In early 1960, the man who created Perry Mason was introduced to an Imperial Beach resident named Francisco Muñoz. Erle Stanley Gardner had many friends, and he particularly liked Mexicans, but the friendship that developed between him and Muñoz appears to have ranked among the most cherished of both men. By 1962 Muñoz had become a main character in Gardner’s travel books and his abettor in adventures like this one, recounted by Gardner in The Hidden Heart of Baja.
Gardner had hired Muñoz, introduced to the book’s readers as a “quick-thinking, quick-talking aviator, who has been flying long enough to have developed an uncanny skill as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of the country over which he is flying.” The two men had decided to fly along the Pacific Coast, about 180 miles south of Ensenada, to see if the rugged beaches could yield access to custom-designed trailers and dune bikes in which the septuagenarian Gardner hankered to go exploring. “It was great fun flying at a height of 10 or 15 feet over the sand, with the plane throttled down so that we had just sufficient air speed to give the pilot good control,” Gardner recorded.
For “mile after mile,” they traveled in this intimate proximity to the beach, with Muñoz touching down whenever it struck his and the writer’s fancy. They studied coyotes, including one “just preparing to feast on a dead baby whale which had been cast up.” They stopped at fishing camps to gossip with the Mexicans gathering lobster and catching totoaba. Later, realizing they were hungry, and seeing a clam camp, Muñoz “made a quick circle into the wind, came down on the sandy beach, landed, and taxied up to the place where the clam diggers were bringing in the huge clams.”
Receiving abrazos, Muñoz made his and Gardner’s hunger known, and “in no time at all a young lad was forthcoming with lemons and a large soup plate,” Gardner wrote. “One of the clam diggers, at a signal, brought up a sackful...and Muñoz and I stood by while the clam digger cut open the shells with swift skill and stripped out the meat....” The two men gorged themselves, then realized that the afternoon was waning. “It would be touch-and-go to reach Tijuana before dark.” Although Muñoz was unfazed, Gardner felt worried by the deepening gloom, and his alarm increased when it became obvious that the two were flying into a storm.
“[W]e were being borne along by a tail wind which increased until it was blowing at 75 miles an hour,” Gardner later wrote. “Below us the ocean was a churned mass of angry waters, and above us the clouds kept pressing down until we were forced to fly just over the tops of the waves.” Squinting through the torrential rains, Gardner shouted that Muñoz should land in Ensenada, but the storm swept them past the town.
At times “gusts of wind would catch the plane and seem to lift the tail so that it took skillful handling to keep us from being blown over end to end.... We were now flying two or three hundred yards offshore, so low that headlights from the automobiles coming along the highway between Tijuana and Ensenada would dazzle me — darkness above and below, but over on the right there was a faint murky line of surf; a surf which was hitting the shore with terrific fury and sending great clouds of spray high into the air.” Finally Muñoz wrestled the plane down to a landing strip in Rosarito Beach, and the two men made their way, dripping, to the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
Still the adventure hadn’t quite ended. As Muñoz called for a car to drive up from Tijuana, Gardner insisted on ordering stiff drinks and taking a room in which the two could await the ride north in comfort. “Muñoz insisted that as a customer I was entitled to the first shower, and after wasting some time in argument I stepped out of my wet clothes, leaving them in a soggy mess on the floor....” The mystery writer then entered the shower and turned on the wrong faucet, producing an icy blast. Twisting the alternate faucet, however, caused flakes of rust to jam the shower head; after a moment, only a few drops of warm water trickled out. Muñoz heard Gardner’s curses and came forward to help — not realizing that Gardner had already opened the faucet. “Suddenly he had the shower head off, and water...steaming hot, struck me full in the chest. I ducked, Muñoz jumped. We collided with each other and then the stream of water was pouring over both of us!”
Today Francisco Muñoz roars with laughter at the memory. “He was in the nude, and I was dressed. And we both tried to get out at the same time!”
Gardner died about 8 years after this incident, in 1970. But Muñoz, now 76, is still an active man with detailed memories of his life. He and his wife, Leysl, spend part of their time at a beach-front mobile home in the community of Bahía de los Angeles, about 100 miles south of San Felipe on the Sea of Cortéz. But every month or two, they drive to Crest, east of El Cajon, where a second home overlooks rocky vistas.
