‘The Invisible Pilot’ Review: The Whizbang Real-Life Story About a Crop Duster turned Drug Smuggler

Some jobs do not prepare you for much of anything else. Work as a barista and you will know how to make a great latte, perhaps with that cute little leaf in the foam, but that is it. Other jobs provide more marketable skills. The buzzy new three-episode HBO documentary series “The Invisible Pilot,” for example, reveals that being a crop duster was excellent training for anybody looking to set up shop as a drug smuggler. The skill sets are roughly the same—flying heavy loads, often in bad weather, low to the ground, and landing on rough ground—only, when the cargo is illegal drugs, the pay is quite a bit better.

The man at the center of “The Invisible Pilot”’s fast-paced, tangent-laced, conspiratorial, and surprise-filled narrative is Gary Betzner. Raised in a troubled household, Betzner rebelled as a child before joining the Navy and learning to fly, supposedly becoming one of the best pilots in the Top Gun program. Back in the States, he put that training to work as a crop duster in Arkansas in the 1970s while raising a family in the small, straitlaced town of Hazen. It was grueling and dangerous work, and Betzner used it to fuel his need for excitement with daredevil tricks and near-death escapes (walking away from eleven crashes by one estimation).

But while the family members who speak in the documentary universally describe Betzner as an exciting thrill-a-minute guy to be around (“he was Disneyland dad,” according to one daughter), he also had a restless, frantic, and damaged side. “He’s got about seven personalities,” notes Sally Betzner, one of his several wives and a cheerfully exasperated but definitely still in love interviewee. “Two or three of them are great.” Unfortunately for his family, not all the personalities were excellent at family life or running a legitimate business.

Directors Phil Lott and Ari Mark focus on a couple of those personalities. Betzner comes across primarily as a cheerful outlaw. A fast-talking schmoozer who seemed to know just how to lay on the Southern charm, he could seemingly drop in to just about any environment and make do. This was particularly true whenever he had the opportunity to use a plane to smuggle drugs and make millions of dollars doing so. The initial portrait of him in the documentary is that of a fun-loving good ol’ boy known for buzzing field workers with his crop-dusting plane and dropping cold beers on them. But it then shows him transitioning with relative ease to long-haired hippie who may or may not have joined a cult and passionately believed that marijuana and cocaine were gifts to humanity that should be legal, making his smuggling operation more of a Robin Hood scheme.

Somewhere between those personalities was the man who supposedly committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Arkansas while his daughter waited in the car. This moment is one of the key elements of the first episode, which hops with almost frantic speed between its interviewees. The episode spirals back to the bridge scene multiple times as more questions are raised about the true extent of what is referred to as the Betzner family’s “double life.” The cross-cutting effectively builds momentum. But at times it can feel overly frantic, serving more as a trailer for itself than the beginning of a story, and a kind of sleight of hand for artificially generating suspense (possibly to get around the one dramatic secret revealed in that first episode, which we will not spoil here but is easily discoverable in news sources).

Though much of the footage in “The Invisible Pilot” seems newly filmed by Lott and Mark, they also rely on interviews shot by a filmmaker friend of Betzner’s son, Travis, who appears particularly traumatized by the secrecy, drama, and lies that characterized his upbringing. The directors draw on that filmed history in gripping montages that show the same people telling essentially the same stories word for word at different years in their lives, underlining the resonant power of mythmaking and how it infuses so much of the discussion of a larger-than-life character like Betzner.

Even when the second and third episodes start delving into Betzner’s role in highlighting possible secret government shenanigans that paired drug smuggling with gun-running, “The Invisible Pilot” is appreciative enough of the collateral damage he inflicted on his family to avoid painting him as any kind of countercultural hero. But the series is also understandably taken in by his zest for life and love of adventure to fairly portray him as something more than a villain. [B]