The Jetsons Go to Punta Mita
Private Air Magazine, Fall 2008
I stood on the tarmac of Brown Field Municipal Airport, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border shaking hands with Shari and Ken Meyer and thinking “I hope these people know what they’re doing.”
After the briefest of
introductions, our group clambered into the Meyer family vehicle – a 4-seat
Eclipse 500 jet, serial number 151 – and it occurred to me that I knew nothing
about the couple’s flying skills, safety record, accreditation or political
Just as worrisome was the aircraft itself. How, I wondered, can such a small pair of engines – each Pratt & Whitney Turbofan looked roughly the size of a 300-pound pig – get four adults off the ground, let alone to Puerto Vallarta?
In the seat next to me was
the legendary surf photographer Art Brewer, who had agreed to squeeze this
quick jaunt in between longer engagements in Indonesia and South Africa. Brewer
is not only a giant in the field of action-sports photography but, at 6’2” and
275 pounds, he’s a veritable giant of a man. Over the course of his 40-year
career, Brewer has road-tripped, boated and flown to pretty much every surf
spot in Mexico (and the rest of the world, for that matter) to shoot the world’s
foremost watermen doing their thing – but never in a 4-person jet.
Our very tough assignment: fly with Shari and Ken to Puerto Vallarta, where we’d be picked up and shuttled to the Four Seasons Punta Mita resort for three days of world-class surf, golf, spa treatments and all-around good living.
Shari Meyer, in the pilot’s seat for the first leg of the flight, turned and told us not to be alarmed by the computerized announcements the Eclipse tends to blurt out mid-flight. “The plane is always yelling at us,” she explained. As we picked up speed, I noticed a coyote – the animal, not the immigration profiteer – picking its way through the sage scrub – loping westward next to us along the edge of Brown’s bumpy runway.
Image via Wikipedia
And then, quite suddenly, we
were aloft. The only aircraft I had ever been in that took off in less space
was a helicopter. We swung a wide banked turn over San Diego’s harbor and
headed south across the border, climbing at 3,400 feet per minute.
Brewer started to recount a less-than comforting tale about a prop plane he was in once that sprung a fuel leak and had to make an emergency night landing in a small town on the Baja peninsula. As he approached the story’s happy ending (in which every villager who owned an automobile drove out to the town’s main drag to create an ad-hoc landing strip, illuminated by their headlights) we were interrupted.
The panel’s female voice brayed a warning as our radar picked up some nearby bogeys – not surprising given Brown Field’s proximity to Top Gun and San Diego International Airport: 19 and 14 nautical miles, respectively. Shari continued re-applying lipstick, and Ken seemed unconcerned as well, but now the Eclipse’s panel had my attention. Two readings on the “Totals” section of the center screen caught my eye:
flight hours: 83.9
Not bad, considering the Meyers had taken delivery on their jet in early May. Even if they had powered the Eclipse’s engines up and down twenty times without flying, that still came out to something close to a flight per day in the ensuing ten weeks.
At 36,750 feet (top altitude for the jet is 41,000 feet), the two passed a GPS-enabled Toshiba touchscreen laptop back and forth, working out the optimal approach to Loreto International Airport, on the Sea of Cortez about halfway down the Baja peninsula. Of the two, Shari is the smoother pilot, with an instinctive feel for controlling the aircraft, as Ken freely admits. (At which point Shari will concede that Ken is the more technically adept of the two.) The two have been flying – and working – together since the 1980s. They met when she took a job at his eye surgery practice in Sacramento. Their last plane, a twin-engine Cessna 340 they owned for 15 years, served on occasion as a schoolbus for their son, and over the years the two have developed a terse-yet-affectionate cockpit chatter that serves them well.
They’ve picked Loreto as our refueling point – not because the Eclipse couldn’t make it as far as Cabo or even Mazatlan, on the Mexican mainland, before having to refuel, but because Shari and Ken have a strict policy of splitting flight hours as evenly as they can, and Loreto happens to be almost exactly halfway between San Diego and Puerto Vallarta. As we wheeled clockwise the bright blue Sea of Cortez to approach Loreto’s lone airstrip from the south, Ken pointed out that we might be coming in a bit hot.
“Do you want to come around and try the approach again? This looks a little steep.”
“The approach is fine, honey, thank you.”