“See this?” says Muñoz. He is standing in a jumbled storage area next to his Crest home, hefting a chalky white chunk of material. It’s part of a whale skull, including the ear bone, scavenged from Malarrimo Beach, near Guerrero Negro, on Baja’s Pacific Coast. Close at hand, other cardboard boxes, all labeled, are packed with more whale ear bones. Some of the pieces of Muñoz’s flotsam collection are unique. He shows off a wooden tool that looks like an archaeological artifact. Once, some shrimper used it to scrape his catch from the floor of his boat into an icebox. Along one side of his house, Muñoz has built shelves to hold his hundreds of bottles, once-hard-edged and glittering glass made subtle and milky by the work of seawater and sand and sun.
Inside the house, the ceiling has been hung with huge glass balls that held up far-flung Pacific fishing nets and, over time, washed up on the shores of Baja, sea green, and turquoise, pale rose.
Muñoz has a buoyancy that surges up through his stories, as when he recalls his first sight of an airplane. “My father subscribed to a magazine in Mexico City called Jueves de Excelsior. And they showed pictures of the Mexican air force. ‘Oh, God!’ ” he gasps, summoning a boy’s voice filled with longing. “ ‘I want to be a flyer!’ ” He was around eight years old.
Raised on his grandparents’ ranch in Coahuila, Muñoz remembers going into the pecan orchard. “You had to climb the tree with a pole and you hit the branches, and then somebody picked up the nuts from beneath the tree.” Swinging on the branches, watching the flight of the birds, he says, enhanced his yearning to take to the air. But his parents were appalled by his ambitions.
“First they send me to the seminary,” recounts Muñoz, whose still-accented English reflects a casual attitude toward grammatical tense. “They want me to be a priest. But the bishop kicked me out because I was asking too many questions. He told me that I came to the seminary to learn, not to ask questions.” The thought of this still provokes a chuckle. “I only stayed a semester, and then I went to high school in Monterrey, Mexico.” When he finished high school, Muñoz began a course of studies intended to transform him into a doctor. But he learned that flying lessons were available at the Monterrey airport. “I wrote my grandparents for permission to learn to fly and to support me financially,” Muñoz says. “The answer was no. ‘Your mother doesn’t want you to be a pilot. It’s very dangerous.’ ” So he resolved to earn the money.
Muñoz dropped out of school and went to work as a butcher, a skill he’d acquired on the ranch. Flight instruction cost 20 pesos an hour. “That was a lot of money,” he says. But after a year he had saved 320 pesos. By then the training plane in Monterrey had crashed, but Muñoz found another small flight school in the city of Chihuahua.
“It took me something like eight hours [of instruction] to fly solo,” he says today. “A very short time.” The date of that first time in the air, alone in the cockpit of an antiquated Curtiss Junior pusher was February 7,1937. He was two months short of his 18th birthday.
Because he was well educated, he was asked to conduct the aviation ground school in exchange for more time in the air. He also made money by giving plane rides to townspeople willing to pay five pesos for the thrill. Within two years, Muñoz had acquired more than 200 hours, enough to apply for a commercial pilot’s license. He was granted number 237 — the 237th commercial pilot to be licensed in Mexico.
He headed to Mexico City to seek a job with the airline Aeronaves de Mexico. Muñoz says when he showed off his license to the airline manager, the man jumped up and barked for the youngster to follow him. “He start walking very fast and I was almost running behind him, because he wants to verify the validity of the license. And he walk to the airport manager and he says, ‘This boy is looking for a flying job. What do you think about it?’ ” Much to the airline manager’s surprise, the other man pronounced the document authentic.
Muñoz says the airline manager then commanded him to a hangar behind the main building. “And he says, ‘You are going to fly to Oaxaca tomorrow in that airplane.’ ” He pointed to a Stinson Detroiter, a six-seat aircraft that the youth had never seen, let alone flown. When Muñoz asked who would check him out on it, the manager retorted, “Check you out? Are you or are you not a pilot?”
“Oh, God,” Muñoz the storyteller summons another voice, an internal whisper. “Where is Oaxaca?”
He says he found his way to the American bookstore in the capital and bought a map. “And then I start working — almost all that day, in the route and the plotting. The next day, I went to the airport, and I report myself to the mechanic.” Maestro Alvarado would give him instructions, he was told, in the operation of the plane. Muñoz says he got it airborne, but he was alarmed by a violent vibration. Reporting this to the mechanic, the latter scoffed, “Vibration! It’s like a brand-new airplane.... We just put a new fabric in it, a new engine, a new propeller.” Muñoz persisted, but the skeptical mechanic derided the fears of the “capitancito.”
