SMUGGLER'S JOURNAL RETURN TO COLOMBIA
Born beneath the final approach to New York City's LaGuardia Airport, Bradford X saw and heard airplanes throughout his earliest awareness. During preadolescence, he built model planes, faithfully memorizing aircraft silhouettes and engine performance charts. After 11 years of retail drudgery (working for the family business), he migrated to Miami, where he attended flight school and studied airplane mechanics. Upon receiving his pilot and mechanic licenses, Bradford tried vainly to find a decent-paying legitimate job, but discovered the most profitable work available to him involved smuggling drugs out of Colombia. His first venture, undertaken with a pilot named Ozzie, proved a miserable failure. (Their overloaded Learstar crashed during takeoff at a remote jungle strip-see HIGH TIMES, Sept. `86). Undaunted, the duo immediately began plotting another dope run.
I met my new bosses, two brothers named Wing, in Los Angeles. They were rich landowners from a pioneer family. More important, they liked adventure and had faith in Ozzie. For a 60/40 split, they agreed to front money for an airplane and dope. Ozzie and I were supposed to do all the leg work and to contact the brothers only when monies were being paid or collected.
The best airplane we could afford was a Beech-18, a nine-passenger military transport also known as a Twin Beech. It is a popular bush-and-jungle airplane, noted especially for short field takeoffs and landings. In the military, the plane is called a C-45 and has a reputation as “one tough son of a bitch with wings.” (In Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman flies away in a Beech-18.) Ozzie knew of a large assortment of the planes at an airport near Cleveland, and we arrived in the dead of winter to buy one.
Winter in Ohio is always cold, but this one set records for harshness. The flat landscape was a white nightmare of blowing snow. We found a Beechraft at a very reasonable price. Unfortunately, however, the plane was buried under a mountain of snow and it was over a month before we were able to dig it out and start tuning it. During this period, we were sustained by happy thoughts of our return to balmy Colombia. By February, Ozzie and I were flying back to south Florida, where the Wing brothers were on hand with money. It took just two days to set up a deal with our Colombian contacts.
The sky was a brilliant turquoise as we flew over the south Atlantic. Ahead lay a vast green panorama of glossy, calm water. We passed near the Bahama Islands, a string of sandy pearls resting on a moist, flacid carpet. Not a bit of wind impeded that ugly little plane from its heading toward the Great Inagua radio beacon. The only clouds I saw that day were towering cumulus over Haiti and cumulus far off in the distance over Columbia. It was late afternoon when we landed on the same rugged Colombian jungle airstrip we’d visited in our first trip.
The hot air smelled of smoky campfires and decaying vegetation—-just as I’d remembered it. I was so happy I wanted to kiss the sandy clay earth and say “hello” to each of the giant cactus plants. Happiness turned to ecstasy when Señor Mauricio showed me one thousand pounds of golden buds. The plan was to spend the night in Colombia and get a fresh start in the morning.
As the tropical sun fell, the atmoshere became effervescent with hordes of hungry, bloodsucking
mosquitoes. The sky went out of focus as we were attacked by swarms of biting insects. The Colombian workers built large campfires and the smoke provided some relief. Ozzie found some winter clothing left inside the Beechcraft. We put on fur parkas, wrapped ourselves in blankets, and stood close to the roaring campfires—but to no avail. There was no defense against the carnivorous bliztkrieg. Soon, all exposed skin was covered with gore.
Out of sheer desperation I lit my first cigarette in five years. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t sleep. I reminded myself that I was a soldier of fortune, and that I hoped to be paid very handsomely for this night’s work. I took strength in the sight of the mountain of marijuana I would soon be transporting.
Just before dawn, the mosquitoes calmed down. I boarded the plane and checked the regular and auxiliary fuel tanks, as well as the tiedown of the cargo.
■ wi I e said goodby, vowing to return. Unlike
WW our previous trip, the takeoff was uneventful. As the heavily loaded Beechraft inched upward into the cool sky, I caught a glimpse of the ocean below, a polished sheet of blue tranquility. The ugly duck climbed into mosquito-free heaven at 70 miles per hour. Gear up, head north, and bring the cargo on home. In four hours we raised the south coast of Haiti. Now at least we knew we wouldn’t drown—we had radio guidance the rest of the way.
