The Colombian guerillas reached the debris of the Cessna Caravan not long after it had crashed in the jungle. There were no bullet holes. The aircraft’s engine had simply quit.
Thomas Janis was at the controls; Tom Howes was in the right seat. Colombian Army Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, Marc Gonsalves, and Keith Stansell were in back. They spotted one clearing they could reach, on the side of a heavily wooded hill, and Janis aimed for it. The situation looked grim, but Janis slid the Caravan through the treetops and slammed it onto the ground. The airplane plowed a furrow downhill, shooting toward a vertical drop-off. Howes’s left shoulder slid out of the seatbelt. His head struck a post, and he was knocked unconscious.
Howes, 49 at the time of the crash, started flying when he was 17 in Chatham, a small town on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He had time in more than 60 models, from a J–3 Cub to a DC–9. He had served as an instructor; he flew a DC–3 for Haiti Overseas Airways. He flew for PBA, Provincetown-Boston Airline, based in Naples, Florida, starting out as a copilot in DC–3s and rising to the airline’s number three pilot. The company owned 104 airplanes, a motley collection ranging from an Embraer Bandeirante to a 1929 Stinson, and he flew them all.
Then he became…a mercenary.
“I generally don’t use that term,” he says, a little uncomfortably. “When I worked for Provincetown-Boston, our ticket counter in Miami was next to Aero Peru. My plan was to go out with a pretty blonde flight attendant leaving for Peru for a weekend.” And so he flew down there with her. “For three days I was fascinated with the place, the people, the food, the flavor,” he says. “It kind of ruined me for working in the States.”
To Howes, the über-busy Northeast Corridor he’d flown for years was like playing Asteroids; all shapes and sizes of aircraft were always coming at him. Down in South America the traffic lightened up considerably, and the geography was mountainous, desolate, and just more interesting.
“The whole flavor was adventurous and addictive,” he adds. “There was a colorful group of aviators and mechanics; all had a long expatriate history. They were fun to be around. And the pay was a lot better.”
He flew C–123s and Convair 580s over the Andes and into jungle strips (“We’d have to put on oxygen masks crossing the Andes”); for three years he was a civilian instructor for a U.S. Air Force special ops unit. And then he was hired by California Microwave, which was a front; the name Northrop Grumman appeared on their checks. The Department of Defense had contracted with Northrop to fly its drug interdiction program. Under orders from the U.S. Embassy, Howes took on the range of missions, everything from delivering parts and food to remote military bases to reconnaissance work of all kinds. “I used to fly the canyons in the remote areas of Guatemala and perform weather checks,” he says, “If the weather was good I’d call the spray planes and they’d start spraying. I’d overfly in an airplane acting as a radio ship, and helicopters flew gun support.” He did it until the day the engine quit.
They had the good luck to crash in the only clearing for miles; they had the bad luck to do it next to a FARC patrol. FARC, which, translated, stands for Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, a guerilla group that financed itself producing cocaine. “By the time I got my memory back I had already been swept up and taken captive by FARC,” Howes said. Howes did not know Janis and Cruz had already been shot. The other Americans told him that Janis and Cruz were dead after he regained his senses.
“They were separated from us and I don’t know if Tommy Janis was protecting us, or tried to run,” Howes said, not realizing the fate of his comrades. “He was 56 with the physique of a 17-year-old. Military all his life. If he had a moment he could make a break for it, or maybe he was protecting the Colombian with us.” Cruz, a sergeant in the Colombian army, was along for the ride, representing the host nation. It’s proper etiquette. He was shot for representing the Colombian government.
Immediately FARC began a forced march that lasted 24 days, through the jungle and the jagged mountains on foot, mule, horseback, pickup truck; always away from civilization, sometimes through the night with no sleep. ”We were too exhausted to really think of the situation we were in,” Howes said. When he struck the post he had gouged his forehead; he had wrapped a bandana to keep the blood out of his eyes; Marc Gonsalves broke some ribs, and Stansell began vomiting and defecating uncontrollably. “Marc got to the point where they had to give him intravenous feedings. They even had to carry him up a mountain. A great big Marine.”
FARC had standing orders to kill all prisoners and hightail it if someone tried to rescue them. Once they had shot 11 prisoners. For obvious reasons, you didn’t want to force FARC into maybe having to carry you.
As bleak as the death march sounds, it concentrated the survivors’ minds wonderfully. They could think of nothing but survival, on forcing that one foot in front of the other. Then finally they stopped.
“In some crazy way it was better when we were traveling,” Howes said. “When we got to a fixed site then we had time to rest and nothing to do but think. That’s when it became very difficult mentally. For me, my brain was self-destructing with the stark reality that our living situation was very grim. We thought we might be tortured, interrogated, or shot. When we were on the march we were so tired that the inevitability didn’t seem all that horrible.”
Howes knew the mud wouldn’t kill him, and he could survive the mosquitoes that attacked him morning, noon, and night. He had to make his brain calloused. He couldn’t allow himself the vivid memories of his son, and the last time he saw him—age 5, his chubby hand waving from the school bus in Florida. It always broke him up.
