Some Songs, a Shoe and San Miguel

Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you go forwards or backwards: you need to live your life as well as you can./em>Eric Roth

Our first trip in 222TF


The day had arrived. Well, not really. It was the day before the day was to arrive. Our trip down to San Miguel de Allende was moved up a day due to high winds coming into the Chicago area. rw2, the ever conscientious pilot, decided that an early departure would be the safest thing to do. Well, who am I to argue? We loaded up the plane with what is probably the lightest load we’ve ever taken anywhere for an extended period of time: 125 lbs. for two of us for a year and a half. Now, we’ve all been on an airplane in the recent past and know what it means to play ‘suitcase tetris’ to get as much into it without packing unnecessarily so that you don’t hit that 50 lb. mark and have to pay for the extra weight. Well, that’s how we have to pack the plane. Literally weighing and measuring every thing we pack, we have to get down to only the essentials. I often feel a bit like Charles Lindberg who used to trim the margins of his flight charts to save on weight. Hey, it worked didn’t it?

Our goal was to make it from Chi-town to Austin, Texas. A fairly smooth flight into the cold midwest brought us to Harrison, Arkansas for our first fuel stop. After a phone call to Austin to see if we can extend the room we have for fri/sat to tonight, thursday, we discover there is literally no room at the inn- or any inn in Austin. Everything is booked for a conference and we quickly begin to feel the affects of not adhering to my flying philosophy of ‘check it once, check it twice and check it again because you’ve only checked it twice’. Not even thinking that we may be stuck sleeping on the state capitol lawn in the heart of Texas, we didn’t plan ahead and we were out of luck. Upon chatting with the really nice guy that runs the fbo, we find that Harrison has a Hampton Inn and he’d be happy to drive us there. Cool.

We were relieved to find a bowling alley across the street (never thought you’d hear me say that, eh?) that serves ‘cold beer’ and we ambled on over. It was very clear very quickly that two of these things were not like the others. We asked if they had beer and I was seriously waiting for her to say the famous line from the Blues Brothers: ‘We’ve got both kinds: Bud *and* Bud Light’. We settled with one of each and sat back to watch the entertainment. A few leagues were rolling as well as a couple of young guys who seemed to bowl about as well as I do. Badly. Kids were running, people were laughing and folks were having fun. And then it hit me. ‘I wonder how many people here have a gun in their belt and I wonder how many voted for Obama’. My guess is most and none. Sad.

We woke early on friday morning and headed for the airport with yet another ride from the nice fbo dude. We were soon on our way to Austin and had an uneventful

Austin, Texas from my seat in 222TF

flight over the well defined landscape of Arkansas and northeastern Texas. A mid afternoon arrival at Austin-Bergstrom airport had us going way out of the pattern so they could stack up and wave in the big boys. The tower was more than appreciative that we helped them out and made us feel as if we had ‘United’ painted on our side. Nice.

Now, as most of you know, Austin is one of our favorite cities and one of the reasons is because it is home to one of our favorites, Bob Schneider. While sipping a mexican margarita at the Cedar Door, we discover that Bob was playing in town at one of our favorite venues later in the evening. With a few clicks of the Antone’s app, we had two tickets to the show. With two opening bands that kicked some serious *ss, we again had a knock down drag out evening with Bob and the Scabs. They played so long and well that the venue had to turn the lights on so they’d stop playing and people would leave. Stumbling back to our hotel at 2 am with a music-induced haze had us continuing our love affair with Bob and Austin. Heaven.

the US (right)/Mexican(left) border at Loredo, Texas/ Nuevo Loredo, México


We spent the balance of the weekend flight planning and looking ahead to Mexico. With a mid-morning departure from Austin, we headed for the sunny mountains of Mexico for our first stop in Saltillo for fuel and customs/immigration. Quite an experience. We hopped out of the plane to two teenage (looking) boys in fatigues and carrying rifles. The ramp was on a slope so I hollered to rw2 to stick one of my shoes under the wheel. Worked like a charm and it got a smile from one of the ‘federales’ that revealed the braces on his teeth. Oh boy.

