Plane over Death Valley National Park

A pilot flies over a mountain pass and descends towards a dry lake bed named the Racetrack inside Death Valley National Park, CA. This is the same flight route that Sinaloa Cartel drug pilot John Ward described in a prison interview as using to reach the Racetrack. He made illegal landings here to delivery marijuana he smuggled across the border from Mexico. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

John Charles Ward would take flight in the half-light before dawn, when he could race down the runway without headlights and ascend into the cloaking embrace of an overcast sky.

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John Charles Ward would take flight in the half-light before dawn, when he could race down the runway without headlights and ascend into the cloaking embrace of an overcast sky.

Soaring above the crowded California freeways in the single-engine aircraft, he'd relax, pour himself a whiskey and Seven and plan his hopscotch route to Pennsylvania. Inside the plane were 242 pounds of cocaine; outside, nothing but clouds.

"There are no curbs in the sky," Ward said. "There's no place for anybody to pull you over."

Flying shipments for the Sinaloa drug cartel was Ward's best gig in years. No street dealing, packaging or other grubby chores required. He delivered cocaine to a distributor in Pennsylvania and returned with duffel bags stuffed with up to $2.8 million, keeping a few 6-inch stacks of cash for himself.

Taking off from Riverside County's Corona Municipal Airport at dawn, Ward could be back the next day, feeding twenties and hundreds into the counting machine at his home in Carlsbad.

Still, he had some nagging concerns. The Mexican distributors in Pennsylvania were trying to cut costs by hiring immigrant truckers to haul drugs from Southern California. And U.S. agents were keeping a close watch on traffickers in the historic towns of Lancaster County, Pa., a distribution hub.

Ward was an expert at covering his tracks. He usually stayed at a cottage-style motel just off the runway at Smoketown Airport, the self-described "Gateway to Pennsylvania's Amish Country." After midnight he donned black clothing and lugged cocaine-filled gym bags from the plane to his room. He avoided people, paid cash for most purchases and, if anybody asked, said he was an aircraft broker.

"The money never stopped. The product never stopped," he said. "Everything was moving continuously."

Veteran of the trade

By the time President Nixon declared the "war on drugs" in 1971, Ward had been transporting dope to California for years. He grew weed at a farm he owned in Missouri and shipped it by truck. A few years later, responding to demand for better pot, he partnered with marijuana farmers in Mexican villages and hired pilots — some of them Vietnam War veterans — to fly the drugs across the border.

But they were unreliable prima donnas. So he decided to get a pilot's license. He went to Hawaii to train in crosswinds, headwinds and on island hops.

"I said to myself: 'I'm going to be the best smuggler there is. I'm going to be the one without an attitude,' " Ward said.

Over three decades, he piloted more than 50 planes, from cramped Beechcraft Musketeer three-seaters to an Aero Commander 500 that he'd jam with 1,500 pounds of marijuana. In the 1970s and '80s, he made short trips to northern Mexico, landing on runways marked by burning tires, and made long flights through the Sierra Madre, where joyous farmers rode alongside his plane on horseback, shooting pistols into the air.

I said to myself: ‘I’m going to be the best smuggler there is. I’m going to be the one without an attitude.’”

Ward was scrappy and resourceful, an adrenaline junkie with a taste for the finer things. His smuggling paid for a desert estate, a sailboat named Romancing and Dom Perignon-fueled parties. He relished the challenges of aerial smuggling and devised ingenious ways to avoid detection.

He'd fly across the border skimming treetops to evade radar. He'd land in the desert, at improvised airstrips where his crews laid generator-powered runway lights. For engine troubles, he packed a tool bag with fuses and wrenches. For human problems, he tucked a 9-millimeter handgun in his waistband.

One step ahead

Federal authorities, who had been aware of Ward's air smuggling since 1975, chased him in the desert sky, bugged his phones and planted tracking devices on his aircraft, some of which he found and kept behind his bar at home to show off to his drinking buddies.

In 1981, customs agents seized three of his planes at airports in Riverside County. He was convicted of drug conspiracy charges as the leader of 13 pilots and ground crew members. He served four years of an eight-year sentence, and took to the skies again.