Three hours later, over Exuma Island, the left engine oil pressure began fluctuating. We were high enough and close enough for a shot at flying her on one motor, especially since we’d burned off most of our fuel load. But Ozzie thought differently, and headed for the first available island, where he landed against the established traffic pattern—which, in turn, alerted the local police and customs. A car filled with official black faces immediately started toward us from one end of the runway.
Ozzie spun around, gave the duck maximum power, and began a deadly game of runway chicken: airplane against automobile. The airplane “won,” but we cleared the car with only inches to spare. I looked down and saw numerous black fists pointed toward me. I checked the oil pressure. The gauge fluctuated wildly.
The next island was deserted, and I was able to get out and quickly put in six quarts of oil. This was only a temporary solution because over Miami, almost within sight of our destination, the oil pressure began wobbling again. We considered our options. We knew of a small training airport, Opalocka West, which is located near Miami International. Student pilots use if for touch-and-go landings.
Ozzie performed another downwind guerilla landing, almost colliding with an airplane coming out the other way. I got out and put in another six quarts of oil. We quickly took off and headed for our final destination.
After landing on a remote dirt strip deep in the Everglades, we unexpectedly found no one to meet us. According to the plan, a South African gentleman with a station wagon was supposed to await our arrival. But there was no station wagon here. We were alone in an exposed location with an airplane full of dope. “Now what?” shouted the deafening quiet. We needed ground transporation! We’d gotten the dope to America, what the fuck more did we have to do?!
We unloaded the pot and hid it in the jungle.
Ozzie flew out to get help. I was to babysit.
It got dark quickly and I felt very much alone. For safety, I moved the cargo deeper into the bush. Fortunately, Florida mosquitoes were pussies compared to their Colombian cousins. I found an old, junked truck for shelter and fell asleep.
Morning came and I woke to find myself enveloped in the primal beauty of swamp life. I sat, waited, and grew increasingly scared. My thoughts turned to food. I had visions of hot coffee, ham, and soft scrambled eggs. Suddenly I realized I hadn’t eaten in over two days and I had nothing on me but cigarettes and matches. Man, did I smoke!
While exploring the area, I discovered myself surrounded on all sides by swamp, quicksand, and low vegetation in standing black water. I didn’t know what was happening in the outside world, but I sure hoped Ozzie was moving heaven and earth to get me out of this place.
Ozzie and the third morning arrived simultaneously. He brought a beer, a Big Mac and the youngest of the Wing brothers. Because of the soft mud, it had been impossible for them to drive into the swamp and they’d been forced to walk 18 miles from the main road. Now we had to hide the dope and walk the 18 miles back.
A big, warm Cadillac sedan waited us in Alligator Alley. Inside were sandwiches, coffee, and a bottle of rum. I crawled into a warm coat. The owner of the Cadillac was a professional smuggler I’d met previously under social circumstances. He was a definite mover and doer and operated under the code name “The Elephant.” Boy, was I glad to see him.
The Elephant took complete charge of everything, renting a paramedic truck, a four-wheel drive vehicle, and purchasing a cable winch. The convoy started back through the quagmire to remove the precious cargo. Twice it was necessary
to use the winch to pull the truck out of the mud.
We arrived to find the dope undisturbed. Ozzie, myself, and the young Wing brother simply loaded the truck and drove out of the swamp. The amazing part was that now everything worked so smoothly. On the entire trip to Pompano Beach, Florida, a distance of more than 100 miles, no official car of any kind was seen. Good thing, since the inspection sticker on the truck was expired.
The cargo was delivered to a gas station in Pomano Beach and I proudly added my name to the list of smuggers—a profession as old as the invention of borders between nations.
Back home with my wife and dogs, I received the proper welcome of a soldier returning home from the wars. The next day Ozzie, the Wing brothers, The Elephant and the South African were on hand and a loud argument ensued over the split of the money. In later years, I would learn there is always a loud argument over the final split. It seems there is never enough to go around. The partnership with the Wing brothers was officially over. However, The Elephant seemed interested in Ozzie and me and The Elephant was talking DC-3.
TO BE CONTINUED...