I take a photojournalist on a flight to catch illegals crossing the border.
The phone call came early Saturday morning. I was already busy at my desk, preparing for a day’s work on the-book-that-must-not-be-named. I wasn’t looking forward to it.
The woman on the other end sounded defeated. She was looking for a helicopter to take two passengers along the Arizona/Mexico border, from Yuma to Nogales. One passenger was a photojournalist, interested in taking pictures of the border. Was I available?
I’d need to be in Yuma to depart by 3 PM that day.
I knew from some research for another gig (that never came through) that flying on the border was tricky for two reasons:
- If you fly over the border, into Mexican airspace, and fall off U.S. radar (which you’re likely to do when you’re only a few hundred feet off the ground in mountainous terrain), your aircraft could get stripped down to components by Customs when you land.
- The Goldwater Range, a huge military restricted area, comes right up to the border for the first 50 or so miles of the flight from Yuma eastbound. They test weapons in there, the kind of weapons that could shoot a 4-seat helicopter right out of the sky without anyone noticing. (Oops.)
I told all this to the caller. She said that they’d done it before and the other helicopter pilot usually avoided the military area by flying in Mexico. That made the whole thing a Customs issue. I’d never flown in Mexico, but was sure there were some kind of rules about it. I had to find out what they were.
I told the caller I’d have to make some calls, took her number, and hung up.
Then I started making my calls.
First I called Customs, in Riverside, CA, which is responsible for the border in the Yuma area. They asked a lot of questions about the flight, then recommended that I call Flight Service in Prescott and get a discrete squawk code for the flight. (A “squawk code” is a 4-digit transponder code that distinguishes my aircraft from all others.)
I called Flight Service in Prescott and told them what I had in mind. They told me I should check the status of the Goldwater Range with Albuquerque Center. That if the range was not in use, I could probably fly right through it.
This was good news. I didn’t really want to fly in Mexico. If we flew eastbound on the north side of the border, I could sit the photographer behind me. If I flew eastbound on the south side of the border, the photographer would need to be in the opposite seat. If we switched sides of the border, I’d have to land somewhere so my passenger could switch seats. I didn’t want to deal with it.
I called Albuquerque Center and gave them my story. I was told that R-2301E was not in use and that I could fly through it. I took the name and number of the person who gave me this information, just in case I got in trouble. He understood completely and gave it to me with confidence, making me confident that going through would be okay.
“What about R-2301W?” I asked. That was the other half of the Goldwater Range, the bigger, western half.
“Not in our area,” he told me. “You’ll have to call Los Angeles Center.”
So I called LA Center and gave them my story, which I was now very good at telling. R-2301W was indeed active. But since I was so close to the border and flying so low, perhaps I could get permission from Range Control to fly through.
I called Range Control and told them what I had in mind. I was passed on to two other people. I was asked when I wanted to do this and what altitude I’d be flying at. I told them. They told me that Border Patrol helicopters would be in the same area below 200 feet. I told them I’d stick to 300 to 500 feet. They told me I could fly through, but that I needed to call Range Control on the radio when I was approaching the space before I entered. No problem. I got the frequency and hung up.
I called the client and told her I could take the job. I made sure she still wanted me. She did. I told her I needed to make a few more calls and would call her back, but she should tell the passengers that I’d be there at 3 PM. I took the passengers’ names and weights for my flight plan.
I used Duats to check the weather, plan my flights, and file a flight plan. I filed one plan from Yuma to Nogales and another one from Nogales to Tucson, where I’d be leaving the passengers. The weather forecast looked surprisingly good, although there would be some thunderstorm activity out to the eastern part of the state. I also did my manifests for both flights — that’s required by Part 135 — and handed them off to my secondary flight plan person, Mike.
Then I called Prescott Flight Service again. I brought them up to date on what I was up to and told them I’d just filed a flight plan with Duats for 3 PM. I told them that Customs had suggested that I get a discrete squawk code. They put me on hold for a moment, then came back with a number. I wrote it down.
At that point, Mike came into my office. I spent less than 5 minutes telling him what was going on (I was really good at telling the story by then) then went to the phone to call Customs and give them my squawk code. They already had it. Whew! I asked for the radio frequencies that the Border Patrol helicopters would be using — just in case I came in close contact with one of them and wanted to talk. They gave it to me. Then I asked what would happen if I fell off radar.
