I “met” Joe Colletto through my aunt. He was a pilot, a sailor, a Marine during World War II and an excellent story teller. She worked with him for 25 years and loved to hear about his adventures. When I started posting essays about flying, she told him about Fear of Landing. He said that unfortunately, in his 80s he was relegated to “Hanger Flying” but he loved to share his memories. He had neuropathy in his hands but he didn’t let that stop him: he slowly typed out emails with two pencils.
Two years ago, he allowed me to post A Mexican Adventure, which quickly became one of the most popular stories on my website:
I knew we might have some trouble. There is no VFR night flying in Mexican airspace and we were running late. I was flying a single engine airplane and although the sky was still bright, the sun had officially set. I confirmed to the controller that I intended to continue inbound to Mazatlan.
Mazatlan: Zero 8 Quebec report downwind
Pilot: Zero 8 Quebec turning downwind.
The runway was clear in the dusk but as we turned downwind, every light in the airport – it seemed like every light for miles around – flashed on. My passengers recoiled from the window as I continued the circuit, confirming to the controller that I required fuel upon our arrival.
Mazatlan: Zero 8 Quebec you are cleared to land.
As we touched down, he gave me further instructions.
Mazatlan: Exit your passengers at the administration building, have them wait for the guards, then proceed to the gas pit and they will direct you to parking.
Pilot: Roger, will debark passengers at the administration building and proceed to the gas pit.
I stopped the plane in front of the building where we were surrounded by rifle-bearing troops. The two couples were escorted to a small, stuffy room and told that they must stay there. After fueling up and parking, I was marched into a dusty little office in the main building.
A severe-looking mustached administrator sitting at a dented metal desk asked me for every piece of paper that he could think of: passport, clearance into Mexico, proof of ownership of the plane. He stared at my license for a few moments and then cleared his throat.
He handed me my paperwork piece by piece as he spoke. “Señor, the lights, they is very expensive.”
I breathed a sigh of relief now that I knew what was going to happen. “The least I could do is to help to pay for them,” I told him with a smile.
The man nodded. “Señor, more or less 2,500 pesos for the lights,” about U.S. $10 at the time. He paused and then spoke again. “And the guards, Señor, they must be paid also.”
“How much for the guards,” I said, pulling out my wallet.
“2,500 pesos. But also, Señor, the man upstairs. He is tough guy.” He pointed straight up. Did I need to bribe God as well? Or perhaps he just meant the controller.
I tried to look stern. “OK, how much for the guy upstairs?”
“Señor, 2,500 pesos.”
I peeled off the required amount and handed to the man who nodded seriously as he counted it. I grinned at him and he smiled back; we were friends now. “And for you, Señor,” I asked him. “How much for all your help?”
He gave me a shocked look and threw out his chest. “For me is nothing, Señor! Is my job!”
He ordered us a taxi and led me to the tiny waiting room where my passengers waited nervously, surrounded by the guards still clutching their rifles. I leant in close and whispered to the two couples that we were in serious trouble. I told them that I had failed to contact the American embassy and that we were probably going to have to spend the night in jail.
“They’ve arranged for a taxi to take us to the hotel, to pick up our personal belongings in case that we don’t get out tomorrow.” We drove to the hotel in silence, where I asked them to pack their cases and meet me in the bar in 20 minutes to wait for the taxi driver to pick us up and take us to the jail.
Once at the bar, I ordered a variety of snacks and a pitcher of margaritas: a final fling. The passengers returned from the rooms one by one, pale-faced and unhappy, and bolted down their margaritas. One of the women had tears in her eyes.
The taxi driver walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Ready to go?”
The woman burst into sobs: “I don’t want to go to jail!”
The taxi driver looked stunned. “Jail? Oh no! Mr Joe fix everything good. You no going to jail, you going to dinner.”
That was the final straw: I started laughing and could not stop. No one else in my party seemed to think it was quite so funny.
Here’s something of a learning experience that he wrote out last year:
I had a few really blessed events …blessings from above.
I was flying to Mexico with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Squadron. It was a 4:30am departure from Fresno in the light rain. We were heading south. Bakerfield reported 7,500 feet overcast, LAX reported 13,000 overcast, so heading south looked good.
50 miles from Bakersfield, we entered the overcast. I thought I might try to get between the layers of clouds but there was no in between.
By Porteville at 6,500 feet I was in trouble. I ran into a thunderhead building up and it tumbled me to 16,000 feet. I hit hail in the center of that thunderhead, it chipped paint off all the leading edges of the wings and the engine cowl.
The Bonanza is such a clean airplane, if I ended up pointing down the airspeed could have built up and torn the wings straight off. I remember trying to put down the wheels and flaps, but with the centrifical forces, I couldn’t reach the flaps or gear switches.
After about 30-40 seconds of tumbling, I was tossed out of the cloud build-up … into crystal clear, smooth air at 16,000 feet.
That’s as close as I ever wanted to become a statistic.
Joe Colleto passed away peacefully on the 20th of March at the age of 84. I wanted to say something about this man whom I only knew from afar but in the end, his own words from one of the emails was more appropriate than anything I could add:
I am not a particularly religious person, however every flight returning safely from the “wild-blue-yonder,” includes skill, knowledge, understanding, an appreciation of what could happen, and a bit of God’s intervention (Sometimes way…more than others). When you see an aircraft engine taken apart for overhaul laid out on a table, and realize all of the pieces and parts your staying aloft is dependent upon, and which you have absolutely no control over – especially at IFR, night or flying over the mountains – when you do the final tie down, you have to simply look skyward and say “THANKS”….
Thanks for letting me share your stories, Joe, and I hope that you’re watching out for us now.
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