Sky Racketeers

Concluding the confessions of a “mystery ship” pilot

WING SLIP November 15 1929

Sky Racketeers

Concluding the confessions of a “mystery ship” pilot

WING SLIP November 15 1929

Sky Racketeers

Concluding the confessions of a “mystery ship” pilot


A THIRSTY, stranger in Buffalo can ask "almost anybody on the street and invariably he will be directed to an oasis. Once in a speakeasy he has need of only a small measure of diplomacy to find and meet an operator —one of the small army of consumers who have banded together to get the stuff over. In Detroit, however, one guardedly asks a policeman for the speakeasy and finds it extremely difficult to learn theidentity of the operator.

When I left the Buffalo syndicate so unceremoniously I sought vainly for two days in Detroit before locating the man I wanted.

I had learned his name— let us call him A--and

the fact that he would employ a pilot at a salary commensurate with the risk. Every speakeasy I visited professed to be ignorant of his whereabouts. I enlisted the aid of a friend, whom we shall call Vic. He was employed on a Detroit newspaper, and knew the ropes very thoroughly.

As a result of our enquiries he got a pretty fair scoop for his newspaper. We learned that A--had bought seven cabin airplanes from a well-known Detroit manufacturer and was planning extensive operations in

defiance of last summer’s blockade on the Detroit river. A--’s home is his fortress. He is reputed to pay well for protection, but whether he does or not, he is extremely cautious. Occasionally a newspaper will refer to him as a well-known society bootlegger, but the extent of his operations seems to be his own closely guarded secret. Vic and I found that A--lived in Grosse Ile, a suburb of Detroit, situated on the edge of Lake St. Clair whose shallow bosom laps at the ragged shores of Walkerville and Belle River.

A Mysterious Employer

TT WAS late in the evening when we pulled into a long driveway skirting a shuttered house of Colonial architecture. As we stepped from the car there was no sign of a light in the front of the house. At the back, however, we found fingers of light cutting strips of illumination in severe angular patterns across the flooring of a screened-in porch.

A dark shadow skipped noiselessly across the front of me and I felt a cold thrill as a blunt object pressed gently against my hip. Vic, whom I could barely distinguish in the darkness, voiced a muttered oath. We both stood rigid, eyes straining, until we discovered that we were being silently escorted by two black-hued German shepherd dogs.

It seemed uncanny that the dogs should make no noise, but we learned afterward from A--that so long as we walked boldly to the door and knocked, the dogs would not harm us. Let anyone skulk around, however, or act in any mysterious manner, and the dogs would set up an alarm that would be heard for some considerable distance. As it was, when we knocked at the porch screen, a third dog inside the house set up a vicious barking that was answered by those outside. It was some minutes before our knock was answered. I have a wellfounded suspicion that the occupants were clearing away evidence, for I later learned that intimate customers—clients, if you please—often congregate in A--’s home to sample the wares they order.

A young man answered our knock and informed us that he would convey the nature of our business to Mr. A--but it was nec-

essary to know who sent us. Vic offered the name of a wealthy young Detroiter and I explained that our business was urgent and to A--’s advan-

tage. We waited ten minutes, the dogs standing quietly by our sides, until A--himself came to the porch, switched on a light and indicated seats. A tall, saturnine man, A-wasn’t making any admissions that would indicate he was aught but a prosperous business man occupying his summer estate. He gazed dreamily over my yet he was sizing me up very

shoulder as I talked, closely.

Evidently he was satisfied, for he directed me to see

M--whom everybody called Mac, and say that A--

had sent me. I never saw him again until I quit. Even my money, $300 in advance before each trip, was given me by the car driver or passenger.

Looking Over The Cache

T FOUND Mac in Ecorse, apparently something to happen in the blockade. lugubrious soul who wailed constantly at the effectiveness of the blockade. He bemoaned the fact that the cost of liquor running was going higher and higher— that we fellows, the pilots, ought to be tickled to death to get fifty dollars a trip instead of the $300 which he was to pay and which seems to be a standard price.

