever else they could fit into a Cessna. Mel found an empty hulk. Several months later I was sued by his insurance company for operating the Arrow on unsuitable terrain.
What did I learn from this trip and its unhappy ending? Avoid planes with automatic retraction systems? Fill in the furrows on the runway before takeoff? Refuse to give rides to stranded campesinos? I had allowed the margin to become so small that a bump was all it took to terminate the journey and destroy an airplane.
- A trip to Mexico in the best of the worst airplanes ends in a costly fiasco - February 18, 2019