Image via Wikipedia
From where I sat behind Ken,
I had to agree with him. The term “nose dive” came to mind as we dropped toward
airstrip. But Shari set the Eclipse down as though we’d come in from 50 feet
rather than 1,500. After a small, friendly welcome committee of federales
checked our documents, we headed to the flight service office to file flight
plans. I glanced at the TV in the office and saw a weather report, featuring a
map of the central Mexican coastline. Just off the Pacific coast of the state
of Jalisco, home to Puerto Vallarta and just south of Punta Mita, spun a
familiar red tropical-storm icon. After refueling, a check-in with customs and
a brief, bewildering trip to the airport’s business office to put through a
payment for the fuel, we were back in the air, headed for Puerto Vallarta, with
Ken in the pilot’s seat for the second leg.
After watching Cabo San Lucas and the southern tip of Baja pass under our right wing, I drifted off to sleep. I was jolted awake 90 minutes later as we descended through a cloud layer at 20,000 feet. Once we got below the clouds to 10,000 feet, there was Punta Mita, an outcropping of land seemingly designed by a surf-loving deity. Situated at the northern end of Banderas Bay, Punta Mita juts out into the Pacific in a whale’s-tail shape capable of creating waves out of any size swell coming from the northern-, southern-, or mid-Pacific. Since I was fogging up the right-side window while fantasizing about the endless surfing opportunities created by that land configuration, I was the last to notice what’s immediately in front of us – and directly between us and the Puerto Vallarta airport: a towering anvilhead cloud.
Image by Tony Cyphert via Flickr
Two key pieces of information I’m glad I was unaware of at the time: First, on their headsets, Ken and Shari were listening to pilots of multiple commercial airliners diverting around Puerto Vallarta because of the weather. Also, though I wouldn’t find this out until after the trip, the Eclipse was initially denied certification by the FAA because the agency deemed the wingtip fuel tanks incapable of withstanding a lightning strike. (The company switched from composite tanks to aluminum tanks and got the certification.)
In fact, the company has been somewhat snakebitten from its inception. First, skeptics scoffed at the prospect that a market would ever develop for such a small jet (this was before the concept was accepted enough for anyone to bother coming up with a category called “very light jet”). Then, production problems plagued the plane from the flight of the first prototype. Dayjet, the air-taxi service that was supposed to prove the concept valid, has been dogged by an inability to raise equity and capital. And even as the Meyers and I skimmed over the Baja peninsula at 36,000 feet, a boardroom struggle was underway that would underscore the shaky foundations supporting Eclipse Aviation. Three weeks after our trip, the company released a statement about that battle’s outcome, one that amounted to a quid-pro-quo: a new round of financing for the company upon the resignation of Eclipse’s founder, VLJ pioneer Vern Raburn.
Our encounter with heavy weather ended more smoothly for us than Raburn’s did for him. Ken turned the jet east and circumnavigated the nasty-looking thundercloud, which also put us in the correct position to land at Puerto Vallarta with an east-to-west approach. After a few tense minutes with rain pattering on the windows, we punched through the bottom of the cloud and landed, again with surprising ease.
“Beautiful weather!” Ken
said as we touched down.
We arrived at the Punta Mita Four Seasons just in time to check in, peek at the Meyers’ presidential suite (enormous, with an infinity hot tub over the Pacific), and walk along the sand to the resort’s relaxed but haute-cuisine beach restaurant, Bahia. We downed a bottle of Mexico’s finest sauvignon blanc, a Casa Grande 2003 and saw the “green flash” that remained behind where the sun plunged into the Pacific.
At 8 a.m. the next morning, a Four Seasons shuttle whisked Art and me down to Accion Surf Shop near the beach in Punta Mita proper to rendezvous with a neck-tattooed local surf guide known as "Fox." I selected an 8-foot board and we climbed into Fox’s panga for the one-mile eastward run up the northern shore of the Bahia de Banderas to La Lancha (“Outboard”), named for its relative inaccessibility by foot, a tasty reef break serving up chest-high waves to a half-dozen surfers, a laid-back mix of locals and visitors. Three hours later, my arms had the approximate tensile strength of over-boiled linguine, and I could barely haul myself into Fox’s boat for the trip home.
While Art and I were enjoying the surf, Ken and Shari were walking the Four Seasons’ golf course. Ranked the #1 golf facility in the world by Condé Nast Traveler in 2006, the course spans the point, featuring undulating fairways and photo-op perfect greens along both the Pacific coast and the Banderas Bay sides. The signature hole of the course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, isn’t even an official one. Just south of the main resort, 199 yards offshore, across from a tee box on the beach, sits a small, well-groomed island, the course’s 19th hole, known as “the tail of the whale.”
