For obvious reasons the identity of the author of this article, and of the characters mentioned in it, cannot be revealed. —The Editor.
LISTEN, Cap! On the level now, how much sugar do you knock out on this barnstorming racket?” My one passenger of the day leaned against the cockpit after I had landed in the field I was barnstorming from near Agincourt, and grinned cheerfully up at me. He had removed the helmet I loaned him for the flight and mopped beads of perspiration from his round, barren dome.
“It depends on the day and the people and the weather,” I told him. “Sometimes they, the people, ride; sometimes they just look. It’s a great life, with a lot of gristle and darned little gravy.”
“Tough, eh?” he queried. “Guess you’d be tickled to death to get real money for flying a real ship instead of this old verandah, wouldn’t you?”
I winced a little at that. My old “verandah,” as he cabed the Jenny whose OX power-plant was badly in need of a top overhaul, was near the end of her life. Her cross bracing wires, that once sang merrily in a steep glide, now wheezed. All her ribs and struts creaked protestingly every time she took the air. She held no lure for adventurous youth seeking five-dollar thrills, and was not pretty enough for first timers to risk their timid necks in.
“Yes,” I agreed reluctantly. “She’s passé, but we’ve had a lot of fun together.”
“I know a fellow who’s got a new ship and nobody to fly it,” my visitor said casually. “Would you be interested in making a deal?”
“That depends on the deal,” I replied. “I’ve got a mean habit of wanting to run things myself and don’t like working for other people.”
“How you run the ship will be your own affair,” he told me. “Tell you what. Park your crate and we’ll drive up to Buffalo. The man I’m telling you about is over there and wants to operate on this side.”
“He can’t operate an American register on this side of the line,” I explained.
“Maybe not, but he can get Canadian registry, can’t he?”
“Air regulations require that an owner be a Canadian or British subject,” I pointed out.
'“Yeah? Well, that’s easy. The ship can be registered in your name, can’t it?”
I told him it could, and made a mental observation that there was a cross wind somewhere in the offing.
“Got a little snifter in the car,” the stranger told me in that sly manner of quixotic mystery a lot of Americans have cultivated since the Eighteenth Amendment came into being.
The “snifter” was taken direct from the bottle while we sat in the stranger’s expensive roadster.
“Say!” He patted my knee affectionately. “You’re a man after my own heart. Here!” He fished into his breast pocket and pulled out a wallet from which he extracted two fifty-dollar bills. “This is more than you’ll make in a week around this dump. Tie up the crock and come on with me.”
Rum Running by Air
Here let me hazard a guess that Lord Alfred Tennyson, far-sighted as he was when he wrote that “the heavens were filled with argosies,” little dreamed that in a far-off country those argosies would be winged oases for a thirsty nation.
In the next few weeks I was to learn that the American bootlegger will stop at nothing to quench his compatriot’s thirst; that for a price the flow of liquor would be continued, let the drops fall where they might. I was to learn that no less than twenty-three airplanes, to my own definite knowledge, were to be used almost exclusively in the business of liquid transport from Ontario to the United States; that emergency landing fields, hitherto simply regarded as harbors of safety in engine trouble, were to prove ubiquitous bases for loading and unloading. I learned that the scope of transport was not limited to border distribution—that it was safer to transport by air than by auto.
Briefly summarizing the extent of the trade developed by two syndicates alone, there are today twenty airplanes operating—three have been caught owing to forced landings. I have used five different fields on the Canadian side, and used the same field only twice on the American side. A cabin job of well-known make, capable of carrying a safe pay load of 1,000 pounds, with a cruising radius of approximately 1,200 miles, has made three trips as far as St. Louis, and authorities—at least minor officials, both police and federal—in Buffalo, N.Y., are well aware that there is a nigger in the woodpile of one excellent airport.
It’s a profitable game. Airplanes cost less than speedboats even in initial outlay. The hazard is insignificant at the present time, the only danger being that of a forced landing, in which case the ship and cargo are lost while the pilot escapes, unless he is stupid enough to hope for salvage. Certain it is, the aerial runner is safe from bullets and troopers. He sails his swift course in peaceful solitude, unmolested by speed traps, inquisitive police and vicious hijackers. The pilot is not concerned with his load before he takes it or after he has landed it. While in the air it remains inviolate; when on the ground it just becomes a load of booze, subject to guard by the owners, and threatened with the usual dangers.