His honor on the line, Muñoz agreed to proceed even though, once loaded, the plane appeared even more unstable. “I took off, and it took me about 30 minutes to get over the mountains around the valley. Then I start my flight to Oaxaca, but the airplane was vibrating a lot. You could feel the whole engine shaking.” Convinced that something was wrong, he landed in Tehuacán, where the Aeronaves de Mexico office sent a telegram to the headquarters.
Muñoz says he was awakened in his hotel room about 5:00 a.m. the next morning to pounding on his door by Maestro Alvarado, livid over the all-night train ride forced upon him. At the airport, the mechanic reluctantly agreed to check the propeller. That was when he discovered that one blade was four inches shorter than the other. “That was causing the vibration,” Muñoz declares.
The mechanic whipped out a hacksaw, intending to cut away the excess. “Don’t do that! Don’t cut it,” Muñoz says he protested. “You have another propeller in the plane.”
“You’re right. You’re right,” the mechanic muttered. He made ready to install the second propeller when Muñoz says he suggested that it first be checked. This propeller also turned out to have a short blade; parts from the two had been switched. Taken apart and reinstalled correctly, the plane ran smoothly. Muñoz says the mechanic looked at him. “He was thinking very hard. And then he says, ‘My respects, capitan.’ That was my first adventure.”
Muñoz proceeded to Oaxaca and remained there, assigned to fly “the circuit.” Six days a week he would take off from the state capital in the Stinson, laden with mail and passengers, then fly from one tiny town to another, “only ten minutes’ flying time between them.” No roads connected these jungle communities, and their unpaved landing strips were but 500 or 600 meters long. Muñoz can still describe the approach to some of them as if looking down upon the past through a clean windshield on a cloudless day. “With Jamiltepec...we used to come down gliding, and then the landing was uphill into the mountain. In Cacahuatepec, you no see the airport until you just about ready to touch. There is a hill, here is a river, and you just come over the river. When you see the runway, you’re ready to stop.” An older pilot warned him, “You cannot go around. If you try to go around, you’ll kill yourself.” Muñoz adds that this man later died, along with eight passengers, taking off from the village of Putla. “The engine quit. He tried to land on the other side of the river, but he hit the river bank.”
The engine of Muñoz’s plane died one day as he was approaching the tiny hamlet of Juxtlahuaca with eight passengers. One of them, a girl, began screaming so loudly that Muñoz still covers his ears at the memory. But the youthful captain made a short turn and brought the plane down in a field of foot-high cornstalks. He then sent a bystander to telegram for help, and before long a new cylinder was installed in the stranded aircraft. Without passengers, Muñoz says he thrust the throttle forward, mowed over the plants, and achieved sufficient speed to lift off. This wasn’t his only Oaxacan mishap. Muñoz says one day while taking off from one of the little circuit towns, he flew into a flock of buzzards. Although he tried to dodge the birds, one came through the propeller blades, smashed through the windshield, and sailed all the way back to the passenger compartment. The pilot grimaces. “It smelled so bad!”
Muñoz earned 375 pesos a month for the Oaxaca work, not much more than the minimum wage, he says. After a few years, he was ready for something new, and the next dozen years brought plenty of variety. From 1942 until the end of the war, he worked for the American government’s airport development program, charged with upgrading airstrips throughout Mexico and parts of Central America to accommodate war planes. Then he took a job with a lumber company in the Yucatan, a stint that gave Muñoz the opportunity to fly a “very fancy” DC-3. “It was equipped with couches and tables and a kitchen, a buffet, and a bar.” In it he ferried the company’s executives on sales calls that took them from Florida to Havana to Puerto Rico. Other flights found him mapping mahogany forests in bloom, photographing the scenes below him with a clunky old Speed Graphic, while he flew the plane.
By the late 1940s, Muñoz had started his own charter service, though most of his business came from the lumber company officials. So when the head of the lumber company, a Yucatecan named Medina, became caught up in national politics, Muñoz did too. “I flew Miguel Aleman, when he was campaigning to become president of Mexico,” Muñoz reports today. After Aleman’s victory, Muñoz was asked to transport the new president and his whole cabinet in the DC-3 to Medina’s Cozumel beach house. At one point during the weekend, the politicians were playing in the water like children, joking and engaging in horseplay. Only Muñoz and the country’s new secretary of communications sat talking — but this was interrupted when the others grabbed the secretary and dunked him, drenching his clothes and Rolex watch.
Muñoz offered to have the watch repaired and later returned it to the Palace of Communications in Mexico City. “The secretary said he was very busy at that moment, but he asked for my number so he could call me back.” Muñoz had no phone because the nearest line was five miles north of where he was living (in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán). “A pilot of your caliber doesn’t have a telephone!” the communications chief exclaimed. “My God! You will have one within a week.” And within a week, “I had a telephone,” Muñoz says today.
