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Fly-In Medical Aid for Baja

Photos and words by Robin Waters

The Flying Samaritans are a volunteer organization which operates free medical clinics in Baja California, Mexico. Doctors, dentists, nurses, translators, pilots and support personnel fly to clinics in private aircraft. Through a cooperative agreement with the University of Baja California, the teams are sanctioned as Invited Teachers. Flying Samaritans is organized in 10 Chapters, with currently over 1500 members, and serves 19 clinics.

In Northwest Mexico, the Tucson, Arizona Chapter works in El Rosario. The Modesto-Central Valley Chapter goes to San Felipe. The Palomar-Bonsall Chapter works in Rosarito Beach and has an Eye Clinic in Tecate. The San Diego Chapter flies into Valle de Trinidad, to name just a few chapters in the Northwest area.

The history of the Flying Samaritans began on November 16, 1961. San Diego County was socked in by a dust storm prompted by a severe drought. A magazine owner took off from La Paz, Baja California, Mexico in a twin-engine Beechcraft piloted by Aileen Saunders. In those days, travel by small plane in Baja was challenging mainly because of deceptively soft terrain that often precluded any take off after a forced landing, the absence of any radio-equipped airports below Tijuana and the lack of lighting at most landing strips.

Although the weather was good at La Paz, when they landed about three hours later in Bahia de Los Angeles, they were told there was a rumor of strong winds in the greater Los Angeles area. Forty-five minutes after taking off again, they encountered gusty sandstorms that blocked out Tijuana. Failing to pick up Tijuana or San Diego, Aileen decided to try for a landing in Ensenada. However, about three minutes before landing, the weather closed in completely and they lost sight of the ground as well as the 5,000 to 7,000 foot peaks in the area. They were finally able to climb over the storm. At this point, low on fuel, Aileen knew there were few landing options. She chose a clearing on the mesa top of a mountain outside the village of El Rosario, where they landed safely.

The plane had been heard circling and a villager drove up to retrieve them. He took them to Anita Espinosa’s local general store. Anita was half Pima Indian and half Italian and had been educated in a San Diego Mission school.

Mama Espinosa, as she was known to many, began to describe the devastation from the drought and the pitiless existence of the local people. She said she would be grateful for any clothing contributions, especially for the children. Not only were the people of the village impoverished; but many were unwell.

The next day, safely back in San Diego, Aileen and her friends began collecting donations for a return relief flight to Baja. On the Saturday before Christmas of that year, an armada of single-engine planes departed for Baja, every one loaded with toys, food, clothing and good will. Among the volunteers was a doctor. Once in El Rosario he was mobbed by needy people, and so was born the Flying Samaritans.

The vision of that first pilot, Aileen Saunders Mellott, and her untiring efforts to enlist volunteers, along with her valuable contacts with both U.S. and Mexican officials, facilitated the transport of equipment and supplies necessary to establish the original clinic at El Rosario and, later, the second at Colonet.

If you would like to become a member, a sponsor or donate to this wonderful group, you will find further information at:
or contact Walter J. Shimon MD 209-966-9596 or email:

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