Ed note: We’re going to try something a little different here and change the POV for a couple of posts.Â Note that the events portrayed here are a conglomeration of many encounters over several years and do not represent any one interdiction flight.Â Think of this part as being ‘informed fiction’ and try not to draw too many inferences or conclusions… SJS
The sailors and pilots, the soldiers and the law,
The pay-offs and the rip-offs, and the things nobody saw
No matter if it’s heroin, cocaine, or hash,
You’ve got to carry weapons ’cause you always carry cash
There’s lots of shady characters, lots of dirty deals
Every name’s an alias in case somebody squeals
It’s the lure of easy money, it’s got a very strong appeal
Perhaps you’d understand it better
Standin’ in my shoes
It’s the ultimate enticement,
It’s the smuggler’s blues
– Lyrics from â€œSmugglerâ€™s Bluesâ€ by Glenn Fry
El Piloto they called him, with emphasis on â€œThe.â€Â Suited him just fine â€“ no names, no traceability, everything in cash â€“ 50% upfront and 50% on mission completion.Â They supplied the plane and the â€œassistantâ€ â€“ he just waited for the call and where/when to show up.Â Of late, these past few years, his services had been in increasing demand.Â With time built up from his commercial job and prior military experience flying AT-27 Tucanosâ€™ in the Fuerza AÃ©rea Colombiana (FAC), his were among the best bona fides in the business.Â The fact that he was pulling more money than his former service friends who were now supposedly the elite, flying Kfir C-7â€™s made him smile more.Â Â â€˜La venganza es Ã©l es poseer la recompenseâ€™ was his motto and in his mid-30â€™s, he was living it just right â€“ enjoying the lifestyle without drawing attention from the national police or the despised Yanqui Agentes de DEA.
Off duty now from the airline for a week, he packed his flight kit and headed for the door of his condoÂ for his truck to drive up to Medellin to pick-up a Beech King Air for the next mission.Â Ostensibly a ferry mission from a â€œmaintenanceâ€ facility in Medellin to Puerto Carreno in the far eastern part of the country and receive his next leg of travel from there â€“ most likely a clearing in the forest in the Casanare or Arauca Departamentos and found only via a set of GPS coordinates.Â And from there â€“ eh, who knew? Northeast, Northwest, North; it all depended on what the Yanquis were up to.Â A veteran of many successful runs, his confidence was pretty high that heâ€™d be able to best whatever efforts the despised DEA and the US military would put forward â€“ heâ€™d done it before, had some close runs, but each time had successfully eluded them.Â That was why he was gaining in demand â€“ after this flight heâ€™d probably increase his priceâ€¦
The short drive up to the Medellin airport (Enrique Olaya Herrera) was unremarkable, save having to avoid the urchins plying the streets in the ghettos surrounding the airfield to the east.Â Parking in a non-descript part of the lot with a smattering of other vehicles nearby, heÂ entered the hangar via the open hangar doors and went to a small office in the corner where he inquired afterÂ his contact.Â A short, stubby person looked him over, bent behind a desk for a few minutes and emerged with a grease-stained cloth which he attempted, in vain, to wipe his hands off.Â He extracted a manila envelope and passed it to the pilot and pointed him towards a slightly worn looking King Air 300.Â Glancing inside the envelope he found a chart, instructions and another envelope with the bundle of his primary interest.Â A quick check of the weather at his destination and enroute indicated heâ€™d be able to conduct it under visual flight rules.
At the plane he took his time.Â Many of the planes heâ€™d flown, and it appeared this one was too, were modified to carry extra fuel.Â Sometimes the job was professionally done, others much less so.Â Those he would firmly shake his head no and demand a fix or another plane.Â One time it had led to the barrel of an Uzi shoved in his face, but he was adamant.Â When he explained to the hot-headed assistant that they likely would end up in a ball of flame if the repairs werenâ€™t made, even at the expense of time, then he had relented.
He went over this one with a critical eye â€“cosmetically it showed signs of long service in the harder parts of the country, but structurally it looked sound.Â The engines were in good shape as were the tires, control surfaces and doorway.Â Inside, it was stripped of all but the bare minimums â€“ obviously this plane had been handling service as a cargo hauler.Â The cockpit seats were worn but the instrumentation was up to date.Â A handheld GPS unit and VHF radio were present for use on the mission.Â As he was completing his pre-flight, the assistant boarded the plane and with barely a nod, dropped into the co-pilot seat, the butt of a 9mm barely concealed underneath his jacket.Â He was certain the flight bag heâ€™d brought on board also contained an Uzi and a couple of clips of ammo â€“ nothing that hadnâ€™t happened before.Â Always someone different with that suspicious look in their eye and about as useful as a sack of rocks on the long over water flights.Â As a result, he fervently hoped the autopilot worked as advertised; else heâ€™d have to be at the controls for the whole mission.
