Douglas A/B-26 Invader

Drug buster - Mike Wewers

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History of the USCS Air Support Branch at Homestead AFB, FL in the mid 1970’s.

In The Matter Of: United States Customs (Air Support Branch) use of Seized A-26
Date: 29 August 2010
It is with great pleasure that I write the following, which is an interesting part of the History of the USCS Air Support Branch at Homestead AFB, FL in the mid 1970’s.
Recently while having a great time at Air Venture 2010 in Oshkosh I was greeted by the sight of one of my favorite airplanes specifically “Lady Liberty”, A-26b 41-39230. All of the crew there were gracious and interested in the article I have prepared below. I especially want to thank them for giving my brother’s grandson a personal tour of the cockpit. That was one of the highlights of this kids venture at Air Venture. David Huffman and Anita Huffman asked to relate my story of a Douglas Invader flown by US Customs. So here it is !
Let me first talk about how the Aircraft was originally obtained.
Let me introduce myself please: During the period that this story covers I was the Chief of Customs Air Support Branch at Homestead. I had recently been transferred from a Special Agent to a Supervisory Customs Patrol Officer, that’s another story. I had responsibility for all aviation related operations in the Miami areas as well as through-out the Caribbean. This was by far the most interesting and challenging position I held with the Customs Service.
Several Air Branch people, Air Officers and Pilots were at one of the pilot’s apartment on a Sunday afternoon preparing to watch a Dolphins game. One pilot (I will only use a first name) Bob had been a commercial pilot throughout the Caribbean. He had made numerous contacts with other pilots and officials in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands. This was a major motivation for me to recruit Bob he was hired. Customs would train him how to be a law enforcement officer. By-the-way, Bob was one of the most accomplished “bush pilots” that Customs had.
Well there we were drinking a couple of cold adult beverages when Bob’s phone rang. We all were waiting to see if the Homestead Duty Officer was in need of one or all of us. We were always on stand-by.
It was a Major with the Jamaican Defense Force calling Bob from Jamaica to advise they had an American registered A-26 at the Kingston Airport. The Major told Bob of the pilot of this aircraft. He was a very well known smuggler to the group gathered at Bob’s apartment. I picked up and extension in the bedroom and listened as Bob talked with the Major. Seems that this aircraft was en-route to Colombia when the pilot (his first name was Phil) experienced smoke in the aircraft’s cock-pit. Declaring an emergency Phil landed the Douglas Aircraft at the Kingston airport. The reason for the smoke was later determined to be a short in the planes pressurization equipment. I know they did not have this equipment when fighting for the US, but remember this was an On Mark conversation and an executive model.
Let me enlighten you about this particular aircraft. At one time its owner was the president of National Airlines, when it was still in business. It was my understanding that Bud Maytag had recently acquired a Turbo Commander and put the A-26 up for sale.
History: This information was obtained from “Warbird Registry”.
 L.B. Maytag Aircraft Corp, Miami, FL, 1962-1964
- Registered as N320.
- Rebuilt as On an On Mark Marksman 6, Van Nuys, 1962.
National Bank, Tulsa, OK, 1966-1969.
Trinity Industries, Inc, 1969
Confederate Air Force, Harlingen, TX, 1970-1972
Struck off US Civil Register, Circa 1975
This probably was when the aircraft was sold to Phil when was en-route to Colombia at the time it was seized in Jamaica. Phil was a big time cocaine smuggler !- Reported sold to South America.
Noted in ferry markings N99426, Opa Locka, FL, July 1981.
F. J. Luytjes, Dalton, PA, 1984T.
K. Edenfield, Albuquerque, NM, May 1985.
C. H. Midkiff, San Antonio, TX, Sep. 1986.
Outlaw Aircraft Sales, Inc, Clarksville, TN, Apr. 1987
Wayne County Sheriff Dept, Detroit, MI, July 1988-1990
Reported sold in Brooksville, FL, 1992-1995.
- Damaged by Hurricane Andrew, Tamiami, FL, Aug. 24, 1992.
- Open Storage, still damaged, Tamiami, FL, 1992-1995.
Patrick M. Murphy, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, 1998-2000.
- Shipped to Brisbane, 1998.
- Assembled at Caboolture, Queensland, Apr. 1999.
- Planned restoration to airworthy.
Matt Jackson & Howard Keck, Thermal, CA, 2000-2002.
- Shipped from Australia.
- Arrived dismantled, Van Nuys, Dec. 2000.
- Still in container, Van Nuys, 2002.
- Awaiting restoration
If you are not aware when OnMark rebuilt the A/C it was pressurized and a folding hatch added at the rear of the fuselage. I can tell you she was a beautiful airplane. I believe she had Dash 95 engines when we seized her, but don’t hold me to that. Noted in ferry markings N99426, Opa Locka, FL, July 1981. Also not the nose sans paint, more about that later.
