Floyd and his Aztec plane
Why I Learned to Fly and Some Experiences
Recollections of Floyd Thomas
I have to tell the reason I learned to fly, (one of my lucky days). At first, it did not seem so lucky. To do my sales job with the Molduras de Pino Company, I had to cover the southwestern part of the USA, so the first year I drove about 100,000 miles on sales trips, and during that time, I got seven speeding tickets. By the end of the year, I had no Texas drivers license. But, at the same time, I was taking flying lessons with an instructor at Southwest Air Rangers, by the name of Lloyd Hamilton. When I finally got my private license, I thought I could fly anywhere, at any time. But one day Mr. Hamilton said, "Now I'm going to teach you how to really fly." I said, "Man, I have more than 50 hours flying time. I don't need any more flying lessons." He then said, "Come with me one time and see if you are really as good as you think you are."
Why not, I thought, so he took me up and headed south to a large flat surface...a canal...that ran between Mexico and the USA. At full speed he touched the left wheel to the ground, then the right wheel, then the nose wheel. He counted "one, two, three!" Wow! "Now I want you to do the same, and count one, two three!" The next week I came home every morning covered in sweat, and very nervous. Probably after fifteen or more of these flights, I could count to one, two, three! Then he said, "You did pretty good." But when we came to a curve in the canal, I would elevate the plane to make the turn. I now watched him keep the plane level, and would make the turn just inches above the ground. Then he made me do the same maneuver for the next five or six days. That was when I really learned to fly!
My next great pleasure in flying was when I got a twin-engine Piper Aztec airplane...one of the safest planes ever made. The first Aztec that we owned was an older model, and twice we lost the right engine on take off in different areas at different times. The trouble was a small piece of rolled up copper from a copper tubing that would jam the governor in certain positions, but the wonderful Aztec could fly on one engine, and we could continue to fly and land safely. One day I walked into Southwest Air Rangers, where I kept my airplane and the owner, Bill Mueller asked me why I had buzzed the tower earlier that morning, and said that I was in trouble for doing that. I told him that I was no where near the airport that morning, and asked him what he was talking about. I found out later that my plane had been stolen and taken into Mexico for transporting drugs. After many months of detective work on the part of the insurance company and my diligent sleuthing, we located the plane stripped and unusable in Torreon, Mexico. The insurance company had to buy me a brand new Aztec...the first airplane I ever flew with lots of good instruments, including area-nav. I could fly great distances without touching the controls, while on autopilot. What a wonderful piece of equipment! The new Aztec had a front luggage compartment in the extended front nose of the plane. This gave us a much better center of gravity, with large loads in the airplane. Being as I already had one airplane stolen, I had the mechanic place a small electric switch inside the front luggage compartment which I could cut off, and nobody could start the plane without the hidden switch being put in the "on" position. This I had hoped would stop anyone from stealing the aircraft, and it proved successful.
Memories of working in Mexico.
While working for the Moldurus de Pino in Mexico, I had to make many trips down into the interior of Mexico into obscure mountain sawmill sites and small villages with no airplane runways available... taking advantage of any clearing, field, or dirt road as a make shift place to set the plane down. On one of these trips with co-worker Pat Shea, the airplane motor started missing as we were taking off. I had to lean the motor very quickly to burn the lead off the plugs in the engine. Pat was the calmest man in an emergency that I have ever met. He started counting the rpm's for me so that I would not have to look to that side of the panel and could concentrate on getting airborne. I was able to burn off the lead and barely gain enough altitude to turn through a saddle in the mountains with the engine at full power. When we got back and landed at Casa Grande, we got out of the plane and found tree limbs and pine needles stuck in the landing gear. (The reason for the lead build up was that we had to fuel the plane out of a 50 gallon drum at the work site.)
