Friday, February 29, 2008


For the March 9, 1929, dedication of the airport and inauguration of the Mexico City-New York airmail route, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh flew the first airmail from Mexico City to Brownsville Texas, escorted by Mexican government officials and military planes. The flight was 5 hours and 38 minutes long. Amelia Earhart was there and a crowd of 20,000 people greeted Lindbergh. The day-long celebration featured wing walking and other aerial feats. In Brownsville, Pan American Airways launched the first "blind-flying school," now called instrument flying, as part of its airport operation on the border.

I had never flown in Mexico, or the desert when I left Brownsville Texas for the five hundred mile flight to Torreon Mexico. I had nothing but primary flight instruments. There were no airports along the way, no cities or towns; no Omni radio stations, and No GPS or navigation equipment. I only had the map in my head. It’s called “Dead Reckoning” because if you don’t reckon right you will wind up dead. I learned to look at everything on the instruments and the ground because a slight wind could cause me to drift off course. My instructors had taught me to watch for anything on the ground that could show wind direction.

The trip took four hours and 17 minutes. It was March 20, 1964. That was 35 years after Lindbergh’s Mexico City to Brownsville trip. We both had about the same equipment but Lindbergh could turn slightly east and follow the coastline to Brownsville. I could turn anyway I chose and see nothing but endless desert and hundred of miles of nothing. I had to find the airport at Torreon before the forty gallons of gas in the two fuel tanks would be empty. The fuel gauges were bumping on empty when I landed at Torreon and I put 39 and a half gallons in the fuel tanks.

After some lunch I knew that I would have a problem getting over the mountains that surrounded Torreon. The elevation at Torreon airport is 3,280 feet and that plus the noonday heat would make it difficult to climb over the mountains. It took about 30 minutes of circling over the airport before I could climb over the mountains and start the long stretch to Durango. After several hours I was safely on the ground in Durango Mexico. My great friend and fellow Missionary Pilot Jerry Whitt picked me up at the airport. I was really glad to be on the ground in Durango.

The next day we wasted no time and planned a trip to a small village up in the mountains. There was a dirt runway at 8700 feet elevation and we decided that we could get in there with just enough fuel to make the trip with two people in each of our planes. We also needed to leave before11 o'clock because heat plus altitude would reduce the climbing ability of our planes. It's called "density altitude". In these remote areas any time a plane flys over or lands, you have plenty of company. While Jerry went into the village with a Government Doctor another Missionary pilot named Johnny gave these fellows an inspirational lesson from the Bible. I almost cried as I made this photo of them listening and knelling in the rocky dirt.

Jerry and the Doctor came back and told us a mother in the village was dying with encephalitis. It would take 17 hours by winding mountain roads to get her to the hospital. It would only take 30 minutes to fly her to Durango. It would mean flying back with three people in each plane. It was already getting hot, and we knew the risk of density altitude. With the extra weight it would be very difficult to get airborne.

We quickly made the decision to do what we knew had to be done. Jerry took off first with the sick mother and the Doctor in his plane. I watched as he struggled to get in the air, and for a moment went below the trees. He called me on the radio and said: "Lets get out of here. I'm O.K". With Johnny and the woman's husband in my plane I prayed a quick prayer and I took off. I knew the clearing was pretty long and curving but heard the stall warming repeatedly go off if I tried to gain a little Altitude.

I nursed the plane around the clearing...with the stall warning still going off. As the trees came up in front of me I remember my old instructor telling me how he put a plane in the top of some trees. I prayed a silent prayer and pulled the plane up over the trees at the end of the clearing and saw the mountain drop away. I put the nose down, gained some flying speed and we flew back to Durango. We used the radio to have an ambulance waiting at the airport. I quickly got out of my plane and made this photograph of Jerry, the Doctor with a towel around his neck, and the woman's anxious husband behind him.

It was very difficult to evangelize in Mexico. When we first landed in Los Chocos a man came running up the hill and tried to get the people to stone us and burn our planes. The people didn't listen to him because they knew an Army Comandante and a Doctor was in the village treating a very sick woman. This flight gave us some much needed protection from the Commandante of the Army post up in the mountains. He said: "Please come back any time to preach and help us. I'll see to it personally that no one bothers you".

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