March 2002: In what now seems like a lifetime ago, I decided to get a pilot’s license in general aviation to overcome my fear of flying in small planes and to prove to myself that i could. And because travel was my passion and decided that I liked flying so much that I even wanted to do it as a career so i continued passed my pilot rating and obtained a commercial, instrument, multi-engine. I managed to complete all of these rating between 2001 and 2002. I started my training during the worst possible time after 9-11. When I met my flight instructor, I had to wait for him to finish his interview with the FBI before we could start our training. It turned out, no fault of his, that two of his prior students happened to be 9-11 hijackers that flew the plane into the pentagon. 9-11 definitely made among pilot training among other things more difficult but I dedicated as much time and money as possible to obtaining all of my pilot ratings in the shortest amount of time possible so that I could fulfill my lifetime dream of traveling the world. Even though I decided not to pursue a career as an airline pilot, I had some incredible adventures flying across the country and into Mexico and in the end, I was still able to achieve my lifetime goal of traveling to most countries of the world.

 

Me in front of one of a Cessna 182 that I flew some friends around in

My Route in the Cessna 182

To build time, which I needed to be hired by an airline, I needed to fly cross country and it wasn’t cheap so i typically shared the cost with another pilot or found someone to pay me to fly them somewhere. over the two years i flew, I was able to fly friends to Catalina Island multiple times, Las Vegas, Utah, all around southern California and Arizona and my favorite to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. One of the owners of a club plane asked me and another student pilot if we would be interested in flying him to Cabo San Lucas to visit his girl friends in various “adult night clubs”. It was none of my business to ask and I was just happy he would be paying us for the trip, which would promise to be both an amazing experience and built lots of flight hours. We would be flying a Cessna 182, that we were told was the plane that two of the 9-11 hijackers trained in. David, the other pilot, building his hours like me and I would trade off every other flight and to get to Cabo, we would have to land multiple times along the way to refuel and even stay overnight in each direction.

Route to Cabo and back from Brown Field, San Diego

The whole trip was approx. 5 days round trip. We had an oil leak we had to monitor especially when flying over the desolate unpopulated Baja interior. We also had a brake fluid leak, and we could really stop the plane and had to ensure we had plenty of runways to allow the plane to come to its own stop.  Also, many of the runways were full of cracks and potholes and even livestock and required a fly by to check for grazing animals before landing. We also had to deal with corrupt officials who would constantly make up fines that we would have no choice but to pay or federales who would delay us by spending an inordinate amount of time checking our plane for narcotics until we paid them a small bribe. Then lastly, there was the lack of navigation equipment both in the plane and outside of it. We didn’t have GPS, so we relied largely on VOR and dead reckoning. In Mexico the VOR’s were constantly blocked by mountains and so we would try and estimate our location by using direction, airspeed, and land features. As a result of this trip, i was able to land in most sizable towns in Baja. Aside from countless fuel stops in other towns, we would end up staying in Loreto with a family friend of my co-pilot and 2 nights in Cabo at a hotel and one night in San Felipe.

My plane in the general aviation airport in Cabo

The only photo I have of myself flying a plane

View along the Sea of Cortez

La Paz View from Sky

Getting Lost at Night Over the Mountains

In Baja, single engine planes are banned from flying at night. But our departure from Guerro Negro, a fuel stop, and obligatory immigration stop, was delayed because gun clad Federales searched our plane for hours for narcotics forcing us to expedite the search with a small bribe. This left us with having to fly at night over the mountains to get to our destination of La Paz. The wise decision would have been to spend the night in Guerro negro and leave the next morning but instead we decided to keep to our schedule.  Scary situations were kind of the norm in general aviation. I had experienced a partial engine failure that required me to make an emergency landing in Milford, Utah, smoke in the cockpit, a window that opened in the clouds making it impossible for me to hear air traffic control and many other plane malfunctions, but nothing compared to the inescapable terror of flying over the mountains in Mexico at night when our navigation failed.

We were navigating via VOR beacons that in the mountains of Baja are commonly blocked. After the sun set it was pitch black and there was nothing below us but desert and mountains. There were no lights of towns, cars or houses. It was pitch blackness. The flight across the interior was only a few hours but there weren’t many towns and if we missed Loreto, we would likely not even see another town and fly over the Sea of Cortez until running out of fuel and plummeting into the ocean.

After the darkness set in and we realized our navigation aides were not working, David and I discussed turning back but we decided that it was best to keep to our current path which if planned well would take us to Loreto and that if we turned back to Guerro negro we would just be in the same predicament but without a planned flight. We were committed to our path no matter the outcome.

As we flew in the darkness, we could hear the comforting voices of other pilots in the major airlines flying thousands of feet above us talking on our radio signal from major airlines such as Alaskan Airlines, Mexican Airlines but there was nothing any of them could do to help us, we were on our own. We continued to fly via our intended path hoping we were on course but there were no guarantees. The feeling of terror was overwhelming, but we were pilots, and we were tight to stay calm because panic was the worst outcome that would lead us to make irrational decisions. So, we continued to fly in silence. The owner of the plane slept oblivious to what was going on in the back of the plane. I wondered what it would feel like to plumet in darkness into the ocean when our fuel was out.  We flew for 40 more minutes in pitch blackness when suddenly the needle of navigation aid started to move slightly, and I had never felt such relief in my life. We followed it and moments later we could see lights in the horizon. It was the beginning to Loreto, and we were not going to die after all.

 

 

landing in San Felipe at night

For the rest of the trip, we had a blast exploring Baja. The owner of the plane visited an “adult night club” in every town we visited, leaving me to wonder what the purpose of our trip was especially years later when I was added to a terrorist watch list by the FBI after returning from Yemen. When the FBI interviewed me at my house, they asked me specifically about this Mexican trip and my association with the airplane owner. I soon discovered why when I put it all together, me returning from Yemen, a record of me piloting a flight over Mexico that the 9-11 hijackers trained in that was owned by an Iranian man. It was just all too suspicious.

 

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