Mexican Days: A Wing and a Prayer

Here is an indelible snippet of memory that I can’t fit into a larger context…neither the before, nor the after, just the memory itself. There were four of us on a trip to Mexico, a combustible group; my wife, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law and me, keeping to a companionable simmer by frequent visits to local bakeries and the application of pan dulces several times a day.

We were in Tuxtla Gutierrez airport in southern Mexico for a flight…the only scheduled one of the day…to Villahermosa, a city on the Gulf of Mexico and the center of Mexico’s oil industry. Tuxtla is in the mountains of Chiapas, a state that borders Guatemala; Villahermosa is north of it, just at sea level. We missed the scheduled flight by minutes. Where are the pan dulces when you need them. With the only flight of the day having departed and not wanting to stay in Tuxtla, I set about trying to find a private pilot with an airplane. It was that kind of casual airport and I was directed to a man, lacking the look and flamboyance I was expecting of a bush pilot and who looked, in confusion, like he was puzzling over a crossword clue. Distinctions aside, he did have at least the minimum requirements…a pilot’s license, a plane (with enough squeeze-in space for five and a small compartment for our baggage in back of the seats) and a flexible flying schedule. We were a bit of an overload, but he was sure it was fine. A caveat I try to remember is that desire overtakes good sense. Looking at the four of us with baggage, there was, no doubt, the pilot kept misgivings to himself. And  I overlooked the caveat.

We settled the financials and walked onto the runway to his plane…a single-engine, wing-on-top affair, tethered to the runway, lest a moderate breeze blow it over. We loaded up and crammed in (in-laws and wife in the back seats). The pilot didn’t smile. I attributed that to an antipathy to gringos, but he was, more likely, deep in prayer. The Tuxtla airport, contrary to good sense, was built at  the bottom of a teacup of mountains, an odd placement, considering the need to rise swiftly. It is one thing to have the limitless horsepower of a commercial airplane to climb quickly  and get out of the teacup. It is another to be over the suggested load limit and have the horsepower of a slingshot. But I subscribe to the theory that a pilot’s not going up in a plane he doesn’t think he can land…my hope being that they still all have reverence for survival and that the Hippocratic Oath extends to the flying trade. Someone cranked the propeller, since it had no electronic  ignition. The motor caught and revved. We successfully passed the first hurdle. The next hurdle, a little more requisite, was getting the plane into the air. With the end of the runway speeding closer (not to mention the mountains), I looked over at the pilot, gauging panic or nonchalance. It was the latter as he eased the plane into the air well shy of the Sierra Madres. But straight up, over the mountains was not in the flight plan. He banked left in the teacup, avoiding the mountains, gaining altitude. Three times around the airport and he was satisfied that we were altitude-worthy and he steered the plane toward the rim of the cup. To me it looked close, but we did clear it by a good 100 to 200 feet. Me, I might have opted for another time around to put a bit more space between us and terra firma, but, hey, he was the pilot. The folks in the back seat were respectfully terrified. We all had been scanning the ground beneath, scouting for possible landing spots, just in case.

It was a relatively short flight to Villahermosa, hazy from the oil industry…flat, hot, steamy…with enough visibility for a long glide down and an easy landing. Then we were hit with a blast furnace of air as the door was opened. We slow-walked through the open-air steam bath to the terminal, such as it was. My excitement at being in Villahermosa was to walk through La Venta, a park on the edge of the jungle, near the city with huge (many tons), round, baby-faced Olmec heads carved in basalt many centuries B.C. in the remote, swampy areas of Tabasco State, where the Olmecs had set up home in the vicinity of 1200 B.C. The heads were brought to La Venta, because they were on land in the center of Mexico’s oil boom. I thought everyone would share my enthusiasm for going to the park, but the consensus of the back-seaters (on the airplane) was to adjourn to our hotel and take a nap before dinner. I bristled. How many times will we be in Villahermosa? Besides we were leaving in the morning and wouldn’t have the chance to see it. A modus operandi was reached. I would drop them off at the hotel, find a bakery, gorge on pan dulces, which should guarantee a return to a companionable simmer and go alone to La Venta.