Airborne and clear of Medellinâ€™s traffic, the flight east in the late afternoon was idyllic.Â Crossing the eastern branch of the Andes he surveyed the rugged territory below and turned his attention back to the engine instruments â€“ all still held true.Â Passing over the eastern slopes he began a gradual let down until finally, about 2 hours after leaving Medellin, the airport at Puerto Carreno hove into sight. A single runway,Â 5,000 ft strip,Â at the extreme edge of eastern Columbia, Puerto Carreno was at the confluence of the Meta and Orinoco rivers. He opted for a short field landing, easily making the turnoff at mid-field with plenty to spare â€“ a good omen given what she was intended to do.
The short field landing capability of the King Air 300 is one that makes it a popular aircraft in this part of the world, so many private, governmental and â€œsemiâ€-governmental organizations frequently operated the same aircraft.Â One more nondescript, time-worn 300 sitting on the ramp rarely drew a glance, if at all. Â His story, if queried, was thatÂ he was delivering the aircraft to a missionary group deep in the mountains after it had completed a recent overhaul.Â So far, heâ€™d never had to use the line. Here he would refuel and head off to his next destination.Â The flightline was minimally busy â€“ a FAC transport sat over at one end of the ramp, its cowlings open on one engine and a tiny knot of people clustered around it.Â Recalling his own experience with the FAC and their ground crew, he snorted to himself and allowed as how that transport would be here for quite some time.Â The rest of the aircraft included a very tired looking Twin Otter in the markings of a regional carrier that was best noted for flying into rather than over mountains and a handful of other King Airs in roughly the same condition as his.Â Opening the hatch, the fetid, dank air of the South American inland rolled into the aircraft as he stepped out on the tarmac to look for the arrival of the fuel truck and his contact.Â A short negotiation with the gas truck driver and the fueling was underway.Â Still no sign of his contact.Â A glance back up to the cockpit where his assistant sat slouched brought a noncommittal shoulder shrug at his querying look.Â As he was thinking about going into the terminal, the fuel truck driver handed him a clipboard with the receipt for his review. Â As he handed it to the pilot, the driver carefully and almost imperceptibly lifted the top sheet to reveal a folded piece of paper which the pilot folded inside the fuel receipt.Â Blank eyes greeted him with a non-committal “gracias” as he handed over the money for the gas and a small tip before returning to the cockpit.
Opening the folded document he noted two entries â€“ Picapico and a latitude/longitude.Â Having flown in the area of most of his time in the FAC, he was well familiar with the location of Picapico and after entering the coordinates in the hand held GPS, determined that he had about another 45 minutes to an hour of flying before reaching the site â€“ most likely a dry riverbed or logging road at the edge of the river and forest.Â Good thing to be getting back in the air soon â€“ the sky was beginning to fill with the cumulonimbus that brought the late day rains this time of year and heâ€™d rather be on the ground when they rolled through that evening.
Airborne again he mentally reviewed the flight out and the stop for anything out of the ordinary.Â Satisfied, he remarked as such to his assistant who replied again with a shrug as he slouched in the right seat.
In short order he was over the designated site and flew a low pass to check for obstructions.Â At one end of what he presumed to be the landing strip he saw a couple of people scrambling to spread an orange panel and judging from what he could tell of the local wind that was the approach end of the strip.Â Circling back he dropped the gear and flaps and began a short, steep approach.Â It had to be short to minimize his time airborne and exposure to possible FARC troops that might be in the area, looking for the likes of him and his clients.
At touchdown he dropped the nose and pulled the power â€“ no thrust reverse here because of the potential for kicking up debris.Â Still a good sized dust cloud followed, but the King Air stopped with (some) room to spare.Â Â As he slowed to a stop a figure emerged from the edge of the woods, signaling him to taxi closer and then shut down.Â As the props came to a halt a couple of trucks emerged from the woods and came to a halt by the aircraft, with one circling around to the back.Â Out of their beds sprang groups of men in fatigues and automatic weapons who proceeded to form a circle around the aircraft.
Turning to look at his assistant, he instead found himself staring down the barrel of the 9mm…
To be continued.