Leg #3 KGAD-KBHM (12/29/2021)
After a rapid VFR departure and an in-air reception of our IFR clearance to KEDC from Birmingham approach, I still believed that we had departed with full fuel. However, our fuel gauges were showing a different story and I frantically looked for a cause. Fuel flow was normal, no sign of electrical issues, no sign of instrumentation failures, but what did catch my eye was the left fuel cap, which was locked 90 degrees off-axis from how I normally latched it and was accompanied by a small stream of liquid. I immediately assumed we were leaking fuel, and my father did not rebuff this idea since to the best of his knowledge we should have departed with full tanks and our gauges were showing us abnormally low on our left side. I stopped short of declaring an emergency, but I did request an immediate descent and vectors towards Birmingham International. Another wrench in this quasi-emergency was that for some reason in the middle of the day the control tower at Birmingham International was not operating. Two commercial flights, along with a business jet, and myself were all on CTAF trying to figure out who was first in line. Birmingham approach had been nice enough to tell these other aircraft about what I still believed to be a real issue and they all allowed me priority. Upon landing and inspecting the fuel tank and cap I realized that it could indeed be latched properly in that position, that the liquid I saw was just excess TKS weeping, and that we had just been under fueled in Gadsden. A big lesson was learned about my responsibilities and how my father and I had to work better as a crew moving forward. On the plus side, I had managed myself surprisingly well under pressure for the first time in the aircraft so that helped to build confidence for the rest of the trip.
Leg #4 KBHM-KEDC (12/29/2021)
After topping up for real this time we continued towards Austin. An unexpected benefit of landing in Birmingham was that while taxiing we were treated to a bit of air show. Two F-16s from the Alabama National Guard did a high-speed pass down the runway followed by an unrestricted climb. You could feel their afterburner as they powered down the runway. The departure after that was normal, and we were all looking forward to Texas where we would rest up for a few days, visit with my sister’s young baby, and celebrate New Year’s Eve. This turned out to be the longest leg of the entire trip as we battled 40-knot headwinds for most of the flight. Besides the winds, this leg ended up being an uneventful 4.9 hours on the Hobbs meter and was a marathon at the end of what was already a really long day of flying. Henriksen Jet Center was great though and had our rental car waiting for us on the tarmac. The used Rolls-Royce Concord engine in their lobby is also a remarkable sight. Lastly, while we were at KEDC the folks at Chuck’s Aircraft were nice enough to squeeze us in for a much-needed, mid-trip oil change. KEDC was a great airport with solid facilities, and I hope to get back there relatively soon.
Leg #5 KEDC-MMDO (01/02/2022)
This was without a doubt the most difficult leg of the entire trip. It started early at sunrise, with a brisk outside air temperature of 0°C and winds of 30 knots, gusting 40 knots which were thankfully blowing straight down runway 31. Pre-flighting and loading the plane was a disaster, to put it mildly. The baggage door would not stay open, nor would the main doors, and when I went to sump fuel it just sprayed in my face because the winds were so strong. Also, we were not dressed for the weather as we were on our way to sunny Mexico and were not anticipating sub-zero temperatures in Texas. The solution was that my father and I would pre-flight for five minutes and then run into the car to warm up for a few minutes. Ultimately, the plane did get pre-flighted and we all loaded up. Next came the challenge of starting, however. The plane was hangared overnight in anticipation of the cold and the FBO even plugged in the pre-heater for a little bit before we got there, but it definitely was not enough. It took a lot of cranks to get the engine to start in that freezing weather and it was not happy about starting for a solid five minutes. Also, the windshield fogged up almost immediately upon starting and having our warm bodies in the plane so while taxing my father had to clear the windshield with his jacket sleeve every thirty seconds or so. After a thorough warm-up and run-up, we departed on an IFR flight plan into some solid moderate turbulence until about 4,000 feet MSL. From the outside looking in the only way to characterize our departure would be as a clown show, but I know we did not cut any corners
The flight down to the Laredo area was very normal albeit slow, but then came the transition over to Mexican airspace. I was all excited for the transition and had built it up in my mind. I was afraid that I was going to have to use my meager Spanish skills in the event there was any confusion, but none ever came. The controllers were extremely professional, their English was great, and it was just like flying IFR in the U.S. for all intents and purposes. Hell, even Sirius XM Music continued to work the entire time! I used Baja Bush Pilots to file out eAPIS and Mexican APIS and there were absolutely no problems on that end either. The biggest problem with flying IFR in Mexico was the high MEAs, which we were immediately instructed to climb to. Our final cruising altitude of 14,000 feet meant putting the oxygen on the dog for the first time. Ultimately, my mother was able to get the mask on him and calm the poor guy down. My biggest compliments of the whole trip actually go out to our dog Jake, because after his initial refusals to wear the oxygen mask, he never refused it again and happily slept in the back of the plane for almost the entire trip. The scenery over central Mexico was beautiful as we crossed into the high plains and over the mountains of the Mexican Rockies. For the descent into Durango, we were given the VOR DME 2 Rwy 21 approach from MIVIS intersection. The approach was initially very intimidating as it has a lot of odd feeder routes and some DME Arcs for good measure, but the Perspective system made handling it easy. What was not so easy was landing for my first time at a high-altitude airport on a warm day with a quartering tailwind. It was not the prettiest landing in the world, but I did not break anything and the runway in Durango is over 9,500 feet long so it would have been really hard to not get stopped in time.
As challenging as the flight was what laid ahead in customs as actually the biggest problem. We had contracted with Manny Aviation Services to provide us with a handler in Durango because we figured that the customs officials’ English would not be great in such a rural location and that we wanted our first time flying into Mexico to go smoothly. However, as luck would have it, they did not show up. Despite me being clear with them in my emails, they claimed to have gotten the dates mixed up and simply were not there. So, we were on our own with only my and my father’s less than acceptable Spanish skills keeping the situation moving at all. Despite our best efforts, our lack-luster Spanish skills just were not cutting it and a lot was getting lost in translation. But as I mentioned earlier, we stayed flexible and did not get frustrated. Instead, my father became best friends with Miguel the porter for $20 USD, while I continued to go through the customs process as best I could. Miguel, who spoke excellent English, quickly linked up with me and began translating. With his help over the next hour and a half, we completed customs, got fueled, got our multiple entry permit, filed our flight plan, and got our departure clearance. Thankfully, I had done my homework and had all our documents in order, including four paper copies of our IFR flight plan to MMSD, so everything went as well as could be expected on such short notice. Miguel told us that we were incredibly lucky to come on a day when the Comandante was in a good mood or else things could have been a lot harder. With another $100 USD tossed Miguel’s way for literally saving our entire trip (a fraction of what we would have had to pay the handling company) we continued onto our final destination with an only slightly enraged mother in the back seat.