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by Alan McTeer
Description: Ace pilot Alan Richards has taken a job ferrying Greenpeace scientists in a seaplane to identify freighters and cruise ships that are pumping waste overboard. But when an engine glitch forces him to land in an area of Mexico known for drug smuggling (and for which he has not filed a flight plan), he opts to abandon the plane and take his chances living on the beach rather than run the risk of being mistaken for a smuggler. This gives the CIA the chance to make their move. They know that Richards is always running away from his past, and they need a rogue pilot like him to fly into Cuba, land, pick up two baseball players, and get back out before the Cuban government knows what hit them. But when Richards and his co-pilot (Cuban American Mario Rodriquez with secrets of his own), eventually begin their descent, they see on the field below not only the two ball players they were expecting, but also more than fifty men, women and children waiting for transport to America. And that's only the beginning of their problems? ESCAPING CUBA is a thriller teeming with aggressive CIA agents, Navy Seals, merciless Cuban Army soldiers, beautiful women and ordinary Cubans trying to get by without making waves? It's an absolute must read for anyone who likes their adrenalin rush mixed with authenticity, historical detail and great company.
eBook Publisher: Solstice Publishing/Solstice Publishing,
eBookwise Release Date: June 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [467 KB]
Reading time: 315-441 min.
A Night on the Pacific
In what could only be described as horrible English, the voice in the tower at Huatulco International Airport cleared us for takeoff. With the nose of the 1949 Grumman Albatross pointed toward the south end of the runway, I pushed the overhead-mounted throttles forward until the power climbed to the maximum I dared pull from these old supercharged engines. As the RPMs increased and the propeller tips accelerated past the speed of sound, the noise in my headset changed from a roar into a high-pitched buzz. I released the brakes and we started to move. Although I had put more than one hundred hours on this airplane in the past three months, this was the first time I had flown it with all six fuel tanks full. We were at her maximum takeoff weight, with 11,000 pounds of aviation gas, enough to stay airborne for over twenty-four hours. Prior to this, my longest flight was six hours.
With one third of the runway behind me, I looked down at my airspeed indicator; the needle was bouncing between zero and eighty mph. When I passed the halfway point, it was still bouncing. It was a no-brainer, a malfunctuing airspeed indicator is a no-go item. There was lots of runway left to safely abort the takeoff and return to parking for repairs. But no, not me. A little thing like a malfunctioning airspeed indicator wasn't going to stop me.
The pilot's seat on the Albatross is at least ten feet above the runway, making it difficult to judge the aircraft's speed. Guessing that we had enough airspeed, I pulled back on the control column and immediately, the aircraft lifted into the air. I was ready, but with the airspeed indicator moving rapidly all over the gauge, my heart was in my mouth. I guessed that the tube that delivers the ram air to the indicator was obstructed, probably by bugs. To build up speed, I lowered the nose then raised the landing gear. My GPS read one hundred and thirty knots, about a hundred and fifty miles per hour, right where I wanted to be. I forced myself to relax, to stay focused. The journey ahead would be very long and incredibly dangerous--something my passengers didn't quite understand or they wouldn't be here.
Climbing steadily with more than adequate airspeed, I turned toward the town of Huatulco, a small tourist place in the state of Oaxaca on the west coast of southern Mexico. The view from my seat was straight out of National Geographic: blue water with immense waves rolling onto white virgin beaches. A massive cruise ship was docked beside a long pier. Almost every day, ships like this would deliver new groups of tourists, anxious to sample Huatulco's unique culture. To the north, the beach stretched as far as the eye could see. Looking below and to the south was drastically different: massive black, craggy rock outcroppings jutted into the sea every hundred yards or so, with softly curved beaches between them.
After setting power to cruise-climb, I gave a thumbs up to Jorge, who sat in the copilot seat. He was an ex-Mexican Air Force mechanic who had worked on the Grumman Albatross for several years.
I first met Jorge in Mazatlan, the day I took delivery of the Albatross. He was handsome, with classic Latin looks: slender, a full head of long straight black hair, dark brown eyes and a cleanly cut, pencil-thin mustache. He worked on small airplanes, mostly Cessnas, being paid near the minimum wage. I asked him if he could look at the Albatross, especially the left engine's hydraulic pump and hoses. There was an obvious leak; a large pool of bright orange oil had formed on the pavement below it.
After giving the plane a quick look, he introduced himself. "I am Jorge, the mechanic."
"And I'm Alan Richards, the pilot."
Jorge produced a piece of paper and handed it to me. "Can you write your name for me? I have a hard time remembering gringo names. Is this your plane?"
After writing my name, I explained to him that I had never met the owners, but that I was in charge of the plane.
"I can fix the leak, Senor Richards," he said bluntly. "I work for dollars, not pesos."
"How does five hundred dollars a week sound?"
He shot back, "Senor, I'd kill for that much money."
I laughed, but he didn't. "Hopefully, it won't come to that," I said, becoming serious. "When can you start?"
"Tomorrow morning," he answered, and he's been with me ever since. In the hundred-plus hours we have flown together, it had become clear that he was not only a good mechanic, but a natural pilot as well.
Tapping the glass cover that protected the airspeed indicator, I spoke into the intercom. "It doesn't work."
Jorge looked at the gauge, tapped it with his knuckles and shrugged his shoulders before giving me his opinion: "No importa."
Obviously it didn't concern him whether it worked or not. Seeing his indifference to what normally would've been a no-go item, I decided not to give it another thought--at least for now. My dash-mounted GPS gave me all the information I needed to complete the flight.
When we reached 1,000 feet, I leveled the airplane, reduced power to long-range cruise and took up a heading that would take us west 1,500 miles into the Pacific Ocean--halfway to Hawaii. We were looking for what my passengers called 'the floating plastic continent'.
