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IN THE wide world of aviation there are dark little corners of desperation. One of them during the early 1970s was a back lot at Miami International Airport known as Cockroach Corner. The place looked like a mechanical graveyard, creaking with old DC-3s, DC-6s, Lockheed Constellations and DC-7s, but in fact it was more of a winged bazaar. Tramp operators bought, sold and leased planes there in cut-rate deals. It was at Cockroach Corner that a 26-year-old operator named Arthur Rivera bought an old DC-7 on July 12, 1972. This plane would double the size of Rivera's cargo fleet: a twin-engine DC-3 that hauled goods between Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands.
Rivera had obtained a commercial pilot's rating four years earlier but knew nothing about DC-7s, so he could not fly his new plane back to San Juan. It remained at Cockroach Corner until September, when he finally found a pilot. They ferried the aircraft to Puerto Rico and parked it at a cargo ramp at San Juan International Airport on Isla Verde, and there it remained throughout the fall. The DC-7 seemed anything but airworthy. Among other deficiencies, its number 3 propeller was said to be feathered, indicating engine malfunction. "It was never seen to fly," Michael Pangia, a Justice Department aviation lawyer, observed later, "and everybody wondered what Mr. Rivera was going to do with the plane."
What Rivera did was spruce up the exterior. He painted the fuselage silvery white and added the bravado touch of lightning bolts, orange with black trim, on both sides and below the cockpit. The same color scheme was applied to the tips of the propellers, creating the effect of tiger stripes. With that superficial remodeling, Rivera placed ads in local newspapers announcing that his outfit--American Air Express Leasing Company--had a DC-7 available for use.
From the moment he had come down from Atlanta and begun transporting cargo out of San Juan in November 1969, Rivera had been an irritant to inspectors at the FAA's Flight Standards District Office. Despite repeated warnings, he had refused to obtain the proper certification for a commercial operator, acting instead as though he were merely flying the plane for his own personal recreation. This allowed him to avoid more frequent inspections and the strict flight standards of commercial aviation. The FAA compiled a list of 66 illegal trips that Rivera had made and, in 1971, issued an emergency order revoking his pilot's license.
The chief of the FAA's flight standards office in San Juan was William B. Couric, who had urged Rivera many times to follow the rules, to no avail. After the emergency order was issued, Rivera told Couric that he'd worked hard to get his license and would not give it up. He appealed the revocation order, arguing that the government should not deprive him of his livelihood, and a judge, while ruling that Rivera had violated FAA regulations in not having proper certification for commercial flights, nonetheless reduced his penalty to a 180-day suspension.
On Sept. 25, 1972, the FAA issued a regulatory action that came to be known as the Southern Order. Meant for the administration's southern region, which included Puerto Rico, it read as though it had been written with Arthur Rivera in mind. It called for continuous surveillance of all aircraft that "cannot be readily identified as bona fide air carriers, commercial carriers, travel clubs, air taxis, or executive operators." Air traffic controllers were called on to inform the Flight Standards District Office whenever a suspicious plane arrived or departed. Field inspectors were then to see that the pilot was in compliance with commercial regulations, that the plane was airworthy and that the load was balanced.
Different districts responded to the order in different ways. Leonard Davis, who had succeeded Couric as chief of San Juan's Flight Standards office, asked controllers to advise his eight-man inspection staff only of "new or strange" incoming flights, not departures. He claimed not to have enough staff for surveillance of all departing flights.
On Dec. 2 Rivera and a relative who knew even less about DC-7s than he did took the plane out for a run-up, meaning they would taxi around the airstrip to warm up the engines but not try to fly. Rivera, in the pilot's seat, forgot to close the hydraulic pump bypass, which caused him to lose steering control. He shut down all four engines in an effort to slow the plane's momentum, but it rolled into a drainage ditch.
After Rivera's DC-7 was towed out of the ditch, the FAA inspectors determined that it had sustained considerable damage: two blown tires, bent blades on the number 2 and number 3 propellers, sudden stoppage of the number 2 and number 3 engines, broken hydraulic lines on the right landing gear and damage to the number 3 engine oil scoop. Rivera enlisted two mechanics to do some repairs. One of them, Rafael Delgado-Cintr�n, determined that they only had to replace the two tires and one propeller and file the other propeller back into shape. On Dec. 17, however, FAA inspector Vernon Haynes told Rivera it was "high time" for him to replace the DC-7's engines, which had been in use longer than the manufacturer recommended. But Haynes did not require that engine repairs be made before the DC-7's next flight.
As New Year's Eve approached, the Clementes were working on the earthquake relief effort from eight in the morning until past midnight. On the Puerto Rico end, at least, the effort was a heartwarming success. More than $100,000 had been raised. Food, clothing and medical supplies were coming in as quickly as they were going out. The Super Snoopy left on its second run to Nicaragua, and Roberto was even more enraged when he heard that the supplies had been held up again by soldiers at the Managua airport.