“You probably will fall off, if you’re flying that low in the mountainous areas,” they told me. “Your flight will be manually monitored.”
“So if I fall off radar, someone should be able to figure out where I’ll appear next and know something’s up if I’m not where I’m supposed to be?”
It was better than flight following. (Flight following is when you ask air traffic control to monitor your flight and advise you if there’s anything you should be aware of as it develops enroute. I can never get flight following because in Arizona, where it’s so mountainous, I can’t stay on anyone’s radar long enough to make it possible. I could fly higher, but what fun would that be?) At least I knew that if I had a mishap out there, they’d find us pretty quickly.
I did some more research online. I called an FBO at each airport I’d be using — Yuma, Nogales, and Tucson — and made sure they had fuel and would be open. I also got their location on the field. Then I printed out diagrams of all three airports — I’d never landed at any of them before and one (Tucson) was Class C.
Then I called my client again and gave her the names of the FBOs I’d be using in Yuma (for picking up the passengers) and Tucson (for dropping off the passengers). I also got a credit card number for billing, so I’d have some guarantee of payment if they didn’t pay the invoice promptly enough. This looked like it would be at least a 6 hour charter and I wasn’t about to get stiffed.
By that time, it was time to go home and put on something more professional for the flight. I’d dressed comfortably — that means gym shorts and a tank top in the summertime — so I’d feel comfortable at my desk while working on the-book-that-must-not-be-named. So I said goodbye to Mike and rushed home. A while later, I was wearing light cotton slacks (white, of course) and my new helicopter shirt and preparing the helicopter for the flight.
Preparing the helicopter meant taking all four doors off, adding extra bottles of water, making sure the emergency and first aid kits were on board, and tucking the cockpit cover under one of the back seats. I also unplugged all the headsets except mine and stuck them under the front passenger seat, fastened all seatbelts, put a bottle of frozen water by my seat, and stowed my overnight bag under my seat. Then I did my preflight, in the hangar, using the ladder to climb up and check the rotor hub.
Finally, at around 1 PM, I was ready to go. I pulled the helicopter out of the hangar and dragged it over to the fuel island. I’d top off at Wickenburg, where fuel was relatively cheap, before heading down to Yuma. I expected a 90-minute flight down there and I wanted to get there early.
It was not to be. The FBO guy, who I was counting on to fuel me up while I unfastened the helicopter and brought the cart back to my hangar, was busy doing something else. (I think he started doing it when he saw me coming.) So I had to fuel myself. He arrived at the fuel island just as I finished up, then tried to engage me in conversation. By that time, I was running late. I unfastened the helicopter, skinning one knuckle pretty good in the process. Then I drove the cart back to the hangar, where I parked it inside behind my car and locked up.
I got off the ground just after 1:30 PM. The flying was miserable. I was hot — it was over 100°F — and the wind and thermals bounced me around something fierce. I was just past Vulture Peak when I managed to program in a waypoint I’d created for the flight to Yuma. The problem with flying to Yuma from Wickenburg is the restricted areas along the way. This waypoint would take me to the beginning of a narrow corridor near I-8 that ran between two restricted areas.
The air settled down about 45 minutes into the flight. I aimed for my waypoint, realized from my GPS that I was clear of the northern restricted area, and followed a railroad track westbound. The desert went from absolutely nothing beneath me to farmland. Then I got close to the Gila River. The railroad veered to the south and I followed the river. I was about 10 miles out when I called Yuma tower.
There was no one else there. The tower cleared me to land on Runway 17. I consulted my chart. I looked at my vertical compass. And I still managed to land on Runway 26. Sheesh. How embarrassing is that? I was glad that no one else was there. The controller was very patient and guided me to where I was supposed to be. He’ll think twice before he tells an unfamiliar helicopter to land on a runway. And next time I’ll look at my compass while I’m on final.
It was just after 3 PM when I arrived. I couldn’t raise the FBO on the radio, but by the time I’d shut down, the FBO guy was there with the fuel truck, waiting to fuel me up. Then my passengers arrived. The 190 lb passenger was really 200 lbs and the 220 lb passenger was really 250 lbs. (And I’d only added 10 pounds for each of them in my flight plan.) The photographer’s bag weighed more than a small child — and was considerably larger. (I’d figured on 20 pounds for that.) They had a third person with them, but he wasn’t coming. (He couldn’t even if he wanted to.) I did some mental math. I’d still be under gross weight and able to hover out of ground effect.