I can only compute the extent of the industry from my own loads. My private log book—now destroyed, thank Heaven—tells that; so if you are interested in computation, multiply mine by ten—there are ten pilots employed—and you will have the approximate activities of two syndicates.
"My own log for six load trips shows 2,390 miles flown in approximately twenty-three hours of flying time. Figure, now $300 per trip with load, and the pilot’s end was $1,800. What cut the “passengers” in each case got I do not know. Machine operating costs are summarized as follows:
The initial cost is the highest, as the American consumer is learning at rates up to sixteen dollars per “uncut” quart. When fifty cases are transported they show a profit of about $7,800. That is, they cost approximately three dollars per quart and sell for sixteen dollars. With twelve quarts to a case there are 600 quarts, each showing thirteen dollars profit. What happens to the stuff after delivery is made, only the small dealer knows. He pays plenty, and to swell his own profit cuts the quarts to make much out of little. The ultimate consumer pays through the nose, guzzles his quart,and kids himself that the jag he gets is worth the price.
Now, Mr. Statistician, figure from my log book. I carried about 240 cases—we’ll forget the champagne and beer. That means 2,880 quarts. They showed an approximate gross profit of $37,440 over the actual cost of the liquor in Canada. I was paid $1,800, and the planes I used were just nicely broken in. They are a constant source of revenue until they break down or are caught. It is interesting to note that good rum boats cost in the neighborhood of $20,000, and are more expensive to operate. In conjunction with the rum boats there must be trucks and fast cars for long distance runs. No wonder the airplane is the best bet.
But, to leave statistics and get on with the story.
A Cross Wind Proposition
"Red — pushed another glass — my fourth—of doubtful-looking and oily-tasting spirits across the table at me. I had been in Buffalo two hours, visited an airport other than the municipal harbor, and flown a high-powered job that sent a tingle of reminiscent delight through me. It felt good to handle the stick on a machine as big as a bomber and sensitive as a Sop-Camel.
The stranger who drove me from Agincourt had taken me to the aerodrome, which, by the way, is no more than a hedge-hop from the fine municipal and customs airport that Buffalo enjoys; had introduced me to Captain B---, nduced the latter to let me fly the 220 horse-powered Swallow, and then left me at Red--’s speakeasy behind the barred doors of an unpretentious-looking flat in the heart of the city. Even as Red and I talked, we could hear the faint hum of an emery wheel on the floor below grinding out keys and locks—part of the law-abiding industry that surrounded the second-floor Social Club which apparently even federal agents and police knew well.
“The racket’s gettin’ tough,” Red complained woefully. “We got the reputation of sellin’ real stuff that ain’t cut, and it’s gettin’ tougher all the time to get it. My customers won’t stand for cut stuff and kick like blazes at the raise in prices. We gotta get sixteen dollars a quart now,” he continued pathetically. “And believe me, it’s tough gettin’ what I mean. Up in Detroit they’re knocking off sixteen dollars for cut stuff and twenty-five for unopened quarts. That’s L---. He’s got real customers and has made a clean-up by using methods that keep him one jump ahead of the dry squad all the time.”
“And that’s what you intend to do,” I grinned. “Run it over by air. What are you kicking about?”
“Me?” Red’s doleful-looking face wrinkled into a mask of genuine tragedy. “It ain’t me, Cap’. It’s the boss. What he says goes, and if he wants it that way I should worry; only, if the sales fall off my percentage does a nosedive.”
“Who is the boss?” I asked.
“If he wants you to know I guess he’ll tell you,” Red answered guardedly. “Birmingham will tell you all you’ll need to do your part.”
Birmingham, I learned a short time later, was a sort of assistant traffic director for the Buffalo syndicate that planned to follow the pace set by L---of Detroit.
“How did you chaps hit upon the idea of running liquor by air?” I asked of Red.