Now for the official stuff. The customs/immigration officer came out smiling and speaking some English. We gave him our passports and he went in to fill everything out *for* us. Huh? Ok! Then on to the Comandante’s office to play ‘Guess what documents he’s asking for’ as he spoke no English and my bar/restaurant Spanish wasn’t going to help when asking for federal documents. The nice immigration officer was kind enough to help as much as he could and after much pointing and such, we seemed to have it all squared away. After what should have taken 20 minutes (it took an hour and half) we had to file our flight plans at the flight office. We walked in and were greeted by a very nice, helpful and pregnant lady who spoke fluent English. Really? *sigh*

Aeropuerto Internacional 'Plan de Guadalupe' - Saltillo, México


Let’s put it this way: for anyone who bitches and complains about the workings of the US process of *anything*, head on down south of the border and give it a try. True, we had a minor language barrier, but the immigration officer spoke English fairly well and the lady in the flight office spoke fluently, so, where the heck were they when we were stuck in the Comandante’s office pulling out any and all of my limited Spanish words (paper, official, plane) that would help? Everyone was very nice, don’t get me wrong, but what should have taken 20 minutes took almost 2 hours. Oh yes. It’s part of the adventure. I must remember that.

Our last leg to Querétaro was beautiful as we flew over the mountains of central Mexico. With the airport in sight we made a hasty landing as the winds had picked up but rw2 stuck it nicely and we were in our new home for the next year and a half. After a mix up with the rental car, we left for San Miguel de Allende (without a map or gps. I almost died!) and arrived about an hour later. After a very long couple of days, we headed into el centro for a meal at one of our favorite places in town and relaxed with a well-earned cerveza. We toasted our new life and began to settle in. If the trip down is any indication of our time here in San Miguel de Allende, we’re in for quite a roller coaster ride. But, you know, that’s quite alright with us.

Our Home- San Miguel de Allende

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I am Jack’s cognitive dissonance

It’s a very strange thing driving through an industrial neighborhood in Mexico City and hearing Barry Manilow come on the radio. At least it was a little happier than this guy:

The lyrics start out: Life is worthless, you come into the world crying, you leave the world crying, life is worthless.

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Leaving for Mexico, Part 2

Austin being one of our favorite cities, we quickly feel at home. After checking into the hotel we head over to The Cedar Door for a Mexican Martini and to make our plans for the weekend. It turns out that our favorite musician, Bob Schneider is playing tonight with his old band The Scabs. That makes the immediate plan really easy. We also decide we’re going to have some sushi at Kyoto, one of our favorite places in Austin.

We wander over to Kyoto and are saddened to find it out of business. Apparently it just closed one day and failed to open again. It’s a sad loss.

We go early to the show and catch two great opening acts. Suite 709 and Roxy Roca. They each did great sets and were high-powered lead ups to The Scabs. The Scabs did one of the best shows I’ve seen in years and played until the house lights were turned on and the show forced to a close.

The next morning we sleep in and finally manage to get out of the hotel for lunch at B.D. Riley’s. We call it an early night as we have to leave tomorrow for the push across the border.

At 7:30 we go down to the hotel restaurant and get some decent grub, pack our stuff and head for the airport. The weather couldn’t be nicer this morning. The sun is shining and there is no wind to speak of. We taxi to the runway 17L, run-up and takeoff.

Since we’re crossing an international border we have to be monitored and authorized. It’s possible to do this using visual flight rules, but I opt to file an instrument flight plan and let the magic happen for me. We are cleared via the austin.3 departure to San Antonio, then to the border and from there to Saltillo, Mexico.

Thanks to Amigos de la Aviacion and Caribbean Sky Tours I’m reasonably comfortable that I know what I’m getting us into, but there is still a certain level of apprehension doing something this unfamiliar.

We cross into Mexico over the Laredo/Nuevo Laredo border and notice the lines of trucks waiting to clear customs. This border crossing is the most highly trafficked one with some 8,500 trucks a day making the crossing. We’re glad not to be waiting in those lines. At this point we’re handed over to Mexican air traffic control and we’re officially outside the US.

We fly for another couple hours over the increasingly dusty landscape and soon find ourselves on approach to Saltillo. Upon landing we know we have to clear customs and the forms involved in doing so. What we’re less sure about is where the people are that we need to talk with. The control tower guides us down some yellow lines in the pavement and we stop and shutdown at the end. One of the pieces of advice Caribbean Sky Tours gives is to feel free to ask questions. That paid off in this case as we would have had no idea where we needed to go except that I asked tower for directions.

After we shutdown we get off the plane and are greeted by two 14 year olds with machine guns.

