Logbooks Tie Contras, Fla. Airline Plane's Wreckage Yielded Pilot's Files

Posted: October 18, 1986

WASHINGTON — Strong new circumstantial evidence links numerous employees of Southern Air Transport of Miami, an airline formerly owned by the Central Intelligence Agency, to current operations supplying anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua.

Those missions, in which CIA participation has been barred since 1984 by Congress, were exposed two weeks ago when a Fairchild C-123 transport carrying arms and ammunition to the contras was shot down over Nicaragua. The new evidence comes from two flight logbooks found aboard the plane.

Since the crash, evidence of Southern Air's involvement has fueled a preliminary FBI investigation into possible violations by the airline of the Neutrality Act and the Arms Control Act, which are intended to block illicit U.S. participation in foreign wars.

After initially denying any role in the flight, Southern Air's management has conceded more and more as Nicaraguan officials have produced Southern Air identification cards, business cards and maintenance records from the plane's wreckage.

The two logbooks had been kept by co-pilot Wallace Blaine Sawyer, who was killed in the C-123 crash. The logs contain the last names of at least 34 crewmen with whom Sawyer had flown since June 1985.

At least 18 of those names - including such uncommon ones as Somporn, Hydenreich, Schugmann, Von Haven and Sim - match the last names of current Southern Air employees, according to supervisors, colleagues and a recent company newsletter. All five of those uncommonly named men, plus about four others, often flew with Sawyer, according to David M. Benson of Miami Springs, Fla., who retired as Southern Air's chief pilot in June 1985.

Southern Air was purchased from the CIA in 1973 by James H. Bastian and two partners. Bastian, who is board chairman of Southern, previously had been general counsel of both Southern Air and Air America, a larger CIA-owned airline that was sold at the same time.

Bastian has denied any involvement with the CIA.

Sawyer, who Benson said was hired as a pilot for Southern Air in 1981, left the airline in 1985, according to published statements by William Kress, a company spokesman. Kress said he would not "confirm or deny" the match between the names listed in Sawyer's log and current Southern Air employees.

"I am not available for comment," Kress said.

Sawyer himself had "terminated his employment with Southern some time ago," according to a letter to employees written Tuesday by Bastian.

But Sawyer's logbooks indicate that he was still flying Southern Air L-382 transport aircraft this year. In February and March he also flew a series of ''ops" and "drops" - military slang for operations and airdrops - in Central America in a Canadian de Havilland aircraft whose ownership could not be determined. Those flights also were indicated in the logbooks, in which pilots note all the flights they have made, the destinations and the planes used, as well as the crew members.

Sawyer flew these operations out of military air bases at Ilopango in El Salvador and Aguacate in Honduras - both key supply bases for the contras - with crewmen identified in his log by the last names Von Haven, Sim and Schugmann. The flight of the downed C-123 originated from Ilopango.

John Schugmann, a Southern Air flight engineer reached at a Miami hotel Friday, said "No comment. Thank you. Goodbye" when asked why his name would have appeared in Sawyer's logbook. A Southern Air pilot nicknamed "Bonzo" Von Haven and a first officer named James A. Sim were out of town but expected to return soon, according to a Southern Air receptionist.

Benson, the airline's former chief pilot, said it would be "too much of a coincidence that guys like Von Haven, Schugmann and Sim would be somebody else flying with Sawyer, other than the people I knew to be his friends."

A second former Southern Air official, Douglas Day, a semi-retired pilot for the airline, also said that Schugmann, Von Haven, Sim, Sawyer and several other airline personnel named in Sawyer's logs had worked together.

Benson said that Sawyer and seven associates with names matching those in Sawyer's logs were the only part-time fliers hired by Southern Air in his 15 years with the carrier.

"They had other work, but we never knew what it was," Benson said. "They had times when they were unavailable; they might be gone a week at a time. When they were back in position, they'd call us and say they were available again."

That unique arrangement would have required approval by Southern Air president William G. Langton or board chairman Bastian, Benson said. Both were ''out of the country until Monday," according to a receptionist they share.

One of Langton's business cards was found on the body of William J. Cooper, the pilot of the downed C-123 who, like Sawyer, carried a Southern Air identification card. The name "Langton" appears in Sawyer's log for five rebel supply flights last February between airstrips in El Salvador and the main rebel air base in Honduras at Aguacate.

Bastian said in his letter to employees Tuesday that Southern Air had been involved "primarily" in maintenance of the C-123 that was shot down.

Sawyer's ID card, Bastian wrote, dated from an unspecified earlier period when he had been a Southern employee. Cooper's ID card, he said, had been issued so he could have "access to Southern Air's premises while maintenance was being performed" on the C-123 that he supervised.

Bastian denied that his airline "owned," "operated," "controlled" or ''directed" the C-123's missions, but he did not rule out other forms of assistance and involvement. Referring to earlier press reports that a C-123 parked at Southern Air's headquarters at Miami International Airport had been provisionally registered to a phantom company using Southern Air's address, Bastian wrote that, "if true, (any such registration was) done without our knowledge or concurrence."

In all, 18 of the names listed in Sawyer's logs match either perfectly or phonetically the names of Southern Air employees. They include 10 whose names appeared in last summer's edition of "Southernews," the company newsletter

sent to its 500 employees.

Matchups, besides names such as Somporn and Hydenreich, include Rohan, Wavra, Wilburn and Hurt. Unclear and complex notations in the logs make it difficult to tell which missions they flew, however, and none could be reached for comment. Most had been hired in July 1985, according to an article in the newsletter marking their first anniversary and praising their ''dedication and commitment to the Company."

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