Alan McTeer in the Red Zone
An interview with a charming adventurer turned novelist
By Greg Fjetland
“The cabin is rapidly filling with smoke. I force myself to think, to concentrate. How can I put out this fire? If I depressurize the cabin at this altitude, the fire can’t possibly burn. I look down to check the oxygen gauge on my emergency bottle and put on the mask. I push the depressurization toggle to the off position. The switch, which was probably never used before, breaks off in my hand.”
Excerpt from Red Zone
Alan McTeer laughs when he tells the story now but he says that at the time, his plane’s cabin fire was not in the least humorous. He survived the fire but was just beginning the misadventure that forms the story in his new novel “Red Zone.” Impressively, the Kelowna-based author, filmmaker and adventuring pilot swears that his novel is “90 percent true.”
Over coffee at a local Starbucks, McTeer, roguishly handsome with his close-cropped silver hair and flinty blue eyes, tells his tale. A natural raconteur, his stories flow effortlessly, convincingly and continuously. He talks about meeting CIA agents and key players in the Calli drug cartel of Columbia, smuggling planes out of South America, and mining gold in Bolivia. He worked with the U.S. Air Force and, after his arrest, with the Drug Enforcement Agency. Red Zone, his first novel, is the recounting of one business trip that went very badly askew.
This adventuring author has had a lifelong fascination with planes. He began flying with Air Cadets at the age of 12 in Rossland. But a renal aneurysm put him out of the running for flying for the Canadian Forces and he became a millwright at Cominco in Trail. When he was 26 he moved to Calgary and began selling Cessna airplanes. “That’s when the trouble started,” he says.
His dentist told how his plane had been impounded in Mexico. McTeer volunteered to retrieve it. At the Mexican airport he started a fire as a diversion while he tried to get the plane started. He flew it back all the way to Calgary, limping along on one magneto. “We were young, dumb and stupid,” he confesses.
Encouraged by his early success he started a business in Las Vegas called Flight Recovery Services of Nevada. Later he moved the business to Miami and began recovering confiscated planes for insurance companies. The planes he sought were in countries throughout the Caribbean and South America. The stakes were high but the money and business were good.
In 1984 a job offer led him to Bolivia. For four years, he worked as a broker selling planes and helicopters. But when one of the planes crashed, the pilot’s family threatened McTeer and his wife and their two children. He took off to the mountains to sluice for gold while his family returned to New York. When a flash flood wiped out his operations he moved back to United States to try to pick up where he left off.
But back in Florida with his many contacts, the easy money of drug smuggling attracted him. McTeer was caught and convicted but served only a few months for his full co-operation with the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Although McTeer’s life had been exciting enough up till now, this is where Red Zone begins and things really heat up. Written in the terse style of Elmore Leonard and peopled by more bad guys than you’ll meet in a lifetime, the novel rings true with the authentic details that only someone who’s been there can provide. Anxiety, like the high-pitched note in a suspense movie, pervades the book as its protagonist, Alan Richards, and his sidekick Mario are inexorably drawn into increasingly dangerous situations. Red Zone is the fast-paced and relentless story of the crash-landing of Richard and Mario’s burning plane, their arrest, torture, imprisonment, release and subsequent reluctant and ultimately –thanks to Richards – unsuccessful drug smuggling. In desperate bids to stay alive, the unlikely companions make deals to escape bad situations only to find their next ones even worse. Mario, providing comic relief, manages to dig them in deeper and deeper with his overactive libido. Gradually, and by the barest of margins, Richards turns the outcome in his own favour. He returns safely to America leaving Mario behind.
Today, McTeer finds himself an unexpectedly successful author. “My relatives are saying to me, “Hey, I didn’t know you could write,” he laughs. Sales of Red Zone have been good, he says, with the book handled by Chapters in Canada and Barnes and Noble in the U.S. The book has been broadly and favourably reviewed and McTeer says a film deal is “definitely in the works.” For those of us readers who remain concerned with Mario’s well-being, McTeer says we’ll just have to wait for the sequel.