San Diego Captain Ramón Orta Vidrio, one of three owners of Aeroservicios de California, had left instructions for me to meet him in downtown Ensenada. Five minutes after we arrive at 7:00, Orta shows up in his black Suburban. The wind off Ensenada bay this autumn morning chills us as we exchange warm greetings. Orta, in his mid-50s, stands about 5´9.´´ He's a barrel-chested man decked out in brown cowboy boots, blue jeans, a blue cotton jacket over a white dress shirt, and a straw cowboy hat with a black band. He sports the trim mustache favored by many Mexican men of his generation. "Follow me," he says, waving his hand eastward. "The plane is in Ojos Negros."
Following Orta proves easier said than done. The 35-minute drive winds past the junkyards -- "Yonke" read the signs -- on the east edge of town, then up and over the coastal mountains and down into the 12-mile-wide, mountain-ringed Valle de Ojos Negros (or Dark Eyes Valley). The flat valley floor is green with growing crops and new wild grass emerging after five straight days of rain. Though large puddles still line the road, there isn't a cloud in the sky today. Halfway across the valley, a strange sight comes into view: a bulky airplane sitting 100 yards north of the road. At this point, Orta swings his Suburban off the highway and up a dirt road toward the plane. He parks near a singlewide trailer home out of which come running three little boys in brightly colored pajamas. Their father, the caretaker, follows them. As Orta chats with him, my eyes are drawn to the aircraft that dominates the flat landscape. It's a twin-engine propeller plane the color of an old Airstream travel trailer, except for the tail section and large vertical stabilizer, which are yellow. It's about the size of a Southwest Airlines 737, except it sits higher off the ground to give clearance to the mammoth three-bladed props.
"It's a Convair 340," Orta says as he walks up. "It was built in 1955 in San Diego. It belonged to the United States Air Force, then a private owner, then a Mexican company, now us."
"Where's the runway?" I ask.
"It's past the plane about 50 meters," Orta answers.
"Is it paved?"
Orta shakes his head. "We're trying to get a loan to pave the runway, but right now it's dirt."
I'm about to take off from a dirt runway aboard an antique airplane flown by foreign pilots in a foreign country with who knows what kind of aviation regulations. Orta seems to read the worry on my face. "We have to meet all of the specifications and service schedules of the FAA," he offers, "because it's an American-built plane. Plus we have to meet the requirements of the Mexican version, Aeronáutica Civil, in order to get a permit to operate. It's actually more stringent than the FAA. We have our own maintenance people, but any engine rebuilds have to be done in the United States. Legally, in order for us to even run the engines, we need to have FAA approval."
Today's flight to Bahia Tortugas and then to Isla Cedros is a scheduled weekly flight that Aeroservicios agreed to make when they were granted their operating permit. They started making the regular flight in September, five months after another small airline, AeroCedros, went out of business -- a victim of rising fuel costs. Asked how he plans to succeed where others failed, Orta responds, "By keeping costs down. We keep the plane up here in Ojos Negros because Ensenada only has one airport, which is military. It would cost us $2000 a month to keep the plane there. This land is owned by one of my partners. Today, we're going to fly to Ensenada and pick up passengers and some cargo; we have permits for both. But soon we're going to develop this land so we can start loading here and flying directly. That will save us a lot of fuel because we'll have one fewer takeoff. Also, this land sits at 2500 feet above sea level, while the airport in Ensenada is at sea level. We'll save on the fuel it takes to climb to this altitude."
Another cost-cutting measure for Aeroservicios: they won't have to hire any pilots. Orta, Captain Carlos Robles Linares, and Captain Carlos Cervantes del Río, all former airline pilots, will handle the flying themselves.
Minimizing fuel costs, Orta says, is the key to success. "Fuel costs 9 pesos per liter in Ensenada, 14 in Cedros." He points to a tank, about the size of a tanker truck's tank, mounted on concrete footings. "We have a permit to begin selling fuel here. So we'll be able to pay 8 pesos a liter."
Developing the Ojos Negros ranch into a cargo airport is phase two of Orta and his partners' plan. "This runway is longer than the one at Tijuana airport," he says. "This is three kilometers long, and we could still make it longer if need be. It could be a good freight airport. In fact, I'm having breakfast this week with a person who is interested in setting up a freight airport here."
The Friday-morning flight to Bahia Tortugas and Cedros is the only scheduled flight Aeroservicias flies at present. "But we do charters as well," Orta says. "We've flown some groups out to Isla Guadalupe," Orta says. "In fact, we have a charter to fly a hunting club out to Guadalupe to hunt wild goats. We also want to do adventure travel and ecotourism charters. We can use this plane to fly to Laguna Scammon and Laguna San Ignacio to see the whales. And we are trying to promote tourism flights to San Luis Gonzága, which is a peninsula on the Sea of Cortez. There are miles of pristine, virgin beaches. It is a nine-hour car ride from Ensenada, and we can do it in an hour."
San Luis is not a resort town. "There's one hotel with ten rooms, and it's always packed. So it's a backpacking, camping kind of trip," Orta says. "But we can fly down a mobile kitchen and offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner."