July 22, 2005
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March 11, 2005
|Friday, October 14, 2005|
Back a few years ago when I was still flying airshows, I received a call from a
political party in Puerto Rico. They said they wanted to hire an airshow pilot
with a smoky, noisy airplane to help with their political campaign. Since most
of the performer's aircraft lacked the range to fly that far, and my smoky,
noisy Cessna 337 'Bodacious' was one of the few that could do it, they asked if
I was interested in coming down? I would be there for four weeks. They would pay
me handsomely, put me up in a nice hotel, pay all my expenses and let me airline
home on the weekends. I could attend gala parties, meet wonderful people and see
the whole island, up close. It would be an experience I would never forget.
What, I wondered, was wrong with this picture?
I dithered. I didn't understand what an airshow airplane could do to help a
politician get elected. It was 2000 miles from home. There was lots of water to
fly over. What about maintenance? What about fuel? What about smoke oil? What
They would send a substantial deposit they said. How
substantial, I asked? They told me. I would be there Monday, I told them.
I called my old friend Larry, who in our salad days once called me up
and asked if I wanted to join the Marine Corps with him. "Sure", I
said. Only recently have I begun to forgive him for that.
I told him I was flying Bodacious to Puerto Rico to do a month-long
series of airshows for a political party. I feared water, snakes and dying, and
would he like to go along? "Sure", he said.
Charts. We needed charts. A rush order to AOPA produced a foot high
stack of graphics and an evening of planning on the kitchen table, punctuated
with the rustle of paper and murmurs of "wait, what chart does this join?",
produced a sort of flight plan.
We chose the island of Grand Turk as our fuel stop, approximately
400 miles out in the Caribbean and more or less in line with where we were
going,. Suddenly it dawned on me, that, we also needed passports. While Puerto
Rico is US soil, the same can't be said for the islands dotting the Caribbean. A
mad scramble ensued to get the needed documents. By shameless use of a
congressman and with Fed Ex's help, the passports arrived in time. The airplane
was checked over and fueled and the weather map scrutinized. We were ready.
The flight from West Virginia to Fort Lauderdale was routine and the
day was almost done when we picked up the inflatable raft and survival kit that
we had rented for the flight. We checked in at the local Ramada Inn, had a light
supper and turned in early, in order to be sharp for tomorrow's flight. I
snapped off the light, then for the next several hours, stared at the ceiling
and reviewed the following items: Ditching procedures, survival techniques, lost
communication procedures, techniques for finding water on desert islands,
communicating with natives via sign language, methods to appear indigestible to
cannibals, etc. When I was finished with that, I moved on to a detailed mental
critique of the book, 'Looking For Amelia Earhart'.
the edge of our window started to lighten and I knew my chance for sleep was
over. I was exhausted. I gloomily pulled back the curtain and peered out. Rats!
It was IFR. Not only was I going to launch smack into the middle of the Bermuda
Triangle, I wouldn't even be able to see anything when I did it.
Well no matter, we needed to keep to our schedule if we were to
arrive in Puerto Rico on time. Besides, the airplane wouldn't know we were
flying into an area that seems to gobble up passing ships and airplanes. It had
remained rock solid and dependable, even with the extreme flying of the airshows
and I felt it would remain so for this trip.
Larry still snoozed. I kicked his bed and bright blue eyes snapped
open in a rested face. He happily announced that he'd had a wonderful sleep and
couldn't wait to get started. I stared at him dully through my own bloodshot
eyes while unkind thoughts muttered and stomped through my mind.
The weather, though low IFR at takeoff, slowly moderated and two
hours into the flight, we were winging through the bright sunshine of a Bahamian
morning. The sea really did have the blue-green look of the travel posters and
small islands dotted our path. The water was clear and generally not deep, and
occasionally we could see a sunken boat resting on the bottom. Fuel and customs
at Grand Turk were uneventful, and late afternoon brought the solid shape of the
island of Puerto Rico ghosting through the sea haze.
Fernando Dominicci, the general aviation airport for San Juan, is
located near the north shore of the island on a narrow spit of land, hard by the
wharves where the cruise ships dock. We landed and rolled out, looking around at
the numerous and varied aircraft that crowded the single runway. DC-3's,
Widgeons and many other transport aircraft were scattered about, and almost
every type and make of general aviation aircraft was parked wherever there was
room to park. Since we had been on foreign soil at Grand Turk, we asked to taxi
to customs, where an inspector regarded the airshow paint on Bodacious with some
confusion. We explained our mission as best we could without really
understanding it ourselves, and were soon free to join our sponsor, who was
Until my meeting that afternoon with Antonio Brunet, erstwhile stone
quarry executive and behind-the-scene Popular Democratic Party supporter and my
financial sponsor, I had lumped all political campaigning into the 'Boring
things that I don't want to be around' category. I pictured shiny faced
politicians kissing babies and droning through incessant speeches and deadly
dull fund raising dinners that should be avoided at all cost. Then I learned
about politics, Latin style.
Rico is an island 100 miles long and 35 miles wide lying roughly east to west
with a population of 3.6 million people. Because this dense population was
packed into such a small area, I was delighted to learn that the Puerto Ricans
had developed a style of campaigning that was anything but boring.
During major elections such as this one, everyone on the island seemed to be
involved in the campaign in one fashion or another and the elections take on an
importance that we never see in the US. Much of the activity centers on the
campaign parades they call trains. These trains are made up of many hundreds,
perhaps thousands of vehicles that form in a miles-long line, and travel from
town to town, as a sort of rolling party. The political candidates ride on the
back of huge decorated trucks, waving to the crowds that line the narrow roads.
They are flanked by boom trucks with speakers the size of Volkswagens mounted on
hydraulic lifts make the earth vibrate with the party music they play. As they
pull into the main street of a town the houses empty and there is quite
literally dancing in the streets, as a sleeping village turns into an instant
party. Vendors are routinely part of the train, so food and drink add to the
celebration before the speeches start.
The closest I can come to describing my job during this particular
campaign, would be to say I was hired to strafe the populace without having to
shoot anyone. I would time my arrival over a village or town a half-hour or so
before the train was due, and proceed to empty every house in town. This was
accomplished by multiple screaming, smoke trailing passes at 200 mile per hour
over the rooftops at an altitude just sufficient to avoid collecting TV antenna.
How could I be getting paid for this, I wondered? If only they had known, I
would have done it for nothing..
the capacity of my smoke oil tank was only 7 gallons and good for only about 15
minutes of mosquito killing, Larry and I developed a method of transferring
smoke oil from 5 gallon tins to the tank, using a Wal-Mart battery powered pump.
Larry would crouch in the rear of the cabin facing the rear of the airplane and
pump the oil from the tins to the smoke oil tank, while I yanked and banked
through the hot bumpy air. I secretly thought if it were me back there I would
last only a little while before losing my breakfast, but Larry never seemed
notice the discomfort. It served to give us a killer smoke system and enabled us
to turn the sunniest village IFR in short order.
To be continued.......