With this Friday’s premiere of the Tom Cruise film American Made (Universal Pictures), the life story of one of aviation’s more outrageous personas is coming to the big screen. Barry Seal (played by Cruise) was the most notorious cocaine smuggler of the 1980s and his involvement with Columbian kingpin Pablo Escobar had significant implications in America’s war on drugs. My own brief experience with this story more than 30 years ago prompted me to explore the connection between illegal commerce and the growth of aviation.
I was fortunate as a teenager growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the mid-1980s, to be able to take flying lessons with one of the greatest flight instructors of the time, Eddie Duffard. After a mechanical issue forced us to scrap a flight in 1985, Duffard took me around our ramp to show me different radio navigation installations in cockpits. He showed me a Cessna 210 that belonged to Barry Seal. The plane had multiple ADFs (Automatic Direction Finder), which Duffard informed me was a good indication that the aircraft spent a lot of time south of the border. A short time later, the very dramatic episodes depicted in the film caused me to realize exactly whose airplane I had been looking at. Only as I began working on this post did I realize that I had another, more immediate connection–Duffard had also been Seal’s initial flight instructor many years earlier.
My further brushes with the world of aerial smuggling included: watching the installation of tethered aerostats on the southern coast; violence to a nearby hangar tenant who had turned down an offer to smuggle near the school in which I instructed in Florida; and a King Air being stolen from an adjacent airfield in the 1990s. All of these experiences inspired my interest in the early history of aeronautical smuggling, which led in turn to a range of questions: What was the history of aerial smuggling? Did it play a role in the development of aviation? Who were these smugglers?
Two years of research revealed remarkable answers to these questions. The use of aircraft in smuggling was not simply a niche application that emerged as aviation matured. Rather, illicit commerce by air was a prime consideration in early discussions of air travel and was one of the first drivers of aerial regulations. Illegal use of aircraft contributed significantly to the commercial development of the airplane at a time when profitable legal opportunities were few and far between.
Even by 1906, some commentators were already worried about how the invention of the airplane could easily negate the complex international framework of tariffs that regulated trade. Journalists even gave significant thought to the best goods that could be smuggled by air. One English newspaper concluded the answer was saccharine, as it had the most tariff for the least weight. If one could leapfrog ports and other border control points, then protectionist trade policies could be invalidated overnight. It only took a few years for such fears to be realized.
We may never know who the first aerial smuggler was, but my research has revealed the first to be caught-- Antonio Smeroglio, an Italian aviator who, in 1911, crashed while carrying “dutiable goods” of an unknown variety over the Mount Cenis pass, crossing the French border. Despite breaking two legs and his collarbone, he survived to be taken into custody. A year earlier, President William Howard Taft’s Secretary of State tried working with Mexico to register aircraft, fearing the start of a lucrative smuggling market on the open southern border. Rising political tensions soon scuttled such efforts.
World War I eclipsed all discussion of aeronautical smuggling, but it picked up in the United States immediately after the war as a response to the rising tide of local, state, and ultimately, federal prohibition of the import and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Simultaneously there was an almost overnight availability of war surplus airplanes like the JN-4 and DH-4, as well as a pool of trained pilots who were deeply frustrated that they saw little to no opportunity to engage in combat before the Armistice. As a result, smuggling arguably became the most profitable and expansive commercial enterprise in American aviation for much of the 1920s. Aerial bootlegging occurred over both the northern and southern borders and was highest near urban markets and distribution centers like Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, San Diego, and Miami. Airplanes also ferried bootleg alcohol from the so-called “Rum Row” fleet anchored in international waters off the coast of New York City.
