Pubdate: 21Feb 1999
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 1999 Albuquerque Journal


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

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

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

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

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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