Milk Run To Vera Cruz
by Ron Fox
EDITOR'S NOTE: The business of hauling consumer goods (contraband) into Mexico with airplanes into grass strips avoiding the outrageous Mexican import duties has been going on ever since airplanes were put into commercial service, that is, until 1989 when Mexico repealed most 100% duties on imported goods. These are the stories of aviator/smuggler Ron Fox, who along with his pilot commrades, based in Brownsville to fly unregistered cargo into Mexican airspace.
THIS WEEK: Part II: Milk Run To Vera Cruz...
It was Pete, now dead 15 years, who told me to drive an old car.
"Keeps the IRS lookin' elsewhere," he used to say.
He drove a '71 Buick LeSabre. He had spent a small fortune on that old car - new paint, new vinyl top, new leather interior, new engine, new front end, nice stereo, the best tires money could buy. It was a joy to ride in.
"Keeps the Feds away," he used to say. "You start throwing your money around and you become conspicuous, someone's going to notice. The Feds are always looking for money being thrown around."
Pete and I were in the Jefferson County Airport shared among three Texas coast cities of Beaumont, Nederland, and Port Arthur.
I found it a curious thing for him to say in response to my question about why he obviously put so much money into his car.
I had idly asked the question only to change the depressing subject from one of our most common recent topics of conversation.
Over lunch and between flights, Pete and I had been lamenting the financial condition of our little airline; a more and more frequent habit of any gathering of Air Texana pilots of the last few months. We were a motley crew of beginner aviators and jaded veterans and our gatherings were never dull. Our airline just wasn't carrying enough passengers on a regular basis to make it possible to pay the bills and keep going too much longer. It had something to do with this being the jet age and the reluctance of the traveling public to entrust their safety to an airline flying loud, bone- rattling, smoke-spuing airplanes which were older than most of its pilots. As fond as some of our older passengers once were of the venerable DC-3, in 1981 it was an airplane that only a pilot could love.
The airline would have been more appropriately named Keystone Airlines, (after the Keystone Cops of the silent film era). Our ragtag duty roster was suitably accompanied by a ragtag fleet of aircraft to match: a Convair 440, a DC-3, a passenger model of the C-47, and two old Beech Queen Aires. This would have been an admirable fleet in the 1950's, but this was 1981 and people just didn't like getting on airplanes whose engines chugged, wheezed, vibrated, and blew oily smoke out of the engines.
But it was an airline and airline jobs were getting harder and harder to find in 1981. There was a recession going on and airlines were furloughing pilots all over the country. Besides it was my airline and for awhile I was proud of it. My passengers may have been a little frightened and uncomfortable, but I got them where they were going most of the time, even sometimes on time.
"I used to make a lot of cash on the border and I didn't want to call attention to myself or my work," Pete continued. "You know the border wars are still going on down south. Why don't we blow this popsicle stand and go make some real money?"
When Pete first jokingly mentioned the border wars and making a lot of cash, I naturally thought he meant smuggling drugs into the country from Mexico. I was shocked at such a casual invitation and mortified that a friend I thought I knew could be involved in such a malevolent enterprise. Pete laughed at my obvious expression of horror and quickly moved to alter my perception.
Looking around the near empty restaurant for potential eavesdroppers, Pete lowered his voice and said, "Relax, Fox. It's not what you think. You obviously have the wrong idea. Before you drop your jaw into your french fries, this is not about smuggling into the U.S. We smuggle _out_ of the U.S., and it's not anything repugnant at all; it's electronics. Have you ever heard of a TV hurting anyone?
Still not uttering a sound, my wide eyes and open mouth immediately turned into a furrowed brow and pursed lips of puzzlement.
"I'll bet you're a lousy poker player, Ron," Pete said, laughing at the look on my face. "Do you think I would risk losing my pilot's license and a long jail term for something as repugnant as drugs? Get a grip, man. I'm talking about flying TVs into Mexico, complying with all customs export regulations; filing all the necessary declarations and cargo manifests and operating legally!"
Still puzzled, I finally found my voice. "But you said smuggling! That doesn't sound too legal to me."
"I know," he replied. "Let me explain. When I say operate legally, I mean on this side of the border. Our U.S. Customs export declarations name an importer with an address in Mexico and our flight plan names that destination. Once airborne we just change our minds and take the merchandise to someone else at a different location!"
Observing my flat, dimpled smile and narrowed eyes which belied my continued puzzlement, Pete pushed on. "You see, Ron, the Mexican government charges a one-hundred percent import duty on almost all consumer goods entering the country, ostensibly to protect Mexican industry. But no one in their right mind would buy a Mexican TV, radio or just about anything made there because it's usually junk."
Suddenly understanding flooded my face. "I get it. We avoid the import duty and someone makes a lot of money."
"Bingo! And they pay us a lot of money to help them," he said.
"So we really are smuggling stuff into Mexico, breaking _Mexican_ law," I responded, furtively looking around the room. "That'll put us in a _Mexican_ jail! Are you nuts?" I looked at the cold remnants of my lunch, no longer hungry.
"I understand your revulsion at the thought, but it doesn't work that way. You have to look at this whole industry as a game; a gentleman's game, if you will. The receiver makes an order with an electronics distributor on the U.S. side of the border. The distributor brings the goods to the airport for the operator to load into an airplane. The flightcrew delivers it to the receiver in Mexico who has paid off the law to look the other way. Simple, huh? This is how they've been importing goods into Mexico since the revolution!"
I knew that bribes were a way of life in most other countries of the world. I had flown throughout the Pacific while in the navy so it did not come as a shock. In fact, visiting Mexico numerous times as a tourist I had learned to pay at the scene when involved in traffic violations, fender benders, and any altercations with officialdom, minor or otherwise.
"What if something goes wrong?," I asked, feeling that Murphy's Law had special meaning south of the border.
"That's where the gentleman part comes in," he answered. "If for some reason things don't go as planned; say your receiver doesn't pay off the right people, or some unpaid officials enter the picture, you're arrested and taken to jail. But it's not just any jail. It's really quite nice. For a small monthly stipend of say, a couple of hundred bucks, you get a private room with maid service, decent cooked meals, and even air-conditioning. You get a Mexican lawyer and pay him a couple thousand bucks, he arranges for you to pay a "fine" of perhaps twenty or thirty thousand and you go home. The whole process takes perhaps two or three months. They don't want to keep you in jail. They want you to go home so they can catch you again and make money off you all over again! I know some guys who have been captured three or four times!"
I was dumbfounded and Pete noticed. "Time to go fly," he said, picking up his hat and newspaper. "Think about it and we'll talk about it later."
I raised my eyebrows, nodded and said, "OK, Pete. I'll see you maybe later tonight. How about meeting at the Palace?" The Palace was a huge local dancehall with several bars throughout the premises and was one of our hangouts.
He thought for a moment and replied, "I'll try to make it, but I can't give you a time."
"The time don't matter... unless I get lucky," I said with a smile, knowing I couldn't afford entertaining anyone but not wanting to admit it to Pete.
"If you get lucky, don't wait on my account," he said, laughing his way out the door, putting his uniform hat on with a rakish tilt.
I picked up my check and noticed his still on the table. I picked up his check, too and with a sigh, headed for the cash register, my head spinning from our airline's impending doom and the prospect of becoming a smuggler.
The rest of the afternoon and early evening, cruising back and forth between Beaumont and Houston, I sat quietly on the flight deck musing about the dim prospects of finding another job. After leaving the navy, I spent a year dropping sky divers, a year in Alaska flying the bush, and a year flying freight out of Dallas in old, beat-up Beech Barons. I was tired of having flying jobs crater on me, each loss more devastating than the one before it. This job was just six months old. I shook my head and thought to myself, "Boy the things I go through just to keep flying," not even once considering doing anything else.
Over the next few days Pete and I talked some more about flying on the border. Since I trusted Pete, I believed what he told me about the whole deal. It wasn't until the Feds grounded one of our DC-3s and six pilots got furloughed that I knew the end of our airline was near. Up until then I was maintaining my sanity and holding my yearning for adventure in check. Then Pete said he was heading for McAllen to rustle up a border job.
"The first domino has fallen, pal and I'm outta here this weekend. Care to join me?"
"I feel like a rat abandoning a sinking ship, watching her go down with all hands," I complained, bemoaning the obvious fate of our little airline.
"No one's gonna throw you a life preserver, buddy. When this thing goes it will be sudden and without warning. You'll come in to work one day and the door will be locked and you'll be left wondering how you're going to pay rent or even buy your next meal. Believe me, I've been there."
"I can see the signs, Pete. This job won't last much longer." I threw up my hands, "What else have I got to do this weekend? What the hell, it sounds like fun."
Once the decision was made, my enthusiasm grew at a pace indirectly proportional to my dwindling financial security.Early the next day I found myself hurtling down a Texas two-lane blacktop in my '68 Malibu, trying to keep up with Pete's Buick in formation from Beaumont all the way across the middle of Texas to McAllen.
On the highway with my V-8 engine rumbling through Glasspac mufflers; the sound was not much different from that of the old beat up Beech Baron in which I flew freight last year out of Dallas. The monotonous landscape of south Texas rapidly glided by, releasing my mind to wander through the jumbled path of my flying career. 'What am I doing here?,' I wondered. I've done a lot of dangerous things in the past with old, beat up, poorly maintained airplanes just to keep flying, but this takes the cake. Pete makes it sound so easy. Knowing another flying job was about to leave me on the ground, I was awash in disappointment. All I wanted to do was fly. Give me any old roof over my head, and enough money for fast food and an occasional good time, an airplane, new or old to fly people or freight and I was happy. I love what I do and I enjoy all the people, young and old, who work in aviation. It's just too bad it's such a house of cards. They say it's easy to make a small fortune in the flying business; just start with a big fortune and you'll be there in no time.
"We comply with all U.S. laws," Pete said. "We clear U.S. Customs in and out. We comply with all FAA regulations. We merely fly to a destination other than the one listed on our manifests and we don't clear Mexican Customs. Any problems we may encounter are in Mexico. That's why they pay us so much money."
Peter Knox, a Canadian-born aviator of some renown, was a tall, lanky, well-built fellow. His hair was blonde, both his own and that of the toupee~ he wore. His ruddy complexion and blue eyes set in a long aristocratic face made him quite attractive to the ladies, the attention from which he lived on. I imagine it was this attention which drove him to wearing a rug. He was always self-conscious of it and his efforts to hide it only made everyone aware of it. He loved accompanying himself with a guitar as he sang country songs at parties and always seemed to have a chorus of female admirers around him. We used to enjoy trading flying stories and so became good friends.
Pete had been the Chief Pilot of the Biafra Airlift in the sixties, flying food and medicines to the starving people suffering from civil war in that small African nation. Some time later, he was the Chief Pilot of the ill-fated Air- Go Airlines of Dallas before joining Air Texana in Beaumont as a Convair 440 captain in 1981. Sometime between Biafra and Dallas, Pete has spent some time on the border flying as a "Contrabandito" and claimed, while the flying was demanding of skill and nerve, the pay couldn't be beat. The impending loss of my job and the lack of much flying employment during the recession of 1981, coupled with the promise of high pay and adventure was too much for me to resist.
There has always been this "little bird" in the back of my mind; an aggravating little squawking parrot in my head who, over the years has guided me through the dangers of the air, reminding me of past mistakes, close calls and failures, warning me of impending disasters in the nick of time or mostly so. I have not yet grown enough in wisdom to heed his advice all the time, but he's there just the same; always trying to bring balance to my impetuosity and counterpoints to my rationalizations. The eight-hour road trip to McAllen had created an uninterrupted session in thought with this little bird which could be described as a conversation with myself had any words been exchanged out loud. Still, being a what-the- hell-go-for-it kind of a guy - that's what Pete called me - the draw of a new impending adventure could not be overcome, the common sense of my little bird notwithstanding. Jack London called it the "Call of the Wild." This was wild.
Arriving in McAllen at four in the afternoon, I followed Pete to the Airport Sheraton across the street from the McAllen airport where we got separate rooms. After checking in, we changed into our swimming suits and parked ourselves in lounge chairs next to the hotel pool for my first lesson on smuggling demeanor and diplomacy.
"Here's the deal, Fox," Pete said in his most professor-like voice. "I'm going to make some calls to a few of my prior associates in town and see if I can line up some trips for us. I'm going to invite some people to the bar tonight and see what I can drum up. I highly recommend your getting some shut-eye. It's going to be a long night."
After a few drinks, a swim, and some sun, we retired to our rooms for an afternoon nap. As I drifted off to sleep, I couldn't help feeling strange, as if in a fog where my surroundings were very indistinct. I had never gone looking for a job this way before, and events were leading me instead of the other way around. Anticipation and the wonder of a trek through Never- Never land were dancing in my head.
My alarm woke me at seven p.m., and I rolled out of bed refreshed. I dressed quickly into a polo shirt, old jeans, and an old pair of brown suede cowboy boots - real roach-stompers. They were called that due to their sharply pointed toes allowing deep penetration into corners. I headed for the hotel bar. As I entered the dimly lit room, I noticed Pete by himself at a large round table in the darkest, most remote corner.
"Hello, Fox," he said, in a soft, quiet voice, easily heard in the near empty club. "Have a seat and let me tell you the plan."
I sat down across from him, eager to hear what he was about to reveal.
"Ron, I've invited one of the Atkins brothers and a couple of his friends out here tonight for a drink and to talk about a job. I mentioned to him that I had brought a buddy with me, but these are cautious people. He doesn't want to meet you. When they arrive, you are to go to another table out of earshot and wait for things to develop. We'll just have to see what happens. That OK with you?"
"Sure, Pete, no sweat,"I replied. "I wouldn't know how to act, anyway." In fact, I had no idea what to expect from these visitors. Were they gangsters? Were they bad people? I was new to all this, but I was determined to go with the flow and see what happened.
"Just act like you normally do, like a crazy, what-the-hell-go-for-it kinda guy. Not that you ever brag, but don't start now. Don't puff yourself up and try to convince anyone you think this will be easy. It won't be, and they know it. They can spot a fake pretty easily. They've had lots of practice at it. Just be relaxed, open, and honest about your flying experience and try not to flinch too much if they describe some of their previous pilots' problems, OK?"
"Sure, Pete. I'll be cool," I replied, in a confident voice which did not belie my churning stomach.
Pete waved to the passing waitress, "Ma'am, another Johnny Walker Black, please, and a double Jack Black, coke back for my friend here."
After our drinks arrived, I sat back and listened to Pete talk about flying on the border. Some stories were tragic, some funny; but all were exciting.
"One thing you must always remember," he said. "Put off until tomorrow what you don't feel like doing today. The Man~ana Syndrome has saved many an experienced pilot in this business. Man~ana is always acceptable to your Mexican receivers, so don't push too hard. If your strip is too wet, the weather is too bad, there's fog expected, or your airplane doesn't perform right, or if your load is too heavy or improperly loaded; don't go. Learn the limits of your plane and the limits of your skill, and draw lines you must never cross. Only this and a little luck will keep you alive to spend all that money you will make.
"What kind of money can we make, Pete?," I asked, through the growing Jack Daniels cloud in my brain.
"Well, the going rate for a new guy in a single- engine Cessna 207 is about three hundred per trip. It's a fairly short run to Tampico, though; about two hours. Next is a small twin like a Beech Baron or a T-Bone where you can make about five hundred for a trip of three to four hours to Jalapa, Vera Cruz, or even further south, if you have the guts for a one-way trip. Trips further south than Vera Cruz are one-way trips, meaning you only have enough fuel for one way. If you don't make it into your strip, you have to land some where for fuel in order to make it home. That can get real dicey. A Beech 18 can bring in even or eight hundred and left seat in a DC-3 is about a thousand. You'll have to wait for your turn at captain on a DC-3. That will come only after you've proven yourself in smaller aircraft. All you have to do to get paid is bring back an empty airplane. Payday is every day and your pay is in cash - one hundred dollar bills."
"I can't wait to get into this deal, Pete." Talk of hundred dollar bills making my pants bulge was getting the better of me.
"You'll have to start waiting right now, Fox. My friends just walked in. Go sit on the other side of the bar and be cool."
"Good luck, Pete," I replied, getting to my feet quietly and moving to a table across the room. I sat down about thirty feet away. The light was good enough for me to clearly distinguish Pete's friends. One was a large, middle-aged man with a goatee, sitting directly across from Pete. Another was a nondescript younger man who didn't say much. A third, younger and smaller than the other two, wearing a black vest, appeared very animated in his conversation, none of which I could clearly make out. After a rather boisterous greeting, they settled down into a subdued conversation, appearing very serious. Their heads were leaning forward towards each other. Early in their conversation they turned to look at me, but only briefly. I felt I was an insignificant part of this process until the younger guy in the black vest got up from their table and walked straight towards mine.
I observed him walking purposefully across the room. He was below average in height, a little smaller than my average frame. He had long, straight blond hair hanging straight down almost to his shoulders which swayed gently as he walked. He had a mustache running all the way around his mouth to his chin and his face appeared friendly with a smile.
"Jerry's the name," he offered, as he held out his hand. "I hear you're looking for work.
"Most people call me Fox," I replied, shaking his hand. "Yeah, I am."
"Has Pete given you the run-down on this border stuff?"
"Yeah, he has. Sounds kinda interesting," I said, as I gestured for him to join me at the table.
He gulped down what must have been a good ounce of Jim Beam from a Texas shot glass - three inches across, four inches high, with a heavy solid, six-sided bottom.
"Let me tell you what I have going, if you're interested," Jerry said, as he sat down, motioning with his finger to the watching waitress, moving it in a circle pointing downwards. "My team breaks people out of jail in Mexico, and I'm looking for a pilot."
'Holy mackerel!,' I thought to myself. 'Is this guy for real?'
"For the going rate of about twenty grand, we go into Mexico and, at a nearby airstrip meet our guide who takes us to the prison where our client is incarcerated. Through one means or another, usually with bribes, we clandestinely arrange for our client's release and fly him home. Simple as that. "His manner was straight forward and matter-of-fact, like he was describing an every day procedure.
I asked, "What means do you use if bribes don't work?"
As he lifted the side of his vest to reveal a small gun, probably a snub- nosed .38 in his belt, he replied, "Bribes are always our means, but, on occasion, we must use a little extra persuasion."
Swallowing hard, I tried to mask my distress as I asked him, "Have you ever had to shoot anybody with that?"
"Never a shot fired in anger," he replied, very cool.
I was certain, looking into his cold, piercing, pale eyes, that he could shoot a person and not be angry at all.
"I pay three times per trip what you can make flying contraband, and there's no goods to be caught with if we're captured.
Feigning relief, I nodded my head. "I've taken risks before, for a lot less money," hearing the little bird in my mind: 'Don't panic, be cool. Just don't agree to do anything this nutsays.'
"Come on Fox, I know a place just down the street where the drinks are bigger and cheaper and they have a country band, you interested?"
"Sure," I replied, horrified that I had said yes to the first thing he asked me to do.
How I ever got back to my room that night, I don't know. We spent a few hours talking about my flying DC-3's in the Pacific, my dropping sky- divers in California, my bush flying in Alaska, a little about flying Navy jets off carriers. I suppose he was trying to learn about my background and to see if I was a bull shitter. I do remember politely declining his offer for employment. I told him I had come to the border with my partner Pete, and that we wanted to work together flying contraband. He didn't seem put out. I didn't tell him, while I was crazy, I wasn't crazy enough to join his team.
"There just weren't any openings for us, Fox," Pete revealed the next morning at a very early break fast. "My friends said they would ask around, but right now they don't have anything. Don't worry, pal. Something will turn up."
The only thing I was worried about turning up at that point was my breakfast. For the next eight hours we drove back to Beaumont, dejected. Back to a house I couldn't afford, buying gas on an overdue credit card. I thought to myself, 'Bummer, I might have to find a real job,' referring to non-flying employment. The little bird in my head was smugly silent.
Upon our return home, we arrived to find a message of a phone call from a man named Gus in Brownsville.
The message only read: "Gus Spradling, midnight trip, Brownsville," and a phone number. Pete's girl friend, an Air Texana flight attendant, must have written it while we were away. Pete nodded, smiling from ear to ear. With a wink he said, "This could be it!"
He quickly dialed the number and asked for Mr. Spradling, nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot. "Mr. Spradling, Peter Knox here. I received a message you may want my partner and I to fly south tonight." I was glad that he mentioned both of us. Amazed with a call from Brownsville, I could only wonder at the conversation, only hearing half of it.
"No problem, we're flying one now, Part 135 qualified in passenger service," Pete said in a confident voice. "We can make midnight. See you at B.A.A.C.," and hung up the phone.
"He's inviting us to fly a midnight departure in a DC-3 that's already loaded and waiting for us," was all Pete had time to tell me as we both jumped back into our cars and tore out southbound.
For the next six hours of high speed cruise, my mind was racing with all sorts of imaginary scenes of just what a smuggling trip south of the border would be like. For the last two days, my mind had been on a roller coaster, one moment picturing myself rolling in a pile of hundred dollar bills, the next picturing myself in a pile of melting credit cards, wondering where my next meal would come from. I knew I could get into a lot of trouble smuggling, but it wasn't like we were doing any harm to anyone. We weren't going to carry anything dangerous or prohibited and Pete made it sound so acceptable.
When Pete and I arrived in Brownsville, I followed him directly to the Brownsville International Airport. We didn't know anyone in town, nor did we know of anywhere else to meet Gus but the airport.
On our way down Billy Mitchell Boulevard, heading for the airport, I followed Pete's Buick as he suddenly wheeled into a Circle-K convenience store.
"Wait here," he yelled, as he ran into the store, carrying his flight kit.
He came out after a few minutes with his kit bulging.
"Provisions," he yelled, and climbed back into his car.
I didn't think I could eat anything on this trip. My stomach was churning with a combination of a hangover and nervous anticipation of our upcoming trip.
Now, as we were pulling into the fixed based operator, B.A.A.C. parking lot at the airport close to 11:00 p.m., I was trying to picture what my first flight south would be like.
When we walked into B.A.A.C.'s hangar, we asked where we could find Gus and were told he was in the main office. Upon entering the office, Gus greeted us with a whoop.
"Hot damn! You boys made it!," he hollered.
"Hello, you must be Gus," Pete said in his most formal Canadian accent. "I'm Pete and this is Ron, the copilot I spoke to you about on the phone."
He extended his hand to each of us and, after a firm handshake, asked Pete, "You're both qualified in a 3, right?"
He reminded me of a west Texas bronco-riding rodeo star, right down to the jeans, belt buckle, and cowboy boots. His west Texas country twang was fascinating to listen to. He was very open and friendly, slapping us on the back and speaking to us as if he had known us for years. He had a handsome, leathery face and walked like a bronco rider who had just been thrown. The next rodeo you see, watch how they walk after being thrown and you'll get the idea.
"I didn't think you boys were goin' to make it! I called Atkins in McAllen trying to rustle me up some pilots and he gave you a good recommendation, Pete. He said you always brought the airplanes back. I got a loaded DC-3 outside with your name on it. You got to be in Vera Cruz by 4:00 am. Can you handle it?," he drawled. "We're ready if you are, Gus," Pete told him, somewhat reserved.
"Do you boys mind takin' her around the patch one time for me to check you out?," Gus asked, raising his eyebrows as if in apology.
Pete looked at me, then at Gus. When I nodded, Pete told him, "No problem Gus. But, if we're going to make Vera Cruz by 4:00 am, we'd better get a move-on."
"Let's do it, then!," Gus hollered as he quickly moved for the door.
Pete and I followed him out the door as he headed down the flight line towards another hangar. We walked along several rows of ancient Beech 18's, T-Bones, Queen Aires and DC-3's. I felt like I was on a tour of aviation yesteryear, only it was dark. Seeing all these old majestic airplanes, sitting quietly in the dark, waiting their turn to fly south into danger gave me a shiver. It began to sink in that the adventure I had been yearning for was about to begin. It didn't take any particular effort on my part other than to roll with the flow of circumstances. I wondered often if I would survive the trip, but never even considered backing out. This is the kind of stuff that Errol Flynn did in the Caribbean, Bogart did in Marseilles, and Rod Taylor did out of Africa. I wouldn't miss it for the world.
"Here she is boys!," Gus drawled, as he raised his hand toward the airplane in introduction. "Only forty-thousand hours on her! Ain't she a beauty!?"
In the dark it was hard to tell.
Pete and I walked around the DC-3, 42V, giving her a very thorough preflight using our flashlights. I jumped up on the wings to check the oil while Pete checked the tires and flight control surfaces. Satisfied that it would probably fly, Pete spoke to Gus confidently, "Looks OK to me, Gus. Is it OK to you, Fox?"
"Looks OK to me, Pete," I yelled from the top of the wing.
Gus opened the cabin door behind the wing and turned on the cabin lights. I couldn't believe what I saw. There was a pile of square objects wrapped in brown paper, each about three feet square, solidly stacked almost all the way to the ceiling and all the way across the cabin. The last eight feet of the stack was tapered like stair steps down to just one layer at the rear of the cabin which almost reached the door. This was one full puppy.
"You take em' out of the boxes, huh?," I asked Gus.
"Yeah, the boxes take up too much room. We can pack em' much tighter with paper," Gus responded, obviously proud of the packing of the airplane. "There's three hundred and seventy-five, twenty-five inch color TV's in here," he beamed.
"How much does all this shit weigh?," I asked him, shocked at the load.
"Hopefully not much over ten thousand pounds," he chuckled. "We've flown this much before, lots of times. Don't you get to worryin', now. It'll fly!"
I was left to ponder where I had heard similarly optimistic words before as Gus climbed up the stack to the ceiling. The loaders had thoughtfully left a tunnel on top about two feet high and about three feet wide at the center.
"You'll find that this is the hardest part of the whole trip, gettin' to the cockpit," he grunted as he crawled up into the tunnel head first.
Pete looked at me just shrugging his shoulders and followed Gus up the stack into the tunnel, dragging his flight kit in with him. I closed the door and followed them, the TV's creaking as I stepped on them, thinking to myself that this was the darndest thing I had ever seen.
There wasn't enough room in the tunnel to crawl. We had to pull ourselves along, sliding towards the flight deck on our stomachs.
When I reached the flight deck, Gus and Pete were already standing there watching me. There wasn't enough room in the tunnel to turn around and come down feet first. I was planning to grab hold of the radio rack on my way down and slide around to land feet first in a suave move. Instead, missing a hold on the radio rack, I slid down the stack head first, landing on the flight deck floor with a crash. The papers in my flight kit scattered all over the place, as well as my flashlight, maps, pens, gum, and all the other junk in my kit. Pete and Gus were both howling with laughter. "Son of a gun!," I exclaimed with a sheepish grin, wiping the dirt off myself. I was sweating like mad. My shirt tail was pulled out. My hair was a mess and I had dirt all over me.
"Welcome, Grace," Pete chided, and they laughed again.
Gus stepped aside and waved his arm with a flourish towards the pilot seats. Pete got in the left seat and I got in the right. After we had belted ourselves in, Gus kneeled between our seats to watch us work.
Pete and I got out our Air Texana DC-3 checklists and he called for the Before Start checklist. I rapidly read aloud the items and Pete checked each one, crisply stating each appropriate response.
Looking out the left side window, Pete blurted out "Starting one!," as he hit the starter for the left engine. I watched his head nod through the rotation of each blade as he counted them. "Nine blades," he said, as he turned on the ignition.
After a wheeze or two, the engine fired up with a roar and then settled down into a rhythmic chug. After ensuring the oil pressure was up, he called, "Starting two!"
I counted the blades as they passed through bottom center and, counting 9 blades, I responded with, "Nine blades."
Pete repeated the same procedure for the right engine and immediately called for the After Start Checklist which we quickly finished.
He then asked for the Before Taxi Checklist, and we repeated the same ritual.
Gus was impressed.
I pulled out my weight and balance worksheets that Air Texana used and started filling in numbers.
"You might as well forget that shit," Pete said. "The graphs won't go high enough for you to figure out our C.G. and you don't want to know what our gross weight is."
I put them away.
As Pete gunned the engines and pulled out of our parking space and onto the taxiway, I missed the familiar bounce I was used to feeling in our Air Texana DC- 3's. This sucker was glued to the ground. The struts were so squashed at this weight, they didn't provide much of a cushion. The last time I had been in a DC-3 that felt this heavy was out of Honolulu International in an over-loaded Navy C-117D six years ago. That was the night of my 52 second takeoff roll, a personal record I would never forget. That night, had we lost an engine in our slow climbing turn, we surely would have taken out at least one or two high-rise hotels on Waikiki Beach. To say I was uncomfortable tonight would be quite an understatement, but I was a novice in this game, determined not to appear overly cautious. I kept quiet, trusting in Pete, who had been here before, to keep the shiny side up. I tried to maintain a crisp, professional demeanor, hoping my frequent swallowing did not reveal my increasing alarm.
The tower had been closed for hours, so radio communication wasn't necessary. We pulled into the run-up area just short of the runway and stopped. Pete ran the engines through a mag check and exercised the props and, satisfied, called for the Before Takeoff Checklist.
We quickly ran through the checklist and took the runway. Pete looked over at me and said, "You ready, Fox?"
"Ready, Pete," I responded, trying to keep the nervousness out of my voice.
Pete advanced the throttles slowly and smoothly close to takeoff power and yelled, "Takeoff Power." The engines were roaring and the plane was bucking, straining against the brakes.
I put my left hand on the throttles below Pete's hand and advanced the throttles to takeoff power, responding with, "Power's set," yelling myself.
The airplane crawled, picking up speed very slowly. We were at least a third of the way down the runway before Pete could get the tail up by pushing almost all the way forward on the yoke. We were halfway down the runway before the tail would stay up with the yoke in a normal position. We weren't even up to 60 knots yet. We were two thirds of the way down the runway before we hit 80. Pete held it on the ground until we were less than a thousand feet from the end of the runway and looked over at me, saying with a smile, "No sense in wasting all this runway," and pulled it off the ground. We had plenty of speed to climb, but it was an awful slow climb. We were climbing at perhaps 300 feet per minute at full takeoff power when Pete called, "Gear up!," still yelling.
As I yanked the landing gear lever up, I repeated, "Gear up!" Our climb increased to maybe 400 feet per minute, still at takeoff power. The engines were howling and heating up fast in the warm, humid air.
We started a slow left turn, climbing up to a wide pattern altitude of a thousand feet almost two miles from the airport before Pete called, "METO power!."
I set METO (Maximum Except Takeoff) power and responded with, "METO power set!"
It took METO power all the way around the pattern just to hold altitude. I knew we must be rattling windows all over town. By the time we reached half way down the runway in the opposite direction, Pete called, "Gear down!" As I put the landing gear down, I repeated, "Gear down!," and made sure we had two green lights.
"Landing checklist," yelled Pete.
I went through the items quickly on the checklist, calling out each item as it was accomplished.
Now well past the runway, Pete started a gentle, descending turn back towards the airport, pulling off just a little power, demanding: "Half flaps!." We slowly sunk towards the runway.
"Half flaps!," I responded as I put them down halfway.
At 500 feet, Pete called, "Full Flaps!"
"Full flaps!," I responded putting them down all the way.
Pete brought the airplane down close to the runway going very fast but held it off, the nose rising as the airspeed bled off. He set her down with a soft thump and let the tail down easy as we lost more speed. It wasn't a greaser like most of the landings at Air Texana, but at this weight it was more important to get on the runway and the weight off the wings and onto the tires so we could brake.
"After landing," Pete ordered, finally being able to use a more normal volume.
I responded by accomplishing the checklist out loud.
While we were taxiing back in, Gus expressed his amazement, "Darn it, boys, you're good! I've never seen two pilots working together so well! You ain't gonna have any trouble at all! You wanna top her off, Pete?"
"I figure we must have used a half-hour's cruise fuel in just ten minutes, so I believe I will."
"Good thinkin', boy. Just leave her in front of the hangar and I'll send my truck out." Gus seemed secure and very pleased at his luck at finding us.
With that, Gus climbed the stack, entered the tunnel and was gone.
Pete parked the airplane in front of the hangar and shut the engines off. When the parking checklist was done, he turned to me and said, "This is a milk-run, Fox. We're going into Vera Cruz International Airport. No dirt strips, no rough roads. Just almost two miles of concrete! There'll be airplanes all over the place and we'll be well protected. We're Blue Star Two and will go in just 10 minutes after Blue Star One. No surprises, no sweat. What do you think?"
"It feels like she flies like a pregnant whale," I told him. "I'd hate to lose one on takeoff," referring to an engine.
"I'd hate to lose one period!," he replied. "This sucker won't fly on one, but then, we don't want to live forever, do we Fox?."
"I laughed and said, "Fuck no, man, not me." We both laughed and waited for the gas truck. 42V had what they call Pan Am wings. That is, it had four four- hundred gallon gas tanks, two in each wing. We had over 8 hours of fuel with full tanks and always left with them full to the top.
After we were topped off, Pete fired 42V up again, paying close attention to our checklists just as if Gus were sitting there with us. Pete was a professional. I was surprised to see him take his shirt off and pull out a blue paisley bandanna and tie it around his head.
He looked at me and laughed. "I'm going to be sweating for the next few hours. You should be, too!"
He took a silver St. Christopher's medal from around his neck and hung it on a switch on the instrument panel. Waving at Gus, he gunned the engines and we were off in a cloud of blue smoke.
It was a half hour later before we reached our cruising altitude of 9,500 feet. I kept a close eye on the engine instruments. They were running warm, but not hot.
Pete pulled out a sectional map of eastern Mexico and started showing me the main cities along the coast as we passed them. We were about 50 miles off the coast. Pete didn't want to get too far out over the gulf in case we lost an engine. He stated that if we did lose one, we probably wouldn't find anywhere to land, but it just made him more comfortable.
He showed me the location of the Posa Rica VOR and a couple of radio stations we could use to get a bearing with the ADF. Other than that, there were only visual landmarks to guide us. That and the constellation Southern Cross, which he pointed out to me.
Tampico glided by looking like a treasure chest full of jewels. Jalapa looked like several necklaces draped through the mountains as we passed it. In the distance we could just begin to see the glow of Vera Cruz when Pete started briefing me on our procedures for getting into Vera Cruz.
"We head straight for the airport and when we reach the ten mile arc, we turn west and follow the arc around. That will get us past the army base," Pete hollered over the engines. "We go all the way around to south of the airport and turn towards it when we hit the one-hundred-eighty degree radial. We proceed due north lined up with the runway on final approach, no lights. At about two miles out, we say over the radio, 'two miles', and nothing else. Juan, the tower operator will turn on the runway lights for us. When we land, we taxi back to the south end of the runway and pull off into the run-up area with all the other airplanes being unloaded. We get unloaded and get the hell out of there. Since we're over the city, we don't use any aircraft lights at any time. Got it?," he asked.
"Got it, Pete," I answered. "When do we call Blue Star?"
"Just about now, twenty minutes out."
He picked up the hand-held FM radio and barked into the mouthpiece, "Blue Star, this is Blue Star Two, we're twenty minutes out."
"Blue Star, this is Blue Star Two."
Suddenly I heard the tinny voice responding, "Blue Star Two, this is Blue Star. We are backed up on the ramp, so you must slow down as much as you can, over."
"OK, Blue Star, we'll slow down. The latest we can get there is twenty five minutes. Is that OK?," Pete asked. There was worry wrinkling his brow.
"That will work," the tinny voice replied.
"They must be backed up unloading airplanes on the ramp," Pete told me. "These cluster-heads can turn messy sometimes." He was not happy.
About eighty miles out we started a slow descent at minimum power and speed. If those other cities had looked like treasure chests, this one looked like a bazaar right out of the Arabian Nights. There were thousands of brightly colored lights spreading out in all directions, with seemingly little harmony to a plan. It was if a hundred treasure chests full of jewels had been dumped in a pile.
Pete turned the aircraft to the right to adjust our course off of a direct bearing from Brownsville. "No sense in getting in anybody's way that's heading back home. No one's got any lights on and there's been a steady stream of aircraft arriving here half the night. You remembering all this, Fox?," he asked, looking at me with raised eyebrows.
"I ain't missing a thing, Pete," I answered. "It's like the first time you make love to a woman. You never forget the smallest details!"
"Yeah, but if you miss some of these details, you'll end up with a whole lot more than disappointment, pal."
Pete seemed to be getting more nervous than I had ever seen him. I was more nervous than the proverbial long-tailed polecat in a room full of rocking chairs, but my excuse was ignorance. Everything was making me scared and I didn't know just how dangerous this deal was.....yet. I half- expected to be shot down, crash or be captured before the night was over and had no idea what would happen next.
Descending through five thousand feet, about twenty miles from the airport, I could clearly see the city streets, the coastline, the buildings and car lights moving around. It wasn't much different than a night arrival in Kansas City. Looking into a black sky, people may not have been able to see us, but they could sure hear us. A DC-3 isn't exactly a quiet airplane. I felt like an invader from another planet on a first contact mission, thinking to myself, 'If they could only see me, they'd freak'. If they did see me, I'd freak. At the ten mile arc, Pete turned the aircraft sharply to the right and once more spoke into the FM radio, "Blue Star, this is Blue Star Two, we're starting our ten mile arc. We should be there in less than ten minutes."
"Roger, Blue Star Two," the radio crackled. "We'll be ready."
Tuning in the tower frequency on our VHF radio, Pete spoke into our regular microphone, "Juan, this is Blue Star Two on the ten mile arc. We'll be there in five minutes."
"Blue Star Two, this is Juan. Give me a call on a two mile final for the lights."
Pete kept the aircraft on an exact ten mile arc circling west of the city center at five thousand feet. Looking at me, he said, "Put three sixty in my VOR and track our radials with yours. Let me know when we're twenty radials off and then when the course is alive. We don't want to overshoot the final."
I tuned the VOR frequencies in our nav radios and began tracking our bearing from the airport. I realized how excited I was when I kept dialing past the frequency numbers on the radios.
At twenty degrees from our inbound final course, I told Pete, "Twenty degrees," trying to keep my voice calm and professional.
A few moments later I told him, "Final course alive," and he began turning the aircraft in a tighter left bank to intercept our final course to the runway. I could tell where the airport was, but there was no way to tell where the runways were because none of the runway or taxiway lights were on. Spooky stuff.
I realized why Pete was concentrating so hard on his course and altitude as we descended closer to the airport. Two miles isn't a whole lot of time to make final adjustments for a runway you couldn't see.
At precisely two miles on the DME, Pete said, "Tell him we're two miles."
Grabbing the mike I said, "Juan, Blue Star Two is two miles."
In an instant I saw the runway lights come on. They were dim, but we could see them. Pete had done a great job of lining up because he made little corrections to his alignment or glidepath. In less than two minutes, Pete thumped us on the runway and began heavy braking.
"The closer we get to the other end of the runway, the closer we get to the airport troop barracks," he commented, stopping the aircraft in the first third of the runway and turning around.
We taxied back to the approach end of the runway and there was a sight to behold. There were three DC-3's parked in a semi-circle at the outer edges of the run-up area adjacent to the runway. Inside of those were a couple of Beech 18's, two or three T-Bones and a Baron or two. An army of unloaders were throwing TV's and car stereos everywhere. There were several big trucks and twice as many pickup trucks moving around the ramp either parking near the tails of airplanes or moving away from them after loading.
"Where in the hell are we going to park?," Pete exclaimed. Just about then we were hit with a powerful beam of light from Julian's Q-beam flashlight and it guided us to a parking space which was on the very end of the runway.
Looking down the taxiway, I saw several more airplanes parked along it, almost a third of the way down its length with more trucks and more lines of people throwing brown packages. As an airplane was emptied, it would taxi past us onto the runway and take off.
When we got parked, I opened my side window for a better view of the show and was greeted by the sound of several airplanes with their engines idling loudly. Ground crew leaders were shouting orders everywhere and some guys were honking their horns in the trucks. This was not my idea of covert operations. They couldn't have made much more noise if they had hired a band. Pete reached into his flight kit and brought out a six- pack of Lite beer. Handing it to me, he told me, "Crawl out there and find Julian and give this to him. It's kind of a tradition we started years ago."
"Who the hell is Julian, and how will I find him?" I asked in a pathetic voice. I felt as if my commanding officer had just ordered me on a suicide mission, deep into enemy territory, with no hope of success.
"He's the guy with the Q-beam in the red truck. You won't have to find him, he'll find you. He loves this stuff."
With the six-pack in hand, I crawled up into the crawl-tunnel at the top of the stack of TV's and proceeded down the grade. About half-way down I was greeted by several sets of hands grabbing TV's. With as much grace as I could muster, I stumbled down the end of the stack and walked to the tail of the airplane, ducking flying TV's as I went. I waited a moment to time my jump out of the door between flying TV's and plopped to the ground, ending up on all fours. All of the unloaders were young, poorly dressed men who looked at me strangely as I picked myself up and headed for Julian's red truck. As I approached him, he was leaning against the seat at the open door with a big grin on his face.
"Julian?," I asked in a voice that I was sure belied my wonder at everything that was going on around me.
"Yes, yes!," he answered in greeting. "Ron?," he asked, rolling the R off his tongue, trying to say my name with its English sound as he offered his hand.
I was surprised that he knew my name and I could only shake his hand in wonder. I must have looked a sight to him. My head was moving quickly, to take in all the sights, my eyes darting from one sight to another.
"How's Pete?," he asked, looking at the six pack in my left hand.
"Oh!, yeah," I replied as I remembered my mission and gave him the beer. "Pete's doing great."
"This your first trip?," Julian asked me as he pulled off a can of beer and handed it to me.
I knew it. He could tell. All this bravado bullshit for nothing, I thought. "Yeah, this is amazing," I said as I looked around again, accepting the offered beer. 'When in Rome', I thought to myself.
I opened the beer and took a long pull. I had never enjoyed a warm beer before, but this provided great relief to my dry throat and it tasted great.
"Do you ever have any trouble with so many air planes here?," I asked him.
"No, never any trouble here. This will be the safest place you ever come to," he said smiling.
Hearing the big truck gun its engine to move away from our aircraft, I turned around to see it pulling off and saw about a dozen Mexicans jumping out the door. I gulped down most of the rest of my beer and looked around for somewhere to throw the can.
Julian pointed to the bed of his truck and, as he offered his hand again, said, "Good-bye, my friend." He had a heavy Mexican accent, but he had been careful to practice his English impeccably.
I shook his hand and said, "See ya," and ran for our airplane. I jumped in, pulled up the steps, and closed the door. Looking up into the huge empty cabin, I was amazed at how many TV's it must have taken to fill it up.
Wasting no time, I ran up to the flight deck and jumped into my seat, buckling myself in.
Before I was strapped in, Pete had gunned the engines and told Juan in the tower that we were taking off.
Lining up with the runway, Pete smoothly applied full power and began racing down the runway, rapidly accelerating, now that we were empty. I had forgotten how quickly an empty DC-3 could fly. When Pete pulled back on the yoke, the airplane leaped into the air and as soon as we broke ground he had us heading out towards the water in a steep climb.
Calling for METO power and the Climb Checklist, Pete yelled at me over the engines, "Was it as good for you as it was for me?," and laughed a hearty laugh.
"This is great!," I yelled back. My relief at being airborne, heading home had brought me to a state of elation. The adrenalin that had been pumping through me for hours was hitting its peak and I felt like the cat that had swallowed the canary.
After climbing up to a high cruising altitude, Pete told me I might as well go back to the cabin and try to get some sleep. In just the 15 minutes it had taken us to climb to eleven thousand feet, I could feel the beginning of the downside slide. The excitement was over.
"Good idea, Pete, if you're sure you'll be all right up here alone."
"No problem, Pal. I'll be awake until payday."
I unbuckled and went back into the cavernous cabin. I turned off the cabin lights, took off my flight jacket and rolled it up for a pillow and lay down on the floor to sleep. The gentle swaying of the aircraft in the smooth air of high altitude normally would have made me drowsy, but I couldn't make myself drift off. I kept thinking about what we had just done. All the details of our mission kept running around in my head. One vivid icture
after another flashed in my mind and I soon realized that sleep was impossible.
I pulled out some paper from my flight jacket and, after turning the light back on, began writing down some of the details of this adventure. I wrote down my feelings, my fears, my sense of excitement, and wonder. I likened my feelings to those I had of driving away from my high school graduation or to those I had of starting my first cross-country flight. I wrote that I predicted I wouldn't be able to let this adventure end here. I was soon to realize that I couldn't.
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.