“There ain’t no chance in the world of getting caught,” he guessed. “The boys in the boats take a hundred chances to your one and get half the money.”

Mac was a business man, too. He explained to me that he was working for the chief, but could put lots more loads in my way if I wanted to split with him. In other words, he was dispatcher, traffic manager or what have you.

Maybe I should have listened to his suggestions. I only got a couple of trips—and they were more than a week apart—before I quit the racket for good.

Mac took me across the ferry to Windsor where we connected with a driver who took us to a house on the Huron line near Malden Road, where a good stock of liquor awaited transportation by the overhead route.

It was all export stuff. “Billy,” a man of about sixty years, apparently a farmer, occupied the house and seemed more interested in the “airyplane driver” who was going to ferry the stuff than he was in the stuff itself. Near the house was a rectangular field about 2,500 feet long and 800 feet wide.

The stock in the house at that time comprised ninety-five cases of export whisky and a large, orderly pile of beer cases. (A short time ago the farmer was arrested and held in $1,500 bond). The field was in hay with a good east and west runway. The house made an ideal cache for the contraband.

Mac asked me if I could take off from there with a load at night. I assured him that with boundary lights to guide me and a half-decent break in the wind I could manage it.

As in Buffalo, I was again provided with an escort who flew with me from a Detroit airport in a six-passenger cabin job. It was just a hop over to the cache and after landing the machine I left it and spent the afternoon and evening in Windsor.

An Organized System

GREAT attention is paid to detail by the Detroit crowd. Despite the general belief that the liquor is shipped over by properly organized exporting houses on the Canadian side, this is not the case. True, there is no doubt the exporters know where the stuff is going, and in many cases how it will get there, but they are paying little attention to its ultimate destination. They sell it and deliver to the “warehouse;” after that they are finished.

The syndicates themselves are groups of operators or speakeasy proprietors who join together with one object in mind— to get the stuff over. Each operator stands his share of expense and gets his share of liquor. What he does with it after he gets it is his own business. If he caters to the general drinking public and has no regular customers of importance, he swells his profits by the cutting method.

The man I worked for in Detroit did not belong to any syndicate. He is foxy enough to have made a fortune in the game and, as far as I know, has made few enemies.

He has the wealthiest and sportiest clientele it could be the good fortune of any man to have. Names that are known to the world are among his customers and friends—millionaires whose private cellars would shame the unguarded stocks of European nobilities. He is the Lone Eagle of smugglers, whose boast it is that his customers will always be served. He was one of the first to choose the sky route and was not averse to risking money as an experiment.

The aerial system is no more complicated than rum running by boats. The stuff is purchased from the export houses, cached in secret places, the whereabouts of which are sometimes not even known to the pilots, delivered to the airplane by automobile, unloaded into automobiles on the other side, and distributed from some central place.

Night flying was preferred in the Detroit area, the reason being the proximity of the two cities, Windsor and Detroit, and the possibility that during the daytime a rum ship would be spotted by any number of the many machines that are almost constantly in the air over both cities. In Buffalo, day flights were made exclusively, the very openness lessening the hazard. Most of the night flights are completed in the hour before dawn when few people are stirring, and consequently little attention is paid to the noise of an engine within the vicinity of a landingfield.

Limit Loads

rT\HE machine was well loaded when I returned from Windsor. All possible disposable load had been removed. This included passenger seats, lavatory, dual control column and everything portable in the cabin. That left approximately 130 cubic feet of cabin space with an additional twenty cubic feet that was the original baggage compartment.

The entire space was packed with cases and we, the passenger and myself, were obliged to crawl through an open cabin window and drop into our seats.

My only boundary lights came from a pair of automobile headlamps parked at the extreme weather end of the field. I was in a blue funk—didn’t like the load, nor my companion, nor the total absence of wind that promised to make the air dead and liftless.