“Government competition, I guess,” he chuckled. “When the racket first started they used to use scows to ferry it across the line. Then the customs put on patrol boats and started a regular competition in speed. The faster the government boats the faster the runners. Why, some of the rum boats coming across can run rings around the coast guards, and they cost a small fortune to build, too. Guess they figure a plane don’t cost any more, and it ain’t likely the federals would force a plane down.”
My friend of Agincourt returned. I never did learn his full name; everybody called him Charlie. With him was a smartly and slightly overdressed man in his middle thirties, who was introduced to me as George Birmingham.
“He’ll talk things over with you,” Charlie told me and we were left alone.
“You don’t need that stuff,” Birmingham opened, nodding his head toward the glass of Scotch that stood on the table. He wasted no time coming to the point. “Charlie says you can fly all right,” he said. “Want to take a fling at it?”
“That depends,” I answered carefully.
“Well, here’s the proposition,” Birmingham snapped. “We figure you can carry about a thousand pounds over each hop. The front cockpit’s been changed to hold cases and you don’t have a thing to do but fly it. We get the stuff, load it in Canada and you ferry it over—$300 a trip.” He paused: “What do you say?”
“From what point to which point,” I asked facetiously.
“We’ll show you where the fields are,” he countered. “First w.e’ve got to know you mean business. You can make four trips a week if you want to. We buy the plane, you fly it. When you’ve made enough trips the plane’s yours.”
“Sounds fair enough,” I demurred, “but what about cash in advance before each trip and .protection if I should happen to be caught?”
“If you’re caught over this side, you just wanted to pay off the mortgage on your machine, see. Somebody will bail you out right away, and you beat it across the line. We lose the ship, cargo and bond.”
“Sounds easy enough,” I laughed. “Where’s the catch? Supposing I double-crossed you and kept the ship.”
“You don’t look crazy,” Birmingham grinned.
International air regulations offer only a minor obstacle to the aerial rum runner. Customs requirements are that an airplane leaving Canada—say Toronto—for any point in the United States, must have clearance at Leaside aerodrome, or at Chippawa, near Niagara Fails; then, before proceeding to its American destination, it must report at the customs airport in Buffalo.
Every airplane, whether owned by an individual or corporation, must be licensed in the country of which the owner is a citizen. Unless special arrangements are made, no American ship can operate commercially in Canada, and the same, rule applies across tl e international boundary.
Every licensed airplane bears a distinguishing mark. In Canada it is a series of letters beginning with G. In the United States the machines are numbered. Birmingham’s promise that the machine would belong to me didn’t mean a thing. It was an American-built plane, and to obtain registry in Canada would be liable to duty. A little thing like duty doesn’t mean anything to the rum syndicate.
I tried to point out the difficulties of flying an American registry in Canada. Undoubtedly somebody would see the machine, and it is positively uncanny how government inspectors hear about machines that have violated the international customs agreement.
“They can’t touch you in the air,” Birmingham replied shortly. “You’re not going to have any markings.”
“And have all the airplanes in Ontario following me to figure things out,” I retorted.
“That’s your job to figure out,” he grinned.
Arrangements were finally completed. I was reasonably certain that whatever happened there was little danger of me losing anything. I even decided to bury my identity under an assumed name, so that in the event of capture my pilot’s license would not be affected. I simply decided to smash air regulations to smiihereens if necessary, just to take a hand in the game of dodging the dries.
Enter the “Shadow”
Birmingham and his cohorts—i later learned that a highly respected Hamilton, Ontario, man is the “Boss” of the syndicate—were taking no chances on me. I was given a “mechanic” who looked as though he could handle a gun better than a wrench. I may be doing the poor chap an injustice, however, for while he never showed any ability with aircraft engines during our association, he never once showed a gun of any sort. He wasn’t a cheerful sort of chap; neither did he show hostility.
“Your ship’s down at Albany,” Birmingham instructed me. “Charlie will meet you at 7.30 tonight and drive you down. You bring it back here and land at B---’s aerodrome. Then we’ll fix the rest of the details.”
Birmingham met me, and accompanied by the mechanic, whom I dubbed “halfpint” because of his size, we made a most casual trip to the state capital. We might have been tourists drinking in sights for all the speed we made.