If association with high-level Mexican politicians brought favors, it also carried risks. Muñoz says Medina believed that in exchange for all his help to Aleman, he would receive the governorship of the Yucatan. When the call failed to come, Medina grew insistent, and one day Muñoz was called to the presidential palace at Los Pinos. “They told me, ‘Tell Mr. Medina there is nothing at this time for him in Yucatan.’ ” The job had already been awarded to another man. Muñoz says this news, once relayed to Medina, provoked an outburst — directed at the messenger. “We cross some dirty words,” Muñoz says of the scene that unfolded. “And then I had to quit.”
He moved to Saltillo and tried to start a business unrelated to aviation, though he continued to give plane rides to earn some money on the side. Medina had a harder time letting go of his disappointment, and Muñoz says after a while the Yucatecan was expelled from Mexico. Much later, Muñoz was stunned by what he learned from a government lawyer who rode in his plane one day. When Muñoz disclosed something of his background, the other man exclaimed, “Oh, you are the one we are looking for! You were the number-two man with Medina.” Although Muñoz protested that he was only Medina’s pilot, the lawyer insisted, “It’s better for you to disappear.”
From the American consulate in Monterrey, Muñoz says he secured a U.S. resident visa in just two months, and he moved his wife and four children to Texas. For a while he sold Piper airplanes. Then he started yet another charter business in Douglas, Arizona, and one of his jobs took him to San Diego. At Lindbergh Field, he got to chatting with Jim Bracamonte, owner of the Jimsair aviation service, who pointed out that Tijuana then had no charter operators, nor indeed any private planes of any kind. “Well, this is my chance,” Muñoz decided.
The year was 1955, and Muñoz says when he moved his family to Imperial Beach and began flying over Baja, he was awestruck by the emptiness of the peninsula. “I made up my mind,” he recalls. If there weren’t many people in Baja, he would bring more in.
From the beginning, he dreamed not just of flying charters, but of running his own airline. He planned to start small, with service from Tijuana to Bahía de los Angeles, which already enjoyed some reputation with sport fishermen. Before applying to the Mexican government for permission to provide scheduled service along that route, Muñoz says he made a pilgrimage to Antero Diaz, who ran the only hotel in the tiny town. “I told him what my intentions were and that I would like for him to give me a letter supporting me. But he said, ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ He didn’t want any airline there.” Private planes flying into the little airstrip in Bahía de los Angeles brought him enough business, the hotelier declared.
The refusal didn’t deter Muñoz. He says he stole some of Diaz’s hotel letterhead. “Then I typed the letter myself and I signed it Antero Diaz.” There are many ways of accomplishing the same end, he adds, eyes twinkling.
Muñoz also started the complex process of applying for the air route franchise. While he waited for the bureaucratic wheels to grind, he earned some money from charter customers. Some were more glamorous than even the Mexican president, for Hollywood counted its share of Baja aficionados in those days. Among the movie stars who called upon Muñoz over the years were Fred Astaire, Leo Carillo, James Arness, Chuck Connors, and Desi Arnaz. Travel agents in San Diego and Los Angeles sent him other clients from all over the West Coast; many were sport fishermen, but some simply sought offbeat paths. But Muñoz says he also suffered plenty of slow spells during his first years here, even after the government gave him permission to start Baja Airlines.
Muñoz still has one of the leaflets he had printed to advertise his enterprise. It’s a simple sheet, green ink printed on tan paper, whose only hyperbole is the headline: “Bahía de los Angeles — the Fabulous Fishing Resort in Baja.” One-way service cost $23.12; round-trip was $47.52. A flight from Tijuana left every Friday morning at 11:00 and returned every Saturday at 2:00 p.m., with the trip in each direction taking around two hours and 20 minutes.
In the early days, Muñoz recalls, he would sometimes take just two passengers, then he’d have to fly back empty. “That was not enough people.... So I started flying illegally from Tijuana to Cedros Island, without reporting that I was going there.” To the island, off the Pacific Coast from Guerrero Negro, he would take chickens, fresh bread, other supplies, then proceed to Bahía de los Angeles and back.to Tijuana again. Another form of income materialized when Muñoz was approached by the Ensenada fishing cooperative. The co-op owned two Douglas B-18s (a bomber built with the same wings, hydraulic system, and landing gear as the DC-3) but had only one pilot qualified to fly that type of aircraft. Muñoz, however, had owned a B-18 when he lived in the Yucatan. So during lobster season, he was happy to assume the controls of one of the two co-op planes and accept the crustacean passengers.
