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Cigarettes Can Kill - Or Get You Killed

The 1980s was a very memorable decade in my life, and, in fact, our family’s lives as well. We owned and operated the Fixed Base Operation (FBO) in Childress, TX as sort of service station for aircraft and pilots; I also served as Airport Manager. We sold fuel, rented aircraft, gave pilot instruction, charters and minor maintenance. We also had obtained a government contract to supply jet fuel to military and government aircraft, primarily helicopters.

July 30, 1989 was a typical day for us. My father was staying with us and helping out. My wife Janis was at the airport with the kids while I was away most of the day on a charter. Janis had told me when I got back, “A lady called today asking if we were open late, like 11:30 or 12:00. I told her no, but that we could meet a plane for refueling if needed. She then asked if we lived on the airport and I told her no, but we had a radio at home and if they called we could be here by the time they landed.” We had supper there at the office and closed up at sunset like usual.

Thinking we were going to have to go out late, we stayed up waiting for the radio call that never came. Not so unusual, as plans change and there had been no firm commitment, so we decided to go to bed about 12:30 that night.

The phone rang about fifteen minutes later.  “Mr Murphy?”  “Yes.”  “This is the police dispatcher.  They caught a plane at the airport with a little dope on it, they need you to come out and open the hanger so it can be secured.” I had not gone to sleep yet, so it was not long before I was on my way. We told my dad who stayed with the kids and Janis went along.

I was not prepared for the scene I found on arriving at the airport.  The ramp was lit up as I’d never seen it. Parked on the ramp was a large twin engine Beech Queen Air. Parked in front of it, landing lights still on was a King Air 200 and behind it was a Cessna Citation, also with landing lights still on. There were also law enforcement cars with their lights on as well. The ramp was a scurry of activity with a handful of local law enforcement along with the federal agents from the two planes. The Queen Air contained 882 kilograms, or 1,940 pounds of cocaine wrapped in burlap bags. A “little dope,” indeed. Estimated street value placed at $83 million.

Needless to say, we were up all night and the feds ended up tolling me the whole story after things settled down.

Air traffic control had seen a primary target, a plane on radar with no transponder code to identify the flight, as it crossed the border coming north. This was not illegal at the time, but a stop at an airport with Customs was required. When the plane did not land, they notified US Customs.  The Cessna Citation found the plane cruising with lights off. Using infrared equipment, they could clearly see the pilot smoking a cigarette, and they could see the back of the plane was filled with bundles of something. They showed me pictures they’d taken as evidence.

Air traffic control the DEA who launched a King Air with a few agents with automatic weapons. The plane was followed as it began a decent northwest of Wichita Falls. Using a scanner they discovered the frequency being used by the pilot to talk to a ground crew. It was clear they planned to land on a county road in a remote area near the Red River.

Several pickup trucks used their headlights to show the pilot the intended section of road and he prepared to land. The King Air was following, the Citation stayed high above to monitor the situation. The pilot of the DEA King Air planned to land behind the drug carrying Queen Air. With its turbine engines and using reverse thrust, it would be able to land much shorter than the Queen Air. What the ground crew did not think of was the spot they picked, while free of any power lines or signs that might impact a wing, the road was lined with the annual growth of wild sunflowers. These plants can grow over six feet tall, covered with small flowers that have a hard core.

As the plane was about to touch down, the flower heads began to impact the aluminum wings of the plane that was still moving over 100 mph. While they did not damage the wing, the noise must have been extremely disconcerting. The pilot aborted the landing and lifted back up into the air.  At this point, the King Air was right behind maybe 100 yards so when it pulled up as well, the ground crew heard it. They told the pilot he was being followed and was on his own.  The crew scattered.

Texas DPS Troopers told me they felt like Keystone Cops as the Citation had called for assistance, but being unfamiliar with the area could only give very vague information. They said they were driving around looking for vehicles with no description, an impossible task. Some were also dispatched to other area airports in case the plane landed there.

The nearest airport was Childress Municipal, about 20 miles southwest. The pilot was very low on fuel so he had no other option. He likely knew he was as good as caught, but he made a landing with the King Air right behind him. He may have thought for a little while he had escaped as the DEA plane stayed behind with lights off. He parked on the ramp and then the King Air shot around in front of him to block him in preventing any escape. Then the rear door flew open allowing the armed agents to surround the plane, automatic weapons trained on the pilot.  Realizing the hopelessness of his situation, he shut down the engines.

“Are you armed?” an agent shouted.  “No,” he replied.  “You’d better not be lying or we’ll kill you!  Are you alone?”  “Yes.”  “You’d better not be lying or we’ll kill you!” the agent repeated.

They ordered him to get out, the only door being an “air stair” door (a door with steps built in so you walk down the door itself) in the rear of the aircraft.  “Come out slowly with your hands up!”  

The pilot had to crawl out over the load of cocaine and opened the door. The cabin is not full height so you have to stoop over until out past the door frame. He stepped out and stood up with his hands high, and then he dropped his right hand and reached to put his right hand inside his windbreaker. The agents began screaming, “Hands up, hands up!”

He was not reaching for a gun. The situation was quite nerve wracking to him and he needed a cigarette. Yes, cigarettes can kill, or even get you killed. The agent told me his finger was on the trigger and if the guy’s hand had actually gone inside the jacket he would have fired, and rightfully so. Thankfully, the rest of the event ended with the suspect being cuffed and taken to the local jail. The agent told me when he tested some of the product it was very high grade, probably 90% pure. The test kit is designed to identify very small traces so he told me the reaction was so fast and it got so hot he had to drop it almost immediately.

Later in the day, the cocaine was unloaded and the plane was secured in our hangar for the time being. Part of the work I did at the time was picking up confiscated aircraft and flying them to the federal storage facility where they were kept until any trial was over and then they were sold. I of course was able to fly this plane to that facility a few days later.

While it was a very long day, it was just another day in the life of a pilot and airport operator. An archived article of the event is here. The story is fairly accurate, except that Childress is 110 miles southeast of Amarillo.


Written by Michael Murphy The Voice of Reason

The Voice of Reason


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