These are stories of America's drug smuggling pilots and the people who chased them; stories of conspiracy, dangerous flying, of greed, adventure and murder. Told through interviews with flyers who chose to use their skills to move contraband into the United States, and through the perspective of law enforcement agents of the DEA, FBI and others who worked to catch them. Season One begins with the four-part tale of a crooked cop and pilot who created one of the country's biggest aerial smuggling operations, and then parachuted to his death loaded down with cocaine and weapons. Fly By Night is a production of Midnight Flyer Media.
Brotherhood of Eternal LoveIn the 1960's, 70's and 80's, a group of Southern Californians turned to smuggling to finance and build a counter culture community. But they hadn't started out as enlightened hippies. Before one long strange night of transformation, they had been petty criminals, more interested in stealing than in peace and love. After their 180 degree change, they became known as the "Brotherhood of Eternal Love" and were known for selling hash from Afghanistan, and for practically giving away hundreds of thousands of tabs of "Orange Sunshine" LSD, even dropping thousands of tabs from a Cessna flying over a festival. They had communal homes in California and later in Hawaii, and in the waning years of the Brotherhood's smuggling operations, that's where DEA Agent Kelly Snyder first encountered a pilot named Randy Garrett. By coincidence, their paths would later cross in Louisville, Kentucky, and their story has an unusual end. The second story in this episode is that of Wally Thrasher of Virginia, a charismatic pilot whose skills were much in demand, and who was living a good life until everything came apart when someone else crashed a plane he owned, and law enforcement agents began to close in on him. Thrasher's attempts to recover from the loss of a great deal of money and drugs that burned in the crash would led to his own mysterious disappearance, with theories of his death in another crash, possible murder, and even a well-financed change of identity and a life on the run. To tell his story, we have a special guest presenter, three-time national aerobatic champion and member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, Patty Wagstaff.
A Lure Hard To ResistFor 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.
Close Enough To DyingFlying 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.
The Nearly Impossible LandingOn 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.
The Death of Drew ThorntonThis 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.
Disappearance and AssassinationEpisode Three of Fly By Night focuses on several deaths and disappearances surrounding pilot Drew Thornton and his fellow smugglers. There is the the still-unsolved disappearance of Melanie Flynn, a young woman who may have become too close to “The Company”. With little evidence to go on, and with possibilities that never panned out, the investigation into the story of the vanished aspiring performer has been dormant for decades, though the summer of 2019 saw the possibility of new leads. There is the story of Bonnie Kelly, a small-town, small-crime woman from the Lexington area who became the assassin of a Florida State Attorney in a failed attempt to free her husband from serving years in prison, and the irony of her eventual fate. It includes the near last-minute efforts of then FBI Special Agent Jim Huggins to beat a fast-approaching statue of limitations deadline that would have forever left a co-conspirator walking free, and how the stunning discovery of the long lost gun used in the murder helped convict a member of Kentucky’s political hierarchy. Featured interview with retired FBI Special Agent Jim Huggins.
From Cop To SmugglerPilot Drew Thornton and a childhood friend built a major marijuana and cocaine smuggling operation known as “The Company” based in Lexington, Kentucky, and did so while hiding that business in plain sight with the help from corrupt officials, including a DEA Agent who provided cover for what became the largest aerial smuggling operation in Kentucky. Featuring interviews with Retired FBI Special Agent Jim Huggins, and retired DEA Agents Kelly Snyder and Rick Sanders.
The Story of Drew ThorntonFly By Night begins with the story of Andrew Carter Thornton III: a Kentucky pilot and skydiver who was a blueblood son of the Bluegrass state. Thornton's long strange trip went from growing up as a child of privilege to becoming a soldier, and then a police officer in the newly created narcotics squad in Lexington, Kentucky. With stories of suspected corruption hanging over him, he left the police department for a short-lived stint as a lawyer, and then, using his skills as a pilot, and with the help of other corrupt former cops, Drew Thornton became one of the biggest drug smugglers in Kentucky history. This episode features interviews with retired FBI Special Agent Jim Huggins and retired DEA Agent Rick Sanders.
Fly By Night TrailerIntroducing “Fly By Night”, with stories of pilots who used their skills to smuggle drugs in the 70’s and 80’s, and the people who chased them. The series begins with the story of a pilot who had been a corrupt cop and helped build one of the largest aerial smuggling rings in the country. On the night of September 10th, 1985, Drew Thornton strapped cocaine and weapons to his body, turned on the autopilot, and jumped to his death. Episode One becomes available in August 2020.