The fishing cooperative, he explains, maintained radio communication with the lobster camps, where the fishermen would keep their catch alive in the water. Once the men had a full load, the cooperative would call Muñoz, who hopped into his Cessna 170, flew to Ensenada, then picked up the B-18 and headed to one of the camps on the Pacific Coast; it might be “Cedros Island, Punta de Abreojos, La Bocana, Faro San Jose — many places,” Muñoz says. All the camps had crude landing strips built and maintained by the cooperative. Muñoz says he brought the fishermen food and cigarettes, and they would toss gunnysacks filled with the twitching creatures into the plane’s big open bay — some 6000 pounds of lobster on a typical trip.
The lobster business helped him to survive, and over time Muñoz’s airline also grew. He traded his four-seat Cessna 170 for a Cessna five-seater, then he also acquired an old Cessna twin-engine plane known as the Bamboo Bomber. This he used when he won government permission to extend his regular service to include Guerrero Negro and Mulegé. Muñoz says he was flying back from Mulegé one day in 1960 when he got the call that brought him and Gardner together. All the radio operator told him was that some man in Guerrero Negro had an urgent need to return to San Diego. Muñoz agreed to pick up the passenger as soon as he returned to Tijuana and changed planes.
“I landed at Guerrero Negro, and there were three people waiting for me at the airport,” Muñoz says. He asked the man, “Am I going to fly you out?”
“Yes,” the stranger replied.
“Okay, let’s go,” Muñoz reprises the conversation. But the other persisted.
Would they be there before dark?
“I said, ‘No way. You’re going to be late.’ ”
“Do you have a heater?” the man asked.
“Yes, I have a heater.”
“Well, I hope you do not overcharge.”
“Oh, no,” Muñoz says he answered. Then the stranger announced, “I’m going to tell you who I am. I’m Erie Stanley Gardner.”
“Francisco Muñoz,” the pilot shot back. “Get the hell into the plane so we can get out of here.”
As they climbed through the gathering gloom, Muñoz says the memory of the stranger’s name gnawed at him. “Finally, I realized who it was. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got Perry Mason on board!’ ” And soon “Perry Mason” was shivering from the cold. When he asked the pilot to turn the heater on, Muñoz answered, “I can’t.”
“You told me you had a heater!” Gardner exclaimed. “Yes,” Muñoz deadpanned. “But it doesn’t work.” Rather than grow irritated, Gardner seemed to recognize and appreciate Muñoz’s puckish humor. “Ever since we were very good friends,” Muñoz states. “I never saw him in a bad mood at all. But he was very precise. He had a very deep voice. When he asked for something, he knew what he was talking about.”
Upon their arrival in Tijuana, Gardner asked Muñoz to meet him the next morning and take him back to Guerrero Negro, where Gardner had assembled a large group of friends and support personnel. By flying up to San Diego for the evening, the writer was trying to extend by a few more days his Baja adventure (which in this instance was devoted to photographing the gray whales in Scammon’s Lagoon and beachcombing near there). In the lobby of the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego, Gardner, by his own description, was one of “the most disreputable-looking characters who had ever entered the place” — unshaven and “clad in clothes which had been splashed with salt spray, soaked with rain water, spotted with oil and, I am ashamed to confess, probably with syrup from pancakes and an occasional drip of bacon grease.”
But Gardner’s cadre of secretaries (“the girls”) had already “arranged for suites of rooms, had set up their typewriters and were ready for work.... I couldn’t take time to shave or even clean up.... Files of urgent correspondence were stacked up, scripts were piled one on top of the other.” Sending the others out to eat, Gardner ordered a steak from room service “and sat there pouring words into my faithful dictating machine between bites.... It was around three o’clock in the morning when I finally got into a hot bath and got the whiskers off my face.” Yet he was up by daylight, and the girls drove him down to the border, where he was to meet Muñoz. “I kept dictating all the way in the automobile.”
It was a normal work night, according to both Gardner’s written accounts and the testimony of his biographer Dorothy B. Hughes (The Case of the Real Perry Mason). All his life, Gardner had enjoyed an extraordinary capacity for work. Self-educated in the law, he’d been admitted to the bar at 21 and worked as a trial lawyer for a number of years before attempting to write. By the early 1930s, he was earning more than $20,000 annually from his writing, and he had set himself a production quota, “1,200,000 words a year, or a 10,000-word novelette every 3 days, 365 days a year,” according to Hughes. By the time he died, Gardner had created 82 full-length Perry Mason mysteries and 64 other books, which, in all editions, sold more than 325,000,000 copies.
