Case of the Missing Pilot
Back in those days, the early eighties, you could get a private pilot license with about sixty hours of flight time, for $2,000, and I had done so, but was now in the danger zone of the first 300 hours – in which a vast majority of pilots are accident prone. Or flat out kill themselves. But I was no stranger to the “highway to the danger zone,” and, in fact, the danger zone itself. Eighteen months of Vietnam combat; now this – flying a small plane, in the heat of July, from Phoenix, Arizona, to Laredo, Texas. I had wanted to fly in the military, but without the 20/20 vision (20/30 and 20/40) I was ineligible, so this made up for it; after all, the adrenaline rush is addictive, and I had to have my periodic fix. I had to become a lawyer so as to make enough money to buy my own plane, which a Nevada client gave to me as a $12,000 fee, not unlike the ’62 Vette the Texas client gave to me, also for $12,000, the going rate in the early days for criminal willful failure to file tax return cases. And the market value of both the Vette and the plane, an old “Hershey bar” Piper Cherokee, with wings rectangular like a Hershey bar, not tapered as with modern aircraft, was each $12,000, if that. This plane was a dinosaur, with one original “coffee grinder” (the dials) radio, a transponder, which sent out a signal to radar stations, but not very far. No loran or GPS, which provides accurate, hands free navigation. But heck, I was Ranger qualified – a map and compass would suffice, and navigation by pilotage, meaning the pilot, using compass, follows the map; and there was and is, contrary to popular believe, no requirement that private pilots file a flight plan so long as they stay out of “controlled airspace,” meaning near airports, atomic energy plants, military bases, and the like. I did monitor the frequency for “Albuquerque Center,” the air traffic control folks who maintain aircraft separation for those who chose to use it, a frequency which, in the (very) badlands of Texas, near Big Bend National Park, brought me no reception after a short while.
But, after clearing the 10,000-foot peaks between Phoenix and El Paso and refueling around noon at a small strip southeast of El Paso (I avoided major airports), I was well on my way to Laredo, and how could I get lost in any event; all I had to do is follow the general track of the winding Rio Grande river, including its great bend, which, if you know your geography, serves as the border between the great state of Texas (it is very large, but, to the chagrin of Texans, less than one half the size of our 49th state, Alaska) and Mexico, and winds on down to Laredo. The weather was “CAVU,” clear all around, visibility unlimited, and I had experienced enough Arizona summer flying in this “puddle jumper” to know what to expect in the way of “warm air turbulence” and “convection currents.” Piece of cake, right? Wrong. Traveling at 7,500 feet, I was bouncing like a cork in a rough sea, and had to climb to 9,500, odd number going east, plus 500, is the international flight rule, and that was no easy task in the Piper. So, I climbed to 11,500, the noonday July sun cooking through the Plexiglas windshield of the low-wing Piper even at that altitude. But with clear skies, no “Cbs,” cumulonimbus clouds, which can shoot up to 75,000 feet and cause major thunderstorms, complete with downdrafts which can flip a plane on its back in less than a second, or, more quickly, rip off the wings, I was enjoying the challenge. Until I could not spot the Rio Grande.
Lots of dry canyons way below, but the river had to have some water, which the sun would catch and cause to glisten, even this time of year, didn’t it? Had I missed it? Was I now over Mexico? How could that be possible, with my experience with map and compass? Where the heck was I? Somewhere between El Paso and Monterey, Mexico, I reckoned, but the river would take me right to Laredo, if I could find the river, and I could not, even doing a 360, turning a full circle, and gawking as best I could. Time to call for help, the first step, which I did, to no avail, calling first ‘PAN, PAN, PAN” (almost emergency) to the air base at El Rio, and finally “MAY DAY, MAY DAY, MAY DAY,” receiving in response only static, for indeed it was an emergency, not because I was lost (no, Rangers are never lost, only disoriented; and when it rains the uniform for Rangers is wet fatigues), but because I might get shot down, as a suspected drug courier, or unknown aircraft venturing into U.S. military airspace, or unknown aircraft without authorization in Mexican airspace. With no radio contact, I continued, bouncing around at 11,500 feet, heading generally southwest, still looking for water, considering a due course east toward San Antonio so as to get out of Mexican airspace, which is where I must be, and hope to find the river, and Texas, and considering turning around, but then I saw small signs of civilization in this God-forsaken part of the world, some jeep trails, heading generally north and south, which meant people perhaps not too far to the south, so I headed due south, following the jeep trails, and lo and behold, some ranches appeared, with houses, and horses, and barns, and I chose the one with the biggest unfenced pasture, and headed down, to get on the ground and find out where I was.
Imagine the surprise of the rancher, as I taxied up almost to his front door, chickens scattering. I shut down the engine, casually got out as he approached, and I said, “Buenos díaz, Señor,” and asked if he spoke English, which, at no surprise, he did not, and I did not speak much Spanish but, after showing him the aeronautical chart, a.k.a. map, and gesturing puzzlement as to where I was, to no avail, chose the old Ranger trick of intersection, and named a few towns from the map and asked, “Dónde está?” and he pointed in the general direction of a few, whereupon, by taking back azimuths and the common intersection on the map of the several azimuths, I figured out where I was, which was deep into Mexico. “Muchas gracias, Señor. Adiós.” I got back in the plane, started it, to the chagrin of the chickens and other farm animals, including cows and horses, in, fortunately, adjacent pastures, not the one in which I had touched down.
I had quickly figured the general azimuth to Eagle Pass, the nearest town in the good ole U.S. of A., and when I got closer I saw it – not the airport, but the Rio Grande, and it was grand, in more ways than one, and I stayed well clear of the airport until I jumped the border, then called in my position, and landed to refuel, not taking a chance on my last leg to Laredo, no knowing the exact fuel consumption, and not trusting the gauges. When I paid the young gal for the fuel, I mistakenly answered “from the southwest” when she asked from which direction I flew, which is the reason, given that Eagle Pass is not a customs port of entry, why she gave me a strange look, which I attributed later also to the fact that I had just spent several hours flying a small plane through what is known as “drug alley.” Nightfall was by now approaching, and I was taking no further chances, and flew a pleasant route 500 to a 1,000 feet just above the river, the air cooler and calmer now, vowing to not take the river out of my site, which I did not until I spotted the Laredo airport, where I landed, spent the night, and appeared in court for the hearing on pretrial motions in the case of U.S. v. Karen Verlander, a.k.a. Texas Housewife, Chapter 13 of Tax Fraud and Evasion: The War Stories. CLICK HERE FOR BOOK INFORMATION. As I flew, downright casually, over the river, enjoying the flight and early evening air, and the sense of victory over the elements, and gravity, the “freedom of flight,” I reflected on how an experienced Ranger, who navigated for months in the Central Highlands of Vietnam by compass and map, where the maps in many remote areas where not all that accurate, had missed the Rio Grande, a major river contained within a desert landscape. I logically concluded, giving great deference to my navigational abilities, that my brain itself, not my well-honed skills, “went bad,” which is, of course, what did happen, known as hypoxia, lack of oxygen to the brain at the thin air of 11,500 feet – made thinner by the heat – heat expands the air molecules, meaning fewer molecules for my lungs – with the result often unconsciousness, and even death, but short of those results, impaired judgment. Phoenix is at 1,000 feet. Perhaps due to my many years of swimming and its aerobic effects, I had exhibited no symptoms of hypoxia – blue finger tips, for lack of oxygen. Or, unconsciousness.