We argued for some time and finally it was agreed that some of the cases should be removed. I capitulated with a load of forty cases and the passenger, an approximate weight of 1,900 pounds in a machine designed to carry a 1,200 pound pay load. I even lessened the fuel load because the flight was to be fairly short.

I got away with it after a thrilling race across the field, all the time wondering whether I should have to cut the gun and use my brakes hard at the last moment to keep from crashing into the cars lighting my field limit. Then I circled for altitude.

It was three o’clock and pitch dark, yet I continued to climb until I had 12,000 feet, which was just about ceiling for the load.

Following the directions of my passenger, I headed on a westerly course.

We had been flying just about an hour and the first grey streaks of dawn were cutting the black edge of night, when my passenger indicated four twinkling lights which, joined by an imaginary line, formed a rectangle. I knew we were well inland somewhere over the state of Michigan, and began a fairly steep dive for the field.

As altitude was lost and we drew nearer to the lights, I could distinguish them as flares of waste soaked in crude oil which, besides lighting the boundary of the landing field, served as good wind indicators. The four headlights of two automobiles swept a silvery path across a wide space and in their combined beams I made a fair landing. The field was within three miles of Somerset Centre, Mich.

I had nothing to do with the unloading of the airplane. In faci, I paid no attention to two men who ran to greet us. I was paid to deliver the load and that’s all I intended to do. I walked away from the ship, waited at a farmhouse where a young man, evidently a hired man in the know, served me coffee and asked innumerable questions about aviation and how one went about learning it.

“If there are so many good jobs in flying, why do you run booze?” was one pertinent question he asked.

I didn’t tell him that I was an unlicensed pilot—that old war injuries made me fear to test the result of a medical overhauling such as pilots must submit to before being granted a license. Incidentally I knew several pilots, fully qualified, who were unable to get more than barnstorming jobs at a penurious salary.

Enter the Nervous Farmer

HTHE owner of the farm came in while I was swallowing the coffee. He appeared nervous.

“Hey, feller,” he blustered.“Ye’d better get that flying machine of yours away from here afore daylight. I don’t want to take no more chances. I’m taking enough as it is.”

My passenger came in at this moment and explained that one of the automobiles was having trouble with the oil feed and

couldn’t risk taking a load for fear of engine trouble. He asked whether the farmer would loan them a car or hide the balance of the load until the following evening.

It was the farmer’s first experience with bootleggers and he was scared to death. It must have been a good “salesman” who “sold” him on the idea in the first place.

I imagine the load must have been billed for Jackson, Mich., because Somerset Centre is nothing but a post-office and grocery store with a few etceteras and people.

The farmer refused emphatically, whereupon my passenger pulled a bottle from his pocket, extracted the cork and said:

“Oh well, never mind. Guess we’ll have to take it back with us.” He extended the bottle to the farmer. “Here, have a touch.”

After the third “touch” the farmer would have stored a whole distillery on his place.

Of necessity, on the Canadian side the farmers are in the know and in most cases actually cache the stuff in their houses, barns or adjacent woods. On the American side it more frequently happens that fields are “rented” temporarily for perhaps one trip. There is, of course, danger of double-crossing in this, but the farmer is easily checked up.

For instance: One load I was detailed to carry to Dundee, Mich. No doubt its destination was Toledo. Arrangements had been made with the farmer to pay no attention if an airplane dropped into his field, which was some distance from the highway. He agreed, for a consideration, and was told that the machine would be carrying liquor. I was sent down to Dundee, carrying only a passenger who showed me the field. We landed, waited, and soon the farmer and his two boys strolled over to look at the ship. My passenger chatted with him for a long time. We were on the ground two hours and no signs of a tip-off, so arrangements were made to use the field at some other time. Had the farmer tipped off the authorities and a reception committee awaited us, that committee would have found a properly registered ship, carrying no load, but out to pick up a few dollars barnstorming. And, perhaps later, some of the Sicilian gunmen who abound on the Detroit waterfront, would have been given an easy job on a squealing farmer.

