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  Pioneer Drug Pilot Blazed Illicit Trail!
Posted by FoM on February 21, 1999 at 11:08:09 PT
cannabis COLUMBUS
Former pilot Martin Willard Houltin had a rare talent that, for most of his life, he did his best to hide.
Houltin, a World War II veteran who died Jan. 21 at his modest Columbus brick home at the age of 79, was said to have been an innovator among drug smugglers, using small aircraft to ferry tons of Mexican marijuana across the border into the United States.

Law enforcement agents also said Houltin was the first U.S. pilot to have an aerial confrontation with federal officials for drug smuggling.
In that 1967 encounter, chronicled years later in The New York Times Magazine, Houltin managed to avoid arrest despite a Customs agent following him from Mexico in another plane.
Houltin landed at a small Las Vegas, Nev., airport, whipped his plane around at the end of the runway and began his takeoff headed straight at the Customs plane, which had landed behind him. Houltin flew over his pinned-down pursuer and bought himself enough time to dump his marijuana load for fellow smugglers on the ground to retrieve.
He walked away free.
"It was the first time we ever heard of an airplane being used for this purpose (dope smuggling)," former U.S. Customs Agent Harold Diaz said in the magazine article. "Others came later and copied him, but Marty was the guy who started it all."
His son, Brian, a park ranger at Pancho Villa State Park, said he tried to write an obituary without praise or shame for his father's illegal work, just recognition of his father's bravery and adventurous spirit.
"He was the best," read the obituary published in a Las Cruces newspaper in late January after a private burial, "and for years to come the feds did their best to capture him."
Patrick Mooney, a group supervisor with Customs' Aviation Branch in Albuquerque, said he took offense at the obituary's laudatory tone.
"It would be doing everybody a disservice to heap too much praise on him," Mooney said. "I might characterize (Houltin's actions) as foolish."

Subculture hero
Houltin, however, achieved minor celebrity status in the drug subculture when High Times, a magazine aimed at marijuana users, published a 1978 interview of the pilot that called him the "Flying Ace of the Dope Air Force."
In the interview, Houltin gushed about the excitement of smuggling: "You can do it for 150 years, and it would still be as thrilling as it was the first time. ... The actual flying is fantastic. You're never completely relaxed. Things keep running through your mind: 'Am I going to blow a tire on takeoff? Am I going to crash? Where do I land this son of a bitch if the engine quits? What would I do with the load?' ...
"You might have all sorts of experience, you might know how to land and take off at night with your lights off, you might be able to land over power lines, fly on the deck, the whole bit. No sweat, you're completely relaxed. But now put a load of grass in your plane and it's a whole different story."
Houltin's skill as a pilot gained him and his associates plenty of smuggling work.
The pilot learned to tell from the air whether a dry lake bed's surface was firm enough to land on by the texture of dried mud. He mastered landing on short, windswept mountain strips that ran into the slopes of the Sierra Madres in Mexico's Chihuahua state. And Houltin practiced landing at night without ground lights or headlights until seconds before hitting the ground, said his son, also a pilot.
"They were pioneers in their field," said criminal defense attorney Carlos Ogden, the former mayor of Columbus. "They used to say Marty was a pilot's pilot. He was as good as you could get in small planes."

Flying career
Martin Houltin grew up in Minnesota and was a bomber pilot for the then-U.S. Army Air Corps in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. After the war, he piloted for Northwest Airlines for nine years, moved to California to open a couple of gas stations, then moved to Alaska to fly as a bush pilot for Standard Oil for two years.
He then moved to Las Vegas, Nev., where he began working for several casinos and flying high rollers and swingers to Mexican resorts, said Mary Houltin, the late pilot's fourth wife.
By that time, Houltin also was illegally flying merchandise subject to high import duty fees, including heavy machinery, candy bars and liquor, into Mexico.
During one of those trips in the early '60s, Houltin was asked to fly a load of marijuana back across the border.
"They said, 'Why don't you fly something out? You've got to fly home anyway,' '' Mary Houltin said. "The money was good, so he did it."
In 1968, Martin and Mary Houltin moved to Columbus, an isolated border town, and the pilot leased what he called the Columbus Municipal Airport, now a weed-choked field.
It became home to a group of smugglers newspapers dubbed the Columbus Air Force.
At its height, federal officials said the Columbus Air Force -- Houltin and two key pilots -- were smuggling loads of drugs from Mexico to the U.S. every week.
Brian Houltin said a conservative estimate would show his father smuggled perhaps 10 tons of marijuana across the border during the growing season of any given year.
Martin Houltin plowed his profits back into airplanes, the lease on the airport and paying his other pilots and ground crews. He also opened a restaurant called the Peek-On-Inn on a desolate stretch of N.M. Highway 11 between Columbus and Deming in 1971.
The Peek-On-Inn burned down a few years ago, reportedly torched by drug dealers unwilling for Houltin's prize to fall into the government's hands in a drug-asset forfeiture case.

