During the 1980s many aviation photographers visited Harlingen Texas, close to the Mexican border for the Confederate Air Force show (CAF). Once a year, the CAF organized a large air show with numerous WW2 fighters and heavy bombers on display and in the air. Several warbirds type such as B-25 Mitchells and B-17 Flying Fortress could be seen in action. This part of South Texas was known as "The Rio Grande Valley" and boasted several airports along its Mexican border. The most interesting airport where located at Laredo, El Paso, McAllen and Brownsville. Several US registered companies operated out of the "Rio Grande Valley", such as Aviation enterprises, American Air Cargo, Atkins Aviation Inc, Hanger 10 Inc, Texas Aerial Applicators and Atorie Air (ex Pronto Aviation Services).
Mcllen based American Air Cargo operated a fleet of 5 Douglas DC-3s (including one C-117) and a single Curtiss C-46. Atkins Aviation Inc operated a mixed bag of piston propliners. They operated a single C-117, three C-46 Commandos and a single Douglas DC-7B ex T&G Aviation. McAllen was also the home base of Hanger 10 Inc. At that time they operated a single Lockheed C-121/L-1049 Super Constellation freighter. Brownville Airport, hosted several DC-3s along its ramps. Atorie Air and Aviation Enterprises had several unmarked DC-3s in operation. During the early 1980s a total of 10 DC-3s could be found at the airfield.
Smuggling flights with old marginal airworthy propliners are timeless. DC-4s, DC-6s, DC-7s and Constellations were all used to smuggle drugs. The DC-3 also often was used. The aircraft were bought for $ 100,000 or less in North America and then flew without a flight plan to countries such as Colombia and Guatemala, Honduras to name a few countries. During the night, such an aircraft full of marijuana or cocaine flew back to the States. These flights yielded many millions of dollars, the purchase price was a pittance compared to the proceeds. Not infrequently things went wrong. All over Central America old propliners were left behind at obscure airports. Chained, confiscated, impounded. And one time the pilots of a DC-4 got lost and landed on a country road. The Highway Patrol found a DC-4 on an unpaved road, engines still running and full of drugs. And no trace of the pilots. But in the 1980s there also was a different kind of smuggling flights. Not drugs to the States, but contraband, smuggled goods to Mexico, deep in the interior. The DC-3 played a prominent role in these operations and the aircraft were known under an adventurous name,
In the early eighties of the last century, the Mexican economy was doing badly. There was a shocking trade deficit and inflation soared to unprecedented levels. To protect the Mexican market, extreme import duties were imposed on mainly electronic equipment. Import duties of 100% were not uncommon. Televisions, radios and VCRs from the USA became unaffordable for the common man. But that same common man hatched a rather dangerous and adventurous plan. Mexican traders travelled to the USA, bought the electronics at wholesale prices and approached all kinds of airlines to transport this merchandise by air to Mexico, but not in a legal way. Those exorbitant import duties had to be avoided. And so there was a kind of airlift, electronics for the common man. Under the cover of pitch black nights, DC-3s, Curtiss Commandos and a variety of smaller twin-engine planes flew to Mexico almost every night. Surprisingly, in America those flights were not illegal at all. US Air Traffic Control and the FAA knew exactly where those flights were going. The procedure was as follows.
The pilot neatly submitted a flight plan. The departure airport and any airport in Mexico were entered on the flight plan. But as soon as air got between the wheels and the runway, the flight plan was cancelled and no one knew where the planes were. For a decade, the airports of Brownsville, McAllen and Laredo in Texas were the proverbial equivalent of the Celle, Fassberg and Rhein-Main airlift bases at the time of the Berlin Airlift. But it wasn′t food and coal, but luxury equipment that was being transported. The flights were of course not without risk. Three factors made the flights dangerous. Not infrequently, the aircraft had a shady maintenance status. Operating hours were on purpose not kept correctly. This meant that the TSO, the time since overhaul, the number of running hours of engines after the last overhaul was much higher than the factory prescribed. A second danger was the nature of the flight. Once the Rio Grande was passed, the flight became illegal. Mountain ranges in northeast and central Mexico had to be climbed over in the pitch dark and then, often still in pitch dark, landing on a dimly lit improvised airstrip, where the danger of the Mexican army was always lurking, sometimes with the machine guns at the ready. Their motto:
"Shoot first, ask questions later".
A third danger was the load and balance. The load was not weighed. Stacks of video recorders were hoisted into the planes until the aircraft were full. No load sheets, no centre of gravity determination. It was loading, filling fuel tanks and going. Pilots only checked one thing. How far the tires did sag after loading that was their check. An estimated calculation later revealed that some DC-3s had taken off with more than 17,000 kilograms takeoff weight. The Douglas factories mentioned a maximum take-off weight of 11,500 kilos. Those flights paid well. The pilot in command made $ 1200 per flight, the second pilot only half, $ 600. The pilots were a remarkable mix of adventurers, mercenaries with experience in Vietnam and fire bomber pilots who did not have much air tanker work during the winter season.
Did it never go wrong?. Of course. Many aircraft had to be abandoned in Mexico, seized, crashed, landed in a field after an engine failure and abandoned. Investigating the fate of DC-3s and Curtiss Commandos often results in a "fate unknown". If an aircraft had to be left, it was set on fire. Every trace to the owner had to be obliterated. In the worst case, the pilots were arrested and faced a long jail term in a Mexican prison. If they had money or a rich family, they could bail themselves out.
The night landings were particularly dangerous. The strips were provisionally prepared and at the agreed time barrels of oil were lit at the beginning and at the end of the strip. That had to go wrong, of course. Almost legendary is the landing of a DC-3 on a hill plateau in the middle of the night, where the kite flew too slowly and fell below the edge of the plateau. When the fire from the oil barrels disappeared from view, the pilot realized his mistake. He accelerated, but was at the bottom of the power curve. With a massive impact, the DC-3 hit the edge of the plateau with its tailwheel and came to an abrupt stop. Turn off the engines and look at the damage. The entire tailwheel was torn away and the elevators of the DC-3 hung to the ground. What to do? The contraband was unloaded. After some deliberation it was decided to leave. The DC-3 taxied with considerable power to the end of the runway and took off in the opposite direction. Because the plane was a lot lighter, the tail came off quite quickly and the DC-3 flew back to McAllen where the landing ended in a shower of sparks. Unfortunately, history does not state which DC-3 it was.
In 1982 and 1987 "yours truly", went to Texas to visit the world-renowned Air show of the (then) Confederate Air Force. But a visit to surrounding airports was not to be missed. Brownsville and McAllen turned out to be a treasure trove for the DC-3 aficionado. DC-3s of all kinds and in various states of maintenance presented an unforgettable picture. In the late 1980s, import duties were relieved and the DC-3s found other destinations. Some of the aircraft with a "fate unknown" behind their name were left behind in Mexico. Burnt or demolished without much ado. But the contraband runners once again proved what an incredibly special aircraft the DC-3 is.
For those who want to read more about the contraband operations, the book "Over and Back" by "Wild Bill" Callahan is a great read. In a smooth and often hilarious story, he tells about his smuggling flights to Mexico. Highly recommended!