SI Vault
Bill Mauldin
January 20, 1958
In which the Mauldins, father and sons, and their co-pilot friend George Moffett brave the perils of incarceration, swap oceans for thunderstorms and finally get down at Panama
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January 20, 1958

How Not To Go To Jail

In which the Mauldins, father and sons, and their co-pilot friend George Moffett brave the perils of incarceration, swap oceans for thunderstorms and finally get down at Panama

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The entire crew of 99 Pete felt a distinct reluctance to leave the gentle, lotus-eating atmosphere of the West Indies and head for the comparatively forbidding mainland of South America. But then, we had worried about the islands, too—as well as the water between them—and had found the flying in our twin-engined Apache safe and the landings pleasant. Maybe the mountains and jungles ahead would prove equally rewarding.

Outward bound from Trinidad, the younger members of our flight crew—my sons Andy, aged 8, and David, 6—relaxed in the back seat, co-pilot George Moffett took the controls, and I spread out the charts to plot a course veering southward for a cautious aerial peek at the great, fearsome swamp at the mouth of Venezuela's Orinoco River. It covers some 10,000 square miles, and as far as we could see to the south there was nothing but soaking green desolation. We could even smell it from our altitude. It made the Everglades and the Okefenokee almost seem like family picnic grounds.

"I hate to sound chicken in this day of dependable little airplane engines," George said, "but right now I'm sure glad we've got two of them. Why, I'll bet not even savages can live down there in that creepy mess."

"Take it easy," I gave him the elbow. "Why get the kids to thinking about it?"

At this point there was a giggle from the back seat and we turned to find Andy and David with their heads buried in a comic book. Its cover was a jungle scene. The title was Bugs Bunny Waylaid by the Woo Woo Warriors. The boys were now totally oblivious of the horrible realities sliding past under their windows. The effect was as incongruous as turning on a TV thriller with a burglar in the next room.

As we moved westward over comparatively hospitable jungle and mountain terrain, I dug out our sheaf of South and Central American landing clearances. To my dismay, the Venezuelan permit, issued by their Washington embassy, was written entirely in Spanish.

"DIRECTOR AERONAUTICA CIVIL CONCEDE PERMISO SOBREVOLAR ATERRIZAR TREINTA MAYO MATURIN AVION PIPER SERIAL 23884 MATRICULA N2299P," it began, and then came all our names, with me as piloto and Moffett as copiloto. So far so good. I am not very adept at foreign languages, but I do have a sense of logic. Permission was civilly conceded for the sober and mature crew of 99 Pete to "matriculate," or "land"—there could be no other logical interpretation of the word in this case—in Venezuela.

Where in Venezuela? The only official airport of entry in the entire country, according to our charts, was a large airline terminal on the coast called Maiquetia, serving Caracas, the capital, high in the mountains above. Caracas is supposed to be one of South America's finest metropolises, George and I were badly in need of shaves, we all needed baths, and a comfortable hotel seemed called for. Clearly, Maiquetia was the airport on which to matriculate. As we approached I read the clearance once more to be sure I hadn't missed anything, reflecting that Spanish wasn't such a tough language, after all. And I liked the document's cheery Latin lilt, so different from the dry officialese of the North.

There seemed to be an uncommon number of armed soldiers hanging around, considering that Maiquetia was not a military field, and as we taxied up to the ramp a small detachment of them, led by a civilian, gathered around our Piper Apache.

"Why did you not land at Maturin?" the civilian snapped at me. "Can't you read?"

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