Hiring farmers is handled as I have outlined, when the chief wants to send a load some distance away. Unlike Buffalo, Detroit hasn’t a field that is public for bootlegging purposes. There is one some fifteen miles away, but its secret is very carefully guarded and few people know of it.

Those “Mystery” Ships

T-JITCHES in the arrangements are rare, and at their worst they constitute little danger to the pilot. If he is travelling alone he spots the field either by airplane or by automobile before he takes off with his load. When he arrives with his load at a certain time, usually the next morning, somebody is there to meet him. In most cases it is one or two men in a closed car who load the cargo right into their car from the airplane. If the load is large there are two cars. Should the cars fail to meet him, the pilot uses his judgment whether to wait or take off again. In the latter case he can, if there is shelter, such as trees, cache his load and report its whereabouts to the chief. Only in case of extreme necessity would he dump his load because that is apt to incur the enmity of the chief.

One or two pilots have been caught recently through trying to take their loads back, losing their nerve, and landing in strange fields near trees with the idea I of dumping the load. Three—including

my Buffalo friend Captain R--have

been caught through tip-offs from some source. One has been caught through a 1 forced landing that smashed an undercarriage. Quite recently Captain R--

returned from a trip without his machine. He maintains she crashed in a forced landing and caught fire. Perhaps he set fire to her himself, for she happened to be a fake registration and could not have been claimed anyway. We often wonder why no official report has been made of the finding of the fuselage. Certainly some traces were left of it. No doubt the fire was reported to highway police, traces of the cargo found, and the matter turned over to federal authorities, who kept it secret, to investigate.

Despite apparent indifference to the air racketeers there is considerable official activity, especially around Detroit. Investigations are held in strict secrecy, little or nothing being disclosed to newspapers at the present time. In fact, the apparent apathy is beginning to worry operators and pilots alike. A blow-up is expected. Operators at present believe officials are puzzled—that they cannot determine upon a system to curb the flying.

By some mysterious method the operators invariably know when a field is suspected. When they learn this the pilot is instructed to use another field. More often than not he has a passenger whose duty it is to locate these fields and guide the pilot to them.

The pilot’s headquarters are in a Detroit hotel. His time is his own until he is notified of his turn for a trip. All fields are referred to by the name of the town nearest them. They are unmarked and, if the pilot hasn’t been into a field before, his passenger shows him or else he is shown by automobile.

A Change of Field

'""THUS, I was not surprised when I was asked to accompany Mac and a driver to Thamesville. They were getting nervous around the Essex county fields and I expected a change of location. We drove to the field in the morning—another farm cache with a goodly stock, located about five miles from the town—returned to Detroit and I flew over from Mt. Clemens just after midnight.

My Thamesville field was not lighted by oil flares like the other. Instead, a running-board searchlight on an automobile was pointed skyward, away from the direction of Thamesville and flashed at regular intervals. I was to blink my navigation or wing-tip lights, when I spotted the makeshift beacon, and then the searchlight and auto headlights would light the field for me.

Everything worked fine. Skirting well to the north of Thamesville, somewhere about midway between that town and the tiny village of Rutherford, I saw the flashing light far below. Instantly I blinked my lights rapidly, throttled down and nosed into a steep glide. Night flying was always a source of great enjoyment to me, and although the weather looked threatening I welcomed the prospect, especially since I was to have a comparatively long flight. My destination was Urbana, Ohio.

The car drivers have caught on quickly about how they should light a field by headlights. They park broadside to the wind, sending the rays of their headlights across wind, so the pilot does not land into the glare of them. It helps a lot in determining wind direction.

My passenger superintended the loading, while I walked off alone and scanned the lowering skies. I anticipated some j fun, but I wasn’t going to be foolish enough to expect fine weather all the way over. I had preparations to make.

We carried no logbooks, and I could not recall when the compass in that particular ship had been compensated — the correction made for deviation due to the metal parts of the engine and machine. I must take a chance on it being correct. If it wasn’t I might have to ditch the load.