Evidently negotiations had been completed, and the ship simply awaited a pilot. The following morning at 10.30 we were at the municipal airport where I looked over as neat a looking three-place high-powered job as any commercial flyer would want to see. She had been assembled and flown straight from the factory, and the dealers were undoubtedly legitimate. They had made a sale and evidently didn’t care what the ship was to be used for.
I was a little surprised that Shorty climbed into the front cockpit when I was ready to take off. Concerning his status, nothing had been said during our ride down, nor at any time, beyond mechanic. Shadow would have been a better word, for from that time on Shorty seldom let me out of his sight.
Just before I took off, I had an inspiration. I bought a face mask. I wouldn’t need it for summer flying, but I knew most of the Canadian inspectors well, and if they should be curious enough to get a good look at me sometime in the air the mask would hide my features.
It was an uneventful trip to Buffalo. Shorty slept most of the time and I dropped into B—--’s aerodrome in the afternoon. Shorty said he guessed that we’d leave the ship and go into town for the night. We did—there was an automobile waiting for us.
I registered at the Statler—so did Shorty. I decided to take in a movie— so did Shorty. It was rapidly dawning upon me that Shorty was either my bodyguard or my jailer. I knew enough now to be dangerous; ergo, my knowledge was to be guarded. Certain it was that I wasn’t going to be told a thing I didn’t need to know.
Across the Border
I got a distinct shock the next morning when I arrived, under Shorty’s suggestion, at B---’s field. The factory standard colors, silver wings and blue fuselage of the ship I had flown the day before had changed to a dull, uninteresting brown. The front cockpit had been stripped of instrument panel and ornamentation. Even the seat had been removed, and the dual controls had been slipped out completely.
In my cockpit were two Irving seat pack ’chutes. The NC registration numbers had been changed to—sorry I can’t tell you that. Shorty donned a ’chute, advised me to do the same, and told me to head for Toronto. On the ground I was beginning to feel bewildered at all the mystery. Entering upon the adventure I had preconceived ideas of rum running. I suppose I looked for mean-visaged, slit-lipped gunmen skulking about like jackals. Instead everyone and everything was so casual and businesslike. In the air I felt more at ease— master of the situation, captain of cargo, crew and fate.
Without advice from Shorty I climbed to 12,000 feet before crossing the line. This altitude I maintained until we sighted Toronto. Then I nosed down, throttled low and asked Shorty, “Where to now?”
“Follow north along the main stem for fifteen miles, then cut over to the left,” he told me. “There’s a field about seven miles over.”
Scudding over the hazy face of Toronto below I could distinguish a conspicuously cream-colored Moth, and hazarded a guess that it most likely was Inspector Abbott in his CALE. He didn’t see me, or if he did he gave no indication of it.
There is no doubt the syndicates have made a pretty complete study of air transport and its possibilities, and shown good judgment in their choice of ships; but their landing-field education has been sadly neglected. Perhaps it is the exigencies of the business, but they certainly do not elaborate on fields. Shorty indicated that I should drop to about 2,000 feet after leaving Yonge Street and swinging to a northwesterly heading of 335 degrees true. After a seven-mile glide Shorty indicated a tree-lined patch about the size of an air-mail stamp. For the next few minutes I was using every trick I had learned in years of flying to get “in” without washing out a landing gear. I pancaked in from a sideslip, used air brakes, presenting the broadside of the fuselage in a crabbing forward motion to the air to set up resistance and kill speed, and used the wheel brakes after touching. Even the machine was less than twenty feet from a clump of trees when it came to rest.
Shorty walked me through the trees to an automobile of Ontario license that was waiting. It was a sedan occupied by two men. We drove to Aurora, had lunch, killed about two hours talking of nothing in particular, and started back. NC looked, to my practised eye, like a shaven camel. One gets accustomed to seeing the registration numerals glaring from wings and fuselage. They had gone. In their place was a broad streak almost matching the color of the wings. The front cockpit was covered with a khaki canvas, slightly humped, that increased my impression of a camel. Automobile tracks wound through the bushes, and footprints indicated how the load had been carried a distance of about twentyfive feet to the machine.
“All set?” Shorty asked.
“How much load is there?” I quizzed dubiously. “Oh, about 800 pounds,” he answered.