Eight months earlier, a friend of mine at the film commission had introduced me as a pilot to Eric Ryman, a Hollywood movie producer. He'd flown his private aircraft from Los Angeles to Canada to make a movie with John Voight. Because Eric was unfamiliar with flying in Canada, he asked if I would fly with him from Kelowna to Vancouver. With little else on my calendar, I accepted his invitation, and subsequently ended up working for him throughout the entire movie production as a stills photographer for the film. Almost every time he flew, I sat in the copilot seat, teaching him everything I knew about flying in the rugged mountains of British Columbia. By the end of the movie we were close friends. Before leaving Kelowna for Los Angeles, Eric asked if I would like to fly for Greenpeace in Mexico. Apparently, someone at Greenpeace had the bright idea of buying a 1949 Grumman Albatross. They figured the bulky, post-World War II amphibian would be perfect for filming large ships as they emptied their holding tanks at sea. The organizers planned, sea conditions permitting, for us to land behind the ship to take samples of the garbage they threw overboard.
I wasn't what you would call the airline pilot type. I was more of an airplane enthusiast who had always wanted to fly one of these big Grumman seaplanes, and this was the largest Grumman seaplane ever made. The people who did the hiring for this mission were not airplane people. If they were, they would have asked to see my pilot's license, medical certificate, log books, and a ton of related documents for the insurance company. Most importantly, because I would be flying it as single pilot, someone should have asked how much experience I had in this aircraft. But since they hadn't bothered to ask, I hadn't bothered to mention that. Other than in pictures, I had never even seen an Albatross.
For the last three months, we had been flying out of Mazatlan. We followed freighters and cruise ships, filming them as they pumped waste overboard. If the seas were calm, we would land and the Greenpeace scientists would use large nets to pick up the big stuff, and water containers to take samples of the liquid waste. Imagine the daily garbage from over 3,000 people; it was gross.
We flew with two scientists. Louis, a Frenchman, was tall and skinny, with a big nose. Otto was from Germany, a well-rounded bearded man who loved to eat. Both were very serious about their work. Each had two helpers who kept themselves busy testing the samples and filming. Altogether, we were eight on board.
Our work didn't make us very popular, especially with the Mexican authorities, who would do almost anything, except stop the dumping, to protect their tourist industry.
The Comandante at the Huatulco airport had charged us a whopping $20,000 on top of the normal fees to use the airport. When we argued with him, he said if we didn't pay, he would have the military impound our airplane and accuse us of being drug smugglers. If you don't pay in Mexico, you don't play. The scientists objected adamantly to this bribe, but without it, there would be no trip to the plastic island. We waited in Oaxaca for a few days, and finally, the Greenpeace directors approved the payment.
The sky above was overcast, with black thunderclouds visible along the western horizon as far as I could see. I had checked the satellite weather earlier that morning. It showed a large low-pressure zone off the coast. I would try to stay on the northern edge of it and use its winds to my advantage.
Three hours into the flight, I needed a bathroom break. As I made my way to the toilet in the rear, Otto was as excited as a kid at Christmas, continually asking me for updates on our estimated time of arrival. I told him his plastic garbage dump should show up in another ten hours, the same thing I'd told him ten minutes ago. When I returned to the cockpit, I looked at Jorge and smiled because he was so serious about being a pilot. As a mechanic in the Mexican air force, he had flown many hours in the Albatross, just not as a pilot. He didn't have any formal flight training, only the instruction I had given him in the last three months. In Mexico, a pilot is far more important than a mechanic; everywhere we went, he proudly told everybody he was my copilot. I climbed into my seat and buckled in, leaning back while I let Jorge fly the airplane. I dozed off.
Sometime later, I awoke with a startle. In my dreams, I was back in New York with Jenny, the woman I planned to marry. It had been three months since I had seen her.
"How long have I been asleep?"
Jorge looked down at his watch. "Almost two hours, Alan."
"Wow," I said.
"No problem," said Jorge, proudly pointing at the GPS. "We're right on course."
I looked at my watch, then at the GPS. Jorge was right; we were on course, with only another five hours to go. The old Grumman chugged along. I sat back and enjoyed the thrill of being captain of a 1949 Grumman Albatross, headed deep into the Pacific Ocean on a dangerous mission.
We arrived at our GPS coordinates after ten hours and seven minutes of flying. There were overcast skies above and blue sea 1,000 feet below. I picked up my binoculars and began scanning. I was shocked at what I saw. The scene ahead looked like the ocean had frozen and was now covered with gray ice. I looked back into the cabin, waving my hands to draw the attention of the French scientist, Luis, because he was closest. He moved forward cautiously and climbed into one of the two jump seats above and behind us. Borrowing my binoculars, he gazed out the windows from left to right.
"Magnifique," he shouted with a look of utter amazement on his face.
I advised him it wasn't safe to land on top of the plastic, but rather beside it, because of what I called the 'foam effect'. The floating plastic would not support our weight. I wiggled the control column slightly, making it obvious to Jorge I was now in control, and started a left descending turn. Silently, we floated down toward the ocean, in awe of what was growing in front of us. At one hundred feet above the sea we could plainly see the edge where the huge mass of plastic ended. Within it were open areas of water. If we were going to land, it would have to be in one of those openings. They weren't long and straight like runways, but twisted and veered, changing direction every few hundred feet. Ahead was a break in the garbage, perhaps two hundred feet wide and half a mile long. I ordered Luis to go aft and make sure he and his colleagues were tightly buckled in.
Using the GPS, I determined the direction of the wind. In most cases, that would be the direction in which we would prefer to land. But we had a problem; the waves were moving at right angles to the wind. Now I was confused. Do I land into the wind or into the waves?
Turning to Jorge I asked, "How big are those waves?"