Back to the story. Bob advised the Major of the particulars regarding Phil. He advised the Major to look for any firearms that might be aboard along with any monies. The major came back to us to advice there was approximately $35,000 dollars and a couple of pistols aboard. We asked the Major to seize the A/C. In addition to not having the necessary paperwork to take that amount of money out of the Unites States, this aircraft did not have its “Temporary Sojourn” from the United States (State Department).
This License Exception authorizes departure from the United States of foreign registry civil aircraft on temporary sojourn in the United States and of U.S. civil aircraft for temporary sojourn abroad; the export of equipment and spare parts for permanent use on a vessel or aircraft; and exports to vessels or planes of U.S. or Canadian registry and U.S. or Canadian Airlines' installations or agents. Generally, no License Exception symbol is necessary for export clearance purposes; however, when necessary, the symbol "AVS" may be used.
Essentially this means that any demilitarized aircraft cannot leave the US with the permit. This means even aircraft that have been rendered unable to carry out their primary missions while in the military inventory.
The Major seized the aircraft and moved it to a location at the Kingston airport. In fact he had the local FBO to remove the rudder as it was not above these people to come back to Jamaica and steal the A/C back. Phil was allowed to leave without the A-26 !
It took us roughly a year to have the A-26 forfeited to the Customs Service. See below. Our quickest airplane at the time was an Aerostar 601.
Sample of what we were up against.
Maximum speed: 355 mph (308 kn, 570 km/h)
Range: 1,400 mi (1,200 nmi, 2,300 km)
Service ceiling: 22,000 ft (6,700 m)
Rate of climb: 1,250 ft/min (6.4 m/s)
Wing loading: 51 lb/ft (250 kg/m)
Power/mass: 0.145 hp/lb (108 W/kg)
Note: Our modified A-26 also had tip tanks.
Why did the Air Branch want this airplane, (A-26) well when you are trying to follow interdict or intercept Lockheed Lode Stars, known as Hudson Bombers during WW II, with modifications such as a Howard 500.
The Howard 500 could accommodate ten to fourteen passengers with a large window for each. Increased fuel tankage over the PV-2 Ventura gave a maximum range with full reserves of 2,600 miles. Maximum cruising speed was 350 mph at 21,000 ft. This exceptional performance for a piston engined executive aircraft unfortunately came just as the competing turbo prop designs were coming to the market, and this restricted sales of the type. We actually had one of these also, however it was not a 500.
There times when another big-time smuggler (Kenny Bernstein) utilized one of his P-51’s to determine the radar parameters near the Florida coast. He would fly the 51 with a transponder on and then go like hell until he saw he was being tracked via the transponder. You know the light is on. At this point he would dive for the deck to see when he could fly without being detected by radar. On occasion we would have breakfast with him at the “Clock” restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. We exchanged a few pleasantries like, well you beat this time, but we will get you the next time! Fate was not to allow us this pleasure.
Kenny was one of the last of the cavalier crooks. He also utilized Lodestars sometimes damn near flying between the high-rise condos along the beach. Later Kenny unfortunately was killed while flying one of his highly modified P-51’s at the Reno Air Races. But I digress.
So obviously when faced with aircraft with greater capabilities we needed something more potent and the A-26 appeared to fit the bill. US Customs has no corporate memory and thought that at this time (mid 1970’s) all the marijuana and cocaine was coming across the Mexican Border ! We at Homestead were like the red-headed step children. Later Customs woke up and realized it needed modern inceptor aircraft. They actually started purchasing Cessna Citations and obtained several Blackhawk Helicopters.
Since the A-26 now belonged to US Customs Homestead, we needed to get her home. Homestead had an eclectic collection of pilots, some retired US Air Force officers, couple of US Navy pilots, and several US enforcement pilots fit the qualifications and were now flying for Customs. Most all eventually flew a Navy S-2 which was also stationed at Homestead, so we had some folks besides the “old” USAF dudes who had “round engine” experience
It was ultimately decided that the two USAF pilots were recruited to fly commercially to Jamaica and return with the A-26. Oh, if you are speculating on her condition after a year of sitting on a ramp in the tropics, we had sent our mechanics from Homestead to go over the plane before it came back. Many of those mechanics had extensive hours with radial engines. They generally had be aircraft mechanics in service and started with us after they retired.
So retired Major’s Red Denmat and Frank Lisenby were recruited. Red I knew had many, many hours in KC-97’s and he took it upon himself to train Frank. Both are now deceased, but not forgotten, God Rest Their Souls.
OK here come some of the good parts. The A-26 turned out to be (temporally) what we needed. It was fast, it had legs and it could carry a large “bust team”. Besides it was cool and impressive wherever it went.