Because good data has been so elusive, historians have largely ignored the role of illicit commerce in the growth of aviation. However, modern digital databases can help build a more complete picture. Between June 30, 1932, and June 30, 1933, federal authorities seized 35 aircraft that were used for smuggling. Given the widespread reports of crashes of smuggling aircraft that were not seized, and assuming a 10 percent loss rate, an estimate of 500 aircraft actively engaged in smuggling appears reasonably feasible. Given that the Coast Guard established that there were only 550 aircraft in airline service at the time, the implications are staggering. If smuggling wasn’t the largest aviation application at the time, it may well have been the most profitable given that a single flight might net over $2,000 profit.
“Rum running” was not necessarily a full-time occupation. Some barnstormers, air mail pilots, and even military pilots seemed to use it to fill in slow periods in their flight duties. In some instances, formalized barnstorming groups were an ideal cover for the distribution of illicit liquor, as it gave them an excuse to operate in remote areas at odd times. Some of the more notable smugglers included Ed Musick (lead pilot for Aeromarine Airways and later, Pan American Airways chief clipper captain), Bert Haskell (a Chicago aviation pioneer), Hubert Julian (the “Black Eagle”), Loren Mendell (record endurance flier), William Ponder (WWI ace), Juanita Burns (record flier), and the couple of “Chubbie” Miller and Bill Lancaster, whose desert disappearance was the inspiration for The English Patient.
Not surprisingly, organized crime dominated the field. Al Capone’s Chicago air operations, run by his brother Ralph, had consisted of 20 aircraft. That does not even account for the huge number of independent rings allied to Capone, or operating in competition with him, who had their own air fleets. Blaise “King Canada” Diesbourg, aka “King of the Airplanes,” was a French Canadian who handled the Canadian-side logistics for Al Capone’s bootlegging operations over the Great Lakes. Diesbourg realized that the airplane overcame many of the problems they encountered using boats, which could be interdicted on the rivers and lakes and which were frozen in place for much of the year. He organized five airfields that included underground and undetectable storage cisterns. By the time Diesbourg had negotiated his arrangements with Capone, the crime boss had his own fleet of “planes, old bombers–each had a pit on it about long enough to hold twenty-five cases of whiskey.”
However, alcohol was not all that was smuggled–people and illegal narcotics could be more profitable. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924 largely banned Chinese and Japanese immigration, resulting in a large number of potential immigrants willing to pay upwards of $500 per person to bypass border controls via aircraft. This led to a somewhat popular B-movie trope in the mid-late 1930s of devious aerial smugglers who would jettison their human cargo at the first sign of trouble via trapdoors, like in the 1939 Ronald Reagan film Secret Service of the Air (Warner Bros.). This may well have been one of the films that inspired George Lucas’ Han Solo character.
Many aviators were caught bootlegging alcohol by aircraft and typically served a one-year sentence in the “hoosegow,” then resumed their professional aviation careers with little tarnish, thanks to the popular disdain for Prohibition. Aerial drug smuggling was a different matter entirely. While organized crime profited enormously by subverting Prohibition, illicit narcotics were still big business for them, especially after Prohibition’s repeal. However, culturally, drug running was considered abhorrent, and courts were likely to issue heavy punishments, even in the 1920-30s. More than a few pilots later recalled their time bootlegging with some fondness, but none admitted to drug running. They simultaneously claimed to know more than a few compatriots who succumbed to the temptation for money or thrills. Newspaper accounts and Coast Guard records do indicate a number of drug seizures of aircraft during the Prohibition era.
The aerial smuggling culture did not disappear after World War II, but it was a shadow of what it had been until the end of the Vietnam War. Once again, the confluence of cheap pilot labor (out of work ex-military pilots), cheap and capable aircraft (war surplus types ranging from WWII-era B-25s and C-47s to Vietnam-era C-123s), and a new demand after the counterculture revolution had reshaped social norms, led to an enormous upsurge in aerial smuggling going into the cocaine era of the 1980s. Wide area low-level radar coverage, put in place in no small measure because of Seal’s early success evading detection, has suppressed much of this activity in recent years, making subterranean, surface, and even semi-submersible transport more desirable, though drones appear to be ushering in a new era of aerial smuggling.