I couldn’t quite figure how we would get out of the field with that load, but take-off difficulties didn’t worry Shorty. He calmly added his 130 pounds to the load by raising the canvas, readjusting a couple of cases—and plumping himself between them.
I was learning to be as saturnine as Shorty. If he was coming, that was his hard luck. If we cleared the trees and got off overloaded as she was, he could sleep all the way back. If she didn’t, ten chances to one I would be able to walk away from the wreck and he would be smashed to pieces. He was just cargo —my shadow that held no human interest for me.
If this was a fiction thriller I could enlarge nicely upon that take-off. It was a drag-off over the trees, with my muscles as tense as if I was actually lifting the ship by personal strength. I expected her to spin in at any moment. One could just feel the propeller biting hard into the slipping air. But we got out, and at 300 feet I breathed easier.
Despite the load, that fool thing would climb. I didn’t even bother to circle for altitude, but swung on a heading to miss Toronto by a few miles.
Over Black Rock I began a glide for B---’s field, having been given no other instructions. Shorty soon set me right. He pointed upward, indicating that I should climb and change my course. Then he scribbled on a piece of paper “78 degrees true.” I swung east and followed his directions, and after fifteen minutes he twisted around, handed me another slip of paper on which was scrawled: “Field below on port side. Land quickly.”
Ten or twelve miles to port I could see the town of Medina, N.Y., and a mile or two to starboard was the village of Akron. The field indicated was much larger than the one near Aurora.
An Unwanted Welcome
A solitary sedan was parked near a farmhouse. The field was smooth, although grown over with tall hay that might better have been cut. My metal prop sent timothy heads flying in helical arcs as I taxied, under Shorty’s direction, toward the car.
Shorty hopped out, and even while I was fumbling with my safety belt a couple of men from the car were unloading cases. Down at the main highway, about a mile east, I could see three automobiles come to a stop and their occupants pile out. I wondered what they would think if they came over to inspect the machine, as people invariably will when one lands in the country. Apparently, however, this contingency was expected. A man stepped forward and waved them back.
The unloading was accomplished rapidly. Before the last case was out, one of the men had swept the covered numerals with a wet sponge and there was my machine, properly numbered and apparently the victim of a forced landing. The sedan, with its load and two occupants, sped along a side road and soon was out of sight.
The cars on the highway now numbered seven, and we could see the occupants running across the fields.
“Fool around with that engine,” Shorty snapped.
A small group of autoists arrived and I entered into the spirit of the game.
“Hell of a fix,” I growled. “No tools.” Then aloud to the little audience: “Anybody got a pair of pliers?”
One man volunteered to return to his car and get a pair, and during his absence I answered questions. “Yes, nothing serious, just a loose valve stem—no, we were bound for New York, but must return to Buffalo for repairs—yes, I guess we could make temporary repairs and fly —no, we don’t carry passengers—it’s a Wright Whirlwind engine—no, it’s a radial, not a rotary engine,” and so on.
Thanking the motorist for his pliers, I tinkered a bit, loosened a nut and tightened it again, told Shorty I was ready, and we took off. As far as the motorists were concerned it was just an emergency landing. Even a trooper would have been fooled. Shorty seemed quite pleased, if the grin he flung at me after the take-off was any indication of his emotions.
“I’m in the Racket, Now”
T> ACK in Buffalo I met an old friend —Captain R---formerly war-time instructor in the United States forces and, immediately after the war, a De Havilland pilot with Imperial Airways. The pleasure of reunion was mutual and we drifted down to Red’s speakeasy to compare notes.
“What’s the world been doing to your funny old face?” I asked R---when we were alone. I remembered him as a smart, perky little chap with neatly clipped mustache and small, Frenchy-looking features. Now he was frowsy, a little bloated, and the left side of his neck and face was horribly disfigured by great burn scars—the result of a descent in flames.
“I’m teaching parachute jumping,” he said quietly. “I’ve had a few tough breaks lately.”
“Spill it,” I grinned, and began fingering a roll of bills in my pocket.
“You in the racket now?” he countered seriously.
“Racket? What do you mean?” My surprise would have done credit to a third-rate stock actor.
“Quit stalling,” R---said impatiently. “I’m doing it myself.”