Ok, they probably are older than 14, but they are super young and the taller of the two is sporting a mouthful of braces. They speak no English, but only needed to write down a couple stats about the airplane, so we get that sorted out quickly. The ramp has a little bit of a slope to it and the plane keeps wanting to roll away. I don’t have any chocks, but Beth comes up with the brilliant idea of using a shoe. I grab one from the back and shove it under a wheel to the great amusement of the machine gun toting kids who laugh and say something along the lines of “a good Mexican solution”.

An immigration officer walks out to welcome us in English and takes our passports. He tells us to wait with the plane and he’ll come back when he’s done. Next, someone comes out and asks if we have any meat or fruit. No and no. We have knives, large bottles of shampoo and lighters, but no meat or fruit.

We next go to the airport Comandante and are faced with someone who tries to be helpful, but speaks no English. This poses a bit of a problem for us as we need his approval to move past this airport.

The immigration officer reappears with our passports and we get him to help us translate with the Comandante. We figure out the forms we need and get pointed down the ramp to the flight planning office with an incredibly nice woman who not only helps us sort out our paperwork, but gives us her number in case we need help in the future. We hang out for a few minutes to wait for the hourly weather update and find the winds at our next stop at 8kt and 10 degrees off the runway. We also, finally, manage to get fuel ordered.

Documents in hand we walk back down the Comandante, get documents stamped and purchase our multiple entry permit for 2013. For some reason the government has decided to do two weird things on this. First, it’s a calendar year permit instead of being something that lasts for 12 months from whenever you purchase it. Second, and more weird, is that the single entry permit is 550 pesos while the multiple entry permit is 567 pesos. I have no idea why anyone would ever buy the single entry. Seems like an invitation to find out three days later than you need to go back to Mexico and buy another permit.

Then we get a couple final stamps from immigration and we’re ready to go. The whole process would probably take 15 minutes if we knew what we were doing, but instead takes about two hours. It’s definitely what one would call either an adventure or a pain in the ass, depending upon ones personality. We’re definitely more in the ‘adventure’ camp.

We pack up and get ready to go. I start the engine and do much of the setup work I would normally do during run-up right on the ramp. I figure it’s smart to give the machine gunners, immigration officers, flight planners, Comandante and any other interested party as much time as possible to come running from a building and tell me to stop because I’ve not done something right. After a couple minutes of setting up the GPS, aligning the HI and other miscellaneous tasks I call the tower and request a taxi for departure.

He guides us to the end of runway 17 and sends us on our way into the mountains.

Saltillo is on the northeastern edge of the mountains that run down the spine of Mexico and we quickly find ourselves over beautiful mountains and valleys as we push toward Querétaro.

The original plan was to keep our plane in San Miguel de Allende, where we live in Mexico. This plan was thwarted in November by a construction crew shutting down the runway for paving. Why they did this remains a mystery. They are making incredibly slow progress on the ramp and, had they planned ahead, could have left the runway open the bulk of the time they working on the ramp. No use crying over spilled milk though, it’s closed. This leaves us with a few choices, Querétaro, Celaya and Leon.

Of those Querétaro would be the most appealing option since I work in that town. Unfortunately it is expensive (son bandidos, according to a friend). Celaya is a good second choice, but has no fuel. This is why we are heading to Querétaro. We’re going to pick up a load of fuel and go to Celaya from there.

Querétaro is in a bit of a valley, so we don’t make radio contact until we’re only 10 or 15 miles from the airport. Upon clearing the mountains I find out that the wind has shifted 80 degrees and increased in strength. It’s now a direct crosswind at 12 knots. This isn’t a great scenario for me. My personal limitation on crosswind is 5 knots and I have no other options due to the fuel issues previously discussed.

I accept a landing clearance and brief Beth. “Here’s the plan, the winds have shifted and we’re probably going to end up going around”.

Perhaps because of the shifting winds at Winnsboro or perhaps because I have tons of crosswind experience in tri-gear aircraft, this one is shaping up well. It’s a steady wind, which helps a lot. Coasting into ground effect I make the decision we’re going to land. I’m left wing low into the wind and touch down on the left main and rear wheel at about the same time. I hold the ailerons in and allow the right wheel to settle onto the pavement as the airspeed bleeds off. No brakes applied as with only one main on the ground the plane would go sailing sideways. Within a couple moments everything is calm and we’re taxiing to the FBO.

Unlike Saltillo, Querétaro has a full service FBO that streamlines the processes. Unfortunately, there has been a miscommunication with the rental car and it isn’t here. This kind of wrecks our plan to have Beth drive to San Miguel while I fly the plane to Celaya. We spend the next hour or so sorting this issue out and finally a car shows up.

