I am airborne, flying a helicopter south from San Diego towards Ensenada, Mexico. The last air traffic controller in the U.S. clears me to switch to Tijuana Tower, and I can instinctively feel the inevitable, gradual rise in my blood pressure.
English is the universal language of air traffic controllers, the supposed standard anywhere one flies in the world. But in a third world country like Mexico being fluent in English is barely a criterion for getting a job as one. I switch frequencies and immediately hear the tower conversing in Spanish with another aircraft, just departed. I check in, and am instructed to climb to 1,500 feet for crossing over the airport. Not because I need to be that high to deconflict with other traffic, but because the controller knows how to give that command in English, and alternate directions would require words and phrases she is likely not familiar with. I sigh, climb up, and motor on.
She then tells me to report 10 miles to the south, which I do at 7 miles because I've already dropped back down to a normal helicopter height and she wouldn't hear me that far away. In truth she has no idea where I am, and so she acknowledges my transmission and tells me to contact Tijuana Approach Control (TAC). Of course TAC doesn't even know I'm here, because Tijuana Tower never informed them, they would never hear me at my altitude anyway and they wouldn't know what to do with me had I checked in with them. Or more accurately they wouldn't be able to convey in English what they wanted me to do. And so I save both of us the headache and motor on to Ensenada in radio silence.
Five miles north of the airport I check in with Ensenada Tower, and I receive a tortured communication about a non-standard approach she wants me to take to the landing area. I honestly don't know what she wants me to do, but attempting to have a conversation with her about it would be utterly futile, and so I continue inbound with the expectation that she will correct me if I appear to be deviating from her instructions.
I wind up deviating, she winds up correcting me, as for some reason she wants me to use the runway (and odd instruction for a helicopter). I play along, using the first half of the runway and then--which is why helicopters don't use runways--I proceed to create one enormous, billowing dust cloud as I hover taxi off the runway towards my landing spot.
Tower tells me to land on Spot Number 2. There are six spot on the left, four on the right. None are numbered. I pick one and land, admiring the size of my dust cloud as it slowly drifts toward (and envelopes) a row of parked aircraft. Tower doesn't say anything, so I presume I chose Spot 2 correctly, or that she doesn't really care.
After shutting down we head in to the administrative offices to file flight plans and to check in with customs and immigration. There is no walkway for passengers, so we transit via the active airport taxiway, occasionally looking behind us for incoming aircraft. The check in process takes at least an hour, involves five Mexican officials, three sheets of that inky transfer paper you slip in between multiple copies of a form, and the patience of Job (and all this for a very unbusy airport). I have been flying into Mexico for the better part of 12 years, and to this day it makes my blood boil. It process goes something like this:
1. Check in at the front counter with a young military officer who thankfully has a better grasp of English than anyone else in the building. Fill out one form to close out your flight plan from the U.S. (they had no idea you were arriving, the FAA didn't call them to tell them you were arriving, and so you fill it in after the fact). Then fill out a new flight form for your next destination. The entries that you make on this form are different each time you arrive at the airport, and they are different for each different airport you go to. None of it is verified, and none of it is automated. I fill it out, give it back, they correct my entries and send me to the Commandante. Elapsed time: 10 minutes; not terrible.
2. The Commandante is the one who lords over the airport. Your fate is in his hands, and so your only goal is to ensure his happiness throughout the process so that he does not decide, halfway through, that your paperwork or documentation is somehow deficient. Which happens not infrequently. I smile, give him a warm introduction in Spanish, and he takes my paperwork and begins fat fingering it into the computer. With his two index fingers. Without the necessary glasses he needs to see the computer screen, or the requisite familiarity with the software program that one would normally acquire after a decade of using it. He types, and types, and types, occasionally looking up at the TV next to him that has a telenova (Mexican soap opera) on. He asks for my Mexican insurance form, although we've e-mailed it to him about a hundred times already in the past. He studies it, never seems entirely satisfied with it, but continues typing. He finally prints out a multi-entry permit, the Holy Grail of forms that grants me permission to travel/work/fly in Mexico. He makes four copies, and has me sign eight times. Then he brings out his official stamp, and begins stamping my paperwork everywhere. In Mexican aviation, you are nothing without an official stamp. He then directs me over to Customs. Elapsed time: 25 minutes.
A brief aside: I am very sensitive to cold temperatures. I used to be kidded at my helicopter air ambulance base for wearing long underwear when the temperature dropped below 60 degrees, and for wearing gloves in October. But I am a polar bear compared to Mexicans. It is uncomfortably warm in the Commandante's office, so warm I begin to sweat and seriously consider taking my jacket off but I feared it would distract him. He, by the way, is wearing a long sleeve shirt and a fleece jacket.
3. The Customs guy is in a small room adjacent to the Commandante. He is armed with his own stamp, of course, and a spiral bound, lined notebook like the kind used in high school to take notes. He is humorless, and so I smile weakly and forego my attempt at speaking Spanish as he is clearly not having it. He studiously copies down my passport information, my passenger's passport information, and my aircraft information in the notebook, as slowly as is humanly possible, and then gives my passenger a painfully detailed declaration form to fill out. He then takes my flight plan forms and stamps them everywhere, and directs me to Immigration. Because one person could not possibly do both of those jobs. Elapsed time: 35 minutes.
4. Immigration is the guy I dread most, because he is almost always irritable. He sits in a (very warm) dark room which is strangely small for what furniture is packed into it. He's wearing a long sleeve shirt and a jacket. For some reason he never turns the lights on, even though the Immigration forms are printed using a 6 point font and his eyesight is apparently not the greatest. He takes our passports and types our information into his computer. (The Customs guy does not grant the Immigration guy access to his spiral bound notebook, in which he has already copied all of our information, and Custom guy's computer is not linked to the Commandante's computer.) He is slightly better than the Commandante in this regard, although not great. He does have the assistance of his ten year old child however, who is sitting next to him (and inexplicably not sitting in a school classroom somewhere). He actually has a passport reader, which he uses to check us into the Country, then he hands the passports and my flight plans to the ten year old who then makes photocopies of everything on a very large copier in the corner. We fill out additional Customs forms, sign them, and then Customs guy opens the official drawer and pulls out his official stamp, and stamps everything. Everything. My passenger has to pay an entry fee, and makes the mistake of asking for a receipt which sends Customs guy into a rant about how his computer is malfunctioning and that we'll have to go downtown to a bank if we wanted a damn receipt. I profusely apologize and back out with my forms. Elapsed time: 50 minutes.
5. Back to the Commandante's office, where he checks the 16 stamps now placed on the forms, pulls a few copies out for himself and then sends me back to the front desk. The front desk checks the 16 stamps, charges me a landing fee and then pronounces that I am free to go.
Which I do, quickly, before they change their mind.