One instance where I personally used the plane was when I had to examine one of my satellite offices at McGill AFB, Tampa. The plane had been scheduled that day to take a training flight for and additional pilot and a check flight for a 50 hours inspection. When anyone flew in the back you then knew what it felt like to be some sort of executive, that which I was not !.
Unbeknownst to me the pilots had radioed ahead to MacDill and advised they had a Code 7 aboard I believe. Now the way I understood that there would be a Colonel aboard. Although I actually had the rank, we seldom wore a uniform. I had been relaxing and getting some paperwork finished. We then taxied up to a US Army hangar where we shared an office with the Army. As we came to a stop and the air stairs unfolded the two pilots exited before me. Now remember these were two retired Air Force officers and I was in my early 30’s. So the Base Commander met the plane and was at attention, asking who the Colonel was just as I poked my head out the hatch. The commander’s look was of total amazement and probably just a little embarrassed by assuming one of those “Old” dudes were the Code 7. I was mortified and a little embarrassed myself and let this crew know this was not to happen again !
Now I get to the meat of this article and virtually the end of the A-26’s usefulness to Customs. The annual inspection had been going on for a couple of weeks when it was finally time for the test flight. Our chief mechanic “Walt Whitehouse” expressed his interest in going along, and this sounded like a good idea. They were airborne and gone for about an hour when we received a call on our “company” radio with the following message. We cannot get the nose gear down. Holy smokes (of course it wasn’t really holy smokes) the whole office got involved getting ready what might be a tragic conclusion. I cannot go into the entire several hours that followed but here are a number of issues we dealt with:
Did they try negative and positive maneuvers ?
How much fuel remained ?
Were they declaring an emergency? (Not Yet)
Did you try the manual release for the gear? Yes – main was OK.
What are your thoughts about contacting the Wing Commander to see if there were any former A-26 guys around. Guess what, there were !
Should we call the wives? Not at this time.
How about the Regional Office for Customs? Are you crazy they might send someone down to the base who will instantly screw things up. (They did it before !)
This was to be the longest day of my life. I had 3 employees flying around in an airplane that had no nose gear at this time. The Commander located these pilots who came out to the commanders vehicle that was now located (with me) at the taxiway for the main runway. Remember now this is a highly modified A-26 and many of the instruments were either in a different location or were not what was in the birds they flew. There were many suggestions, but unfortunately they were not the type we needed.
After perhaps another hour or two I had no idea of time at this point. I received a call on my portable company radio which required me to turn around to answer.
WOW ! There was the entire tower, parking ramp and the fence that separated the area where we were. It was packed shoulder to shoulder with Air Force people, civilian employees and a myriad or others curious bystanders. I couldn’t believe there were this many people who knew of the incident, and didn’t realize there were that many people on the base. Time was flying by !
Now the emergency was declared and more maneuvers to follow ! Some of these were suggestions coming from the Air Force.
Get rid of the excess fuel. OK
Should we try to have Miami International accept the emergency ? They had more emergency equipment. Decision was to use the Air Force with the Wing Commanders OK
Bounce her off the runway, to see if it might dislodge the nose gear. Negative results.
Try the emergency releases again. Negative results.
Foam the runway. OK well almost OK, with the logistics colonel or whatever the name of the dude who takes care of base maintenance. He was not in favor, but the Wing Commander (God) said make it happen. So the Air Force started the process.
I believe they then foamed approximately 2-3 thousand feet and cleared her for landing.
Before the big moment the crew with advice from the Air Force pilots tried once more to jar the nose gear down by giving her a good hard bounce off the runway, sorry this was before the foam.
Now if this isn’t enough there is one of the infamous Florida pop-up afternoon thunder storms off the west end of the base.
Time is of the essence.
More advise – keep the nose off the ground as long as possible so you don’t break her back when she finally sets down.
Everything needs to be shut down to the firewalls.
No fuel
No Oil
No electrical power
And let the engines windmill !
Do not feather the props
Tighten those seat belts
Come On Down !!!!!!!
OK here she comes you can see her break out of the storm which is just behind her. This whole episode must have taken 3-4 hours, this is what I meant by the longest day of my life. It seemed like an eternity, I never realized the amount of time this took to this moment. Now my pilots and chief mechanic have their fate in the hands of the Lord and the skill of the pilots.
It was deadly silent when she hit the numbers, beautiful airplane coming for perhaps its last time. No noise, just the wind rushing by the aircraft. Then she put that main gear down on the runway, nose up, and props wind-milling. Did I mention it had started to mist and there was concern that this would wash the foam off the runway? The first major noise you could hear was the Clack-Clack-Clack of the A-26 riding initially on the props. If I remember correctly the props were approximately 12 – 14 inches shorter after the landing. The nose started to come down slowly and she stayed in the middle of the runway, good job so far. The foam was being thrown up from the main gear rushing through it. I almost panicked as I saw what I believed for the moment to be a fire on the underside of the old girl. It actually was the revolving beacon on the belly of the plane as it flashed in the spray of the foam off the main gear. Down came the nose, oh so slowly and just settled onto the runway. At the very end of the foam and as she was coming to a stop, one of the main gear brakes started to fail, she veered off on the port side and came to rest with one main gear wheel on the runway and the other just off in the grass.
