Why is it that you always get a phone call just when you are right in the middle of an important negotiation?
The mechanic from ACME Air Maintenance, or whatever it was called, was giving me the run-around, and I wasn't even wearing a skirt! What is it with mechanics and women? There was no way he was going to charge me 30% more for the privilege of changing a landing light!
I was determined to ignore the buzzing of my mobile until this guy had lowered his extortionate price. Even though I wasn't paying for it, I’d be damned if I was going to be fleeced, even if someone else would ultimately be paying for it!
Eventually, he gave in and I could finally check who had been calling my mobile incessantly for the last 10 minutes. Kieran! I’d not expected him for at least another 3 hours, so he must have broken the sound barrier to get here that quick. I sent him a text and told him to meet me at the coffee joint in the International building and left ‘rip-off’ mechanic a deadline of 2 hours for the light to be swapped out.
Even though I’d only been flying for Joe and the Hangar for a couple of years, on and off when it fitted in with my IT job, and my <cough> clandestine work for Philippe, I was more than familiar with the dangers of transporting the baton, and some of the unsavory characters that would be tailing us along the way.
I had come close to some of Putinfeld’s goons on a number of occasions and had always managed to stay one or two steps ahead, but it seemed that the goons had got a bit too close for me to have the luxury of a decent night’s sleep before heading out.
Kieran had 'commandeered' a rather beautiful and iconic Vulcan, which I would have done anything to have used for my leg, but Kieran had to see it safely 'home', so the baton was going to have to come with me via GA. Ouch! GA. Dark forces are closing in and I had to look after the baton in a Cessna 208!
I wished Kieran a safe journey and pushed the baton into my rucksack... time for a quick change of clothes and hair then I could be on my way.
I swiped the key card and opened the door to my hotel room, throwing the rucksack on the bed and flicking the TV onto Sky News. At least that was something familiar wherever I was in the world, even if all they could report on was Brexit! I went through the selection of wigs in my luggage and settled on a short dark do, that at a distance, I could even pass as a man. Black jeans, a combat jacket and a make-up free face finished the look.
I wasn't due to check out till the following morning but that would be part of the diversion... If the Goons had got this close, they would be waiting for me to surface from my room in the early hours, but I would be on my way with the baton and cargo this afternoon and in Eldorado by nightfall.
The Landing Light was replaced and working so I was OK to go, once I had a rubber stamp on my cargo. Now, don't get me wrong, there is very little that I won't transport, given my 'varied' jobs, but the one thing I will NEVER transport is arachnids! Just as well that my intended cargo was...
Yeah, yeah, I can hear it now! Samuel L Jackson, Snakes on a plane... I never even watched that movie which is odd for me as I watch EVERY aircraft movie there is, even the useless b-movies that leave me screaming at the TV “that’d never happen” and “who was the technical consultant for this piece of tripe”.
My precious cargo of those beautiful but venomous reptiles needs to get from Simon Bolivar to Columbia, and no one else wanted to take it! Even my friend Philippe, who gives me many of my globetrotting assignments, didn’t want to touch this one. I should have followed his example, but I promised Joe I would get the baton to Eldorado by any means possible, so this was it.
The Cessna 208 was a lease from an outfit that bought up old military aircraft, and in pretty poor condition, but my job was clear... get the slithery things to Columbia and then get back to my ‘job’ in the UK. My fellow pilot on this leg was a twentysomething guy called Chuck from Baltimore who was down in South America trying to get his flying hours up by flying cargo, or whatever else he could get his hands on before sending another pile of airline job applications. He seemed a nice chap, and had a good sense of humor, so this trip should be a breeze.
The last job for this bird had been passengers, so some of the seats would need to be taken out to allow the wooden crates to be loaded. One row of seats would be left in place for the two 'snake wranglers' and the third guy who I guessed was the owner of the reptiles. He looked more like Jack Nicholson with greased back, thinning hair, dark glasses, with one sinister looking arched eyebrow, and a thick cigar between his whitened teeth. Moments after the truck arrived with the crates, the airport customs arrived and demanded to see our export and broker paperwork. Not being one for the legalities of transporting dangerous animals in this part of the world, I hoped that everything had been stamped, and was in order, so if they were happy then I was happy, but they seemed overly suspicious, and wanted to see inside the crates.
One by one, the reptile wranglers opened the crates up, using their hooks to keep the occupants from slithering out. After what seemed an age, the customs officer gave a slight shrug of his shoulders and handed the paperwork back.
At last we could be on our way. Chuck and I made sure that they were secure, and the reptiles unlikely to escape. ‘Jack’ had already taken up his seat in the cabin and was barking in Spanish on his mobile and chewing on his cigar. It wouldn’t be a long trip thankfully. Although the authorities had given us confirmation we could leave, the sudden manner in which they had arrived, and the potential danger of opening crates with live reptiles in, played on my mind. I’d better make sure I was on my toes this trip.
Lining up at Runway 03 ready for take off
Continuing our climb
Not a lot to see apart from green hills and valleys on our way to 13,000 feet
As our route would take us over the mountains, we were soon assigned a cruise of 21,000 feet. It wasn't a problem for our Caravan which could happily go up to 25 but it would be a waste of fuel if we didn't need to.
