Note - Since this article was published permission to land on this strip has changed. Do not land on the Columbus Stockyards Airstrip without the proper permission
Fly to Mexico for lunch? That's right! But what about clearing Customs, speaking Spanish, and Mexico insurance you ask? Not to worry, there is a practical lunchtime destination in Mexico. Visiting Palomas, Mexico, sister city to Columbus, NM is a history lesson and a true adventure all in one. The Columbus Stockyards Airstrip (5500’) is really a dirt road that parallels the border a mere fifty feet from Mexico. Landing there is a challenge. Pilots have to stay in the United States while on approach to a true rough field that tests landing skills. "La Tienda Rosa", the Pink Store, awaits just across the border with some of the best Mexican cuisine and hospitality in one of a kind surroundings. If you’re not a rough field pilot or don’t have a rough field airplane, refer to the "Rough Field! Who Me? Yes You!" sidebar.
Before dawn on March 9, 1916, Doroteo Arango, better known as General Francisco "Pancho" Villa, attacked Columbus, New Mexico with 500 "Villistas" revolutionaries, killing 18 Americans. Pancho, who actually directed the attack from the border town of Palomas, slipped deep into Mexico with his soldiers after the foray. This raid was part of the wider revolution in Mexico that eventually replaced the Mexican government. Hailed as a patriot in Mexico, and a bandit in the United States, Pancho Villa's attack caused the United States to invade Mexico. The "punitive expedition" lead by General Blackjack Pershing was the first conflict where American aircraft were used in combat.
My brother and his girlfriend joined me on the flight to Columbus. We thought of the rich aviation history of the area as the Cessna 182 circled the field for landing. Bandits, air smugglers, and the 1st Aero Squadron all took their chances here against heat, mountains, and borders. When landing on unimproved strips always do a high and low reconnaissance pass. Check for wind indications, wires, vehicles, cows, and other hazards to landing. We approached low and slow with 40 degrees of flaps, touched down on the gravel with the nose held off until the last minute. We applied light pressure on the brakes and came to a stop in a cloud of dust. After securing the aircraft, we waved to the Border Patrolman. He said he would help keep and eye on the aircraft while we explored Mexico. The border was busy that day celebrating “Pancho Villa Day,” a reenactment takes place on both sides of the border with a parade of horses, antique cars, and players dressed in period uniforms. We blended into the crowd discussing how Columbus became the cradle of American military aviation.
By the time of Pancho Villa's raid in March 1916, Europe had been embroiled in WWI for nearly two years. The fledgling American Air Forces, then part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, lagged far behind the Europeans in tactics, equipment and experience. The United States’ only active aviation unit, the 1st Aero Squadron, was dispatched with General Pershing’s expedition to Columbus. The entire squadron consisted of 12 officers, 54 men, and six Curtiss JN-2 "Jenny" aircraft. The aircraft were unarmed save the side arms that the pilots and observers carried. The 100 horsepower Jennies were ill-suited for the hot desert climate. The legacy of these aviation pioneers, and the hard lessons learned in Mexico, are the foundation of doctrine and leadership for our modern Air Force.
The 1st Aero Squadron's first adventure was the trek from Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX to Columbus, NM. The aircraft could travel no faster than the convoy of fuel trucks driving over the rough terrain. The roads of the day were unimproved. The preferred transportation of the time was horse-drawn wagons. There was no petroleum infrastructure. The arduous journey lasted over a week. An inventory upon arrival was portent of the days ahead. None of the pilots save one had ever flown at night. Each aircraft was outfitted with different instruments and equipment. The wooden struts and propellers dried in the desert sun and required replacement nearly every flight. Mechanics carved each part by hand from trees native to the desert. The maps of the region were poor, and the chances of rescue in the case of emergency were remote. In one case a pilot had to commandeer a horseman to guide him to friendly troops with a pistol and $8. In another, a pilot walked 40 miles on a broken ankle before reaching safety.
Benjamin D. Foulois was one of these intrepid pilots. He started his flying career as a copilot for Orville Wright. There were no flight schools at that time, so he left Virginia for San Antonio with the Army’s first airplane and taught himself how to fly. He earned his wings through a series of hard knocks, crashes, and repairs. His only guidance was the occasional letter from the Wright Brothers. Benjamin eventually rose to the rank of General, surviving all the trials and tribulations of the punitive expedition and WWI. He was there the first time that American aircraft were fired upon by Mexican revolutionary forces. He and the other pilots of the squadron carried dispatches for the expedition, a critical communication link that was the first role of aircraft in warfare. While the squadron carried out over 500 successful missions, their success could be said to have occurred in spite of the Jennies. The aircraft were damaged one by one until only a single aircraft remained. To prevent any more accidents, Foulois, upon return to Columbus, burned the last remaining Jenny to the ground. Perhaps only the war, remoteness of Columbus, and need for experienced pilots saved his career.