FARC gave them no books, no radio, no television, no magazines. The Americans made a deck of cards from paper and played gin rummy and blackjack; Gonsalves carved a chess set. They played both ad nauseam. One day Howes watched Gonsalves spend an hour cleaning mud from the treads of his boots with a toothbrush. What an idea! A whole hour gone, used up. Howes began cleaning his boot treads, too, even though they’d fill up with mud the minute he put them on and stood up. He wrote lists of tools he wanted to buy, college courses he wanted to take. Anything to keep his brain busy.
He got a book by Gabriel García Márquez and read it more than 20 times, sometimes loudly practicing his Spanish enunciation. Try as he might he couldn’t get rid of the book; it always boomeranged back. He’d hand it to someone and they’d read it and hand it back. Frustrated, he buried it in the mud.
“During the day, the three of us would chatter about taking a motorcycle trip across the States: who we would see, what we would buy, where we would eat,” he says.
At night it got so dark he could retreat into a fantasy world. He decided in this world he could be anything he wanted to be, do anything he wanted to do. “I would take magic trips with my imagination,” he said. One fantasy he liked, and he came back to it over and over. He was a wealthy European businessman who owned a chain of luxury hotels in the finest cities. Twenty thousand rooms total. “I’d get into these crazy calculations: Twenty thousand hotel rooms, how many rolls of toilet paper do I need? Should I buy the factory that makes up the paper?” he said. “It strikes you that you’re there thinking of toilet paper, so then I thought up the fantasy of a beautiful lady who owned the toilet paper factory.”
The years dragged by. There would always come some small hope of rescue—sometimes they might think they heard an engine, but they could never spot an airplane in the sky—but eventually that hope would peter out. Howes became jaded, cynical. Had he been abandoned by his county, by his company? With nothing better to do, he started harassing the man in charge of the concentration camp, a hypocritical communist who collected possessions and ordered around soldiers who had nothing. Howes made him look stupid in front of his men, and he enjoyed doing it. Once Howes drove him to point a gun at his head. A fellow prisoner gently told him to back off.
After five years, their group united with Ingrid Betancourt, a prominent Colombian politician who’d also been captured by FARC; like them, a high-value target. While she was an international symbol for FARC hostage suffering, for at least two of the Americans—Stansell and Howes—she was worse than the guards. Stansell says she hoarded food and informed the guards on them. “It seemed like she wanted to take charge. It was a little bit annoying. We had people with AK-47s guarding us; if you didn’t do what they wanted you to they’d shoot you. We didn’t need bosses on bosses.”
A few months after uniting with Betancourt and her group, one of Howe’s group was using the latrine and found a handwritten cardboard sign there that led them to believe a humanitarian group would come look at them. Fine, Howes thought; they’d maybe get a trinket or a book out of the deal, hopefully even a medical checkup. They hadn’t had one for five and one-half years.
Then their captors marched them to a whorehouse/cantina, letting them sleep on mattresses for the first time since the night before their crash. The following day they heard helicopters overhead, then landing. Two guards, the concentration camp leader and another man, marched them all at riflepoint across a poppy field and up to a fence; old white Soviet helicopters sat on the other side.
The whole thing roused Howes’ group’s suspicions. There were no red crosses painted on the sides. A camera crew and the pilot got out. He had bleached hair and a Che T-shirt. “A nuts-and-berries type,” thought Howes. A communist. One of the Americans said something surreptitiously and derogatory to him; the pilot surreptitiously responded to not give him any grief if he wanted to get home. That also struck the Americans as odd.
The camera crew shot footage of the two guards binding the prisoners’ wrists with tie-wraps and loading them into the helicopter; Howes ended up next to the friend who had made him see the logic of not harassing the camp leader. His friend was freaked—he’d never flown before. Howes tried to calm him. The Soviet helicopter wound up and took off with the prisoners, guards, and the humanitarians, the nuts-and-berries types, and the camera crew.
Chaos erupted. “Colombian army!” the nuts-and-berries types screamed as they flew on the two guards and disarmed them. Howes leaned over and patted the concentration camp leader, his nemesis, on the head.
Once Howes was released, he learned that the United States had been working feverishly for their rescue with the Colombian government. They had infiltrated FARC and even convinced the rebels to unite Betancourt with the Americans’ group. “It’s humbling to hear how deeply interested they were in getting us out, the effort they made over the time period,” he says. “It’s overwhelming for three regular guys in that situation how far this country will go to take care of their own.” Northrop Grumman took care of his family, paying his salary the entire time, plus holding back some for when he was released. “The government, the company, they went above and beyond,” he adds. “It was a pleasant surprise how they treated us.”
Back in the States, Howes moved to Merritt Island, Florida, and at the airport flight school there he took a flight review in a Piper Seneca, and an instrument competency check, and revalidated his expired CFII. He and his wife divorced; but it’s as amicable as things can be and he has custody of his son every other week. Northrop Grumman made him flight ops manager of a facility that maintains P–3 Orions. He’s in charge of 100 people. He’s not flying now because he wants to spend every spare moment with his son, who went without his father for five and a half years. His fellow prisoners Gonsalves and Stansell also went back to work at Northrop Grumman. Gonsalves and Betancourt phone and e-mail one another.
Howes knows he has changed. “I can eat anything. I’m patient; I can wait for years. I’m happy at almost any job,” he says. “If I ever complain, I tell people I want to be slapped.”
One other thing: “I’m ‘more talkative than a recently released kidnapping victim,’” he says. “That’s a Colombian saying.”
Phil Scott is a freelance writer and private pilot living in Tampa, Florida.