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.
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
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
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
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.
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.