The following is as accurate an account as I could get out of my dad before he died about the time he crash landed in the Sonoran Desert.


It was March 1949, near the northwestern coast of México. You might want to look at a map. He was north flying from Mazatlán in the state of Sinaloa to Ensenada near the border, via Mexicalli, in the state of Northern Lower California. He was flying in an AT-6, advanced trainer six plane which the Mexican air force used for combat (for lack of actual fighter planes). It was equipped with two machine guns, one synchronised with the rotor and another on the wing. You can see a picture of it here.

He was flying solo because he was reuniting the plane with the rest of the fleet. The other AT-6s were already at Ensenada and one was left behind, so he was going to take it himself.

In Hermosillo, Sonora's capital, he stopped to refuel. The AT-6 has enough fuel to fly for four hours, and it was just a precaution to refuel often (he might have already flown a couple of hours from Mazatlán when he stopped in Hermosillo). Also note that he wasn't taking the most direct route to Ensenada, which would be across the Gulf of California, because that requires flying a long stretch over sea. Pilots always fly trying to keep close to certain safety checkpoints.

When he was refuelling in Hermosillo, he took off a few minutes to chat up a cute lass who was selling coffee, and he let the land crew take care of the refuelling. It had rained the previous night, so the ground was muddy. My dad should have supervised the refuelling, but was talking to the girl instead. The land crew was sloppy. They should have used a special felt cover on the funnel they used to refuel the plane (you have to stand on the plane's wings in order to reach the fuel tank), but didn't, and got some of the mud from their shoes into the fuel tank. My dad didn't notice or realise this until later, when it was too late.

He takes off from Hermosillo towards Mexicalli, and about halfway in that flight 220 miles away from Hermosillo, (about an hour and a half of flight; three hours total) the engine starts sputtering. The fuel intake was clogged with crap. He hears the sputtering, and realises it's probably gonna fail altogether, so he starts veering towards a clear place to crash land. At last the engine stops altogether, unable to take in any more fuel. He was at 8,000 ft and was able to glide down to land at a speed of 500 ft per minute (so it took him 16 minutes to hit ground after the engine stopped). He was over the Sonoran desert, which isn't completely arid, that is to say, not sand dunes exactly, but dry and inhospitable nevertheless.

He didn't take out the plane's landing gear for fear of having it snag against a rock or something like it and then having the plane flip over. Part of his five years of flight training (he joined the airforce in 1944) was how to crash land a plane, so he wasn't entirely clueless. He was worried about the fuel tank puncturing and catching fire, but luckily that didn't happen. He landed and was mostly safe, not hurt at all. The plane's rotor and flap were bent in the crash and the plane rendered unable to fly, although its fuselage was intact.

This happened in the morning, around 10:00 AM. He didn't have much with him. Some tools in the airplane's trunk, his standard-issue Colt .45 with six rounds in it, his personal Swiss army jack-knife, and he was wearing his military khakis. The first day he spent mostly under the airplane's wing, which rose about a metre from the ground and gave him some shade. The terrain was not exactly sandy, but rocky enough. There were plenty of cacti all about, separated from each other by 50 metres or so, so he didn't have to walk far in order to find plants. Flora also included mezquite trees, of which you can see a picture here.

Fauna was hares, coyotes, snakes, and scorpions. So he was doing ok for hydration. From day one he would get a cactus, take off the spines with his jack-knife, and then chew on it to get water, spit out what he couldn't eat.

He decided to not move away from his plane, because of the following famous story of the day. About ten years ago, 1939, a group of four civil engineers were doing land surveying and such for a train that would run across the desert from Hermosillo to Benjamin Hill in the Lower California. For some reason, they wandered some distance away from their truck doing their work, but left the lens of one of their theodolites in the truck. Ever seen engineering students use one? It's for measuring angles. So the lens acted as a magnifying glass, and with the sun created a fire in the truck. When they got back, they found a burnt truck. Here's the thing: they decided to walk away from the truck back home. They didn't make it. The rescue team sent to get them first found a truck, and then found three dead engineers, who died of dehydration, spaced about 10 km apart each. The fourth engineer was found further down with a bullet in his head. Suicide.

Because of that story, and because my dad knew that the rescue team had first found the truck, he figured that if he had any chance at all of being rescued, that he should stick close to his downed plane. So he did.

