MEXICO CITY -- In what may be a major naval breakthrough for the drug cartels, a commuter pilot in Panama claims three South American hijackers forced him to land on a makeshift aircraft carrier March 12.
Armando Mallorga says the hijackers ordered him to fly them 200 miles out over the Caribbean, where he landed on the carrier -- a strange Jules Verne concoction with a flight deck of twin steel ramps.
After shaking his hand and refueling the plane, Mr. Mallorga says, the crew permitted him to fly back to Panama and dubious fame.
Within hours of his return, Panama's world-class rumor mill was humming with theories. Law enforcement officials speculated that the aircraft carrier might have been an innovative cocaine laboratory with air express service.
Like many Panamanian stories, Mr. Mallorga's amazing tale was quickly dismissed by some. "He's lying," said Maj. Santiago Fundora, head of Panama's National Air Service. "What he says is impossible."
"Someone must have been doing too many lines of cocaine," said a DEA agent at the U.S. Embassy in Panama City.
"Let us know when the cartels have a battleship," quipped a military man at the U.S. Southern Command in Panama.
Still, Mr. Mallorga's aircraft carrier has its believers. They include the pilot's boss, the Panamanian civil aviation inspector who investigated the case and another pilot who reported the hijacking.
Except for Mr. Mallorga's description of the ship and a few other details, aviation experts agree that the incident was perfectly plausible.
The problem was the pilot's description of the ship. He claimed it had a flight deck of about 1,000 feet-- nearly as long as the deck on the USS Enterprise, the world's biggest carrier -- and that its width was less than 50 feet.
Such a pencil-thin leviathan would be difficult to maneuver and would be an obvious target for American spy satellites and drug hunting ships.
Still, Mr. Mallorga's story has the ring of truth, said Ernesto Ponce, the civil aviation investigator who wrote a positive report about the incident to President Guillermo Endara.
Mr. Mallorga's boss, George Novey, described his 20-year employee as a sober family man who has never failed to complete his mission flying Indians and tourists to remote San Blas province.
L "He's not the type to make up such a story," said Mr. Novey.
The tale began at 7 o'clock on the morning of the 12th when Mr. Mallorga arrived in the San Blas island of El Porvenir with a load of passengers from Panama City.
Minutes earlier, the three South American hijackers-to-be had been kicked off another plane at El Porvenir, a Cessna Caravan that also belonged to Mr. Novey's Panama City-based Aerotaxi company.
But Vitelio Coronado, the pilot of the Caravan, thought the three were suspicious and refused to take them. (Drug dealers had hijacked the same plane to Colombia earlier this year, the Caravan being a model favored by cocaine smugglers.)
The theory was that the hijackers' mission was to capture the long-range Caravan but, failing that, they needed a way to get back to the carrier.
So the hijackers approached Mr. Mallorga, who was flying a twin-engined Islander BN2, a British-designed 10-seater known for its ability to take off in short distances but spurned as a drug-smuggling plane because of its short range and small cargo capacity.
The three men boarded the plane, saying they wanted to go to Panama City. But Mr. Mallorga said it quickly became "clear these were not tourists headed for the capital."
One hijacker donned a cloth hood and jumped into the empty co-pilot's seat. He then ordered Mr. Mallorga to fly east along the Panamanian coast.
The hooded man then produced a radio homing device that would lead them to the carrier.
Another pilot flying nearby attempted to call Mr. Mallorga on the radio but received no response from his friend. "I assumed he was being kidnapped," said Rodolfo Causadias, who said he radioed the alarm to other planes in the area.
Mr. Causadias said he landed briefly in Playon Chico to deliver mail but then quickly took off to pursue Mr. Mallorga's plane.
After flying for over an hour in a northeasterly direction, Mr. Mallorga said he "noticed this stain," referring to the aircraft carrier. "The hijackers pulled out a radio and began to get landing instructions from the ship."
Mr. Mallorga said he circled the ship five times as it made a 330-degree turn to permit the plane to land into a 25-knot wind.
"They kept telling me it was perfectly safe to land, but believe me, I [was] scared to death," he recalled.
He said the plane used up about 800 feet of the 1,000-foot runway before it came to a halt, the plane's wheels being guided by twin steel ramps embedded in the flight deck.
Mr. Mallorga said he remained in the plane while six members of the ship's crew turned the Islander around for the takeoff. Since he did not have enough gas for the return flight, the crew refueled the craft.
Once back in the air, Mr. Mallorga said, he waited 30 minutes before attempting to use his radio. "I still couldn't raise anyone and decided to fly to the nearest airport at San Ignacio de Tupile," he said.
Mr. Mallorga's escapade was greeted with the same respect as some of Panama's major journalistic scoops: total disbelief.
But according to William D. Roig, who is well acquainted with Islanders: "I may have differences with the pilot over this fantastic ship, but I can tell you it is perfectly possible to land an Islander in distances much shorter than 800 feet, even on a ship."