Pat and Floyd preparing (rattlesnake proof boots) to go treasure hunting on the old Spanish Trail
Another experience was when our paymasters were robbed on the trains going down into Mexico. It was decided that sending payroll by train was too risky, so I was elected to fly the paymasters to each of the sawmills. Workers cleared off dirt roads as near as possible to the sawmill site, and I would fly over and circle each site until one person in a vehicle would come to the edge of the field. I would land and release the paymaster, and then take off. At first I had a soldier guard riding with us, but on the first trip I asked him to practice fire his weapon toward a mountainside, and he couldn't get the weapon to fire. I told my boss that I didn't want any more soldiers, and I got permission to carry my own weapon for protection. The good thing about these flights was that after delivering the paymasters, I was free to fly on to the ocean to land fish Saturday, and half day on Sunday, before I had to go back and pick up my people for the return trip.
Six shooter Jose's surprise.
There was an ahido in Mexico, called Tres Rios, and to the north of the ahido, there was a dirt airstrip, starting on a ridge sloping down and ending against a pine tree ridge. Take-off from this field was always a very difficult situation, because the elevation was about 8,000 feet, and if the wind was not correct, you would find pine needles in your landing gear. The president of the ahido was a remarkable individual who would walk down the streets...his six shooter strapped to his leg, like an old cowboy. This individual was 6 foot 2 inches and weighed about 175 pounds, with wide, broad shoulders and narrow waist and hips. He had a dark beard and a handle-bar mustache. Pat Shea and I became very close friends with this gentleman, who was named Jose. He had been the president of the ahido for 25 years. Elections were held every 4 years, and as you can tell...he won every election. One day, Pat and I asked him how he managed to always win all of the elections. He told us that his opponents always either disappeared, or got shot before each election.
When Pat and I first came down we were allowed to carry our own guns. I brought my 38 with me and my loading equipment to load my own ammunition. When I was loading my ammunition you could not drive Jose away. He insisted on being there to watch me load the ammo. One evening I told Pat to be sure and come to the cabin we had just built, because this was Jose's birthday. I told Pat that I was going to give Jose my pistol and my loading equipment for his birthday. Pat said that he wanted to be there for sure, because he knew Jose would have a fit. When we got through eating supper, we told Jose we had a surprise for him. I uncovered my loading equipment and my pistol for him to see. I told him "happy birthday!" Jose (and this tough 50 year old man) started to cry with tears running down his face. (His wife and two sons were there, and they could not believe what he was doing). We'd had several drinks before supper, and several more after supper. He began to tell us about his life and being elected to the ahido, and how he had managed to stay in power, and to let him know if anyone ever threatened us. We definitely believed him. He also had another trait that was exceptional...he protected and defended all the Taraumara Indians in that area, which was wonderful, as most of the people treated the Indians like slaves. The Taraumara Indians were the ones that worked for us at the sawmills. I first had to teach them how to build the sawmills, and then how to run the sawmills. They were very hard workers, and very honest. In working with these Indians...They would cut a tree down with a big cross-cut saw. When the tree fell, their whole family would show up and cut the limbs off and pull them down the hill for firewood. I saw that even though they were hard workers, they were very slow in cutting down timber, so I brought two gas chain saws down to speed up the process. Pat and I showed them how to use the saw to cut down trees and take off the limbs, much more quickly, with only two people working. After a week or ten days, both chain saws were broken. "A log rolled over them." Jose asked them why they hadn't taken better care of the saws. They told Jose that when they had the chain saws the rest of their families did not get to work, and this was not good. I asked him to explain to them that they would be paid by the board foot, not by the tree. This way they could earn three or four times more money than they could with their cross-cut saws. I took the chain saws back to Juarez and had them repaired, and brought them back. After they understood the process they were so glad to have the saws back that I think they even slept with them. Every tree that was cut down had to be marked by a Mexican official. They would do this by cutting the bark off one side of the tree, and then mark that tree with an ink pen. I watched this bureaucrat even marking some trees that were still young and growing, because they were the easiest to get to.
