Flying to Mexico

Flying your airplane to Mexico is not difficult it just requires a little attention to details and there are some good tools and people to help you do that. Flying in Mexico is enjoyable and the people are friendly and your airplane will be safe with simple precautions. And, you don’t have to know a word of Spanish although they like it if you do. The biggest issue for everyone is crossing the border and clearing customs and immigrations going in either direction. South bound into Mexico it’s a paperwork drill. Coming back into the States it’s an exercise in following procedures.

As with anything new, sometimes it’s nice to do it with someone who already has experience (been there, done that). There are many flight instructors who will go with you on your first flight to Mexico for a day trip to show you the ropes. However, there are two great online resources for excellent information and support. One is Baja Bush Pilots at www.bajabushpilots.com and the other is The Flying Doctors of Mercy or LIGA at www.ligainternational.org and no, you don’t have to be a doctor to join or use their online services but you do have to join either organization to take advantage of their border crossing tools. If you join LIGA and fly some doctors and nurses to their free clinics in the Mexican state of Sinalo on the first weekend of any winter month you will not only have free expert help from other pilots but you will provide a great service to LIGA and people in Mexico who really need medical help. LIGA will help out with your gas and you’ll have a great experience.

LIGA trip to clinics in Sinaloa Mexico

The main thing that both LIGA and the Baja Bush Pilots offer on their websites is automatic form completing for both Mexican and U.S. Customs as well as keeping track of your TSA information ineAPIS. You just fill in your aircraft, flight and passenger information in their plain English form and then their software will generate the multiple forms you need to clear Mexican customs and operate in Mexico. Their software will also take care of the eAPIS information and customs forms for your return to the United States. Both websites also have a step by step checklist for how to cross the border and clear customs. If you don’t use these services you can do it yourself at the government website foreAPIS at https://eapis.cbp.dhs.gov/

If you’re flying IFR it’s a much simpler procedure for crossing the border. You’ll get a squawk and frequency and you just keep flying. If you’re flying VFR you need to file and activate a Defense VFR (DVFR) flight plan. When you contact the FSS north of the border you’ll get a squawk for crossing the border. Once you cross the border you squawk VFR and contact the controlling agency for where you are: Tijuana for crossing from San Diego. Contrary to everything you have been taught about closing flight plans you don’t close your DVFR flight plan after you cross the border, it just goes away. The other thing you want to do when you contact FSS to activate your southbound flight plan is file your north bound DVFR flight plan so it’s in the system waiting for you. The trick here is that you want to give a date and time later than the time you actually plan to return because you never know if you will have some unexpected delays while in Mexico. Once you’re in the air on the return trip you can contact FSS well south of the border to update your arrival time back in the States. More on that later.

Customs and the Commandante's Office at Ciudad Obregon

For your radio calls to Mexican ATC I recommend you stick with English even if you know some Spanish because as soon as you say anything in Spanish on the radio they will revert to Spanish as well. When you make your initial call to approach control or tower be patient and don’t worry if they don’t respond right away they may be looking for their English speaking controller. Do keep your radio calls short and simple. Tell them who you are, where you are and what you want.

Waiting for the morning ground fog to clear at El Fuerte, Sinaloa, Mexico

Your first landing in Mexico has to be at a designated airport of entry with customs and immigration. Security at Mexican airports is provided by the military so don’t be alarmed when you shut down to see soldiers with guns slung over their shoulders approaching your airplane. They will want you to give them some standard information and show them your pilot’s license and aircraft registration. Most speak decent English but if not, it may be easier for you to just write the information they need in their book. You will also request gas from the flight line coordinator at this time and be prepared to order in liters not gallons or, just have them top it off which is best since gas is much cheaper there. But, have an idea of how many liters that should be so you don’t buy any “extra” gas. Next, your passengers need to go to customs and immigration with their passports while you go to the Commandante’s office to take care of the required paperwork, pay for gas and file your next flight plan. If you have already used LIGAs software to complete the paper work you will save some time but don’t expect it to be lighting fast either way. They still use something called a typewriter to complete the forms if you haven’t already done so. Once you’ve paid for your gas and found your passengers you’re on your way. Just remember, no VFR in Mexico at night so plan accordingly. Expect to be met by the military at every airport and, other than customs, it is the same procedure at each stop: order gas, show your registration, give them your information, go to the Commandante’s office, show your Mexican paperwork, pay for the gas and file your next flight plan.

LIGA pilots, doctors and nurses at El Carrizo crop duster's dirt stip, Sinaloa, Mexico

Your last stop in Mexico must again be at a designated airport of entry and I recommend it be as close to the border as possible as this will be your last opportunity for inexpensive gas. Here you will surrender your Mexican paperwork. Before you take off you need to be sure TSA and U.S. Customs have your eAPIS information and have authorized your return. Internet access for weather, flight planning and updating is common at most hotels you will be interested in staying at.

Flight planning the trip home using the hotel WiFi

Your first stop in the United States has to be at the FIRST AVAILABLE airport of entry unless you have pre-arranged over-flight to an authorized airport of entry further inland like Palomar but there is a fee for this convenience. Most people returning to San Diego use Brown Field. Once you are airborne and a little more than an hour from crossing the border you want to contact the U.S. FSS to update that flight plan you activated as you were heading south with a more accurate landing time and you must do this at least an hour before your planned arrival to allow adequate notification to U.S. Customs and Immigrations. There are two ways to garner up to a $5,000 fine. One is to not comply with the more than one hour notification rule and the other is to land one second before or 10 minutes after your updated arrival time. If you do get to the airport early DON’T LAND until your filed arrival time, hold somewhere a couple of minutes from the airport or shoot low approaches. The Customs official has to see you land and taxi into the customs area outlined in blue stripes. However, if he or she is not present when you shut down, everyone has to stay inside the blue lines until Customs shows up. Once you have showed your passports the Customs agent will tell you when you can leave the blue box and find the restroom.

Dinner Saturday night after a rewarding day at the LIGA free clinic

Some philosophical thoughts, this is an adventure. Enjoy the ride. Be a traveler not a tourist. Be prepared to move at a different pace and you have to be the one to adapt to their pace not get them to meet your pace. Smile, be friendly and courteous. You will be treated in the same way. If you’ve heard about bribing officials in Mexico I recommend you forget about it. Each airfield is guarded by the military but, you should still take reasonable precautions like not leaving portable electronic devices in the plane and covering the windows. Certainly lock the door(s) and you might even consider a prop or throttle lock particularly if your airplane hauls a lot and can operate off dirt runways. Other than that, be prepared to have a wonderful time wherever you choose to go in Mexico. As Janet Lapp says, “It’s all good!”

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About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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