The photographer strapped in his bag and started removing three of the biggest digital cameras I’d ever seen. He told me he was used to flying in a LongRanger, where he had more space to move around (I’ll say!). He also said that he thought turbines were safer.
“Don’t go there with me,” I warned him, only half kidding.
After a quick pit stop, I gave them the safety briefing, making sure they knew where the emergency gear was. We climbed aboard and strapped in. The photographer, Howard, sat behind me. His companion, Jorge, sat beside me. I started the engine. The helicopter was already warmed up. (At 107°F, cooling down would be the challenge.) I punched in my squawk code. I called the tower, got clearance to take off directly to the south, and we took off.
Thank heaven he didn’t assign a runway.
I called Prescott Flight Service on the radio and activated my first flight plan. I mentioned my squawk code. Then I dialed in the frequency for Goldwater Range Control, so it would be ready when I needed it.
We headed due south, passing over farm fields. I kept an eye on my GPS. After a moment, the border between the U.S. and Mexico appeared as a jagged white line.
“Is that the border?” Jorge asked me, pointing to the GPS.
“I think so.” I realized after I said it that it sounded pretty stupid. I was hoping that was the border, since that’s what I’d be flying alongside.
We got to the white line and I turned left. We confirmed with Howard that we were at the border. There was a fence there, but it didn’t look very substantial. It was around this time that they told me they’d done this many times before, but that they’d never passed through the Goldwater Range.
Meanwhile, Howard was already taking pictures. I’d had to turn off the voice activated intercom feature because of all the wind in the cabin — most of which seemed to be going into Howard’s mike. We had to push buttons to talk. Not a big deal, but I would have gone nuts listening to that wind for more than two hours.
I tried to raise Range Control. They responded on my second try, telling me to stand by. I did. They were talking to someone else who I couldn’t hear. Then they talked to me. I told them who I was and what I planned.
“Confirming that you will be between 300 and 500 feet AGL within one mile of the border at all times,” the voice said.
“That’s affirmative,”I replied. “300 to 500 feet, within one mile of the border.”
He cleared me to enter, then gave me a phone number to call when I left his space. I told him I couldn’t use the phone while in the helicopter. He told me to call when I landed. I told him I needed to get a pen. Jorge pulled out his cell phone. The guy had to tell us the phone number three times before he got it. I told him I’d call in about 2 hours, when we landed in Nogales.
And then I flew into a restricted area for the first time.
Of course, the restricted area looked just like any other area. It looked just like the area about a half mile south of us, in Mexico. So although Jorge and Howard had never flown through the Goldwater Range, they hadn’t missed a thing. It was the same empty desert on both sides of the border.
On the other side of the border, however, was a highway. Highway 2, Jorge told me. There were lots of trucks on it, driving east or west less than a mile from the United States. There were also a few abandoned buildings and rather sad truck stops. No Flying J.
It started out flat, with a few small sand dunes and scattered scrubby trees and bushes. Then the rocks got volcanic in nature and the small hills started. Then there was a 2000+ foot mountain to climb over. I couldn’t go around it to the south because that was Mexico and Customs expected me to stay north of the border. And I couldn’t go around it to the north because Range Control expected me to stay within a mile of the border. So I waited until the last minute and climbed.
The mountains were sharp and jagged. The kind of things that you wouldn’t want to have to land on with a big airplane. They reminded me of teeth.
The fence ended with the mountain. After all, how could they build a fence up a mountain?
There was a road that followed the border, then went around the mountain to the north and joined up with the border again on the other side of the mountain. The road was the only sign of the border. There was no fence. We’d seen some Border Patrol vehicles on the western part of the road, but not here. This was “out there,” perhaps too far from the closest Krispy Creme.
But the land was barren and hot. Anyone crossing here would have to cross miles and miles of open desert — in a military practice range! — in the summer heat. Talk about desperate.
