In the dead of night over western North Carolina, a twin-engine Cessna plunges into a mountainside in the Nantahala National Forest. There is no trace of the pilot. Having bailed out 70 miles to the northwest over Tennessee, he now lies dead in a suburban Knoxville backyard, tangled in the reserve parachute that he apparently opened too late. Strapped to his body is a green Army duffel bag containing $15 million in cocaine.
The unlucky parachutist was Andrew Carter Thornton II, 40, a failed Kentucky lawyer turned smuggler and adventurer. He died while trying out the newest and most daring method yet of smuggling cocaine from South America to the U.S. Airplanes have long been a favored way to haul drugs, but federal authorities now use radar to track suspicious planes and keep watch on out-of-the-way airstrips. So smugglers have been trying to outwit police, and outdo James Bond, by using parachutes, night-vision goggles and radio beacons to make free-fall drops.
In a tactic that is seen more and more frequently by authorities, the new parasmugglers fly over a drop zone marked by infrared beacons visible only to the pilot. They dump drugs in containers equipped with infrared glow lights and radio transponders. The plane flies on with doors and windows open so any remaining specks of cocaine are blown away, allowing the smugglers to pass Customs.
In some extreme cases, the crew members put the plane on automatic pilot, dump the drugs and bail out. Once on the ground, they locate the contraband by tuning to the radio signals from the parachuted cargo. The plane crashes when it runs out of fuel. The loss of a $500,000 plane is a modest sacrifice when compared with the tens of millions the cocaine can bring. Roger Garland, operations supervisor of the U.S. Customs Air Branch based at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, once tracked a plane with no one in it for 40 miles until it splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico. "There's a load of unguided missiles in the night sky," he says. "We've been lucky thus far that none of these pilotless planes has crashed into a residential area." Garland's pilots have flown 200 interdiction missions during the past year in what he calls "the best flying outside of combat." And not without hazard. A Florida farmer, arguing that Garland's air force prompted nervous smugglers to drop their cargo, sought damages after his cow was killed by a plummeting bale of marijuana.
The case of Andrew Thornton is still hazy, but it appears that he used extra fuel bladders to equip his Cessna, a favorite of smugglers because its ability to fly slowly permits accurate drops. He then flew eight hours from Colombia to Tennessee before jumping. Along the way, he apparently dropped 200 lbs. of cocaine by parachute in the vicinity of Georgia's Chattahoochee River, where it landed in a tree and was recovered by narcotics agents.