FLYING IN MEXICO
Mexican Government Aircraft Intercept
The second weekend in December I flew a dentist, and his son, to El Rosario, Baja, Mexico for the Flying Samaritans. The SAM’s, as they are called for short, take doctors, dentists, nurses, and chiropractors to their clinic in the small town of El Rosario (on the Pacific side of the Baja) to treat the local people for free. They do this once a month mostly year round. I have made over a dozen trips for this, and December 2016 was the most recent.
Naturally, we have to clear customs at an airport of entry. Usually it will be San Felipe, or Puerto Penasco (better known as Rocky Point). After doing this a few times, it becomes routine. We usually go on Friday morning and are treating patients before noon and the rest of the day. On Saturday the clinic opens at about 9 AM and runs all day. Sunday morning is departure back to Tucson. Since this is all volunteer work, we will have from 3 to 6 planes to take providers to the Baja depending on the availability of pilots, planes, and providers.
For this trip, my passengers needed to be back in Tucson by Saturday evening. So we left the clinic and got to the airport for a mid afternoon departure in order to arrive before dark. My usual route is to fly north and cross the mountain ridges at about 8000 feet, then over the northern end of the Gulf of California, and then straight to Tucson. Depending on winds, this is a 2 ½ to 3 hour flight. The weather was very nice for flying and we enjoyed the views.
About 40 nm northwest of Rocky Point, my right seat passenger said that there was an airplane coming close to us from the right side. I looked, and sure enough, there was a Mexican Air Force Turboprop Pilatus PC-7 coming up alongside of us. He was in perfect position for formation flying, and stayed right at our speed, slightly lower and behind us. Then he moved to my left side, and then back to the right again. Obviously he wanted to get the number from the plane. We had not gone through any restricted airspace, so I was puzzled about what he would want. (See it here on YouTube.)
I had already contacted San Diego Radio and received a Transponder code for crossing the border. So when this plane came along side, I called San Diego Radio again to let them know that we were being approached by a Mexican Government aircraft, and asked if they knew any frequencies to contact them, or had any ideas about what they would want. They had nothing to help us with, so I just updated my arrival time to Tucson to let US Customs know when we would be there.
After trying some frequencies, my back seat passenger was able to get a frequency by use of hand signals: 130.75. I put that in my second radio, and we were able to communicate with the plane. They asked where we had departed from and where we were going. They then asked what our transponder code was. After giving that information, there was a lot of conversation on that frequency, in rapid Spanish, with someone else. I think the pilot asked me some more questions, but his English was not good enough for me to understand, and I told him that.
I never changed course, altitude, or speed, and just concentrated on flying the airplane. Fortunately for me, my passengers were very cool and calm, and very helpful. They got some pictures of the Mexican plane, and helped getting the frequency to communicate. That is what we call “cockpit resource management.” I used all the help I could get in a stressful situation.
The language barrier was a problem, but the Mexican pilots were very good pilots. I never felt like they would hit me, or felt like I was in danger. They never flew in front of me, which would have caused prop wash, and never gave any indications that I needed to follow them. After some conversations that we could hear on the frequency, but not fully understand, they departed by dropping to the right and going ahead of me. Then I was treated to an air show as they demonstrated the abilities of the aircraft in rolls, chandelles and a series of climbs and descents. After that, they just departed, and didn’t even say “Adios!” Oh, well, I guess they got what they needed from us.
This whole thing lasted about 20 minutes or less. I was able to communicate with them, and with San Diego radio, and I just kept going toward the border. I knew that they would not follow me over the border. In another 20 minutes, we did cross the U S – Mexican border, and I felt better after that. No US planes came to escort us on to Tucson, so I guess that we had done everything right.
After landing in Tucson exactly at my estimated time of 5:30 PM we went to US Customs as usual. After clearing the Customs office, we added some fuel, and flew to Marana where our cars were parked.
So, what was this all about? We really don’t know. This was also a first for the Flying Samaritans as well. No other SAM’s have ever been intercepted, and none of the other planes there on that weekend had such an experience. Some things to think about: first of all this was a single ship. In the US you will never be intercepted by a single airplane; there will always be two. Second, I retraced my route to make sure that I had not gone anywhere that I should not have. My route was fine. Third, don’t panic. Keep on flying and do what you can to communicate with that aircraft.