Travolta by Ack Ook via Flickr
Shari and Ken stood marveling at this unique bit of landscape architecture, when she noticed a familiar face: Vinnie Barbarino was taking some practice swings in the tee box.
Shari assures me that she’s not the kind of person who would pester a celebrity at a resort…unless that celebrity happens to be a well-known aviation buff and, even more importantly, a fellow Eclipse fan. Once she had broken the ice with the question: “Pardon me, but I have to ask: How do you like your Eclipse?” the conversation with Mr. Travolta was off and running.
Travolta's Eclipse 500 by Pinkpollyanna
The main takeaway from the conversation: of the jets in his fleet, which include a Gulfstream G2, a Boeing 707, and a refurbished Constellation, the Eclipse is Travolta’s favorite to fly, but he hasn’t yet completed the rigorous training required to fly the jet solo.
After another sunset-bathed dinner at Bahia, the Meyers repaired to their presidential suite. I hatched a plan to ply Art for inside dirt on legendary surfers with Herradura margaritas beneath the giant thatched roof of the Nuna pool bar, while a sudden thunderstorm boomed away outside. Unfortunately, I’m no match for a veteran of his experience. The tequila had a much more dramatic effect on me, while Art appeared to be immune. The final thunder-cracks of the evening’s storm were still ringing in my head when I awoke the next morning.
Luckily, a repeat performance with Fox was in order. There’s nothing quite like a long morning surf session to clear away the previous evening’s cobwebs, and the swell had picked up.
If having someone put you face-down on a table, twist your arm behind your back and pour tequila all over you sounds like a bad end to an evening in some Tijuana dive, you haven’t met Fernanda at the Four Seasons. Though the spa’s menu of services lists its Punta Mita massage as “relaxing,” I’d have to say Fernanda’s rendition – featuring liberal use of the elbow and forearm – fell more in the “vigorous” category, which is exactly what I needed, with my shoulders and back already knotting up after two days of 3-hour surf sessions.
On our final evening, we had dinner at the resort’s fanciest restaurant, Aramara (there’s a dress code:
closed shoes, long pants, and collared shirts for men). The menu features
elements of sushi, Thai, Mexican, and a range of other Asian and Latin American
cuisines. Somehow, it all combines to spectacular effect.
The next morning, we reluctantly shuffled off to Puerto Vallarta for the homeward run. Ken pointed out Travolta’s G2 as we taxi to the runway. Luckily, our flight path took us just west of Punta Mita, and Shari tipped the jet to the right to afford Art an unobstructed aerial shot of the resort from 20,000 feet. It was an uneventful flight from there to Loreto, where we stopped to refuel again.
As we taxied to the runway after refueling, the airport controller came over the radio to ask us to return to the terminal. Apparently there was another snafu with the fuel payment system. Ken, clearly exasperated by the Loreto curse, momentarily considered taking off anyway, but thought better of it, and we turned around. Back at the terminal, Ken shut down the left engine so Shari could climb out and settle the tab. After a few minutes, she returned, having straightened everything out, and Ken fired up the left engine again. But the instrument screens registered a zero pressure reading from it.
One of the myriad things that had been
impressed upon Ken and Shari during their Eclipse training was that the Pratt
& Whitney turbofan jets should never be powered up more than twice in a
half hour. So we shut down both engines and retired to the terminal to avoid the
blazing tarmac heat while we waited for the jets to cool down. Ken informed us
that if, when we get back in the plane again, the PSI reading from the left
engine still didn’t register, we’d most likely be spending the evening in
After cool-down, we got back in the plane, crossing our fingers and knocking imaginary wood, and held our breath as we waited for Ken to turn on the panel. Success!
The panel woke me up again
as we crossed from Mexican into American airspace. Despite his notes of caution
when Shari had the stick, Ken seemed determined to land an even steeper
approach than his wife had. He pulled it off – not as smooth as Shari’s landing,
but, true to character, more technically impressive.
And just like that, we were back on American soil. After a brief wait in the blue customs “box” on the tarmac, we went our separate ways: I home to San Francisco via commercial flight (ugh!), Art to Catalina island and the following week to South Africa, and the Jetsons up to Sacramento for a family gathering.
The ride of the Eclipse – and its adoring owners – may be a bit bumpy at times, but it will never be dull.