a personal memoir

Handshakes and shakedowns

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

In Mar 1974, Learjet Demonstration Pilot Dick Bradberry (C) awaits inspection of his Learjet 35 by local officials in Lima, Peru.

Shakedowns are a problem. While they are the kind of problem that constantly confronts private aircraft on overseas trips, particularly in third world countries, the subject is rarely discussed because it is too embarrassing.

You cannot report it to the authorities—after all, it's the authorities who shake you down. US crews subjected to such treatment must consider that they may soon have to return to the same destination and may be recognized. But the system of routine corruption is well engrained and very profitable.

Having flown in all parts of the world in Beechcrafts and Learjets, I had lots of personal experience with the subject. Now that I am retired, I feel safe to speak out about it.
Let me start with Belém in Brazil. This was a remote outpost where officials were reportedly banished for some wrongdoing somewhere else.

Nobody really had to clear customs in Belém. A generous tip to the customs officials took the place of all inspections. And the tip was not a matter of choice—it was demanded. But other customs stations in Brazil were also aware of Belém's reputation and were on the lookout for airplanes that had cleared through this station.

We lost a Learjet 23 and 5 people because of this. The crew left Wichita loaded with the kind of goodies which were subject to customs duties in Brazil. They cleared Belém without any problem—but, proceeding to Rio de Janeiro, they were running dangerously short of fuel.

With the low fuel light on for quite a distance, they were told to land at the international airport—GIG (Galeão, Rio de Janeiro RJ, Brazil). But this airport had a customs office, so they decided to stretch the fuel to Rio's domestic airport—SDU (Santos Dumont, Rio de Janeiro RJ, Brazil)—which had no customs and was only 5 miles further. They ran out of fuel halfway there. Five of the 6 on board, including a child, drowned.

Once, going down south with the Gates Rubber Falcon 20, we were carrying 2 large TV sets for the Gates office in São Paulo. We cleared at Belém as usual. On arrival in São Paulo, our crew started unloading the aircraft, including the TV sets, right in front of the terminal. I warned them, "Let's park the aircraft and unload early tomorrow." "Oh, no," they said. "We cleared in Belém."

Two customs officials were watching this whole procedure. When told that we'd cleared customs in Belém, they smiled and wanted to see the receipt. They then proceeded to impound the 2 TVs.

In Karachi, Pakistan, the customs officer—wearing a white uniform with enough gold to be an admiral—told us that we must declare in writing the dollar amounts in our possession. He warned us that we could change money only in a bank and not on the black market rate offered in the hotels. But before I could put down the exact amount, he stopped me. "Wait," he said. "Before you write this down, I can change your dollars for a better rate than the hotel." Afterwards, I declared what was left over.

Once we landed at a West African airport just as it was getting dark. I'm not quite sure in which country it was, but it was a former French colony. The only person still on duty was the French tower operator. He told us that he had to call the customs and immigration officials to report our arrival, but that it would be a long time before they came back to the airport.

If we would promise him that we'd leave well before nine the following morning, he wouldn't call them. Should we try to leave when the officials were already on duty, there would be lots of questions about how we entered without clearing in, and this would cost us a lot of money. "If you don't clear in," he said, "don't try to clear out." We followed his advice. I remember giving him a Beechcraft Zippo lighter.

In Burma, during a midday stop, the immigration crew demanded a high fee for overtime. They were obviously on regular day duty, but we paid. There was no receipt.
At one time, we needed a flight permit to Venezuela. We stopped at the Venezuelan Consulate in Puerto Rico, where the consul had no idea what I was talking about. He put a single sheet of paper in his typewriter—this was already suspicious—and told me to dictate what he should write.

When he'd finished he announced, "Your fee is $100 with an official receipt or $50 without a receipt." I bought the cheaper version.

Once, because of a delay, I had to stay overnight in Mana­gua, Nicaragua. The immigration officer told me that this was a great problem because I did not have a visa. He took me into the office of the big boss. Anticipating what was to happen, I slipped a $20 bill into my passport. The boss demanded to see my passport, said he would keep it overnight and then offered to drive me to a hotel. Next morning, he returned my passport, minus the $20 bill.

I could go on with such stories, but I think this may be enough to prove my point. I hope this situation has improved in the recent past, but I wouldn't hold my breath.


Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 85, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Libya, North Korea and Cuba.