Story and Photos by Dave Simeur
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 a flight to Columbus, NM to celebrate “Pancho Villa Day.” This not a flight for the faint of heart. However, this might be as close as a pilot can get to a reasonable facsimile of a practical daytrip destination in Mexico without the hassle of customs. The Columbus Stockyards Airstrip (12NM, private, 5000’) 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. (If you aircraft or skills are not compatible with this dirt strip, land at Deming, NM instead [DMN], 29 nm to the north. You can then drive to the border in a rental car from Desert Aviation, Deming’s full service FBO. Call 505-544-3660 to reserve a car and for more information.)
We thought of the rich aviation history of the area as our Cessna 182 circled the Columbus Stockyards airfield for landing. Bandits, air smugglers, and the 1st Aero Squadron all took their chances here against heat, mountains, and borders, and we were about to do the same. We made a high and low reconnaissance pass over the unimproved strip. The check for wind indications, wires, vehicles, cows, and other hazards to landing showed nothing out of the ordinary. A friend skipped the recon once at this very airport and had the gear on his Apache ripped off by a cable someone was using as a gate. This little incident was in the back of my mind as we approached low and slow with 40 degrees of flaps. We 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 a Border Patrolman. He said he would help keep an eye on the aircraft while we walked the 1/2-mile to the Mexican Port of Entry, just across the border in Palomas, Mexico, sister city to Columbus, NM.
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 US 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 except 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.
Today, Palomas (pop. 5,000) is a popular destination for tourists shopping for the many arts and crafts products unique to Mexico, and for people in search of low-cost pharmacies and dental and optical services. Sights to see include the beautiful Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, which fronts the plaza. The bricked Palomas plaza is surrounded by brightly colored shops and offices, and street vendors selling cold drinks, burritos, and merchandise ranging from leather goods to CDs to straw hats. Nearby stands a statue of Pancho Villa on horseback at full-tilt gallop. There is also a restaurant that is very popular with American tourists.
Visitors to Mexico are allowed to bring back one gallon (4 liters) of alcoholic spirits per visitor without paying a tax in New Mexico, so our visit to Palomas also included a stop at a liquor store, where we purchased “El Presidente” brandy, distilled and bottled near Hermosillo, Mexico.
With our purchases in hand, we walked the short distance back to the border for reentry into the US. We showed our passports to the Customs agents and pressed on to the airplane. We strapped all of our goods down in the baggage compartment with extra care, not wanting 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, and moved 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 light on the wheels, we lifted off in ground effect and accelerated for the climb out. A right turn to the north allowed us to survey the landing strip that was the former home of the “Columbus Air Force” (see sidebar).
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 US Customs House, circa 1902, which was a target of the attack, is now a 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 nmparks.com.
The landscape today 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 they 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, a likeness of him raised in the saddle, guns blazing. We caught a glimpse of history visiting Palomas by air -- the perfect way to celebrate Pancho Villa day.
Byline and credits:
Dave Simeur enjoys exploring the Southwest in his Mooney M20E. He is a flight instructor with Momentum Interactive Aviation, specializing in instructor support and interactive flight training software. You can see his software and contact him at www.Momentum-i.com.
Our thanks to Jim Greenwood, Vice President of earlyaviators.com and Gary Glynn, author of “1st Aero Squadron in Pursuit of Pancho Villa,” (on the web at historynet.com/ahi/blaeropursuitvilla) for providing the historical detail in this article. 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.”
A Guide to Entry and Exit Regulations
Getting into Mexico
The Government of Mexico requires that all US citizens present proof of citizenship and photo identification for entry into Mexico. While US citizenship documents such as a certified copy of a US birth certificate, a Naturalization Certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or a Certificate of Citizenship are acceptable, the US Embassy recommends traveling with a valid US passport to avoid delays or misunderstandings.
US citizens do not require a visa or a tourist card for tourist stays of 72 hours or less within “the border zone,” defined as an area between 20 to 30 kilometers of the border with the US, depending on the location.
Returning to the United States
US law requires that you document both your US citizenship and identity when you re-enter the United States. The best document to prove your US citizenship is a valid US passport. Other documents that establish US citizenship include an expired US passport, a certified copy of your birth certificate, a Certificate of Naturalization, a Certificate of Citizenship, or a Report of Birth Abroad of a US citizen. To prove your identity, either a valid driver's license or a government identification card with a photo is acceptable.
The following frequently-cited documents are NOT sufficient proof to enter the United States: US driver's license alone, Social Security Card, US military ID, a non-certified photocopy of a US birth certificate, a notarized Affidavit of Citizenship signed at the airport in the US, or even a voter's registration card. Travelers with only these documents may not be able to enter the US.
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 US 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.