We get in the car and head for home. Abandoning 2TF in Querétaro for a few days while I make arrangements to move it to Celaya.

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Leaving for Mexico, Part 1

Today it’s 25 degrees with a light wind. Tomorrow it’s forecast to gust up to 35mph.

So off we go to Mexico a day ahead of schedule. Once again everything gets packed up and piled up. Weight and balance is checked and comes up way over, so we trim down. Jason gives us a ride to the airport and we move everything from car to airplane. For the first time we are flying in our own plane, but otherwise everything is the same.

It’s a cold morning at 753 feet above sea level. Lots of thick air with which to burn fuel. We push 2TF out of its temporary home in a Fox Flying Club hanger and into the bright sunlight just as the airport truck shows up to blow a stream of hot air into the engine to warm it up.

After 20 minutes or so we start up the engine and the ground slips quickly away as we move toward a warmer destination.

After a few hours we stop for fuel in Harrison, Arkansas. While fueling up Beth calls ahead to Austin and finds there is no room at the inn. Apparently some big conference is in town and consuming all the hotel rooms. Harrison has a Hampton Inn and Boone County Regional Airport has a super helpful guy working that offers to drop us off and pick us up since the courtesy car is already gone for the evening.

We arrive at the Hampton and decide to try the bowling alley across the street for a couple beers. It’s a typical redneck hang out in a low budget town. Unmonitored children are loudly trashing the pool table, but the beer is cheap and cold regardless of whether you want Bud or Bud Light. The sign on the cash register makes me wish I had my Jefferson dollars with me. Jefferson is one of my favorite presidents, so when the mint issued the Jefferson one dollar coins I bought a few rolls and carry them around much of the time. I give them to random people who practice acts of kindness.

Imagine my amusement upon reading the sign on the cash register saying “We do not accept the one dollar coins that do not say In God We Trust”. First, what a dumb issue to take a stand on. I’m sure they would feel differently if they were in a Christian minority nation and the expression said “In Allah We Trust”, even though the first amendment states clearly that the government should not take a stand on religion. Worse though, is that they don’t know what they are talking about. There is no coin missing that inscription, the one dollar coins simply have it on the edge (along with the more nobel “E pluribus unum”) instead of the face.

In any case, we head for the door and back to the hotel to get some sleep before pushing on in the morning.

Morning comes and kindly airport dude fetches us back to the airport. The same cold weather front that forced us out of Chicago caused a frost here in Arkansas last night, so we’re stuck until the plane thaws out. I push the plane into the sun and we hunker down in front of our iPads waiting for the warmth to set in.

After 20 minutes or so I wander back out on the ramp and find puddles of drip water under the wings and tail. I flip the plane around to defrost the windshield and we resume getting the plane ready to go.

We taxi to the threshold of 18, run-up and takeoff.

We make it a few miles down the road and find that the winds aloft are well in excess of forecast. Instead of making 110kt over the ground, we’re at more like 95. Given our weight limitations this poses a big issue. The problem is that fuel has weight just like everything else in the plane. Given the amount of baggage that we have, we had to make a compromise between the amount of fuel that we can carry and the amount of stuff to be brought to Mexico. With the headwind that we’re currently facing, we won’t have enough fuel to make it all the way to Austin so we have to go to Plan B.

Winnsboro Muni Airport is our new destination. It’s about halfway between Boone County and Austin. This is good for us as it will allow me to get the fuel I need to arrive safely in Austin, but still burn enough off to buy fuel in Austin.

Why does this matter? Flight planning is a multi-variable problem. Time and money being two of the main variables. Money quickly sub-divides into fuel, landing fees, parking fees and ground transportion. It turns out to be cheaper for us to land at Austin-Bergstrom and pay the high fuel price there than to land at one of the other airports in the area and pay higher ground transportation costs to get downtown. Austin also has Atlantic as one of their FBOs and I like them. They cater to the jet crowd and make me feel like an adult when I come visit in my toy plane.

Back to the fuel. The reason getting fuel in Austin makes sense is that Atlantic will waive parking fees if I buy fuel there. To simplify the math: If I’m going to spend $100 in Austin one way or the other, I may as well spend it on fuel since they will bring out the shiny truck and do it for me. If I spend it on parking then I have to pump my own gas somewhere else. By getting only the fuel I need in Winnsboro I optimize time and money at the same time. It’s a minor victory for the day.