Kneeling on the ground, a map spread

in the circle of light cast by the runningboard beacon, I computed my course. I had always taken the precaution to carry a pocket drawing-case for just such an emergency. In it were rule, dividers, square and protractor. My compass course figured out at 232 degrees, and the distance at 198 miles.


A/TY PASSENGER having finished 4-YJ. superintending the loading, leaned over my shoulder.

“What are you figgerin’ on doin’?” he wanted to know.

“Hoping to figure where I am going,” I explained. “Little chance of visibility tonight.”

“It’ll only be a shower,” he predicted hopefully, but I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t like the looks of the lowering clouds.

“How much load,” I asked.

“Fifty,” he replied, “and two of champagne.”

“Some load,” I grumbled. “I thought you were going.”

“So I am,” he told me.

“Then you go alone,” I retorted shortly. “There’s too much load as it is.”

“Mac said she’d stand it,” the man answered hestitatingly.

“Mac doesn’t have to fly it,” I grinned. “If you want to go you’d better kiss whoever loves you good-by first.”

“Do you know where the field is?” he asked, surrendering.

“No, you had better tell me—and what the signals are.”

“It’s seven and a half miles east of Urbana, a mile south of the Columbus highway,” he explained. “Two cars will meet you, and they will put out flares an hour and a half after a phone call tells ’em you have left. They’ll spread their headlights when they hear you coming.”

It must be explained here that departures are always recorded over longdistance to destination. Code is used in the conversation. For instance: “Tom left on the 2.35 this morning. Wish I could have gone. Got some more work to do, so good-by. Guess it will be 4.30 before I get to bed.” That means “Left 2.35, due to arrive about 4.30.” Usually there is lots to fill in conversation, but the figures tell the story.

Bucking the Storm

' I 'HE story of my flight from Thamesville to Urbana, Ohio, may sound like fiction. I can only offer, in support of the facts, a reference to the weather on the night of July 20.

The day had been hot and sultry. Local thunderstorms were predicted. Black, fantastic clouds scudded across the face of the sky. The full moon struggled to break through the dark fissures, tipping serrated edges to silver. It was a night that presaged trouble—a night to set a man on his mettle—to make him laugh at the task ahead of him.

I was in the mood of the night. I made no kick at the thousand pounds overload. What did I care? I felt like singing aloud —I believe I was humming to myself when I gave her full throttle. Boy! How she snapped into the teeth of that wind! I was off the ground in twelve seconds, pushing the old nose upward into that cracked wall of tumbling clouds. I was a modern conquistador riding my sky horse in search of adventure.

Two hundred miles south was my destination—south into a seething cauldron of intermittent jagged fire. The lightning played in the angry sky like fork-tailed imps, jabbing the bellies of the rolling clouds until they growled in thunder.

The first part of my route was easy to check. I determined to see if my guess at deviation and wind velocity had been correct. This was easy to do by following my 232 degrees compass course, checking time and dropping below the clouds whenever necessary to distinguish familiar landmarks.

my course lay to the east of Chatham, my first big landmark, then directly over two small towns, Merlin and Romney, the latter being on the lake shore. As I struck over this town I began to look for Point Pelee, my first check point.

I hit it on the head in exactly twentynine minutes of flying. That meant my compass couldn’t be far out and my wind calculation was right to the dot. Still, I couldn’t be satisfied with the first check. Guided by the lights of Scudder I passed over Pelee Island and struck the American shore at Marblehead. Sandusky I could see to the east.

Every few seconds I was enveloped in an opaque mass of clouds. Sometimes grotesquely shaped wisps, lighted by stray gleams of the moon, smashed into my windshield like ghostly Juggernauts striving to crush me beneath them. And how they would scatter—burst—like bubbles when the propeller churned them into its hungry maw.

My compass began oscillating a little, making it difficult to follow, but so far everything was working out to perfection. The weather, however, seemed to be of an especial American brand that was waiting for me and had planned a huge joke.