The most interesting mission in which Foulois participated was a hair-raising flight to deliver a diplomatic dispatch to the American consul in Chihuahua City, 300 miles south of El Paso. The two aircraft on the mission split up and landed north and south of the city. After landing and dropping Foulois off with the dispatch, the southern plane was fired upon by federales. To save his comrade, Foulois drew attention and fire to himself. He quickly landed in a Mexican jail but not before nearly being killed by an angry mob. The incident showed how the general Mexican population felt about the American invasion. General Carranza, another revolutionary, ordered the release of the captured Americans. General Carranza incidentally, was a pilot that trained in the United States and founder of the Mexican Air Force. His fellowship as an aviator with the American pilots might have been the downed officers’ saving grace. General Carranza was also the recipient of the famous Zimmerman Telegram, in which Germany asked for Mexican assistance should America enter the war. This was used in part to prompt American entry into WWI against Germany.
The history of Mexico is rich with complex intrigues, revolutionaries, and various relations with the United States. Today, the bitter tensions have given way to history and friendly celebration of a mutual past. Pancho Villa State Park in Columbus is an example of America embracing the history of the attack. The U.S. Customs House, circa 1902, which was a target of the attack, is now the park headquarters and visitors center. From the air, you can see the same hill that screened the raiders from view as they made their approach, the site of today’s historical display. The display includes period vehicles, including a replica Curtiss JN-2. More information is available at www.nmparks.com.
The best history lesson is the Pink Store menu. Pancho was said to have eaten in the restaurant, and the authentic fare bears names from his band of Villistas. Several chicken (pollo) dishes are named for his wives and girlfriends: Pollo Soledad, Pollo Adelita, Pollo Luz Corral. Fathers would present the brides when Pancho arrived in a village, seeking his hand for their daughters. Marriage to Pancho was one way to ensure protection during the chaos that would ensue when the revolution came to town. My favorite dish is the chicken tampiquena, a tenderized fillet smothered in Mexican chile and asadero cheese; it is named for the passionate bride in the movie “Like Water for Chocolate.” There is even a dish named in honor of Blackjack, “Pershing Tacos.” The water and tea is safe to drink, and the service is outstanding. All of the dishes are authentic and delicious, with portions that are just the right size.
The Pink Store restaurant itself is part of the larger curio shop and liquor store. Don't worry about the prices; the costs for most items are lower than reasonable. Visitors to Mexico are allowed to bring back one gallon (4 liters) of alcoholic spirits per visitor without paying a tax in New Mexico. We recommend "El Presidente" brandy, distilled and bottled near Hermosillo, Mexico. The shop houses all sorts of unique gifts, blankets, silverware, serving sets, and art.
We walked back to the aircraft, but the Pink Store also offers a valet golf cart service through Customs to parked aircraft. We strapped all of our goods down in the baggage compartment with extra care; we did not want an NTSB investigation board to find us with bottles of brandy smashed in the cabin in case of an engine failure. Our takeoff was another practice in the art of rough field flying. We pushed the aircraft into position to avoid any taxiing that was not absolutely necessary. Always take time to get all of the big rocks out of the way prior to starting the engine. We applied engine power very slowly; with the yoke pulled to the aft stop. Once we were light on the wheels, we lifted off in ground effect and accelerated for the climb out. We made the right turn to the north and surveyed the landing strip that was the former home of the “Columbus Air Force” (see sidebar).
The landscape looks much the same as it did when Pancho Villa was riding his stallion, and the 1st Aero Squadron was chasing him. The Americans eventually left Mexico after defeating some of Pancho’s forces, but never caught Pancho himself. His popular support and knowledge of Mexico was too great. His mark on both cities is unmistakable; Columbus never rebuilt to the same size, and Palomas bears pride and scars from his legacy. Pancho’s statue remains in Palomas, just across the street from the Pink Store, a likeness of him raised in the saddle, guns blazing. We on the other hand, caught a glimpse of his heritage and tasted his "favorite" meals. The Pink Store by air, the perfect way to celebrate Pancho Villa day.
