The history of the Flying Samaritans began on November 16, 1961. While most of San Diego County was socked in by an unaccustomed dust storm prompted by a severe drought, John A. Vietor, owner and publisher of the San Diego Magazine, and Roberta Ridgley, the magazine`s editor, took off from La Paz, Baja California, Mexico, in a twin engine Beechcraft piloted by Aileen Saunders, of El Cajon, a noted woman pilot. Accompanying the three were Leah Hanlon, Polly Ross and Frank Zehner, Aileen`s seventeen year old son. In those days travel by small plane in Baja was challenging and somewhat dangerous mainly because of three factors. The deceptively soft terrain that often precluded any take off after a forced landing, the absence of any radio equipped airport below Tijuana, and not even the crudest lighting at most landing strips.
Although the weather was good as the group left La Paz, when they landed about three hours later in Bahia de Los Angeles, they encountered a brisk wind and were told there was a rumor of strong winds in the greater Los Angeles area. Vietor, one of the passengers, was anxious to reach San Diego in time to pick up a flight to San Francisco which would enable him to attend a dinner party for Ingrid Bergman. About 45 minutes after taking off from Bahia de Los Angeles they encountered gusty sandstorms that blocked out Tijuana. Failing to pick up either Tijuana or San Diego, Aileen decided to try for a landing in Ensenada. Nearing the airport everything looked good for a landing. Suddenly, within three minutes of 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 circled to gain altitude, avoiding the peaks and consuming precious fuel. They were finally able to climb out over the storm. At this point, low on fuel and with a thorough knowledge of flying in Baja, Aileen knew there were few landing options. She chose a clearing on the mesa top of a mountain outside the village of El Rosario. Dodging a large pothole they landed safely just ahead of the dust storm.
The area Fish and Game Warden who knew Aileen and had heard the plane circling the village drove up to retrieve them. The town`s Mayor permitted them the use of his office which had the single telephone line between El Rosario and Ensenada, although the call did not go through. Acting as interpreter, Anita Espinosa, the proprietor of the local general store who was half Pima Indian and half Italian and who had been educated in a San Diego Mission school, generously offered the group hot chocolate while apologizing for the accommodations.
With prompting she began to tell of the local devastation from the drought and the pitiless existence of the people there. She said she would be grateful for any clothing contributions, especially for the children, and she herself would see that they were distributed. The people of the village were not only impoverished they were not well.
Once safely back in San Diego, having spent the night in the El Rosario area, Aileen, Leah and Polly, all female pilots and members of the `99`s`, 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 Gillespie Field in San Diego bound for Baja, every one loaded to the top with toys, food, clothing and good will. Among the volunteers was a doctor who had his medical bag with him. Once in El Rosario he was mobbed by people needing care and so was born the Flying Samaritans, first dubbed the Flying Angels by the people of El Rosario.
That first doctor was quickly joined by nurses, dentists and other health care providers whose services were so desperately needed. In the early days the trips were made every other week. The government owned Hospital Civil de El Rosario served as the first clinic site. Although it had been virtually abandoned, the Flying Samaritans and the people of El Rosario, working together, soon had a facility from which the people could be seen and treated.
The vision of that first pilot, Aileen Saunders Mellott, who also served as the organization`s first President, 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.
Over the years the Flying Samaritas grew to become an International organization which serves 19 clinics, organized in ten chapters (two in Arizona, seven in California and one in Mexico) with over than 1500 members.
Check out these videos from the Gold Coast chapter of the Flying Samaritans: