There and Back Again



Cpt. McTeer

How a Canadian pilot beat the odds and flew half a ton of Jamaican ganja
into Florida. . .

There and Back Again

The first in a Series of the Outlawry
Adventures of Alan McTeer, excerpted from the soon to be published “Red
Zone”

aztec



I had lost my respect for the law and the police force at
the age of 19, when an over sealous RCMP constable named Orville Nickle
caught me speeding and beat my head into the top of a police car until I was
unconscious.

Noon, December 24, 1979.West Palm Beach International Airport, Florida.We were cleared for takeoff. I pushed the throttles smoothly forward and felt the acceleration, proud that I had thought to have the engines tuned up. The twin engine Piper Aztec was running perfectly. We accelerated quickly down the runway and leapt into the air. I was excited beyond belief; it was my first mission. We were on our way to Jamaica.

We were to fly around Cuba, land in Jamaica, pick up as much marijuana as the little plane would hold and fly it back to the United States, land, then unload – all without being detected by radar or spotted by a surveillance plane. As the small aircraft climbed through 1000 feet we heard air traffic control telling us that we were no longer in their radar services. This was their way of saying good-bye.

We flew down the beach past Fort Lauderdale, edging further and further away from the beach on a south easterly heading. As we crept closer to the Bahamas the water turned from the beautiful aqua to a darker blue where it met the gulf stream. The water here was over 3000 feet deep and moving north at 4 knots.

Fifteen minutes out of West Palm Beach we started our descent. We flew down to 50 feet, then made a left turn and entered the Bermuda Triangle on our way to Bimini Island. At this altitude the radar couldn’t see us.

The trip to Bimini was quite uneventful, but the scenery was spectacular. There were sailboats, yachts, fishing boats, and cruise ships. We passed right by them and they waved at us. If only they knew!

We flew alongside Bimini Island, keeping about a mile between us and the shore. The view from the little airplane was incredible. Leaving Bimini, I took a heading directly towards Great Anauga, the most southerly island in the Bahamas, almost 500 miles away.

We climbed very slowly to avoid radar contact, taking almost an hour to reach 10,500 feet which was the optimum altitude for a long range cruise. Jamaica was approximately 900 miles away by the route I was taking and the airplane had fuel for 1210. The airplane’s auto pilot was broken so I had to hand fly it the whole way.

The trip from Bimini Island to Great Anauga would take between three and three and a half hours, depending on winds. We flew along for what seemed like an eternity. Andros Island came and went; a huge island, over a hundred miles long. From here on there would be very little to see. Nothing but a little instrument pointing in one direction.

I followed my instrument and saw some small islands along the way. I thought I saw Great Exuma and then Long Island, and further on Atkins Island. Little Cays would pop up here and there, but most were too small for anything except making the blue water turn to white.

For half the trip we were over top of the great Bahamas bank and the water was much more shallow and beautiful. When we encountered the deeper water it took on a darker more sinister hue.

If anything went wrong no one would know. We didn’t have a flight plan and weren’t in radio communication with anyone. We didn’t even have a life raft. This was a totally clandestine trip and the more I thought about it the more excited I became. Having passed the point of no return for the fuel we were carrying we were now totally alone. It was up to us. I loved it.

But that was me. For most of my twenty eight years of age I had lived on the edge. My mother once told me that, of her eight children, I was the one she didn’t think would make it. She was convinced my sense of adventure and risk-taking would put me in an early grave. Despite her fears, I had always managed to beat the odds.

I had lost my respect for the law and the police force at the age of 19, when an over zealous RCMP constable named Orville Nickle caught me speeding and beat my head into the top of a police car until I was unconscious.

After seeing how the courts and the RCMP handled this and other matters, I was convinced that they were the bad guys. These people would lie, cheat, and steal just to show how powerful they were. It was by their actions they they had become my enemies, but it was by my own choice that I became a smuggler.

First it was auto parts and alcohol from the United States to Canada, but that soon developed into marijuana. My first trip was from Vancouver to Colorado, where we picked up two hundred pounds of Mexican low grade gold. The next two trips were to California for more Mexican pot.

The prices were high on the West Coast though, which had led me to where I was today, risking my life to get this wonderful plant to a few needy friends back in Canada.

I wondered about Marvin, the man sitting beside me. Why was he risking his life on such a nice day? I had met Marvin and his partner Wilbur only five days earlier when I had first arrived in Florida. If I had to describe Marvin in one word it would be quiet, but whether he was afraid or in deep thought I was never able to tell. He answered all my questions with a yes or a no. I would have to work to get to know this guy.

Wilbur, Marvin and I were connected through my partners back in Canada, and had spent the last few days getting to know each other. Wilbur had introduced me to two Cuban brothers who had Jamaican connections. One of the Cubans would fly on the airlines to Jamaica to secure the landing strip and meet us upon our arrival, while the other Cuban would meet and unload the airplane upon its return to Florida.

It quickly became obvious that these people were professional smugglers; they had all the right answers to my questions. Or it might have just been my inexperience that made it easy for them to convince me that they knew what they were doing.

The winds had been a little worse than I thought, but we reached Anauga almost on schedule. We had been in the air almost four hours, burning 96 of the 140 gallons of fuel. With 44 gallons of fuel left and 250 nautical miles to go we still had enough fuel to make the trip.

I changed my heading towards Haiti. Off to my right was Cuba and Guantanamo Bay, a United States Naval Station with radar and intereception aircraft that has haunted Fidel for years. I flew down the windward passage and took a direct route to Jamaica.

This seemed like the longest part of the trip. The anticipation was killing me. The seconds passed slowly, making the last two hours seem like ten.

The thunderstorm activity became more obvious the closer we got to Jamaica. We descended down until we were below the huge black clouds, then flew under the thunderstorm until we picked up the beach. Visibility was about 1000 feet, not great. Light rain and lightning were everywhere.

We heard a noise coming out of the bushes in front of
us. We both looked and saw a man in a red uniform; it was the police! I
could feel my heart pounding, and before I knew it Marvin had fired two
rounds in the air.

I spotted the coast just east of Port Antonio, and flew until I saw the valley that I would fly up to the little airport marked on my map. I had never been to Jamaica before, but I knew where I was.

The Cubans had told me it was an uphill strip and that I wouldn’t be able to miss it. I was to just fly up the valley, and there it would be. The one thing they didn’t tell me was that there would be thunder, lightning and heavy rain in the area.

Once I started up the valley I was pretty much obligated to continue, as it was very narrow and it would have been extremely difficult to turn around. We went up the valley for what seemed likealong time. The rain was pounding on the front windshield.

I looked to my right and there was the little airport, exactly where it was supposed to be. I turned toward it, lowering the landing gear and the flaps. I already had the airplane slowed to about 130 miles an hour, so I reached approach speed almost instantly.

I reduced power and started down towards the runway. I decided to get level with the base of the runway, gain a little bit of speed, and fly up to it. I had never done an uphill landing before but I had read about them, so this would be a piece of cake. Besides, I had nowhere else to go.

We flew over the beginning of the runway and kept the power on at a fairly high setting. We were now flying uphill. The wheels contacted the runway a little harder than normal, but it was still a good landing.

We needed a lot of power to taxi to the end of the runway because of the steepness of the hill. The actual usable length of the runway was only about 1000 feet, but the slope made it better than a 10,000 foot runway.

We turned off the runway onto the fueling pad at the top of the hill where the ground was level. It was a large circle, almost a U shape, that left the runway, made its U and then joined the runway at the very top. There were gas pumps in the middle of the U which we pulled up to. No one was in sight.

I looked at Marvin, who had been silent the entire trip, and wondered if he was scared or worried the way I was. The place looked abandoned.

We shut the engine off and quickly got out of the airplane. Marvin was armed with a 9mm pistol, and informed me he had an Uzi inside the plane. He asked if I wanted it, I replied “No, thanks.”

All the Jamaicans I had met and all the stories I had heard about them told me they were peaceful people. If this was a setup the last thing I’d want to wave at the military would be a machine gun.

We heard a noise coming out of the bushes in front of us. We both looked and saw a man in a red uniform, it was the police! I could feel my heart pounding, and before I knew it Marvin had fired two rounds into the air.

The cop raised his hands and yelled back, “No man! No man! I’m with your people!” The Cuban emerged from the bush, yelling “Put the gun away!” Marvin was very apprehensive and was crawling into the airplane to get his Uzi. He had shot first and was asking questions later: a typical American.

It was the first time I had ever seen this much pot – over
1000 pounds. He opened one bale to show me that it was marijuana and it
surely was. Green Gold. There were plenty of stems and seeds, but it was
sticky and it looked good.

I finally convinced Marvin to put his guns away and start unloading the seats from the airplane. I walked out to the Jamaican and he informed me that he was the policeman that patrolled the area, and he was here to protect us and make sure we were safely loaded.

He led me around what was once thick jungle into a small road entrance where they had a cart filled with bales of marijuana. The bales were of all different shapes and sizes, most of them big and pillowy.

It was the first time I had ever seen this much pot, there was over 1000 pounds. He opened one bale to show me that it was marijuana and it surely was. Green gold. There was plenty of stems and seeds, but it was sticky and it looked good.

Because of the steepness of the hill it took five young Jamaicans to help push the cart that was being pulled by a skinny little mule. They then started throwing bales to Marvin who stuffed them into the plane.

While they were loading the plane the young Cuban and I went to the fuel pumps. They were locked, so we asked the cop if he knew where the key was. No one knew, so I went into the cockpit of the airplane and took out the hatchet that I carried in case I ever crashed in the water and had to cut my way out of the window.

Marvin asked me what I was doing, and when I told him he quickly jumped off the airplane with his gun, ready to shoot the lock off. “No, no!” I yelled, “you’ll blow us up.” I recognized the smell of gas. “Let me break the lock with the hatchet and you load the airplane.”

I gave the lock a couple of solid hits with the hatchet and it popped open. Two of the young Jamaicans pulled the hose to the wing and started fueling the plane. I made sure they filled the tanks to the very top as we needed every ounce we could get. We had now completed the first part of our mission. On to part two…

We had one thousand and fifty-four pounds of pot on board. The nose compartment was full and the back was full right up to our seats. The option of opening a door and throwing out the cargo was no longer available to us; we were too full. We were either going to make it, get arrested, or die trying, but we were going.

Marvin and I were soaked, a little from the rain, which had now stopped, but mostly from our own perspiration. It was the first time I had ever experienced such high humidity. The storm was starting to clear over the airport. We had been on the ground less than thirty minutes.

I started the engines and taxied into takeoff position. There wouldn’t be much to this takeoff, one push on those accelerators and we’d be obligated. There would be no stopping once we had started down this steep hill.

I applied full power but left the flaps up, knowing that I’d have lots of speed and wouldn’t need them. The airplane accelerated like nothing I’d ever seen. All that weight going downhill was amazing, we were doing 130 miles an hour before I knew it.

A quick jerk back on the column lifted us into the air. We weren’t climbing, but we were level and accelerating. I retracted the landing gear. We were moving down the valley at 180 miles per hour underneath the clouds.

I powered back from full power to economy cruise until we were clear of Port Antonio. The storm clouds had moved towards the windward passage and were right in front of us. It was starting to get dark. I had no choice, I had to gain altitude to get the needed fuel economy, or else we wouldn’t make it.

A Caribbean thunderstorm is a nasty creature, and this one
was no exception. We were in the clouds for 25 to 30 minutes. We bounced
upwards, downwards, sideways, at times almost going upside down. You name
it, we hit it.

We started our climb through the clouds. This little Piper Aztec had no radar on board, making it impossible to see where the worst of the storm was. My only option was to go straight and hope I didn’t hit the heart of the storm, which could easily knock us out of the sky.

A Caribbean thunderstorm is a nasty creature and this one was no exception. We were in the clouds for 25 to 30 minutes. We bounced upwards, downwards, sideways, at times almost going upsidedown. You name it, we hit it. We were only slightly above gross weight, which made the airplane feel good in the heavy turbulence, but how much could it take?

It was the most severe turbulence I had ever experienced in my life. The thought of turning around entered my mind, but left just as quickly. We had only one place to go and that was straight ahead. There were no other options.

Occasionally we’d catch a very big updraft and go up like a rocket ship. This made me feel good. Unfortunately, it was usually followed by a downdraft that made us go down like a rock. That didn’t make me feel so good.

We continued on until we broke out of the clouds at about 11,000 feet. It was totally dark now, I was flying on instruments.

Just when I thought everything was going well, Marvin informed me that we had a helicopter chasing us. I was stunned.

“Hold it,” I thought, “we just came through the worst storm I’d ever flown through in my entire life. This isn’t possible. There isn’t a helicopter made that can fly through turbulence and rain like we just flew through.”

I turned the plane to the right and Marvin said “There it is. They’re catching up to us!” With one look I knew it wasn’t a helicopter at all. Marvin was very new to flying and so didn’t understand that he was looking at the planet Venus.

I chuckled and said “Marvin, you better roll one baby. You’re getting a little too excited. That’s the Christmas Star.”

Marvin sat back and decided he would take my advice. We didn’t have any rolling papers so he used a part of one of my maps that I didn’t need.

It was a Jamaican spliff: about an inch across, tapering down to a half an inch at the base. Marvin lit it up as we flew towards Great Anauga. The smell of pot before he lit up was powerful and now it was intoxicating. Marvin sat back and relaxed for the first time.

We were off course by only a few miles. The wind had blown us to the northwest, and looking down I could see lights almost below us. It was Baracoa, the most southeastern point on Cuba. We had just flown over a US Naval base and were now illegally over Cuba. I wondered what Fidel must think of this activity.

It had been over three hours from Jamaica to Great Anauga. Fuel was now our biggest concern. I wasn’t at all worried about entering the United Sates, as I had spent four days preparing for this mission. Each day I flew from West Palm Beach out over the Bahamas and back again, along the exact route we would be taking today.

Upon returning to Florida I would fly close to the beach, gain altitude and then contact the tower, telling them that I was returning from Key Largo when actually I was returning from the Bahamas. Every time it was the same: “Cleared to land.” No helicopters, no customs, no DEA. So none of these things worried me.

I was, however, worried about fuel. The winds had been greater than I thought, and although the wind was now supposed to be on my tail, I had no real way of knowing. Without ground speed instruments I could only guess.

We flew along for another two and a half hours, occasionally seeing the lights of boats and small islands. With only about two and a half hours flying time remaining it was time to start down. I reduced power and began a gentle descent, trading altitude for distance.

We were coming down fairly slowly and with good air speed. My timing was excellent, as we arrived 100 feet off the water, twenty miles south of Bimini Island. This was right where I wanted to be. To air traffic controllers watching the coastal radar it would look like we were going to land on Bimini Island.

I flew along the side of the island, made a left turn, and headed towards Florida. Once we had made our turn away from the lights of the island my horizon was gone, so I was now flying on instruments. I took my heading and got down to fifty feet.

Marvin wasn’t saying a word. Fifty feet above the water at night is beyond dangerous. The slightest lack of concentration and we’d both be swimming.

My hands were wet with perspiration, not only from the tension, but also the warm, moist Caribbean air.

As we got closer to the coast the glow of lights became brighter, and I could soon see buildings. I continued on to intercept the coast at a right angle, somewhere between Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

I picked a spot between two of the apartment buildings and decided that was where I would cross the coast. We looked in at the people in the apartment buildings and some looked back out at us in amazement. Of course, in those days this wasn’t such rare sight in Southern Florida.

I had stayed away from the international airports and their radar, and we flew over houses and shopping centers until we were out over the everglades. I picked up the main highway coming down from Pompino Beach.

Flying low, I followed the road down to Miami’s alternate airport, a deserted runway that was used only for emergencies. I flew right down the middle of the runway, pulled up, and turned on my transponder. To the local air traffic controllers it would appear as though we had just taken off from this airport.

I continued on my southerly heading, gaining altitude to about 1000 feet where I slowed the airplane down. The needles on the gauges were bouncing between empty and one eighth, which looked good as the airport was only five minutes ahead. I could even see the runway from here.

I announced my arrival on the normal frequency but there was no reply. It was almost two o’clock Christmas morning, no-one was listening.

Suddenly we heard a familiar noise. A Helicopter! We both
looked up at the same time. It was cominng right at us, its spotlight
pointed straight down. Marvin and I decided to walk in the other direction
fairly quickly.

We landed and taxied cautiously to the parking spot that we had been shown only days before. After shutting the engines down we got out and looked around. There was no one in sight.

Suddenly we heard a familiar noise. A helicopter! We both looked up at the same time. It was coming right at us, its spotlight pointed straight down. Marvin and I decided to walk in the other direction fairly quickly.

The helicopter search light came down on us as we were walking, and I told Marvin “Be cool, just keep walking.” Just as the light went off us Marvin put his hands in the air, surrendering.

“Its just an accident! They’re not looking for us.” I told him to put his hands down as they hadn’t seen us. Marvin was shaking, so I tried to calm him.

We walked under the wing of a nearby airplane and stood and watched as the helicopter landed. It was the Sheriff’s Department helicopter, returning from a routine night. They had no idea who we were or what we were doing.

From our location we could hear them talking as they walked from their helicopter to the building. Luck was on our side.

We walked through the parking lot, looking for the van that contained the four Cubans who were supposed to unload the airplane. When we found them they were all excited. “Oh man, bad place to park,” whispered one of them.

“No shit,” I replied. “Right in front of the Sheriffs Department!”

One of them tried to tell us it was a good place because no-one would ever suspect us, while another admitted they hadn’t even known that the Sheriff’s Department was there.

It quickly got to the point where I asked “What are you guys going to do with this pot?” They said they were going to unload the plane.

They drove their van out onto the tarmac, stopped beside the airplane, and within minutes these four young Cubans had emptied the entire airplane. Marvin and I stayed back, our job was done.

As we circled over the airport and watched the van drive
off the airport property and enter the main highway. From the airplane we
could see that there was no tail; they were alone. We had made
it.

As they started to drive away we walked back to the airplane. I felt we had enough fuel to get back to West Palm Beach, which was only about a twenty minute flight.

We took off with the gauges bouncing. They were still above empty. The airplane was light: no fuel, no load, just two guys. It performed beautifully in the cool Florida evening.

We circled over the airport and watched the van drive off the airport property and enter the main highway. From the airplane we could see that there was no tail; they were alone. We had made it.

We flew up to West Palm Beach, got in our car, and drove to Wilbur’s house. Now it was Wilbur’s turn. His job was to drive down to Miami and collect our share. Marvin and I shared a big one then went to sleep.

Early the next morning Wilbur arrived with our share, 300 pounds. I took my portion and loaded it into six big smelly suitcases. Wilbur drove me to the airport in his station wagon, and we loaded the airplane in front of the whole world. No-one saw a thing.

The trip to Canada was three times longer than the trip to Jamaica and required three fuel stops. I flew all day and all night.

The smell in the airplane was unbelievable. The marijuana stunk even though we had it tightly wrapped in suitcases. Our little pine fresheners did little to combat the odour; I realized I would have to find a better way.

I arrived at Billings Montana about 11:30 the next morning. I was dead tired but I had to keep going, I had to get this load to Vancouver.

I left Montana and filed a flight plan which terminated in Colville, Washington. The radar service people told me they had lost me as I descended through 6,000 feet, so I knew there would be no radar coverage from here on. The valleys were getting steeper and the radar couldn’t penetrate.

I flew into Canada up the Columbia River Valley, staying 30 to 40 feet from the side of the mountain with the power greatly reduced. I was almost invisible.

I was still on the American side when I saw the Trail Airport. It looked beautiful. I reduced power even further and started my glide over the Waneta Dam and to the airport.

This was my back up airport. If there were problems in Vancouver I would unload here – after all it was my home town. I had family that I knew I could count on, but today there would be no need for them.

As usual, the airport was deserted. I pulled the nose up and applied power, heading north up the valley. Over Genelle I contacted Castlegar radio and filed a flight plan telling them I had just departed Trail Airport enroute to Vancouver.

Only ten days earlier I had flown from Vancouver to Trail on a flight plan. What could look more normal? I was returning to Vancouver. They would have no way of knowing where I had been in the last ten days. I chuckled.

The flight to Vancouver was uneventful but wonderfully exciting. This was the last leg of my mission. I didn’t want to jump the gun, but it looked like we had pulled it off.

Radio contact was intermittent as I passed over the coastal mountains. Within an hour I had picked up Vancouver approach control. A half hour later I taxied the airplane to the parking lot. I shut the airplane down and exited just as my partner pulled up in his car. We unloaded the suitcases quickly and drove to his house. The situation seemed so casual; we had made it.

The next day I would get up and fly mission number two. This turned out to be an exact repeat of the first one – only a little less exciting. But the third mission would prove to be very different.



aztec

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