We were in a flatter area when some movement caught my eye. A black SUV on the Mexican side of the border. There was a flimsy fence there and that’s where it was parked. But when it saw — or perhaps heard — us coming, it made a U-Turn and drove south. I pointed it out. Howard took lots of pictures.
“I think we ruined their day,” he said.
We crossed more empty desert, more flat areas, more mountains. In one area, the hills had a distinctly volcanic look about them, like little calderas or craters. I pointed them out to Jorge and Howard. Jorge seemed very interested. Howard took pictures.
More movement out of the corner of my eye. This time it was another helicopter — perhaps a JetRanger or A-Star — I didn’t get a good look at it — heading west. Border Patrol. It was at least 200 feet below us and closer to the border. I tried to raise them on the radio but got no response. Howard took pictures. He had monster lenses on all of his cameras and could probably ID the pilot if he needed to from the photos.
We passed through both restricted areas and entered the Organ Pipe National Monument. The vegetation beneath us was lusher, with those distinctive cacti. More stuff on the south side of the border. Then Lukeville and an official border crossing.
We continued east. We’d been flying for at least an hour. It had gotten cloudy and was considerably cooler. I’d stopped sweating. I was only halfway finished with my second bottle of frozen water, which was melting just faster than I could drink it. We’d been climbing slowly the whole time. The terrain turned mountainous again.
Then my radio came to life. I’d switched to the eastern Border Patrol frequency and we heard two pilots talking about a pair of suspicious vehicles they were trying to find. One said he’d start searching the washes. I looked at Jorge. He seemed pleased with the conversation. That’s when I realized that they were trying to photograph people crossing the border and Border Patrol doing its job.
We flew on. It was after 5 PM — prime time this time of year for crossings. They’d get cross late in the afternoon and travel north as it got dark. They’d get picked up north of the border by “coyotes” who’d get them out of the area. Or they’d keep walking, in the dark, to clear the border area on foot.
But you can’t really sneak up on someone with a helicopter. They hear you coming. Even if you’re flying low to the ground at 95 knots. All it takes is a tree or bush. If they’re smart, they’ll lie still. Then they’re invisible as you whiz past.
We saw a white SUV or minivan — it was one of those weird vehicles that tries to be both at the same time — in a wash. We all knew it was one of the vehicles that Border Patrol was trying to find. I circled it. Howard took pictures. I tried to raise Border Patrol on the radio but the luck was with those people in the vehicle below us. I continued east.
At one point, we circled what appeared to be a camp fire. No people, unless they were hiding pretty good. We concluded that it was lightning-started and kept going.
It was nearly 6 PM when we got into Nogales. I had about 45 minutes of fuel left, but we landed right away anyway. I closed my flight plan with Prescott Flight Service on the way in. On the ground, I had the FBO guy top off both tanks again. There was more to come. I checked in with Mike, telling him I’d call again when I got to Tucson.
There was weather in the area. Rain falling to the southwest, not far from where we’d been flying a while ago, but in Mexico. Low, dark clouds to the north, near Tucson. I consulted a chart with my passengers. There was no airport between Nogales and Tucson. If weather moved in and we couldn’t get to Tucson, we’d have to backtrack. For a short delay during daylight hours, a parking lot in Green Valley would do the job. But for a longer delay or if night closed in, we’d have to go back to Nogales.
We took off a while later. My passengers wanted to comb the area around Arivaca, which is a common transfer area for illegals coming up from Mexico. We flew up and down washes and, for a while, became an object of interest for a Border Patrol Hummer. We saw lots of waiting places, where the illegals wait not far from the road for their ride north. These areas are easy to spot from the air — they’re completely littered with discarded clothing and other belongings. Like someone dumped a goodwill bin under the trees in a desert wash. Howard took pictures.
The sun made a final appearance before slipping behind some clouds on the horizon. Howard told me to head toward Tucson, as he was losing his light.
I was losing my light, too. I flipped my navigation lights on and followed a road to I-19, then followed that northbound. I tuned into the ATIS (Automated Terminal Information System; an airport conditions recording) and learned that there was a thunderstorm south of the airport, heading west. In our path.
I could see it clearly as we flew over Green Valley. Cloud to ground lightning and a wall of rain. It was heading west and my first instinct was to fly around it on its backside, on the east. But the way ahead of me, just over I-19, was still clear. I could probably get up there before it reached me. I decided to go for it.
