FIRST FLIGHT, LAST FLIGHT
By Ron Fox
When John first appeared one afternoon at our offices in Brownsville, you couldn't tell if he had the right stuff for flying south or not. Bushpilots come in all colors, sizes, shapes and looks. You were usually proved wrong if you tried to size up a pilot by his looks. John was fairly nondescript. He wasn't ugly, but he wasn't handsome. He didn't have a physique that would turn women's heads, but he wasn't fat, wasn't skinny. He didn't have a particularly outgoing personality, but he wasn't shy either.
As was our custom, Gus and I tried to give him a pretty good idea what flying south was all about. We described the conditions under which he would be flying, namely, for the most part, in unforcasted weather without adequate navigational aids, into unprepared strips with no lights other than highway smudge pots, with only enough fuel for a round trip with no delays enroute or at the strips trying to get in. The rules of descent without current altimeter settings, the rules of knowing just what a particular aircraft could carry and how it was loaded, the way different aircraft acted when close to the edge of the envelope of their capabilities, the procedures for clearing a strip before landing, the etiquette concerning dealing with foreign ground crews, the carriage of weapons, the risks, the penalties, and the stress; all were discussed exhaustively. We also would usually provide the details of past pilot mistakes and their disastrous results in an effort to open the eyes of a prospective contrabandito. Some never came back after their first interview, but John did.
It just so happened that Gus had just received an old Piper Navajo from persons unknown to me. Its registration number was N3WN and it was purported to be Wayne Newton's first aircraft. It was a small twin engine cabin class twin which could carry around 2,500 pounds, I really don't remember now. The actual weight is not important. Had not the arrival of this aircraft coincided with the arrival of John, we probably would not have taken him on, but demands for more trips were high. After a few trips as first officer on the DC-3, Gus thought he was ready for his first solo; the milk-run to Vera Cruz.
This trip was considered to be the easiest trip a pilot could make. The route was straight south to Vera Cruz, with a circle flown west around the most populated sections of town. A VOR instrument approach was available and on short final we were even given the runway lights. If a pilot couldn't handle this trip, he wasn't what we were looking for. It was the safest way we knew to break in a pilot. It was my unforgettable first trip.
Gus sent John out with a light load in N3WN. The weather was good and John seemed at ease with the operation. He had accompanied one of our DC-3 captains into Vera Cruz International just the week before and had performed his duties as well as any. We thought he was ready.
John never arrived at the Vera Cruz International Airport that night. N3WN was never seen again. We were to find out a few weeks later that three days after his disappearance, a body washed up on the beach near Vera Cruz. We managed through a contact of ours to obtain a copy of the autopsy that was performed upon the remains. It was not a pleasant article to read. Neither was it possible to determine for sure whether the remains were those of John, but we figured they were.
No one knows what happened to him that night. Was it an aircraft problem? Did he get too close to the water without realizing it? Had he landed at another location to sell the electronics and been double-crossed? Perhaps the body that washed up in Vera Cruz was not that of John. Maybe he had crashed along the way. Maybe he was down somewhere waiting for rescue.
For the next week or so, all of our pilots who had enough fuel, searched along the coast on their way back from their trips. On several of my trips I flew around mountain tops and through valleys along the coast, looking for a place an airplane in trouble might set down. There was nothing.
John had become what was to be one of the four pilots we lost that year. N3WN had become what was to be one of the seven aircraft we lost that year as well. These were the reasons we made so much money doing what we did. They were also a big part of why we were doing it.
By Ron Fox
The Beech 18 was a little ungainly and without grace on the ground, sort of like a fish out of water. It could be tricky to steer, especially if there were much wind. It's radial piston engines sounded a little raspy and uncoordinated at or near idle and it's dual tail would wiggle when the wheels went over bumps in the concrete. But in the air the ugly duckling would turn into a swan. The airplane in the air looked like it should be there, looked like it was in it's element. It became graceful and streamlined and, for it's day, pretty fast. It could carry a hell of a load without complaint and it was built tough for the bush with it's tall landing gear and tailwheel. It could land in a very short distance and could take real punishment. It was an easy airplane to maintain and, if a good round-engine man could be found, could be kept running well with little expense. It was the perfect smuggler's airplane. That's why we saw so many of them on the border.
Art was an old-timer from the days of army flying- sergeants of World War Two fame. He was a tail-dragger who loved the beast, as he called the Beech 18 and he was good in it. Long retired from the army, he longed for the exciting days of yesteryear as well as a living wage. He had come to Brownsville on a whim. While visiting the Confederate Air Force Museum which in those days was located in Harlingen, he had heard of all the old aircraft which were based in Brownsville and had also heard that good money could be made flying them. Walking along the flight line at the Brownsville International Airport he was taken back in time to the old days when he used to fly machines like this every day while in the army. Stopping by our hangar, he noticed one of our mechanics working on our Beech 18 and he spoke to him about the prospects of getting a job. Andy, our mechanic, was an old-timer too. He had a knack for caring for round engines, (radial piston engines), and were it not for his own advance age, would not have given Art another thought. After reminiscing for a while with Art, Andy told him to stop by our office/warehouse which was off the airport property. We often received inquiries in this manner so it was no surprise when Art walked in one day and asked for a job. What surprised us was his age coupled with his enthusiasm for flying. There was something about how his eyes shined when he described to us only a small part of his flying experience that made us take heed of his desire to get back into the cockpit. Art was the type of aviator who would just as soon die in an airplane than in bed in some old folks home.