His first Baja adventure book, The Land of Shorter Shadows, had appeared in 1948. In prose that ranged from lurid to breathless, Gardner had spun out an account of his drive from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas — a journey that in many places traversed little more than goat tracks. (The Transpeninsular Highway wasn’t built until 1973.) Gardner’s description of the challenges of the terrain, his sketches of the friends included in his caravan, lengthy discussion of the group’s adventures, and dozens of pictures inflated the trip diary to 228 pages.
Although the book included Gardner’s predictions of how Baja tourism would soon be exploding, the author made no significant return trips for more than a dozen years. He was too busy. Gardner and one of his Baja companions had dreamed up an organization that would come to the rescue of persons wrongly convicted of crimes. Upon his return, Gardner had thrown himself into launching the project that became known as the Court of Last Resort. (In sum, it consisted of airing in Argosy magazine the evidence in support of claims of innocence. The public then agitated for justice.)
Gardner didn’t neglect his regular writing for this work but “simply added on the extra hours,” his biographer states. And beyond all the books and magazine articles he produced, Gardner shouldered other demands that sprang from his creation of Perry Mason. The fictional lawyer had taken his cases to the radio airwaves in 1943 and solved mysteries there every week through 1955. Then, as Raymond Burr, he first appeared on American television sets'in 1957. Although Gardner didn’t write the hour-long weekly TV programs, he exercised control over every script.
Nonetheless, by 1960 Baja was exerting pull, and Gardner responded by organizing the trip to Guerrero Negro. It wasn’t a total getaway. With him Gardner lugged the dictating equipment he used to produce his books. Two of his secretaries also made up the expedition (including Jean Bethell, the prototype for Della Street, whom Gardner married two years before his death). Both Jean and Peggy Downs, her sister, were “accustomed to setting up portable typewriters on a fallen log or an up-ended suitcase and batting out notes,” Gardner later wrote.
With the appearance of Muñoz to shuttle Gardner back to attend to urgent work demands, Gardner finally had the means to combine his work and play. Before the whale-watching trip ended, Gardner would fly north of the border one more time for another work-jammed evening, with Muñoz transporting him the next morning to Bahía de los Angeles, where Gardner’s party had proceeded. The trip that spawned Hunting the Desert Whale ended soon afterward, but two more Baja adventures — and books — followed in quick succession, with Muñoz playing roles in each.
For one thing, Gardner credits Muñoz for directing his attention away from the coastal areas “to some of the other country which was completely unknown as far as the tourist was concerned.” Flying with Muñoz, Gardner in a few hours could survey pristine sections of the Baja interior that would have required weeks or months to penetrate from the ground. Before long Gardner realized that helicopters would expand his exploration further, arid he organized several grandiose helicopter-assisted Baja forays. One of these would yield his dramatic “discovery” of the huge and mysterious cave paintings in the San Francisco mountains north of San Ignacio. Although Gardner was not the first outsider to lay eyes on these, few knew of them, a situation Gardner was ready and eager to change.
But Gardner’s delight in the helicopters didn’t diminish his need for Muñoz. In Gardner’s subsequent Baja books (Hovering Over Baja and The Hidden Heart of Baja), the Mexican pilot seems ubiquitous: shuttling scripts, mail, and secretarial replacements between Gardner’s Temecula ranch and his Baja campsites, playing an airborne mother hen to the vulnerable choppers, at times greasing wheels of Mexican bureaucracy. Because Gardner’s expeditions worked “so rapidly against time and had no facilities for cooking other than with a frying pan,” the writer even occasionally arranged for his Temecula staff to cook roasts and rush them by car to Tijuana, where Muñoz would fly the still-warm meat to the explorers. Sometimes the pilot landed in fields where the brush was tramped down by Gardner and his friends. Other times Muñoz touched down on beaches, dry lakebeds, rutted paths.
He was more than a skilled bearer, Gardner’s narratives attest. “Francisco Muñoz had turned out to be a companion, a pilot, and a friend,” the writer concluded in Hovering Over Baja. In that and every subsequent Baja book, Gardner included passages describing Muñoz and extolling his skills. Today Muñoz recalls that he told Gardner the publicity for Baja and Baja Airlines was worth so much “that I would be happy to fly him all over Baja for free. He said okay. But every time I took a flight, he would pay me. Very careful, he was, asking me, ‘How much you charge for the flight an hour?’ Then he would figure it out and send me a check.”
Beyond reliable service, the money also bought Gardner moments that were “thrilling beyond description,” he states in Host with the Big Hat. “There was, for instance, the time when we took off from Tijuana in one of Muñoz’s most prized possessions, a twin-motored plane which held ten passengers." The passengers included the writer and three close associates. When they took off from Tijuana it was raining, so Muñoz began climbing in the hope of breaking out above the storm. By the time they were 100 miles or so south of the border, they had reached 12,000 feet, yet still they churned through a steel-gray thickness that pressed against the aircraft windows. That’s when the noise of the engines stopped, frozen by the cold.
“And then I had to come down.” Muñoz says he knew that the 10,000-foot Sierra San Pedro Martir lurked nearby, yet not only had the engines frozen, so had all the controls. Only by chance did Muñoz discover he could use the rudder trim tab to direct the plane away from the mountains. The aircraft dropped fast, and at about 2000 feet above sea level, one engine sputtered to life. Its vibration began to break the ice elsewhere on the plane. “We could hear the pieces of [it] hitting the tail,” Muñoz says, adding that he made for a landing spot soon thereafter.
It took more than hair-raising encounters with bad weather to drive Gardner from Baja, but Muñoz was also present for the turn of events that did so, at least temporarily. In 1964 Gardner had been invited to view some new cave paintings and fish-fossil beds near Santiago, so Muñoz flew him, Jean Bethel!, and Gardner’s ranch manager, Sam Hicks, to La Paz. Soon after then arrival, Gardner and Bethell went to the hotel to rest, but Muñoz and Hicks moseyed down to the bayside for a drink. As the two men sat talking, the town’s immigration chief strode up to them and demanded to see Gardner, adding, “I have an order to arrest him.’
“He’s in Temecula on his ranch,” Muñoz says he lied.
“What? He’s not with you?”
Muñoz says when he stuck to his story, the official explained that Gardner was being sought “because he was exploring and taking pictures of archaeological sites without a permit, and he was stealing archaeological artifacts.” Today Muñoz believes this persecution was prompted by the 1962 cover story that Gardner had produced tor Life magazine about the cave paintings The story probably sparked some jealous outrage over the rich American writer profiting from Mexico treasures it only in reporting about their existence. But that April evening in La Paz there was no time for explanations. Instead Hicks and Muñoz got word to Gardner and his secretary that they should stay hidden The next morning, before dawn, the group sneaked out to the airport and flew north. “When I landed in Tijuana and I told them what was happening, they said ‘We know about it. but we know him too. We know you. So we are very sure that they are doing some political thing.’”
Muñoz says Gardner met with no trouble driving north from Tijuana, and his Mexican friends helped clear up the charges it took about a year to do so, the pilot says during which time Gardner stayed out or Mexico. But Gardner received not only an apology from the Mexican government but an invitation to travel to Mexico City to be honored by the head of state for all the writer’s years of transborder boosterism.
Gardner accepted both, and by 1967 he had plunged into Baja explorations again. Yet more and more “Don Francisco,” as Gardner called the pilot, was limited in the amount of time he could spare for these outings with “Uncle Erie.” Muñoz was now “an executive with big earnings, big responsibilities, and big problems,” Gardner noted in his 1967 Baja adventure book (Off the Beaten Track in Baja). Gardner wasn’t the only one to publicize Muñoz’s achievements. “Captain Muñoz now has 34 employees,” announced a July 1967 feature story about the pilot in Air Progress magazine. “Baja Airlines has a 40-passenger Martin 202, two 18-passenger Lockheed Lodestars, a Beechcraft C-45 and a Cessna 195.” At the same time, “more than 65 percent of his landings [were still] on dirt,” and according to the magazine, Muñoz commanded an uncanny ability to bring his planes to a safe stop on the shortest of landing strips. The magazine writer “watched goggle-eyed as Muñoz brought in a fully — and we do mean fully— loaded twin-Beechcraft into a downhill dirt strip just 1350 feet long. There were gullies at both ends and absolutely no room for error. F.M. touched down three-point in exactly the same spot on two successive flights, within 30 feet of the beginning of the runway, and coasted to a stop with minimum braking.... Captain Muñoz, for our money, is the best short-field pilot we’ve ever seen in action.”
By 1969 Muñoz looked forward to an even brighter future. Baja Airlines seemed destined for further growth. He had bought the Crest property, divorced his first wife, and married Leysl. Yet by the end of the first year of the new decade, Muñoz had been driven out of the airline business.
Today he looks back on 1970 and sees many dark currents. The year had begun with the deepening illness of Gardner, stricken with a cancer that he could no longer hide from friends. The writer died on March 11, and Muñoz drove to Riverside to pick up his ashes from a mortuary. Four days later, Jean Bethell Gardner and a few of the writer’s friends met Muñoz at Gillespie Field in El Cajon. Muñoz says they flew almost all the way to San Pedro Mártir and scattered Gardner’s remains.
“It was like a regular funeral,” Muñoz says. A few months later, more ashes overtook him as that summer’s historic brushfire burned his new mountain home to the ground. By then portents of his business catastrophe were appearing. He says government officials suddenly demanded that he fence all his regular landing strips. Then they ordered him to remove four seats from one of his biggest planes, citing a technicality. A few months later, he received word that his air route franchise had been rescinded.
Muñoz says he tried to launch a legal fight for his business, but a judge ruled that the franchise belonged to the government and was nonnegotiable. Soon the truth behind his reversal of fortunes emerged. Muñoz says a director of Aeronaves de Mexico had decided to expand the airline’s service into Baja, and his political connections eliminated the troublesome Baja Airlines.
To earn some income, Muñoz began filling in for the pilot who worked for Exportadora de Sal, the saltworks located in Guerrero Negro. The company hired him full-time in 1974, a post that Muñoz held until 1983. By then he was approaching 65 — 5 years older than the age when commercial airline pilots (both Mexican and American) must retire. “So I said, ‘It is time to quit. I had my share of flying,’ ” Muñoz declares. Does he miss it? No, he says, because he’d braced himself for the inevitable. Had he grown tired of it? No, he says with equal firmness. That he never did.
Age robs some men of vestiges of virility, but Muñoz, at 76, hasn’t suffered this. Anyone who read Gardner’s Baja books and studied Muñoz’s pictures in them from 30 years ago could discern the dashing pilot’s face in the older man today. The thick, dark hair has receded and grayed, but the strong jaw line is unmistakable. The smooth face now bears glasses, but the eyes are clear, the gaze piercing.
A project occupies Muñoz’s mind. Several years ago, he asked Lynn Mitchell, a friend and local writer, to write his biography, a challenge that Mitchell accepted with alacrity. Mitchell recalls that she was working as an assignment editor at Channel 39 back in 1974 when she made her first foray beyond Baja’s border zone. She says Bahía de los Angeles struck her as having “such an ethereal quality about it, it was so harmonious, so peaceful, that I felt in a way that it was going to be my spiritual home.”
Within four years, she had decided to move there. She quit her television job, moved out of her apartment, sold some of her possessions, and stored the rest at her parents’ home. Renting a trailer on the beach for $30 a month, she moved in with a solar still, some diving gear, her typewriter, copies of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Peter Benchley’s Girl from the Sea of Cortéz, and a few other books. “I wish everyone could do it,” she says today.
Though at first she kept to herself, Mitchell says she longed to meet Francisco Muñoz. “I had watched Sky King as a child,” she says with an embarrassed laugh. “And I always was very interested in flying.” In Bahía de los Angeles, she heard more about Muñoz’s daredevil exploits. “He was a legend. People told stories about him around the campfires.” But Mitchell wasn’t destined to meet Muñoz until years later. She’d then returned to San Diego, married, and embarked on a career in public relations and as a freelance writer. Mitchell and her husband rented a house in Bahía de los Angeles, however, and there she chanced upon Muñoz one day.
The two proceeded to become friends, and Mitchell says the biography project struck her as a dream come true. Although she now works part-time writing and leading tours for two Baja travel organizations, she estimates she’s spent between 300 and 500 hours interviewing Muñoz over the last few years. The retired pilot, in turn, has been organizing his records to augment the oral history with which he has supplied his biographer.
One recent day, Mitchell sat near Muñoz, a tape recorder rolling, listening to the old man’s recollections and helping him sort through stacks of papers. When she came upon Muñoz’s personal logbook, she opened it with reverence. By the time of the last entry, dated December 8, 1983, the pilot had logged 23,239 hours and 25 minutes. That’s all he legally could record, Muñoz interjected. “Because you weren’t supposed to fly more than 90 hours a month.... But I used to fly 100, 120 hours a month. I had to.”
Even the official record reflects his long career. But the logbook also reveals something subtler but perhaps more telling about its keeper. Almost all the entries, written in a clear, precise hand, have been made in green ink. “Everybody used blue or black,” Muñoz explains with a shrug. “I had to be different.”