That was interesting and surprising. I had an idea I was the one and only black sheep of aviation.
I told him of my first trip. “I used that field two weeks ago,” he said, referring to the tiny space near Aurora. He had been forced to leave the load because with his underpowered machine he could barely get out light. “I refused to try it again,” he said, “so they buried the load, and I have been ferrying the stuff from Dundas since.”
“How many pilots and machines are there?” I asked.
“I only know of four pilots. The machine you brought from Albany is a new one and makes three to my knowledge.”
“Who runs the outfit?”
“Well,” R---demurred, “It’s something you can’t put your finger on. This place of Red’s has quite a history. Originally it was owned by a group of newspaper reporters. I’m told. It used to be their hangout. I’ve heard persistent rumors that a prominent city official had an interest in it at one time. Right now I know that frequently Shorty ferries Birmingham over to Hamilton to see the big boss. Who he is I don’t know, but I’ll bet a payroll it’s some export concern.”
There are two or three exporters whose charter permits them to transport by air, but personally I cannot see the connection. During my association with the runners I never once obtained clearance for a load. I didn’t need to. By covering numerals on the machine, all risk of tracing was virtually eliminated. There have been many cases of pilots making international flights without reporting, and they have managed to get away with it. Once in a while it leaks out from one side or the other that a foreign ship was over, and when the inspectors hear of it they check up immediately, but that usually applies to machines using much frequented, or licensed aerodromes. The times I have passed over Toronto at high altitudes nobody has paid the slightest attention to me, with one exception which I shall tell of later. The danger of detection lies in landing either on the Canadian or American side. With so many barnstormers operating, however, the landing of a machine is not uncommon and people are becoming phlegmatic about them. Hence, by ignoring the customs one needs no clearance papers. It simply means breaking another law and the pilot only suffers, if caught, to the extent of losing his license, if he has one, and a small fine.
R---, it appeared, was employed in a dual capacity. The field at which he worked conducted a flying school, transport service and general aviation business. Some days he would ferry liquor, at other times give exhibitions and occasionally a little instruction.
On June 13 I ferried the machine to Gowanda, a small town some thirty miles from Buffalo, and picked up Birmingham, who had been negotiating with a chap called Harry for delivery of a consignment. Whether Harry got his stuff or not I don’t know. I didn’t deliver it.
Birmingham accompanied me to Toronto—we landed at Dufferin Street airport. I don’t know whether he intended to carry on to the field at Aurora or not, but number five cylinder exhaust valve was giving trouble and he sanctioned the landing. The trouble was easily adjusted; the valve clearance lock-nut had worked loose and was easily tightened.
Dufferin Street airport was deserted, except for a sallow-looking, grimy-necked youth who chewed on a sandwich, asking nutty questions between bites. Birmingham took me aside, told me to pick up a load at Aurora, and ferry it to the Akron field. Then, in a loud voice for the young watchman’s ears, he declared that he enjoyed the trip, handed me a roll of bills— my $300 in advance for the next load— and declared that he was returning to Buffalo later by bus.
It rained hard during my run over to Aurora. The exhaust valve gave more trouble and I was forced to stake the ship for the night. Anyway, there wasn’t a soul around when I landed, and I assumed there must have been some hitch in the arrangements. I wasn’t quite sure what to do in the event of detection. The registration marks on my ship were faked. I knew that, but I could be far away before that was checked up. I decided that should police, or perhaps an inspector, discover me, I could plead a forced landing after being lost in the rain. Canadian government aircraft inspectors, who fly on their rounds with Moths, have a habit of spotting machines landed in out-of-the-way places. They land and ask questions most embarrassing to the pilot with a guilty conscience.
Nobody bothered me, however, and after I had waited more than an hour the same two men I had met before, drove up, apologized for the delay, and began transferring the load.
“Wait a minute,” I protested. “I’m not taking-off until I fix the valve properly. Don’t load that stuff until I tell you.”
They didn’t like the idea but finally agreed to wait. To tell the truth, I didn’t want to take-off. Visibility was extremely bad and the sky was completely obscured by one of those driving, persistent rains that have a habit of lasting. I didn’t take-off until the following morning and then refused to carry more than twentyone cases. Even with that load I barely got out.
