The 1995 Casas Grandes/Cerro deTrinchera Mexico Aerial Photo Expedition
Background Information

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In September of 1995 John Roney, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Tom Baker (of Baker Aerial Photography/Archaeology, also in Albuquerque, New Mexico) teamed up to fly Baker's photo plane down to Casas Grandes to acquire some aerial photos of archaeological sites in that area. Ben Benjamin of Albuquerque seved as the photo pilot and Rudi Benskin of Safford, Arizona also assisted both in the air and on the ground. The four expedition members funded the non-profit venture themselves.

Casas Grandes, both the modern town (Nuevo or New Casas Grandes) and the adjacent ruins of the prehistoric one (also known as Paquime, pronounced "PAK-ih-may"), are in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in the northern part of Old Mexico, ninety miles below the border of New Mexico, USA. During one of his earlier visits to Casas Grandes John scouted out an airfield near the town from which an airplane could be operated, but reported that it was unmanned and without fuel. However, gasoline was available from any of several automobile gas stations in the town, so they decided to risk running the aircraft on Mexican auto gas instead of aviation fuel.

On Sept. 1, 1995, Tom and John therefore loaded six five-gallon jerry cans and a hand-operated fuel pump into John's truck, as well as tiedown ropes, wheel chocks, and other aircraft support items, and John headed south for Mexico, pausing on the U.S. side of the border at Deming, New Mexico to pick up archaeologist Rudi Benskin. Rudi had previously assisted John in his surveys of the Trincheras sites. The two continued on to the Casas Grandes airfield and met the airplane when it arrived the next day.

It requires two people in a photo plane to shoot vertical (straight-down) photographs (the most useful kind for mapping purposes), one to pilot the aircraft while the other operates the cameras. The normal routine at Baker Aero is for Tom Baker to operate the cameras while Lee (Elise) Baker, Tom's wife, does the flying and maneuvering of the aircraft. However, Lee was unable to participate in the Mexico expedition because the Bakers' toddler, 2-year old Mary, was too young to be left alone. The photo pilot vacancy was filled when Ben Benjamin of Albuquerque, a retired engineer, pilot, and avocational archaeologist, volunteered to fly the airplane during the photo runs.

Crossing the border and flying in Mexico requires dealing with two government bureaucracies, not to mention the problems of aerial navigation in the airspace of a third-world country with inadequate maps, few airfields, and no search-and-rescue services. Flight plans were filed with both governments and all the necessary paperwork for border crossing obtained. On morning of the day after John Roney departed for Mexico in his truck (Sept. 2, 1995), Tom and Ben loaded the airplane with camera equipment, film, and survival gear (since they were going to have to cross a desert to reach Casas Grandes from Juarez) and flew down the Rio Grande to the port-of-entry at Juarez.

After clearing Mexican customs at Juarez they flew southwest across an empty, picturesque desert that was one the bottom of an inland sea fed by the Rio Grande (see Coffee Break Reading elsewhere in this Newsletter) and reached Casas Grandes, where John Roney and Rudi Benskin met them on the ground. Over the next two days the four members of the expedition took turns scouting the area from the air (the aircraft only has two seats), locating and photographing both the trinchera hill sites currently being surveyed by John and the Casas Grandes (Paquime) ruins and related sites that particularly interested Tom.

On one flight Tom and Ben undertook a short exploratory reconnaissance down the Rio Casas Grandes, southward along the eastern face of the Sierra Madre range, and were amazed to see more large prehistoric sites than they could effectively record. On the return flight to the U.S. a new trinchera hill site was seen and recorded north of the town of Ascension, and later confirmed by John Roney on the ground.

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