Then the rain came pouring down only it does in Miami ! Foam gone !
Needless to say here comes the emergency equipment, what a beautiful sight, that and the plane just sitting there with her tail about 40 feet in the air, remember no nose gear. As soon as it was determined that there was no problem with fire and the crew appeared fine, a ladder was placed up to the folding rear hatch. Out came the Chief Mechanic, obvious relief on his face. Both pilots had exited through the overhead escape hatches in the overhead of the cockpit.
As I was not aboard I needed to de-brief the pilots and mechanic. So go first captain. Oh, did I mention the first officer (not Red and Frank) was a commercial airline pilot who had been furloughed and the other a Reserve Air Force Officer, at that time flying F-4 Phantoms. Both with considerable time in several types of heavy aircraft. No need to mention names as the statute of limitations has tolled. (Just Kidding)
While on final the pilots talked between themselves regarding preparations for getting out of the aircraft when it finally came to a stop. The co-pilot was to stop all the afore mentioned functions to the engines, firewalls etc. Then he was to be the first to reach up and open the escape hatch on his side of the cockpit. The captain to follow. The aircraft commander was the one who would be holding the nose off until the last moment. OK then she stopped, the co-pilot tried to reach up and open the hatch! Well he forgot about releasing his seat belt, so when reaching up for the hatch release he could not reach it because he was still fastened down tightly to his seat. While the Captain was not waiting around to see what the holdup us was, he had had the seat belt released. So having released his seatbelt he reached up and YES out his hatch he went, post haste and with little dignity. I actually saw them both come out the top of the cockpit and slide down the nose of the plane. One great sight !
One comment I will never forget what the dude in charge of the condition of the runway said, “Look what they did to MY runway”. As pleased as I could be of this outcome, and having the men back and actually very little damage to the plane, I could no longer hold my tongue and told asked him what was more important (?) his blank runway or the safe return of an aircraft and crew in trouble. No comment from this colonel, and the Wing Commander said something to the effect, Shut up !
After all the emergency equipment had departed and the Customs mechanics were on the scene along with a huge crane was made available to hoist up the front end of the airplane a cursory inspection of the cockpit was initiated. We found the covers off the bulkheads for the main-gear manual releases, and then it became obvious the nose gear release was not in the same area of the main gear. Apparently when the modifications were made the release was placed just aft of or behind the instrument panel between the pilots.
Yup, when opened and the release pulled the gear came down while the airplane was still held in the air by the crane and sling around the nose area. Can you say pilot error ?
A very worn fiberglass nose and some slight damage to the weather radar in the nose.
Two very embarrassed pilots
One chief mechanic
A significant resource being out of service for repairs.
I will keep private what actions were taken regarding the crew and mechanic.
Several (using the term loosely) divots in the Colonel’s runway.
Many sarcastic remarks from the pilots peers. They had that coming.
This good old bird continued to fly until it became cost prohibitive to keep her in the air on a Customs Budget. The lack of spare parts and engines were becoming more scarce as time when on. So this great airplane was “surplused” by US Customs and was replaced by Cessna Citations and T-Tailed King Air’s. T-200’s I believe. It was a sad day to see her go, and even more saddening when she was damaged by Hurricane Andrew.
What I forgot to mention was the fact that the Air Force had a detail at Homestead on this fateful day that was to film emergency aircraft issues first hand. They were flying in a Huey on a parallel course when the A-26 came in for its landing. Recently I was able to locate the film in the National Archives and at this time waiting for a copy on a CD to be sent to me.
For me I went on to be a Branch Chief for Marine operations in the Miami District, conceived Operation Blue Lightening, and built the Center in Miami, finally I was with the Vice-President’s Task Force (the first Bush) combating drug smuggling.
I hope you enjoy reading this experience in United States Customs history and remember the great airplane that was once flown to interdict smugglers.

I am attaching the photos that I could locate regarding the A-26. Originally they were taken with a Polaroid Camera (I think) and were scanned a while ago. I also enclosed a couple of images when we had to recover our Huey from a garbage dump just outside of Homestead AFB, FL. It lost an engine and auto rotated into the dump. I should write another story about all the aircraft we recovered. A S-2 from Andros Island in the Bahamas, same A/C from Montego Bay, Jamaica, a Helio Currier from the everglades the same Huey from the Everglades, Cessna 210 from a road near the Everglades etc.

Mike Wewers