Thanks to ForeFlight we are able to determine that Winnsboro has a courtesy car and a nearby BBQ place called Bodacious BBQ. Living in Chicago we don’t often enough get Texas BBQ so this makes Winnsboro an easy choice for our fuel.

I’m still quite new to this plane and getting used to how it handles. It’s a tailwheel aircraft which makes the landings a lot more difficult than tri-gear airplanes. The reason for this is pretty easy to explain. Imagine you are pushing a shopping cart at the grocery store. It’s pretty easy to keep it going the direction you want, right? Now flip it around and try to steer it by pushing it from the front of the cart. It takes a lot more attention as the cart wants to flip around. This is what a tailwheel airplane wants to do.

One of the things we’re taught as tailwheel pilots is that if you get into a bad spot, apply full throttle, go around and try again. I’m about 50 feet above the runway and the winds shift. There is a row of trees next to the runway and the winds feel like they shift 180 degrees at the tree line. I’m not happy with this surprise and decide to go around. This is actually the first time I’ve gone around in this plane, but it’s not a complicated procedure.

I reach down to release the flaps as my airspeed increases and am unhappily surprised to find that I cannot retract them. Now things are interesting. “First, fly the airplane” I say to myself as I sit back up and keep the flight stabilized before again turning my attention to the flaps.

I grab the flap handle and push the release button as hard as I can while I wiggle the handle to release tension on the lock. My problem seems to be that the release is already stuck open. The flaps should be free and moveable, in fact they should have slammed up, but they are stuck down and I cannot make them move.

I continue to fly the plane.

Flying a plane with three notches of flaps feels quite different than in a more typical configuration. The only real danger today is from lack of pilot attention, but it does feel different. I turn to make another attempt at landing, but find that I’m again unhappy as the winds shift. This time it’s simply because the landing isn’t a stable approach due to differences thanks to the flaps. Around we go again.

I continue to fly the plane.

I still have no idea what’s up with the flaps, but have convinced myself that Winnsboro probably won’t be that bad a place to spend a few days while it gets fixed and that I’m getting used to flying the plane in this configuration enough that I know what to do to get a stabilized approach on the next attempt.

On short final I’m right on my speed as I descend below the tree line and feel the, now expected, kick from the opposite direction. I correct for the change and allow the plane to settle onto the runway.

We taxi over to the ramp and I finally have a chance to really analyse what’s going on. The flaps are still stuck and the release button is wedged below the handle. Without the vibration of the aircraft and the stress of the flight I notice that as I pull on the handle the plastic grip rotates a small amount. I start to pull it off to see if it’s covering anything interesting at the same time that I realize that maybe it just slid up and is hiding the release button. Sliding it down does indeed uncover the button and restores everything to proper function.

Crisis averted we call the airport manager who comes to let us use the courtesy car. This guy has an absolutely awesome look to him. Deeply sun-wrinkled tan skin, jeans and a tobacco pouch in his shirt pocket. His voice is one that keeps Sam Elliott up at night wondering, “why, lord, can’t I have a voice that cool”. He confirms that Bodacious is a good choice and we head on over.

Arriving at the BBQ joint we find a pretty low-rent place with absolutely delicious BBQ. Like many, this place makes and bottles their own sauce. We decompress from the exciting landing and enjoy the heart attack on a plate as well as the additional heart attacks in styrofoam cups in the form of potato salad and mac and cheese.

Back at the airport we deposit the car, leave a note for the manager thanking him for the hospitality and take off once again.

We arrive in Austin, but they clearly don’t have things stacked up properly for a plane of our, ahem, modest speed. Approach vectors us all over the place and finally gets us on a ten mile final for runway 17L with frequent admonitions to keep our speed up. Eight miles out we are switched to tower and given a clearance to land. There are three jets waiting to takeoff. At about five miles out tower requests a 90 degree turn to the left and passes me back to approach. We are vectored through a 360 degree turn and pass back to tower, at which point we notice the jets are now gone. Tower acknowledges use with “welcome back” and we land in front of another two jets that queue up while we’re making our final approach. Upon landing we are taxiing by the time we get to the 500ft mark that the jets use as a landing target and tower asks us to do a 160 degree turn onto the high speed taxiway going the opposite direction along with a pleasant “thanks for the help” before passing us to a ground frequency.

We sort out the handling instructions and soon find ourselves in one of our favorite places, downtown Austin, with nothing to do but kill time.

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