If you can see through it, you can fly through it. That’s what we used to say at the Grand Canyon, anyway.
It started raining a little later. I had to divert a little to the west. By then, I was talking to Tucson tower and less than 10 miles from the airport. It was raining heavily to our right, on the east.
“Do you see the runway?” the tower asked.
I looked. All I saw were the lights of Tucson. No runway lights, no rotating beacon. My GPS said the runway was straight ahead, but I couldn’t see it.
“Negative,” I replied. “I think I’m too low.”
“Stay on your heading,” the tower advised. “The runway is at 12 o’clock.”
In the back, Howard was holding his camera toward the inside of the helicopter to keep it dry. He had already handed another one to Jorge, who was covering it with my chart. I was looking for the airport.
I saw a large plane moving on what had to be the runway. I was about five miles out and past the storm. The rain had pretty much stopped.
“Tower, this is helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima. I have the runway in sight.”
“Zero-Mike-Lima, proceed direct to the Tucson Executive ramp. It’s to the left of the rotating beacon, about 500 feet. Cleared to land at one of the helipads there.”
I repeated back the instructions, looking in vain for the rotating beacon. I knew where the Tucson Exec ramp was from my airport diagram and used that to find where the beacon should be. I finally found it atop the tower and went in. We made a very gentle landing on one of the helipads as a Southwest Airlines jet taxied by behind us.
It was good to be on the ground.
I called the FBO and asked for fuel and a ladder. I was told they were on a lightning hold, but someone would be out with a cart and a ladder. I shut down and climbed out of the helicopter onto the still-dry pavement. Jorge and Howard were already packing up.
The FBO guy came and I used his ladder to put on both of my blade tie-downs. Then, when we had everything out of the helicopter that we needed, he helped me put on the cockpit cover, which would cover all four doors in the event of rain. Rain looked very possible — there was another storm moving in from the east as we worked. Then we all climbed onto the cart — it had three rows of seats — and got a lift back to the FBO.
I said goodbye to Jorge and Howard. The guy who’d dropped them off in Yuma was there to pick them up. They all left. I made arrangements for fuel and a ride to my hotel, which we had trouble tracking down at first.
The reason we had trouble with the hotel was because I thought I’d made reservations at a Holiday Inn Express but I really had reservations at a Quality Inn. Boy, was I surprised when I got dropped off.
The place was all by itself on Valencia, about three miles from the airport. The nearest restaurant was a Denny’s, two long blocks away. It was still close to 100°F out. I was sweaty and tired. I’d flown 5.2 hours that day and the last little bit had been a tiny bit stressful. It was 8:30 PM and I hadn’t eaten since about 10 AM. I decided to order out.
I got to my room. It wasn’t anything special, but it was clean and quiet. At $50/night, it was better than I expected.
Right about then, I remembered that I’d left my keys in the ignition for the helicopter. The good thing about leaving your keys in a helicopter is that a would-be thief has to know how to fly a helicopter to steal it. I wasn’t especially worried. After all, the cockpit was covered and the keys couldn’t been seen by anyone trying to peek in.
I tried to order Domino’s Pizza, got fed up with the brain-dead person trying to take my order, and hung up. Then I called Papa John’s and got the Domino’s guy’s slightly smarter brother. It took 15 minutes (no exaggeration) to order a pizza, bottle of soda, and “apple crisp.” I took a shower while I waited. I felt much better when I got out. I was talking to Mike when the pizza came. It was good — at $18, it better be — but I’m not convinced that it had anything to do with the “superior ingredients.”
I had a pleasant flight back to Wickenburg in the morning. I took off at 6:30 AM and had to speak to 4 different controllers to exit the Tucson airspace. It isn’t as if the place was hopping. It was dead. Departure control, Tower, Departure Control again (at a different frequency), and Tracon. They all had to talk to me. There’s a longer story here, but I’m too tired to relate it now.
Total billable time: 6.7 hours. But it was more than just flight time and money in the bank for me. It was a great experience dealing with the bueaucracy, planning a 4-segment flight in areas I’d never flown, flying into three new airports (two of which had controllers calling the shots), and learning about illegal aliens and the border.
Would I do it again? Just tell me when!