The Invisible Pilot review – true-crime documentary leaves a thousand questions unanswered

Scant analysis underpins this wild tale about a cropdusting pilot’s supposed suicide. Its strange celebration of drug smuggling – and lack of consideration of his children – does a disservice to all involved

The lack of ambition in The Invisible Pilot, the latest offering from Sky Documentaries, is apparent from the off. “The truth is stranger than fiction,” one of the witnesses to the story that is about to unfold tells us. “Only in America…” they continue – yet another cliche.

It is a riveting story. Gary Betzner trained in the US Navy’s “Top Gun” programme before setting up his own flying service business and becoming known as a daredevil cropduster. “We had a perfect life,” his wife, Sally, says. Then, after several shocking bereavements in quick succession and a business deal gone sour, in 1977 he jumped off a bridge to his death. He left behind Sally, their two children Travis and Sara Lee, former wife Claudia and their daughter Polly. His body was never found.

Mainly, it turns out, because he didn’t jump. As the now octogenarian Gary explains to us himself, looking relaxed and happy as he recalls a life he at least considers delightfully well lived, he faked his death because he had been using his flying skills to smuggle marijuana (in keeping with his libertarian ideals, you understand) and cocaine (which he needed to relieve his gout, you see, though also “for recreational use”) and was looking at anything up to life imprisonment for being busted. He and Sally decided that he would reestablish himself under a fake ID somewhere and then send for her and the kids. To make her reaction to his jump seem real, they hypno-programmed her so that whenever she heard the sound of a shoe hitting the water, she thought he had genuinely died. Stranger than fiction; only in America.

a Polaroid of Gary Betzner with his family.
‘We had a perfect life’ … a Polaroid of Gary Betzner with his family. Photograph: HBO

Once free of the shackles of his true identity, Gary became a hippy known as Lucas Noel Harmony, following the teachings of the Maharaji and took to smuggling in a much bigger way to, you know, stick it to The Man and “make sure drugs were available to anyone who wanted it” during Reagan’s war on the good stuff. By 1981, “I wouldn’t get up in the morning if I couldn’t make a million.” Libertarian perks are the best perks. By 1983, he’s connected with Pablo Escobar (“He’s a legend and rightly so”) and from there ’tis but a short step to being blackmailed by the CIA into smuggling guns into Nicaragua during time of the Iran-Contra affair.

I know. I don’t know WTF I’ve been doing with my time, either.

So. That’s the story. And it’s a good one. The problem is that it’s not the whole story or even the most interesting story to be told about or around Betzner. I suspect most viewers will have felt some sympathy with Mike Grady, the sheriff in charge of dragging the river for Betzner’s body in 1977. “I don’t approve of what he did. I don’t think he deserves to have a movie made about him,” and the sustained near-celebratory tone of the three-hour-long account feels increasingly odd. Makers Phil Lott and Ari Mark are content to leave it as a tale of derring-do, a kind of Man’s Own adventure story but a thousand questions and alternative accounts are clearly begging to be heard.

If Betzner’s unchallenged version had been kept to the first hour – or even the first half hour – or if the whole thing had been allowed the four- or six-hour run that most true crime documentary series with any pretensions to looking under the hood of the immediate narrative get – we might have heard more from Sara Lee and Travis about the time they spent as children thinking their father had killed himself, before learning of the massive deception perpetrated upon them by both parents. Sara Lee has been married numerous times. Her comment that “The men in my life don’t last long. They die young,” surely warrants a couple of minutes’ unpacking, no?

Then there’s Travis, who over the course of interviews recorded from 2009 to now seems to be coming further apart, emotionally, physically and economically (he seems by the end to be living in a van). Remembering the aftermath of his father’s death he says suddenly, furiously of his mother: “She shouldn’t have let me see her cry.” A world of pain, left wholly unexamined. And what of Sally’s pathology? She recalls most of it with rapturous glee, seemingly without a thought for her children then or now. Her face only really drops when “Lucas” falls for another woman.

The documentary makes use of interviews recorded by Travis’s childhood friend Craig Hodges, who seems to have had a very different intention. It is mostly his footage that concentrates on the damage done rather than the ersatz glamour of Betzner’s drug-running and deception. The rest takes Betzner at his own estimation and does everyone else as much of a disservice as he did.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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