He was the type of person one doesn't meet all that often so we gave him a shot. He proved to be a little rusty on the controls and had forgotten a lot about all the details necessary for a successful flight, but he made up for these deficiencies with enthusiasm, skill and guts. We all liked him and decided to make him part of our "family".
When Art flew as co-pilot on our DC-3's, he didn't do too well. He was not a good follower of procedures and didn't like the role "playing second fiddle," as he called it. As captain of a Beech 18, no one really knew how well he followed procedures, but he got the loads through as well or better than most everyone else. When other pilots were bringing back their loads due to bad weather, Art was getting his through.
Art was like a born-again Christian. Vigor returned to his step. Humor once again became important to his life. His personality opened up more and more the longer he flew the border and he was truly enjoying himself. I guess it was because he had nowhere else to go that he stayed on the border longer than most of us.
One afternoon I learned from Gus that Art had crashed in the mountains west of Jalapa. It seems he was "pushing" the weather trying to get into the Jalapa Municipal Airport. There were several cloud layers at different altitudes, some broken, some overcast. Approaching the point of no return on his fuel, he was desperate to locate the airport and had drifted too far west in his search. West of the Jalapa airport, the mountains began rising in elevation.
Breaking out of one cloud layer and finding himself in a layer of clear air above another cloud layer, he decided to punch one more cloud bank to see if he could locate the airport. The last cloud layer he punched, punched back. It wasn't a cloud at all. It was a fog shrouded mountain top.
Art hit the mountain top in a flat descending attitude at full cruise speed. He had no warning of his impending crash whatsoever. One minute he was flying and the next, when he entered the cloud (fog), his airplane immediately struck the ground and began to quickly disintegrate. The airplane literally exploded into thousands of pieces and parts of the airplane, some large, mostly small were scattered about along with his cargo of car stereos, TV's, VCR's and blenders over a pretty large area. When Art woke up barely conscious, he found himself trapped helplessly in a large section of the cockpit with no wings, no tail and no cabin around him. He noticed several Indians walking about the widely scattered wreckage, picking up some of the goods which miraculously escaped serious damage. They were obviously delighted with this unexpected Manna from Heaven, seemingly oblivious to Art's tragedy.
Art called out to them as best he could and a couple of Indians came over to where he was trapped, amazed that he was still alive. Earlier while he was unconscious, they had noticed what they thought was his lifeless body, covered in blood and looking rather mangled, trapped in the wreckage. Without a word, they moved some of the entrapping wreckage and picked him up and moved him about fifty feet from the smoldering piece of cockpit. Soon afterwards, the remaining piece of cockpit caught on fire, probably due to the leaking nose fuel tank which had caught fire due to the sparking of electrical wires in the instrument panel.
Art had been left there for quite a while before a police van showed up on the scene, probably due to the fire which was spreading in the brush around the wreckage. He was unceremoniously thrown into the van and taken to jail. He was not aware of how long he had spent on the floor of his jail cell before a doctor was brought in to look at him. It was at this time that he was immediately moved to a local Jalapa hospital.
For the next five months Art suffered through five operations for internal organ damage and internal bleeding as well as several re-settings of broken bones. He was fortunate he was kept in a hospital instead of jail the entire time. Gus had several meetings with the local police and judiciary over this period of time without success. When the local powers that be realized that he had no money to buy himself out of jail and that he had no relatives who could sell assets to get him out, and that Gus was not able to put up any money for his freedom, they acquiesced to the behind the scenes persuasion of Mr. C in Vera Cruz to let him go.
Gus brought Art back to the U.S. a mere shell of the man who had flown into Mexico just five months before. It was eerie, but Art had come down to the border as an old man, washed up and through with flying. He left the same way. The business was in serious decline at this point and Gus told him to go home. Gus had brought him out without any prospect of personal gain. He brought him out because he was one of Gus's pilots. That said a lot about Gus.
The last time I saw Art, he was living with his daughter in Fort Worth. He had never regained his old weight or vigor, but was happy for the time he had been able to fly again and told me he wouldn't have traded that time for anything. He said it was adventure of the highest order and that most people who were lucky enough to get one shot at it would never dream of getting two. He had two, and for Art it was worth the price.
READ EPISODE V
READ EPISODE VI
Copyright 1998, BUSHPILOT, all rights reserved.
Watch for more Ron Fox Smuggler's Tales in the weeks ahead - Editor
Reprinted with the permission of the author
For this and other stories online, visit Ron Fox BushPilot Web site.