One day I got a call, while I was in Casa Grande, Mexico. Would I go fast to a small town about 100 miles south of Casa Grande? One of the workers at the sawmill had been hurt. So I hopped into the Cessna 207, and headed for the town. When I got there the airport was on a hill, running east and west, and the east end was at least 500 feet higher than the west end. I landed from the west and went up the hill. At the top was a large circle to turn around in, and as I stopped a pickup pulled up beside me, and in the back were three men. In the middle was a man who had a large towel wrapped around his right arm. They helped him to the plane, and as I opened the back door they shoved him in. Immediately, I could tell he was drunk, but they strapped him in, and said to hurry, as he was hurt very bad. I slammed the door and started to take off, when one man ran up and pounded on the door. I opened it and he handed me a sack that I put on the floor...and then took off. When we got airborne, Ramon looked out and said that was where he got hurt, and pointed to the sawmill. But when he pointed, blood spurted out and hit the window. I told him not to point; that my airplane did not like blood, so he quieted down. As we were flying, I looked in the bag and there was his hand! He told me that was his hand, and he wanted to keep it. I got him to the hospital in Casa Grande, but I don't think he was able to have his hand reattached.
Catching the lumber thieves in Mexico.
Lee Shannon and I were flying back from one of the sawmills at Mesa Tres Rios, about 60 miles north of Casa Grande. Below us was a highway that split...one side going to Juarez, where our molding plant was located, and the other road was going towards western New Mexico. Looking down, we saw three trucks loaded down with our lumber going the wrong direction towards Mexico. I turned west, looking for a place to land in front of the trucks, several miles in front of the vehicles. At that time Mr. Shannon pleaded, "Please don't make another turn like that...I'm about to throw up!" I told him I was on the final about two or three miles ahead of the trucks. The road they were on went through this field. We landed and I got out of the plane with my rifle. The trucks showed up and..."Surprise!" I stopped them and asked them where were they going? They replied, "Juarez." I told them they were going in the wrong direction, and motioned to them with my rifle to turn around, which they did. The next day they were in jail, and we later found out they had been selling our lumber to an outfit in Tucson, Arizona...but no more.
One of my more memorable trips, while flying for the company in Mexico was when I had to transport six Mexican workers from Casa Grande, northwest to a very large ranch. I had to take the back seat out, and made three men lay down flat, and two men sit in the center seat, and one man beside me. We hit some rough air, and the man behind me started throwing up. I told the man next to me that I would cut him with my knife if he threw up like them. He then pulled off his coat, grabbed the end of the sleeve, and threw up into his jacket. He pulled the coat back, then laughed and said, "Esta bien?" When we landed there was a small stream running by, and I made them all get out and wash the inside of my plane completely.
A moments decision.
Dr. Leoploldo Villareal, who owned the company ( Molduras de Pino) I worked for, called me one day. He wanted me to fly him to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. When we arrived we were escorted toa big auditorium where there were 500 Mexican politicians, including the Mexican president. We got there about 11:00 a.m. Dr Villareal's speech was about 3:30 p.m. When we entered the building they asked for everyone's name, which was supposed to be attached to their coats with a name tag. Naturally, I did not have one, so they got a piece of cardboard, and printed my name on it, and attached it to my coat. I sat on the hard concrete seat for the next three hours and was the only "gringo" in the whole place. About 7:30 p.m. we all went to supper. One official asked, "Where were we staying?" Dr. Villareal told him that we had no place to stay, because we got there too late due to bad weather. This official then called two other men over and asked them to give him their room keys. He handed them to us and said, "You now have rooms." The next day, in the Cessna 207, two Mexican officials wanted to fly back with us. They spent two or three days in Juarez politicking. Then I flew them to the Big Bend National Park Airport in Texas. When we arrived, the landing strip did not look good. It had some black streaks across it, so I decided to land on the highway, which was to the left of the airport. They started to protest landing on the highway. There were two signs on the highway. One on each side of the road. As I landed I heard two "clicks" as I passed the signs. When I got out of the plane, I checked the wings, and saw that I had knocked off both small navigation lights from the tips of the wings when they clipped the signs on both sides of the road. Then I turned back and inspected the runway. There were two channels running across the runway that had been cut by runoff from recent heavy rains. Landing on them would have been disastrous. When we left that area I flew the two officials back to San Antonio where they caught a commercial flight to Mexico City. One of the two politicians later wrote to Dr. Leo about the landing. He told him that I could land anyplace I chose...In the desert or in the hills!...wherever I wanted.
Wild fishing trip in Mexico.
On a weekend fishing trip to a lake north of Hermosillo, Mexico, Bob Price, Pat Shea, Dr. Hausler and I were flying in the twin-engine Aztec. We'd been flying about an hour when the right engine started missing and backfiring very badly. Dr. Hausler went into a screaming, yelling fit at the top of his lungs, "We're going to die! We're going to die!" Pat immediately slapped him and told him to shut up; and then reached over the seat and grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him onto the back seat. Pat moved into the front seat with me and asked me how he could help. I told him I had figured out what the problem was. I could correct the problem by leaning the engine very lean and burning off the lead that had accumulated on the spark plugs. This had happened to me many times in Mexico because we had to fuel up from 55 gallon barrels, and this fuel had a high-lead concentrate in it. As a consequence, it sometimes would short out across a plug. Finally, about 45 minutes later, we were able to land on the dirt strip close to the lake. During all of this, Bob Price sat in his seat trying to be helpful by just being quiet and calm. We fished for two days, but when we got ready to come back, Hausler did not want to fly back in the airplane with us, but he had no other way to get home. We had to load him into the airplane and Pat kept him in the back under control. That was the first and last time Hausler was ever asked to fly with us.
El Paso, Texas
More Flying Adventures Closer to Home.
The deadly cloud.
Another flying experience was when Pat Shea and I were flying to Amarillo, Texas late one fall afternoon. Looking ahead we saw a cloud in front of us, but it was not thick...kind of like a fog bank. We proceeded on, and one moment later the windshield was completely covered with a coating that we could not see through. We immediately turned toward Lubbock, Texas to get out of the cloud, which turned out to be a swarm of millions of grasshoppers that were heading south ahead of a severe cold front. We followed the VFR signal toward Lubbock. When I was approaching the airport I called on the radio and said I had to make an emergency landing. As I was in my final approach, I opened my side window and could see some of the runway. We made the final and good landing. It took some time to clean off all the bugs from the windshield and the air intakes, but it was an experience that I will never forget.
Don't hit the horses daddy!
On a return trip from a visit to Phoenix, while flying over a range of mountains east of Tucson, with my wife sitting next to me, and three small children stuffed into the back seat of a Piper Tri-Pacer, I saw a sudden drop in the oil pressure to zero. I knew I had to shut the engine down, or it would freeze up. I headed toward a canyon, and about that time I had to have power to get over a ridge. I gave it power, and thankfully, the oil pressure came up for about a minute...enough time to get across the ridge. About a mile or two ahead I spotted a railroad track going north, and then turning east. Where the tracks made a curve there was a large fenced flat field, with livestock grazing in it. By then I had no oil pressure, so I cut the engine again and prepared to land in the field. As I was feverishly trying to maneuver a distressed landing, my oldest little daughter poked me with her finger and said, "don't hit the horses daddy!," and my wife Diane shouted, "don't drag the tail on the fence!"
Well, thankfully we made a safe, but bumpy landing. The farm owner and his wife came out to see if they could help. I then had to try to find out where the oil leak had come from, so I took off the engine hood cover and discovered an oil line going through the the rear engine firewall had broken off. At that point, I didn't think the engine was damaged, so I talked the farmer into giving me 4 or 5 quarts of oil, and I bent the copper pipe, taped it shut and filled the engine with oil. I started the motor, with Diane holding the brakes, while I put one end of a metal rod against the motor, and the other end to my ear to hear any sounds of damage. Not hearing any bad noise, I put the hood back on, and told Diane to take the kids and wait there for a train to take them back to El Paso while I flew the plane out. She refused! After much arguing, we all got back in the plane, and I had to make three attempts to get enough speed up in the sandy field to take off. Finally, I was able to bounce the plane over a small rise in the field to propel us over the fence and into the air going west. Fortunately we had about a 15 knot wind from the west, but it still took us some distance in the 110 degree heat and dodging tall cactus to get enough room to turn east. An hour and a half later we made it home.
