‘Country lawyer’ flies to the rescue in Belize

Date: March 22,1987
Location: Madison, WI
By: Richard W. Jaeger
Newspaper: Wisconsin State Journal
Page: 3-1

OREGON – Add “Soldier of Fortune” to Jack McManus’ list of exploits.

The colorful Dane County lawyer, tanned and weary, is back from five weeks in Central America, where he flew a medical rescue plane for the Wings of Hope Inc., a volunteer humanitarian organization headquartered in St. Louis, Mo.

For those who know McManus’ forceful courtroom tactics and outspoken approach to life, his adventure comes as no surprise.

“The spirit of adventure is natural for me. I like to think of myself as a soldier of fortune, ready to go anywhere at anytime to help the oppressed,” McManus said, leaning back in his chair, drawing a puff on his crooked Irish Meerschaum.

“I’m no bleeding heart. You know that. I also am not into arms and ammunition, so this work gave me the chance to have the challenge of adventure and to do some good for those in need,” he added.

The oppressed and needy in this case were the natives of Belize. They were injured, the pregnant and the sick from the inland jungles of the former British colony on the eastern coast of Central America.

The mission for McManus was to fly the Wings of Hope’s six-passenger, single-engine Cessna 206 into those jungles and transport the injured and ill to the country’s only hospital, wood-frame barracks in Belize City. He also flew medical supplies and personnel into the jungles and into neighboring Guatemala.

It was strictly a voluntary, no-pay, no-reimbursement job – a one-man, one-plane, around-the-clock operation.

“That may sound a bit overwhelming, but it’s not as big as it sounds. We are talking about a small country, only 200 miles long and 65 miles wide, about the size of three of our counties,” McManus said.

“However, you have to remember we’re talking primitive conditions down there, none of this big-city municipal airport stuff,” he added.

Most of the airstrips where McManus put his Cessna down were just that – strips of hard-packed soil cut out of the jungle trees. Even his home base at San Pedro, on the island of Ambergris Cay, had only an asphalt-and-soil runway.

The 58-year-old lawyer-pilot is used to those conditions, however, which is one of the reasons he was accepted for the job.

“They were looking for a bush pilot, and you could call me that. I’ve put my own planes down on some pretty rugged soil in the backwoods fishing camps of Alaska and in the Caribbean,” McManus said, pointing to various photographs of some of those ventures on his office walls.

He once owned a resort in the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean where he dodged palm trees to land his planes. Even the airstrip outside his rural Oregon office is nothing more than a swath cut out of a cornfield. He calls it the Hoonch-Na-Shee-Kaw Airport which is the Winnebago Indian term for Big Bear Standing Alone.

“I did a lot of seat-of-the-pants, dead-reckoning flying on this mission because of the unpredictable weather. Squalls would pop up at any time when the warm air from the sea blew inland to the mountains. I spent many days hopping from one airstrip to the other sitting there waiting for the weather to clear. We had to fly no matter what – the sick and the wounded don’t wait,” McManus said.

“It was fun,” he added, shrugging and grinning.

McManus’ penchant for flying goes back to his days in the Marines in China from 1945 to 1948. He worked as a courier and was taxied about the Asian continent “by some pretty slick fliers.”

“When I got out and went to college on the GI bill I decided to learn to fly. I almost made that my career rather than the llaw,” he said.

McManus now owns five airplanes. He has logged 5,800 hours of flying time and holds three classes of licenses including multi-engine.

Even his law office has the trappings of his aviation background, right down to the glass-topped coffee table that sits on a 450-horsepower Pratt and Whitney radial airplane engine.

The flying part of his month-long stint wasn’t the only adventure to capture McManus’s interest. The work he was doing and the people he met also provided some new experiences.

“I have a great admiration for the medical people down there. They are working with primitive resources but doing a great job with what they have,” McManus said.

Although most of his flights were normal illness cases, he did have a couple of exciting medical evacuations. One was a man who had been shot in the stomach.

“I don’t know who shot him or how – I didn’t want to ask because it wasn’t my job. All I know is that he was a real problem, kicking and fighting as we loaded him into the plane. I had to stop just before takeoff and strap his legs down,” McManus said.

“I really couldn’t blame him for not wanting to sit still. They has slapped a big bandage and his innards were hanging out,” he asses.

Belize and the rescue flying he did will probably be the closest “Flying Jack” will come to fulfilling his adventurous dreams of being a soldier of fortune.

“Belize City is today’s city of intrigue like Seoul, Tangier and Casablanca were in the past.” McManus said. “It is a very cosmopolitan seaport with many foreigners of varying backgrounds.

“English is the main language, but some speak Spanish and a native Mayan is spoken. That was no problem for me because I know a little Spanish,” McManus said. “Belize City also is very dangerous to the point that you don’t dare go out after dark.”

Will he go back?

“You bet – probably this fall or winter as soon as I can set a month of time aside from my practice. Now that I’m a widower, and my family is grown, I can take the time to do something like this. Call it a service to God and my country,” he said, his eyes twinkling.

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