Caught in the act
Houltin was arrested along with two fellow Columbus Air Force pilots in October 1973 after they landed their single-engine Cessnas on a state road west of Magdalena and deposited 2,265 pounds of marijuana for pickup.
The 1973 arrest -- Houlton's first for smuggling -- was the result of an elaborate $2 million investigation called Operation Skynight that involved four planes flying surveillance, wiretaps and dozens of agents of the U.S. Customs Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and New Mexico State Police.
Because of legal problems with the wiretap order, Houltin and his two fellow pilots pleaded no contest to fourth-degree felony charges of possession of more than eight ounces of marijuana and were sentenced to 18 months' probation in February 1974.
Later that year, however, Houltin and his two pilots were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to import marijuana stemming from the same case. Houltin was eventually sentenced in an El Paso federal court in late 1975 to two five-year sentences running concurrently.
In October 1980, Houltin was arrested again by DEA agents while he unloaded 200 pounds of marijuana from a plane in Las Vegas, Nev. Houltin spent 16 months at the federal prison in La Tuna, Texas, until his release in July 1982.
Houltin didn't simply shop his services to marijuana growers and dealers for the lucrative payments, his son said. The smuggler did it largely for the challenge.
And Martin Houltin also had his own criminal ethic, his son said. For instance, Houltin never carried a gun on his trips.
"He knew it (smuggling) was illegal, and he figured if he got busted, he got busted. He wasn't going to shoot his way out of something," Brian Houltin said.
Martin Houltin never smoked marijuana, preferring martinis and brandy Alexanders instead, Mary Houltin said.
He also did not smuggle more expensive drugs such as cocaine or heroin, his family said.
"With cocaine -- there was so much money and it was just a rougher crowd," said Brian Houltin. "He wanted no part of that."

Pre-Drug War
In the '70s, with porous radar detection systems and few planes available to law enforcement, the Mexican border was "wide open" to drug smugglers, said Customs Service agent Mooney.
Since then, cross-border aerial smuggling has become much less common. In 1988 and 1989, the Customs Service deployed six unmanned aerostat blimps along the border from the Gulf of Mexico to California to plug gaps between fixed radar installations and to detect low-flying aircraft.
As a result, most drug smugglers now concentrate on transporting drugs across the border in small loads through vehicles and people slipping through crowded ports of entry. Some smugglers send drugs across unguarded sections of the border in vehicles, on horseback or strapped to backpackers.
"What's cheaper and easier to coordinate -- vehicle traffic that you send through and pay some guy a couple of hundred bucks, or hiring a pilot and a plane?" explained El Paso-based DEA special agent David Monnette.
Planes ferrying drugs continue to fly, Mooney said, but now they usually land short of the border.
In March 1993, federal authorities in Denver again nailed Houltin. Then 73, Houltin was one of seven people charged with racketeering and accused of being part of a drug ring that smuggled about five tons of marijuana between 1986 and 1989.
However, charges were dismissed in November 1993 at the request of the government. Two psychiatrists determined that, because of Alzheimer's disease, Houltin was incompetent to assist his defense.
Brian Houltin said he is not ashamed of his father's career.
"He never carried a gun, he wasn't violent, he never cheated anyone," the younger Houltin said. "He flew pot.
"I mean, hell, the Kennedys smuggled alcohol (during Prohibition) and they're still in politics."

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Comment #3 posted by Ellis Mckenzie on October 30, 2000 at 09:48:32 PT:

Martin Houltin
I'ld like to see the original issue. Do you know what issue of time mag. it appeared in? Thanks

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Comment #2 posted by MARK on February 17, 2000 at 05:24:03 PT:


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Comment #1 posted by PhatAbott on February 21, 1999 at 12:03:48 PT:

true american hero
A ture american hero!

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