Sidebar: The "Columbus Air Force"
To the north of the Columbus Stockyards Airstrip is another field with an infamous history. This is the home of an air smuggler, the late Martin Willard Houltin. Martin is said to have been the first pilot to carry illegal drugs by air into the United States. Chronicled in the song Tree Top Flyer by Jimmy Buffet, the actual history is much less glamorous and did not have a happy ending. Besides the consequences of the cargo, the pilots served prison time, suffered divorce, and some estrangement from their families.
The strip is now in the shadow of a RADAR-equipped aerostat balloon manned by U.S. Customs, the results of the air border crossings. The “Columbus Air Force” was a group of air smugglers, some former WWII pilots, lured by the cash and thrill of the drug trade. These pilots flew low-level across inhospitable terrain with the illicit loads, often landing in places that were much less than safe. This type of flying is very dangerous, as well as illegal. The pilots were netted in Operation “Sky Night” by a multi-agency task force. In the trial that followed, they were defended by the late Lee Chagra, and plead out of the original charges because of legal challenges to wiretaps. However, the pilots were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison. After release, some of the pilots spent time between smuggling and prison terms.
The air smuggling of cargo of all types is another part of the aviation history of the Southwest Border. A violation of United States airspace, in light of increased security after 9/11, is not tolerated with or without illegal cargo. With the increased dangers posed to our country by terrorists, all pilots are encouraged to participate in the protection of America. Pilots should contact Department of Homeland Security authorities at (800) BE-ALERT if they witness or suspect anything out of the ordinary.
Sidebar: Rough Field! Who Me? Yes You!
If you are flying a Mooney like N1234K, big prop and small nose wheel, you won’t think of landing on a rough desert road unless the engine quit. In fact, you might not have any experience actually performing a rough field landing to a real rough field. Not to worry, you can still visit the Pink Store and Columbus, New Mexico. Just leave your sleek airplane and your fears of a dinged propeller behind on the friendliest ramp in the Southwest, 5T6 Resources FBO.
5T6 Resources is the unofficial gateway host to the Columbus Stockyards Airstrip and the Pink Store. The FBO is located on the west end of the Dona Ana County airport, also called Santa Teresa airport (identifier 5T6). The airport is located on the mesa 2 miles west of El Paso, Texas. If you’re in need of a rough field capable airplane and rough field training, give 5T6 Resources a call prior to your arrival at (505) 598-4586 to make all the arrangements. The full service FBO gives red carpet service to every visitor. They have 100LL, Jet A, pilot shop, flight school, weather services, and a great A&P next door. They also offer weekend ground schools to prepare for Private and Instrument written tests, complete with Laser Grade testing center (call for details).
The hostess of 5T6 Resources with the million-dollar smile, Pat Johnson, will call to make sure that the Columbus Stockyards Airstrip is open for the day. If you need instruction and an airplane, she can arrange for the rental and short checkout from one of the local instructors. If you would rather have the instructor tag along in the Cessna 182 for the landing in Columbus, you might be able to negotiate a big discount if you’re willing to buy lunch. Rental of a Cessna 152 Sparrowhawk, 172, or 182 is available for the short 50nm flight to the stockyards. She will also advise you on the best sights along the way: Kilbourne Hole volcanic crater, lava fields, etc. She will call the Pink Store to have the golf cart come to collect you for the shaded ride to Palomas, Mexico.
When you return to Dona Ana County airport with your memories and loot, take time to visit the local airport attractions. The War Eagles Museum located on the field (www.war-eagles-air-museum.com) sports a F4U Corsair, P-51 Mustang, P-38 Lightning, DC-3, antique cars, and many other classic aircraft. Next door to 5T6 Resources is Sky Dive El Paso (www.skydive-elpaso.com), which starts a same day jump school at 7:00 a.m. on weekends. If you’re going to spend the night, try a wine tasting at La Vina Winery, the oldest vineyard in New Mexico. Be sure to tell La Vina that you flew in, they have a special place in their hearts for aviators!
Byline: Dave Simeur enjoys exploring the Southwest in his Mooney M20E. He is a flight instructor with Momentum Interactive Aviation, creators of FLITELite.
Credits: Jim Greenwood, Vice President of www.earlyaviators.com and Gary Glynn, author of “1st Aero Squadron in Pursuit of Pancho Villa,” on the web at www.historynet.com/ahi/blaeropursuitvilla. These are the best sources of information for researching this subject. Suggested further reading and viewing include: Dirty Dealings by Gary Cartwright, and the movies "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself" and "Like Water for Chocolate".