One Little Slip —
Upon my return to Buffalo I made a mistake that nearly cost me my new job and threatened to cost my life—in fact at the present time I am not the_ least bit anxious to visit Buffalo. The French Sûreté say, Cherchez la femme. Good femmes and rum running don’t mix. For some time before I fell by the wayside and listened to the blandishments of Birmingham et al, I was possessed of an admirable wife. When I yielded to the insistent urge of economic necessity I considered it wise to send her on a holiday —to visit her parents who lived in Buffalo.
Shorty notified me that operations were to be suspended for a week or two, and I was to drop into Red’s place sometime about the twenty-sixth. Naturally I spent the time as guest of my “in-laws.” Equally as natural was my wife’s curiosity concerning my income, so I drew the long bow. I was with a transport company, earning good money. I was unsettled just at present, but would be dropping into Buffalo frequently. We decided it would be a good thing for her to stay with her parents until I was settled.
By June 26 Shorty seemed to have acquired some confidence in me. “There’s a sweet job waiting for you down in Cincinnati,” he declared. “We’ll leave tomorrow—R--- can ferry us—and bring her back Friday.”
Accordingly I told my anxious better half, in an exuberant moment, that I was going down for the company to Cinty to bring up a new ship. I had quite a job persuading her that she couldn’t come— some officials were going with me—and left with her an admonition to be careful.
A year or so before, we had frequented the Buffalo municipal airport. My wife supposed I would come in there, and with her relatives drove to the field to await my victorious coming. Although they were assured that I was not expected they waited, chatting with officials and telling of the new company, the new ship I was bringing, and a few other details.
When I didn’t arrive at the appointed time, they began to get anxious and, even in the hour I was waiting at their home they were wiring Cincinnati and intermediate points. Cinty assured them I had left OK, but from there I seemed to have vanished. They were apprehensive and considering chartering somebody to go a-hunting for me.
Naturally my disappearance caused suspicion which was relayed, through some mysterious underground channel, to B---’s airport. Activities were immediately camouflaged. R---was detailed to give parachute instruction, and newspaper advertising carried the information that on Sunday a girl would make a jump. To all appearances the airport was a thriving, legitimate school and transport centre.
Birmingham and Shorty didn’t get wise to the tip-off for some time. When they did, R---tipped me off and I slipped out; but that was not until some ten days later, after I had made two profitable trips with the Hornet-powered job.
That Hornet was a sweet job. I have seen it pass over Toronto several times quite recently, flying high, following the regular air lane from Buffalo. Whether it runs liquor each time I can’t tell, because not infrequently it operated on a purely legal basis carrying passengers. The first trip I made with her, after ferrying from Cinty, was with a load of merrymakers, bound for Toronto.
The syndicate’s airplanes are not used exclusively for rum-running. Several of the fleet operating along the Ontario border are used alternately on special charter work.
EVIDENTLY Shorty had made a report on the small field at Aurora. On July 2 he climbed in beside me and we ran to a good-sized field near Dundas, Ont. A tail wind was blowing and we made fast time. The machine’s performance was beautiful. It was not straining her in the least to carry 1,500 pounds pay load at 120 miles per hour cruising speed. With full throttle she would hit an air speed of 148. Stripped of everything possible in order to gain extra cargo capacity, she would carry more than a ton. A weight like that makes take-offs and landings perilous. But it’s profitable.
The load at Dundas was buried. Three men were on the field, but no sign of an automobile, Shorty directed me to taxi close to the northwestern end, where a clump of trees obscured the activities of the men. Each man emerged from the trees with a load, dumped it into the cabin and returned for more. We hocked off fifty cases, and this time Shorty was able to ride in comfort beside me.
There was one confusing thing about this booze-ferrying. I as pilot never knew where I was going. Shorty directed the men to “fill her up,” and the fuel tanks were loaded to capacity. We took off without ceremony.
“Pittsburgh,” Shorty grunted as we passed over Niagara at about 12,000 feet.
“Pittsburgh? What do you mean?” I asked.
“Pittsburgh. We’re going to Pittsburgh,” Shorty said laboriously.
