Charles is a pilot and the founder of the aviation nonprofit Able Flight, which provides flight training scholarships for people with disabilities. A former aviation writer and photographer for U.S. and European publications, he is the host and producer of the true crime/aviation podcast Fly By Night, telling real world stories of drug smuggling pilots and those who chased them.
For a time, pilot Jim Thurman lived a double life: corporate and charter pilot by day, and sometimes at night, a drug smuggler. After quickly working his way through the certificates and ratings he needed as a young pilot in the Atlanta area, Thurman began to fly larger, cargo sized aircraft hauling legitimate loads like auto parts. On the charter side, he even flew a well-known U. S. senator on his way to a meeting with a Central American dictator. After buying his own DC-4 and rebuilding it, he hauled fright from South Florida airports to the south, and it was during this time that he met other pilots who flew clandestine loads with their lure of quick money in greater amounts than could be earned on the legal side of flying. That led Thurman to several crashes and one dramatic escape.
Flying an airplane loaded with drugs into the United States in the seventies and eighties often meant running a gauntlet of radar and surveillance aircraft. As the years went by, and as smuggling pilots and those who hired them became more creative in evading capture, drug interdiction agents in the air and on the ground became better at catching them. It was a never-ending game of aerial cat and mouse, with the greatest risk in the game falling upon the pilots and, by extension, the organizations that had purchased the planes and bought the drugs packed into those aircraft. Since most smugglers of that era keep their secrets, it’s impossible to say how many pilots were freelancers running their own operations, and how many flew as a hired hand. but it’s fair to assume that for many, it was a just a job they were paid to do. In this episode, we’ll meet two smugglers who hired those pilots.
On the hot summer night of August 3rd, 1975, just hours after an incredibly short and rough strip had been carved out of a tree covered hillside, and with that strip outlined by strings of Christmas tree lights, a pilot somehow landed a DC-4 loaded with marijuana on the side of Treat Mountain, Georgia. The pilot, pot and plane survived. But with the bad luck of being mistaken for moonshiners as they drove away in trucks packed with pot, almost all of the members of the smuggling crew were arrested that night. And that was just the beginning of an incredible tale that could only have been born of an era where pilots were eager and willing to trade safety for adventure and the hope of wealth. By the time this story ended, the DC-4 had become a tourist attraction, and was later flown off the side of the mountain so that it could star in a truly bad film loosely based on the smuggling flight and its aftermath.
This is the final episode in the story of the life and death of Drew Thornton, and the fallout from his ill-fated parachute jump on the night of September 10, 1985. When his body was identified, the news quickly traveled back to Lexington, and from that day, the myth of Drew Thornton as a corrupt cop turned drug smuggling ninja pilot began to grow. Just weeks after Thornton’s fall to his death into the driveway of a Knoxville home, alleged co-conspirator David “Cowboy” Williams died in the crash of jump plane at a Georgia skydiving operation, leading to theories of sabotage. Episode Four features an interview with retired DEA Agent/Pilot Rick Sanders, and the FBI statement of a member of Thornton’s ground crew on the night of Thornton’s fatal jump. It also touches on the sad tale of an unfortunate black bear that stumbled upon cocaine that fell from the sky into a national forest. Now that bear, nicknamed “Pablo Escobear” resides in the Kentucky for Kentucky gift shop in Lexington.
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Creator Details

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States of America
Episode Count
Podcast Count
Total Airtime
4 hours, 9 minutes
Podchaser Creator ID logo 439501