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Arts & Culture

‘Pot Plane’ Smuggler Returns to Charleston

jerome 1.jpg
Stan Bumgardner
/
Goldenseal
Jerome Lill was a smuggler who organized the shipment of marijuana that crashed at what was then Kanawha Airport on June 6, 1979.
pot plane crash.jpg
The site of the pot plane crash, just down the hill from what is now Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia.

On June 6, 1979, a plane crashed on the side of the mountain at what was then known as the Kanawha Airport in Charleston. The aging DC - 6 was carrying 26,000 pounds of marijuana. The entire episode has since been referred to as the Pot Plane Crash.

Jerome Lill was on board the plane when it went down. He recently wrote the book, “Final Approach: In the Battle of Angels, it's a God Thing,” about his life and smuggling days, and later, hitting rock bottom and where he is now.

He visited Charleston for the anniversary of the crash and sat down with Eric Douglas in our studios.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: Set the stage, six months before you got here. How did all this come to be?

Lill: I wasn't a cocaine dealer or anything. I wanted to strictly stick with marijuana. I had decided I wanted to be a Colombian marijuana smuggler.

Douglas: Why Charleston, West Virginia? Why were you coming here?

Lill: I wanted to be with my big load of Colombian marijuana. Okay, it was an ego trip for myself, but not even to show other people. I wanted to do this thing. And I just wanted to be with my pot. So they picked Charleston. We didn't know why they picked Charleston. So we just said okay, Charleston. Now one thing we didn't do, we never came and looked at Charleston. We should have planned that because when I crashed that plane and I was in the woods, I ran for seven hours. I was running around the Charleston airport in the night with my head split open, my teeth busted. And we kept going around the airport in circles. I don't know where I was.

Douglas: Where did you cross the coast? You crossed Cuba, did you come up over Florida?

Lill: We didn't come over Florida. We stayed back out in the ocean. We went out into the Atlantic along the coast then started coming in across North Carolina and Virginia. And David (Seesing) tells (Breck Dana) Anderson we're coming up on a little rain cell. So David says he's gonna fly through it, and he tells him to drop the (landing) gear, because we're gonna wash the mud off so the DEA and the government could not trace it to Columbia. Now, I thought that was kind of stupid at the time. So who cares? We know we came from Columbia. We get busted. We're busted.

David said Anderson also hit the hydraulic switch and dropped the hydraulics. There's been all these stories that there was a Colombian crew on it. That we overshot the runway, that the runway wasn't long enough. All these different stories. The fact is, Anderson, the copilot, dropped the hydraulics. He dumped the hydraulic fluid. So when you don't have hydraulics, you can't control the plane properly. He tries to muscle it and keep it straight. We started to list off to the right of that runway at Charleston. And I thought we were going to flip over sideways to tell you the truth. But somehow David fought it. We kept going straight, but we were going pretty quick. And he did a reverse thrust. And then he thought he was going to try to climb again. Panic. And all of a sudden you're at the end of the runway.

Douglas: This is in the middle of the night.

Lill: Yes, it's one o'clock in the morning. Okay, bam, flipping over. Smash. I got hit in the head. This is to set the record straight. I'm telling you exactly what went down here. It sounds kind of smart. And it also sounds kind of rinky-dink. We didn't do a very good job.

Douglas: In your book “Final Approach: In the Battle of Angels, it's a God Thing” you talk about your own redemption.

Lill: This book is about getting my stuff together to write this. I made a deal with God after I did get sober that I would make him the star in my book and that's why it says “it's a God thing.” This is not about glorifying drug smuggling. This is not about that. This is about the fact that I am able to be alive right now and get off of alcohol and drugs. And I wanted to write a book about what happened to me, how I got it together. I wanted to make my book worth something of value.

Douglas: What's the lesson you want readers to learn? Or what do you want them to take away from it?

Lill: Since I got sober, life's a lot more fun, because look where I am. I'm sitting here talking about a book I wrote. I could have never written a book in the condition I was in. You can go out and do good things for people. You can be a nice person, and you can find out that there's a lot of fun in that. I've been a criminal. Anybody who ever hears this, who's a criminal or you have been in prison, you can come out of that. It's never too late. That's what I want to do with this.

Douglas: Tell me what you're doing with yourself now.

Lill: I'm doing children's books. I'm doing a book about “Roadie the Rabbit.” It's about a rabbit that I found on the side of the road on a Sunday. I'm doing a book about my cat, “Ernest Goes to the Keys.” These are all true stories about animals I owned. I'm gonna have a whole line of them.

For more on the 1979 pot plane crash, visit this story, excerpted from Inside Appalachia.

This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.


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