On top at 21,000 feet
Passing 'San Francisco' on the starboard side (the 'other' one), and passing over the huge Parque Nacional Complejo Valcanico Dona Juana Cascabel
Almost 2 hours into our journey to the Columbian border when I overheard a call from a business jet that got my immediate attention. The accent was unmistakable. Had Putinfeld tracked me down that quickly? Surely not... even he can’t have figured out my strategy that fast, but it was still a possibility. Our delay in leaving Ecuador and our significantly slower speed gave Putinfeld and his goons to catch up. It was possible that they hadn’t identified our flight, but I couldn’t take the chance that the baton might end up in the wrong hands.
Pulling the baton from my flight bag and tucking it in my jacket, I told Chuck to take the controls, while I went back into the rear of the plane to check that none of our cargo had managed to get lose. Eager to get some flight time, he readily agreed. The reptile wranglers were deep in conversation and Jack appeared to be sleeping under his hat, although he still had his half-chewed cigar in his mouth.
Although the crates were secure, I had noticed during our delay leaving SEGU that some of the crates had an inspection hatch, and that was just about to get me out of trouble. Hoping that the occupants of the crate were not going to have time to react, I swiftly unclipped the hatch of the closest crate, and pushed the baton in. Checking behind me, I was relieved that that no one had noticed my actions, still, I pretended to check ropes and then walked back up to the cockpit.
I almost jumped when ‘Jack’ stopped me as I squeezed past his seat, grabbing my arm and demanding to know what was going on. “Just a routine check on our passengers” I lied “everything is secure”.
I let Chuck keep hold of the controls while I monitored the ATC, listening for signs of Putinfeld’s flight, and their ultimate destination. Perhaps I had been a bit hasty in concealing the baton, particularly in a place that I hadn’t really considered the difficulties in retrieving it!
The ATC conversation confirmed my fears that Putinfeld, or at least some of his goons, were indeed heading for Eldorado too. I hoped that he hadn’t worked out which of Joe’s team was on this leg, and what aircraft I was in, as they might spot me, even with this disguise. They would arrive well in advance of us, and if they had worked it out, I needed to be prepared.
Approaching Bogota and our destination of Eldorado (not to be confused with the cheesy early 90s TV series of the same name), we had to slot in behind a long line of jets, but I was in no hurry, the dim light of dusk might be an advantage.
As we neared Bogota, I got Chuck to request ATC have a customs team to meet us at the stand to assist with a possible escaped reptile. Chuck’s eyes widened, and he looked nervously back into the cabin and I put my index finger to my lips; he got the message and visibly relaxed back into his seat.
It wouldn't be ATWC without some moody sunset shots would it..
Approaching the turning point to join the ILS. I could see the long line of aircraft on approach.
Turning onto the approach for Runway 13R we were caught in a strong crosswind, and at over 8000feet above sea level, I needed to be careful I didn't run out of height.
Blown off course at a particularly inopportune moment..
Made it down in one piece, although I think the undercarriage might need an overhaul after that bumpy landing.
We were directed to one of the stands away from the passenger gates and in a quiet area. I was wondering how long we would have to wait for the authorities to turn up.
Nearing the stand, I caught sight of several burly looking men who, although trying to look like ground crew, seemed not to know what they should be doing. Once out engine was shut down, they began walking towards us, and even in the dim light, I spotted one of them trying, unsuccessfully, to hide his revolver inside his overalls. My mind raced with thoughts of a counter move, but with the baton safe, I could probably stall them with the 'lose snake' scenario until help arrived.
Not a moment too soon, the customs team arrived, together with several police vehicles.
With weapons drawn, the police chief instructed us to exit the aircraft with our arms raised. The goons, realising that they were in the middle of a customs sting, were forced to abandon their plan and retreat into a nearby hanger.
Chuck, ‘Jack’ and the wranglers were ushered into a police van and taken to a holding area in the main airport building while the crates were unloaded from the aircraft.
Needless to say, there was no sign of any escaped snakes on the plane…
Sat in a holding cell with a completely hideous cup of coffee, I wondered how long it would take for the authorities to start asking questions on the unflattering selection of wigs in my luggage, and the number of stamps in my passport. The door opened and Philippe strode in, his arms open and a vaguely amused look on his face. “Ma Chère” he began, “how do you get yourself into these situations”.. It wasn’t a question.
Before I could come back with some retort, the Police chief came in and sat down opposite me. “We have been trying to crack open this smuggling ring for months and it looks like we have caught them red-handed this time”. “Smuggling snakes?” I began. “No, money” he replied “a lot of money.
Each of those crates had a false bottom which was full of it”. 'Jack' had been running quite a nice little operation across the border, and his plan to avoid anything other than a cursory check of the cargo would leave him free to transport whatever needed to be moved. Philippe had got wind of what was gong on, and had contacted the authorities. Whether his decision not to take the job and leave me to handle it was a question I would be taking up with him as soon I got out of this Police Station!
“There is just one thing that puzzled us about the shipment” the Police Chief continued, “we found it in one of the crates with one of the Boas”. He took out a rather familiar object from his inside pocket and placed it on the table. “I take it that this is yours?” he said with a wry smile before turning and leaving the holding cell with the door open.
Knowing that Putinfeld’s goons could be anywhere in the airport building, waiting to follow me, to see who I would meet to pass the baton to, or worse, I dialed the number for John and told him to meet me at the Police station to collect the baton. The goons wouldn’t be stupid enough to hang around here, so John could come and go without raising suspicion. I would get a flight out the next day, and that would keep Putinfeld’s goons on the false trail before I changed my look again and disappeared.
I like it when a plan comes together.
No snakes were harmed during the course of this trip