Diane's quite a gal.
You cannot imagine how tough Diane was and still is. Here are two more stories. We were returning from San Antonio, Texas and were near Sierra Blanca when we ran into some severe winds, rain and hail. I immediately turned back toward the east, but did not want to fly back 100 miles to a good airport, so I landed on the access road running by I-10, and parked the airplane on the edge of the road, so my left wing would be high enough for a car to get by. About thirty minutes later a police car pulled up by us on the left hand side, and the police officer wanted to know what was wrong. I told him that we had run into some hail, and I had to make a quick landing. He said that he understood, and for us to just sit still, and he would be back in about thirty minutes with hot coffee as soon as he delivered the judge to his court. We looked over and saw the judge sitting inside the vehicle. He looked like a statue of an old Indian Chief looking straight ahead...never even glancing at us. Sure enough, in about thirty minutes he came back with coffee and said that he had looked at the weather west of us, and it looked like it was getting better. He told us to wait for him and he would go ahead and look. About a mile from us was a good sized ridge where the road went over, and if he came back over that ridge with his red lights on it would mean it was clearing up to the west. As soon as he left I pulled the plane back in the middle of the road, and checked it out. It looked like it was clearing up towards Guadalupe Peak, and about this time our friend came back over the ridge with his lights on, so we headed for home with another good trip under our belt.
Check your gas line's and cap before taking off.
Diane and I were taking off from the airport in El Paso. Just after take off the tower called us and said we were on fire. We were taking off on runway 08, and had to make a tight turn to the north. I shut the engine down and was able to circle back and land on runway 22. We taxied back, and were told that the plane had just been worked on, and one of the mechanics hadn't completely closed one of the gas lines, so we made them give us another plane and headed for Colorado Springs.
On another occasion we had a fire start on a Bonanza aircraft. We had just started to take off from the airport at Steamboat Springs, Colorado when a man came running out of a side hangar with a fire extinguisher in his hand. I told Diane to get out fast...we were on fire! I shut the engine down immediately. A mechanic had worked on the Bonanza because the motor had been missing a little bit, and evidently he did not properly tighten the gas line again! After the mechanic tightened the gas line I took it up for a trial flight, and as everything seemed okay, I landed, picked up my wife, and were were off again.
One time Diane and I were headed for Kansas City and stopped for fuel in Tulsa. When we pulled up a person with pretty long blonde hair stepped out to direct us up to where we could get fuel, and discovered immediately that this long haired beauty was a guy, not a girl. I made some derogatory comment and Diane nudged me to not say anything else. After fueling, we took off again on our way, but after after about five minutes when I looked out on the right side of the Cessna 207 I noticed a steady stream of fuel coming off the top of the wing. The fuel guy had not tightened the fuel cap properly. I immediately throttled back, turned around and landed at the same airport. And I damned sure said what I thought about the whole thing when I told him to fill it up. When he tried to charge me again, you can imagine my answer. A very important lesson was the outcome of this situation...Always check your fuel cap before taking off.
Landing off course can be deadly.
Another lesson of great importance that I learned was when Bob Price and I were making a landing in Dell City, Texas. We were landing to the west, and the sun was blocking most of our view. From the side I knew where the strip was, but I did not correctly judge the distance for the end of the runway. I landed short, and it was a little rough. We felt a bump, and knew we'd landed short, but we had already stopped at the west end of the field. My dad, who ran this part of the Price's Dairy operation in Dell City, came out and told us that we had just flown through, and cut the power lines to the plant. Unbelievably, the plane nor its occupants were hurt by this very dangerous accident. We counted ourselves very lucky to be safe on the ground. This cost Bob Price about $6,000 to repair the line and the transformers, but we were very thankful we came out alive.
In conclusion, I had so many more adventures during my many years of flying...too numerous to recount right now...that I can look back on with such fond memories. I will always be grateful to Lloyd Hamilton, the instructor who gave me his knowledge and taught me to fly "by the seat of my pants!" (Some memories from..."Floyd and Diane Thomas' Stories From the 1920's to The Present.")
With some friends.