As the veteran crew of 99 Pete turned north toward home, the 3,000-mile trek ahead looked like a pretty tame proposition. What were a few Central American mountain ranges after the gargantuan summits and endless swamps of South America? What were a couple of puny overwater stretches, a hundred miles or so each, between Yucatán and Florida, after thousands of miles of navigating open Caribbean seas? Weather? Storms? Why, we'd done extensive broken-field running among what must have been the granddaddies of all thunderheads.
Besides, our little airplane had not one but two engines. While getting used to this luxury along the way we had noticed that it tended to turn the most formidable terrain features into mere check points on the map.
As we came up on Puerto Limón, on the southeastern edge of Costa Rica, and started letting down for an overnight stop, my seasoned little team settled into its prelanding cockpit procedure with a smoothness that almost verged on boredom. In the back seat, filling out a stack of the all-important General Declaration forms, was George Moffett, co-pilot, age 35, who had started the trip as a student pilot with 20 hours in his logbook and now seemed about ready for a job with Pan American Airways. Assisting him was David Mauldin, age 6, technically our radio operator/flight engineer, also an expert at locating important documents and fountain pens among comic books, seat cushions and candy wrappers.
David's brother Andy, age 8 and our official navigator, sat up front reading off the check list for propeller settings, fuel mixtures, etc.—normally a flight engineer's work, but some of the words were a little big for David. Andy then exchanged places with Moffett to get the weight forward, which was correct for stability on short-field landings. As George took over such chores as getting the wheels and flaps down and calling off the air speed on our approach, the kids joyfully began squirting the cabin and each other with a bug bomb—required procedure at most terminals. All this left me without much to do, which kept me fresh for command decisions.
Reeking virtuously of DDT and clutching our General Declarations, we debarked at Puerto Limón and found the airport deserted. Not a Customs or Immigration man in sight. We tied the plane to a couple of fence posts and hailed a passing truck for a ride to town.
"¿Policía?" we asked. No illegal entries for us.
We were shown to a barracks, surrounded by fellows in tin hats holding machine pistols at the ready against God knows what. There was the usual waiting period, followed by some interrogation and a great deal of fussing with our papers. But it was done in a good-natured way, and we had long since learned that in the land of mañana lethargy is the prerogative of the authorities, wherefore the wise traveler stays on the ball and exhibits patience at all times.
"What's this?" The sergeant compared our personal papers with the crew manifest, then stared with raised eyebrows at my navigator and radio operator. Andy and David, in their turn, were being fascinated by a bare-foot drunk in the prisoners' enclosure.
"It is traditional for a captain to choose his crew, sir," I said to the sergeant. Then, since he seemed simpático, I told him that we had been getting faster clearances in most places by not listing anybody as mere passengers. He grinned broadly and got out his rubber stamps of approval.
" 'Allo gringos pequeños. To hell with Nicaragua!" the drunk roared, looking defiantly at the machine pistols.