He decided to try shooting hares with his colt and eat them. Unfortunately, he was a poor shot and within the first two days, or maybe just the first day by itself, he kept missing and didn't hit a single hare. Bear in mind that it's hard to aim the Colt .45 as it weighs about 2 kilogrammes. For his last bullet he made a y-shaped crutch out of a tree branch that he cut with his jack-knife and rested his hand Colt .45 on the branch so that it would be easier to aim. He managed to wound a hare in the hind legs this time, but before he could run and catch the hare, a coyote appeared out of nowhere and snatched the hare in its jaws before he could catch it.

He was staying under the airplane's wing to shield himself from the sun, until he saw a rattlesnake. He wasn't worried about being bitten, as rattlesnakes don't attack unless they are provoked, but he was afraid that it might curl up next to him and that he might fall asleep and roll over on to the rattlesnake and that a small misunderstanding could result in a bite.

After that he decided to stay in the airplane's cabin. He would pull the plexiglass dome above and spend most of the day there. He says that despite the sun, he was more often cold than hot. Remember this was March.

Timewise there seem to be a few odd elements to his story. Although the chronology might be wrong, he says that on the second day he saw a commercial airplane in the horizon. He was tempted to fire his last round at the fuel tank in his own plane with the hope to cause an explosion that would be seen from the air, but he decided not to be because 1) it was his last round 2) the plan might fail because the explosion wouldn't happen or because the airplane might not see him.

So he says he would spend most of his days in the cockpit of his plane, doing nothing. He says that he was sitting down for so long that he got bedsore.

He was getting hungry. Day three or four. Very hungry. So hungry that he thought of the following plan: at night he would stay outdoors using himself as coyote bait. His plan was to grab a coyote as it attacked and kill the coyote instead to eat it himself. For better or for worse, no coyote was brave enough to attack him.

On day four he finally came up with the idea to make a slingshot. He had a spare innertube in the plane's trunk, which he cut up with the jack-knife and tied to a y-shaped branch. He learned how to make and use slingshots in school when he was a kid. The Yakee Natives from Northern Mexico are the ones who taught him. The Native kids were so good with slingshots, that they could hit one shot out of ten aimed at a dove in mid-air at a distance of sixty feet. Remembering such lesson, my dad collected 40 rocks, put them in a pouch he had (I don't know where that pouch came from) and prepared to kill lizards.

Yeah, lizards. I guess they were the next easy target because unlike hares, they sit still. These were rather large lizards, almost the size of iguanas. He says the Yakee Natives call them "porohui" lizards. Here is a picture of the lizard, which my dad confirms is indeed what he ate.

He ate one the fifth or fouth day and another the fifth or sixth day. They have no scales and are actually quite meaty near their belly.

By the sixth day he was getting confident that he wouldn't die. The horrible hunger pangs in his stomach were gone thanks to the lizards. He says his stomach was growling so loudly before eating the lizards, that you probably could hear his stomach 100 feet away. He realised that he probably could start walking now and be fine. He could eat lizards and chew on cacti and wouldn't starve or die of thirst. He started to consider the possibility of walking it back to civilisation. Walking 40 km per day, in a mere two days he could get to the train tracks he knew were about 80 km away.

Meanwhile, back in the farm...

The army had sent search teams to go look for my dad, but hadn't found him. After five days, the search was officially over, and my dad pronounced dead.

But one of his friends, named Ernesto Silva but they called him "The Sheriff" (or El Cherife in Spanish) because he wore cowboy boots, refused to believe that my dad was dead. On the sixth day, disobeying orders, he took a plane and went out to search for my dad one more time. The standard search method which he followed was to make squares of 100 miles on each side and look for a downed plane that way. On the next-to-last corner of the last square, because the sun happened to be at exactly the right angle at 16:00, a gleam catches his eye. It was the sun reflecting off the wings of my dad's plane.

The Sheriff heads towards the plane and lands precariously, with the landing gear down. My dad was very scared that The Sheriff's plane would flip over and that they would both end up stranded there, but luckily that didn't happen, although twice he almost flipped over. They fly back together to the base.

At the base the doctor who inspected my dad asked him what he ate. Surprised to hear that he didn't seem to feel the effects of the poison from the lizards (remember the lizards eat nothing but poisonous arachnids), he said that if his stomach was strong enough to handle lizards, that he could eat whatever he wanted and that there was no need to have him on a bread and water diet. The Sheriff was temporarily pardoned for breaking orders and wasn't arrested at first (but the next day he was arrested for two weeks). They all went out to a bar called Husgongs that night and partied their socks off.

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