That was not such a hot trip. We ran into storms and head winds that cut down our speed. At that we didn’t do so badly, making the 210 miles in a little over two hours.
We landed at a flying school some fifteen miles from the Smoky City, delivered our load and stayed over a couple of days. Then we ferried back to Buffalo. That afternoon we hopped over to Dunville, Ont., just a short hop over the lake.
There was a good field at that place and Shorty showed some enthusiasm.
“Ought to be able to take a real load out of here,” he exclaimed.
He told me I would not be needed for a couple of days, so I hitch-hiked to Crystal Beach and ferried over to Buffalo. I reported back on the morning of July 8 and Shorty informed me there were sixty cases of liquor and five of beer that were to be delivered to Pittsburgh, same field.
“Come for a Ride!”
That was my last run for the Birmingham crowd. When I arrived at my destination I was told to leave the ship and take the train back to Buffalo. Birmingham wanted to see me.
When I walked into Red’s place that evening, Red cocked his thumb toward the back room. There were three men besides Birmingham sitting around a table.
“Sit down, Cap.,” Birmingham called cheerfully.
I ordered a highball and waited for him to speak.
“You got a woman?” he smiled roguishly.
“Leave women out of this,” I replied shortly, without the faintest idea what he was driving at.
There was something about this gathering I didn’t like. Two of the men were strangers to me, but the third I recalled having seen with Birmingham two or three times. They were a lean, dapper trio, eyes hard as flint, hands soft, delicate, almost like a woman’s. I began to grow uneasy. Birmingham wasn’t coming Continued, from page 50 to the point at all and his cordiality seemed forced.
It seemed, too, that the strangers were eyeing me more closely than common interest would warrant. They seemed to be sizing me up contemplatively, like fighters appraising their opponent.
“You’re going to have a slow ride on the ground tonight,” Birmingham said with forced casualness. “The boys will drive you over to look at a new field.”
I got a sudden hunch. Perhaps it was Birmingham’s reference to the slow ride. It was the kind of hunch I have had many times—one of those hunches any man gets when he is close to death.
“Okay,” I agreed, matching Birmingham’s casual manner.
“Ready to go now?” he asked.
“Yeah, guess so,” I replied. “Wait’ll I fix up a bit.”
I walked to the toilet. One of the men walked beside me. The lavatory was a cramped little cubicle with a single, small window placed near the ceiling. I closed and bolted the door, clambered up, and ascertained that the window opened on a sort of courtyard boxed in by the building.
It took me about ninety seconds to squeeze through. I hung by my fingers, hesitated, then let go. I plunged twenty feet and landed with a jolt that shook me from toes to head. I groped my way around the walls, found a drain-pipe, clambered to the roof, scrambled a hundred feet or so among telephone and light wires, and finally slid down another drain into an alley that led me out into Pearl Street.
I was sure now that my hunch was correct. I was booked for a ride. I hurried to my wife’s home and the truth of the
hunch was proved. R— --was waiting for me. He was considerably perturbed.
“For God’s sake don’t go down to Red’s,” he said in an undertone. “They’ve marked you.”
After I had told him how I got away, he explained in detail.
There had been a devil of a row.
B---’s airport had been warned by friendly dry agents. The suspicious events of my Cinty trip, due in all innocence, to my wife’s anxiety over me, had resulted in an enquiry. I had lied to her and the lie had rebounded. It wasn’t that the gang wanted to punish me for the mistake, but such mistakes are costly, and they didn’t want any more. They wanted to let me out, but were afraid I might talk. “When in doubt, put ’em out,” is the motto. And out means a swift bullet sent suddenly during a fast ride or better still a crack on the head— a short run with a corpse and a splash in the river. Months later the body may be found—suicide—the five hundred and somethingth that has gone over the Falls.
Well, I didn’t like their haphazard system of landing-fields anyway. I had always expected some tip-off that would result in police waiting for me as I landed. The least hitch would have caused it.
R--and I talked over the future.
I hadn’t saved enough yet to start a legitimate business. R.L---— in Detroit, we knew, ran on a real system with a regular fleet of planes. We decided to try it. A week later we had broken the ice and I made my first trip.
Editor’s Note:—This is the first of two articles on rum running by air. The second will follow in an early issue.