Sunday, June 19, 2016

Soldiers of Fortune: Downed on the Beach

When I first entered the strange world of agricultural flying, better known as cropdusting, I soon learned that it was peopled with some very odd, interesting and often very peculiar-type pilots. At that time a good many of them were more or less soldiers of fortune, each having his own personal value system. Here is a glimpse of one of them. 

Ken Nighting was a Texan, an ex-military pilot, ex-airline pilot, ex-company pilot, and quite a few other "exes." Before we met he had been flying for an ag-company that, after finishing the season in Texas, flew their planes down to Nicaragua and worked there until that season was over as well.

The first time Ken was to fly his Stearman to Nicaragua, he was to go with two other pilots in their planes. One of these pilots whom I will call Smutch, had made the trip several times before and knew the way. The other pilot whose nick-name was Drunken-Duncan, like Ken, had not made the trip before. Ken and Duncan had no maps, no radio for communication, and since neither had made this trip before, the plan was for them to follow Smutch. 

Sounds like a good plan, right? What could possibly go wrong?

They did just fine until they got into a bit of cloudy weather over lower Mexico. Smutch's plane was a wee bit faster than Ken's and Duncan's and he slowly moved off into the misty haze and left them. As Ken told me, all he knew for sure was that he was somewhere over southern Mexico. 

Not knowing where the next refueling stop was he decided to turn toward the coast, knowing that the lower part of the country was relatively narrow. So he turned eastward and hoped he could find some stretch of beach to land on before he ran out of fuel. He reached the coastline... but no beaches. He turned south along the coast and hoped. All he could see was jungle with no clearings at all. All this time he thought Drunken-Duncan was following him but no... he was not. Drunken-Duncan had too disappeared.

As Ken anxiously watched his fuel gauge creep closer and closer to empty he noticed several miles off shore was what appeared to be some islands. He headed in that direction hoping to find a beach to land on. He reached the islands and spotted a stretch of beach just as his engine quit for lack of fuel. He landed dead-stick and rolled to a stop.

Of course he was very glad to be on the ground in one piece. He hardly got his seat belt unfastened when beside his plane appeared two Indian men and a kid or two. They had come out of the jungle to greet him. They didn’t speak English but fortunately Ken was fluent in Spanish which the Indians spoke as well. They welcomed him to their village and treated him as a special guest.

Ken lived with these sea-fairing Indians for two weeks. He said their main diet was turtle eggs and goat curd cheese. He said he insisted on boiling his eggs but after a while he was eating them as the natives did: open the leathery shell, throw your head back and empty the content into your mouth and swallowed them raw. (gag)

Meantime the two pilots were missed by the company but no one knew where either one was. The company was sending more planes down there a couple of weeks later and the pilots were told to keep an eye out for the missing planes. One of these pilots whom I’ll call Hershel was instructed to fly along the coast because the company figured that was probably the most like route the lost pilots would follow.  

Sure enough, Hershel spotted Ken's plane sitting on the beach of one of the islands. He landed beside the fuel-less plane. Of course Ken was more than happy to see him. Ken looked pretty bad, with two weeks growth of beard and no change of clothes - and he smelled of turtle eggs and cheese. After greeting Ken, Hershel climbed back into his one-seater cropduster and said, "Well at least we know where you are, Ken. I’ll send someone back here to pick you up."

Ken later told me, "I hopped up on the wing walk and shoved my .357 revolver up under Hershel's nose and said, "It's like this Hershel, ole buddy—You ain't leaving here without me." Hershel looked at the pistol and then saw the look in Ken's eye and decided, "Maybe we can toss the seat cushions out and you sit in the seat and I will sit in your lap and fly the plane." 

Thus they made it back to civilization.

It was some three months before they found Drunken-Dunkin. He had found a small village with a small clearing in the jungle and tried to land in it. He wrecked his plane but was not injured, so not to worry. 

Duncan was a very adaptable individual. He liked living with the Indians, especially after taking up with one of the women, and they had plenty of cerveza and frijoles. He decided he liked the simple life, to heck with flying. 

I do not know for sure how it came to pass that Duncan was rescued. I saw Duncan some time later at an ag-meeting, so I know he made it home. Some of the pilots I knew said that the company sent an expedition down there and got him drunk. While he was drunk they tossed him in a vehicle and brought him home. Maybe...who knows? 

With cropdusters, one is never sure and the truth is often stranger than fiction, as they say. I got the story straight from Ken and two other pilots, so am pretty sure it was true.

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