I rocked like a crazy washtub in an angry sea, dropping swiftly into space as the playful air gave out beneath me, and catching up with a sudden bump as I hit a layer of normal density. The crate shook in each bump like an impatient horse striving to take the bit.

One moment I was riding a sea of molten silver, skimming across the top of a moon-bathed cloud. Next I was plunging through stygian blackness, bouncing about in the heart of a maelstrom. If my cargo had been beer there would have been no tops left on the bottles.

A Peril-Fraught Dive

rT'HE mood of the storm and rny own mood changed together. No doubt the former had its effect upon me. As the weather grew ugly I grew apprehensive. I had been flying one hour and twenty minutes. It was all right flying, but if my computations were correct I should be thinking of slipping down pretty soon to look for the landing field which was to be lighted with gasoline flares.

It was not so bad riding the storm, but how to plunge through those formidable clouds? Lightning was whipping about me too close now for comfort. I began to feel helpless, impotent against the formidable demonstration of power before, behind, and on both sides. I was worried. In fifteen minutes more I should be somewhere near my destination. How to get down and find it?

My good luck didn’t fail me. While I hunted a hole in the inky clouds through which to descend, believing I was near my destination, a bolt of lightning snapped from high above, streaked down a few yards in front of my nose and stabbed through the blackness below. The flash lit up my wing-tips, that seemed to be scraping the edges of two great walls of swirling thunderclouds. I felt myself hurled violently up. The clouds rushed in with a tremendous roar, engulfing me, filling the gap below, closing, it seemed forever, the path of descent,

I have never felt so helpless. The engine stopped, sputtered, stopped again, and gave jerky intermittent gasps like a dying old man. I was hurtling downward, entirely out of control. Nothing I did or could do would stop that mad spin. I expected death momentarily and fought it madly, thinking—this is it, this is death. Telling myself that somehow I would pull through.

If ever again I have the choice of going down through a cloud or staying up until a storm is over, I will stay up. In facing the certainty of death there is a peculiar philosophy that comforts one. It says, “What does it matter?”

And, after all, what did it matter? Lady Luck was there. Suddenly the engine burst into the sweetest song I have ever heard—the song of nine synchronized cylinders purring their deep-throated song of power. My controls were neutralized and I was scudding on level keel beneath the clouds. My sluggish altimeter needle was settling to 500 feet, to my right was ¡ Urbana and to my left, a mile or so away, were four boundary lights, and a sweeping automobile searchlight. I didn’t care what they were. I was going to land. I saw the sudden sweep of automobile headlights swing and settle like a mantle over a long field. My signal, and I was right side up, in excellent position for an approach and landing—a fool for luck, as I had been several times before and once since.

It was hard to make that landing. Rain was pouring down, pounding a tattoo on my cabin. The earth was a bowl of blackness at the bottom of which was a sharply defined elongated oval of light that looked like the gateway to eternal peace and security. The lights might have come from some highway police cars, but I didn’t care. The two ¡ boundary flares convinced me it was the right field, but, right or wrong, I would have landed anyway. I had previously intended this to be my last load. I had saved more than $2,000 in a few weeks— and the racket is no place for a man with family ties.

The men who met me—there were j three of them — cursed the rain and j hustled the cases into their cars. One of them told me they had to drive to Columbus, a distance of about forty miles, and get there before it got too light.

The farmer was in the know. I had ; coffee and oatmeal, eggs and home-cured ham with him before starting back. With morning the storm abated and my return journey was broken by two forced landings due to engine trouble.

I was quitting. Somebody else would take my place.

A Paradox

THAT is how the operators have answered the river blockades and the Hoover broom. They shoot the stuff through the skies, laughing at distance and highway police and hijackers. How long it will last is hard to guess. It seems paradoxical to think that airplanes, the most widely advertised products in the world—the most widely observed—should be used for smuggling, but there it is. The more obvious a thing the harder to find.