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.
Molokai: Mission Implausible
A chopper, a secret reef, and a bucket of blood: ingredients for the perfect day on Hawaii’s Forgotten Isle.
by Josh McHugh
Private Air Magazine
Access is a complicated concept. There’s physical access, the kind, say, a helicopter can provide, and then there’s the kind that only comes through personal connections. We needed both. The mission Private Air tasked photographer Michael Darter and me with: in one weekend, find and surf a prime break in Hawaii with no one else out, by any means necessary. We chose to accept it.
The problem: The coastlines of the Hawaiian Islands are the most thoroughly wave-scouted and most consistently surfed in the world. What’s more, with the exception of Waikiki’s gentle rollers and a few other family-friendly spots, Hawaiian waves are among the world’s most jealously-guarded. The rules in the water are fairly simple — basically, locals have right-of-way — and are enforced via a range of nonverbal techniques, ranging from “stink-eye” on the mild side, to snapping the fins off an interloper’s board, all the way to an old-fashioned beating on the beach.
Our first bit of luck was the decision to base this possible fool’s errand at the Kapalua Resort, a 23,000-acre golf paradise perched at the northern end of Maui’s west coast. Not only is Kapalua adjacent to Honolua Bay, Maui’s best-known surf spot, but the resort’s activities director, Adam Quinn, is extremely well-connected.
We filled Adam in on our quest, and he directed us to Jimmy Buffett’s personal surf coach, the ponytailed, tanned and goateed Tim Sherer, surf tour operator and owner of the Goofy Foot surf school, 10 miles south of Kapalua in Lahaina, which in the 1800s was the capital of Hawaii and the center of the Pacific whaling industry. Tim gave it some thought and suggested we do something completely impossible via ground travel and extremely difficult even with a boat: surf a secret, nearly-inaccessible break on the cliff-protected north shore of Molokai,Maui’s rough-edged neighbor to the west.
Upon arriving in Lahaina to plan the trip with Tim, the first thing we heard about surfing Molokai was the bucket story, which goes like this: A Maui local and a pro surfer based in Oahu decide to visit a secluded surf break on Molokai, sometimes called “the friendly island” but known to be less than welcoming to outsiders. They catch the ferry across the Molokai channel, rent a Jeep, drive to the end of the road, and hike down a valley to a point break on Molokai’s north shore. Five minutes after they paddle out, a local joins them in the lineup, paddling a longboard, on the nose of which sits a bucket.
The outsiders, wary of Molokai’s reputation for a rough brand of foreign relations, brace for a confrontation. The local merely shows them a wide smile, picks up the bucket, and dumps its contents into the water next to our adventurers — five gallons of fresh cow’s blood. He puts the bucket back on the nose of his board, turns and paddles to the beach. As the visitors process what has just happened, the tiger sharks begin arriving, ending one of the shorter surf sessions on record. Access denied.
When I told a college friend and surfer who’s lived in Lahaina for a decade that we hoped to land a helicopter at a Molokai surf spot, there was a silence on the line. “Ooh. Yikes. Molokai,” she said. “That’s pretty heavy. Do you know anyone over there? Maybe you could do that on Maui instead.” Even the airports are tough. In its travel tips for visiting Molokai via plane, Fodor’s travel guide notes: “If you fly into the airstrip at Kalaupapa, your arrival should coincide with one of the authorized ground tours. Otherwise you'll be asked to leave.”
After a frantic series of phone calls, we tracked down one of the operators of those ground tours, Singapore-born Clare Mawae, a former amateur world champion windsurfer. Clare, who speaks with a British accent but is as close to local as a haole girl can get, said she knew just the person we needed to clear the trip with. To land on Molokai’s hallowed ground, we needed permission and a guide. Throughout most of the developed world, permission is a concept that has largely been formalized and replaced by permits, issued by municipal authority.
On Molokai, it’s still about getting permission. How valid that permission is, of course, depends on who issues it. In our case, that person turned out to be a local named Walter Naki. As long as Walter was on board, we would be fine, Clare said. Plus, if the first spot we hit wasn’t breaking, he could shuttle us to a better spot in his boat. With the surf guide and the helicopter already lined up, we waited breathlessly to hear from Walter.
At 8:30 on the eve of our expedition, Walter called to say it was on.
Image by pmarkham via Flickr
The next morning, Pilot Chris Reed of Alex Air met our crew — surf instructor Tim and his colleague John, photographer Michael Darter and me — at 7:30 a.m., at a community ballpark nestled in a eucalyptus grove in Fletcher Beach Park, next to Kapalua’s Bay Course. Behind him on the outfield was our ride for the day — a 6-seat American Eurocopter AS350 chopper. Because we’d be traveling over water for most of our trip, Chris had us put on some nifty life vests that are held in place by a belt and inflate when yanked off the belt and over the head.
Since none of us knew the name or exact location of the secret spot, Chris asked for our guide’s phone number. Our guide’s niece answered the phone. We heard him say “A blue tarp? That’s it? I’ll know it when I see it? I need at least 50 feet in diameter to land - you’re sure there’s a clearing?” He got into the cabin shaking his head.
We lifted off and Chris took us on a flyover of Kapalua’s legendary Plantation course, home of the annual PGA kickoff event, the Mercedes Open, the economic equivalent to Maui of having the Super Bowl in the same city every year. Then Chris turned the A-Star 180 degrees and we headed west over the Molokai channel.
A northeastern swell battered Molokai’s shoreline as we approached sun-scorched foothills rising into the progressively greener slopes of the dormant Molokai volcano. The coastline sloped away beneath us into Halawa Bay, at the end of a verdant 2-mile long valley, and Chris pointed out the end of the island’s northernmost road. The chopper climbed to make it over the next ridge, and we expected another valley on the far side. Instead, Chris tipped the A-Star’s nose downward just as we topped the ridge, which turned out be a sheer cliff plunging 3,000 feet straight down into the Pacific. Chris had a quiet chuckle while the rest of us attempted to locate our stomachs.
Image by ScubaJo via Flickr
We skimmed westward along waterfall-ribboned sea cliffs until Chris spotted the blue tarp, just off a rocky cove where another valley met the ocean. There might have been a clearing near it at some point, but there definitely wasn’t one anymore - aside from few tent platforms lining the shore, it was jungle straight back to the walls of the valley. After dropping down to survey the landscape up close, Chris gingerly put the A-Star down on the “beach,” a 30-foot wide rock slope separating the jungle from the water.
We stuffed our belongings and electronic gear into dry bags, attached them to ourselves with surfboard leashes, and swam out to Walter’s boat. Walter turned out to be a big, imposing, and — thank god — extremely friendly Molokai native, a black-haired grandfather who has been organizing private tours, fishing and hunting expeditions (under questioning, he allows that he’s bagged over a hundred wild pigs, mostly with a bow and arrow or knife), and generally running things on this corner of the island for the last forty years or so.
The first spot we surfed was partially shielded from the swell, and for an hour Tim, John and I traded chest-high waves breaking over a sandy bottom. I could have stayed there all day, but it was clear that Tim and John were eager to ride something a little bigger, and Walter indicated that he had something else in mind for us.
We paddled back to Walter’s boat, and he took us on a 10-mile run around the northeastern corner of the island. The boat ride alternated between relaxing and harrowing, as Walter piloted us between and over the 6-foot swells smashing into the foot of half-mile-high cliffs. Next to a spot where the wave only breaks when the swell is above 10 feet, Walter pointed out one cove called “the shower,” after a cliffside waterfall marked by the front half of a broken surfboard.
We rounded the corner and headed south, toward Molokai’s only well-known break, Rock Point. I started scanning the shoreline for longboards and buckets.
“Don’t worry,” Walter said, as if reading my thoughts, “I’ll put you on a wave where there’s nobody to mess with your mind.”
He did — a reef break a quarter mile from the nearest access point. For the next two hours, Tim and John had a field day ripping the chunkyleft-hand wave, and I squeezed in a few rides between wipeouts. The bigger waves in the sets were slightly overhead, and though the waves’ lips weren’t quite arcing outward to form tubes, we found ourselves in the midst of a minor miracle: riding a great break in Hawaii on a Saturday with no one else out. Even Laird Hamilton doesn’t get Jaws all to himself, but here the three of us were, dropping into wave after wave under Walter’s watchful eye.
After the second session, exhausted, we docked Walter’s boat in a nearby cove and waded to shore near our designated pick-up spot. Two cars stopped immediately, their drivers offering Walter a ride to wherever he might be going. Before he headed off to a family luau, I asked Walter about the bucket-of-blood story. He laughed. It’s a great story, he said, but way too theatrical for Molokai.
“I don’t know anyone who would go to that much trouble,” he said. “If you don’t want people to come there, it’s pretty simple — you’d just pop ‘em.”
On Sunday, the sky opened up and drenched Hawaii in the most voluminous downpour it had seen in months. The clouds blazed with lightning, and flash floods shut down many of the islands’ towns. Roads were closed and Maui’s helicopter fleet was grounded. Had we delayed our trip by a day, it wouldn’t have happened.
I waited out the worst of the storm in Hecock’s, an open-air sports bar overlooking the beach in front of Tim’s surf shop in Lahaina. The rain made the bar feel downright cozy as the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts cracked helmets on TV screens above the tables. A barmaid joined several patrons for copious mid-morning cocktails while trading guy-trouble stories with a waitress.
I kept an eye on the waves out front, and when the rain lightened a bit, grabbed one of Tim’s boards and paddled out. Despite the weather, the waves breaking at the Lahaina breakwall were attended by dozens of surfers, and I couldn’t help but pine for Walter’s secret spot on Molokai. One wave closed out on me and bounced me off the lava rocks below. I paddled past the impact zone, sat up on my board, and raised my knee out of the water – the reef had claimed a few stripes of skin from my kneecap.
Image by mswebersd via Flickr
It wasn’t a 5-gallon-bucketworth of blood, but it was enough to send a message: unlike the unlucky surfers in the Molokai tale, I’d gotten what I came for, and it was time to go.