I’m skimming over the jungle in an old DC-3 ‘Dakota’, standing behind the pilots in the cockpit (there were no seats left in the cargo hold). This is no ordinary plane ride. I’m in a rattling, roaring slice of history, crossing the green ocean of forest that stretches down Colombia’s eastern shoulder.
A thought strikes me. How come I can fly in a plane made 70 years ago, but a car or bus from the same vintage is more likely in a museum? This could even be the same DC-3 that once carried Gabriel García Márquez on his first flight from Barranquilla to Bogotá in 1946. What stories could this steel bird tell?
And this silver Dakota is no antique. HK 3923 – as it was once registered – still plies the skies lifting off from Villavicencio in Meta, to dirt airstrips all over the east of Colombia, carrying passengers, cargo, fuel, even cattle to remote corners of a country cut off by thousands of kilometers of jungle.
Immediately after boarding – up a ladder and into the rear cargo hatch – things get off to a good start. The captain invites me to the cockpit and shows me some fishing rods wedged behind pipes and a photo album filled with pictures, including one of a slippery peacock bass he fished in a remote river. If planes had bumper-stickers this one would read Live to Fly to Fish.
There are no seats left in the back, so for take-off I’m invited to sit on the fish bucket in the cockpit. I can’t imag- ine this happening on Avianca or even Viva Colombia. We taxi off down the runway to the pulsating roar of the two radial engines, and lumber off into the air without much preamble: no irritating announcements, no seatbelt signs (in my case no seat), no pretending that wearing a lifejacket or taking off high- heeled shoes might actually save you, no admonishments to ‘turn off electronic equipment’ the pilot yakking on his iPhone as we taxi to take-off) and certainly no pasta-or-chicken menu choice, shiny bashing drinks trolley, or indeed any type of in-flight service (although there is a tin toilet in the tail section). And of course, no one at the gate confiscates your nail-clippers or tips out that 12-year-old Scotch you accidently stuck in your hand luggage. This is just get on the plane and fly!
Actually, seeing the passengers crammed in the cargo hold, in original canvas seats, with tons of cargo piled to the roof, I figure I have a better deal (and a better view) in the cockpit.
The pilots are very relaxed flying over an endless jungle in a plane well-past its “best flown by” date. There is also a grizzled mechanic with a bag of spanners who wanders around the plane tweaking things, and occasionally tapping the pressure gauges on the pipes behind my head. This old plane is like a living, breathing entity and needs regular check-ups. I half expect the mechanic to pull out a stethoscope.
The Douglas DC-3 first flew in 1935. Over 16,000 were built, and amazingly around 2,000 are still flying today. Ironically these rugged aircraft were initially designed as luxury airliners, but quickly evolved into the wartime workhorses carrying cargo and troops as the C-47 Skytrain. These are the only pre-WWII planes still operational, although very few are being used for scheduled pas- senger flights, as in the case of Air Colombia.
While highly functional, the DC-3 is a design classic. In fact, it is the archetypal airplane, and has 114 movie credits including numerous war jaunts (Air America, The Wild Geese, Dirty Dozen), every Indiana Jones movie, several James Bond films and (in its luxury airliner mode), La Dolce Vita.
HK 3923 was made in Longbeach California in 1943, and went into service with the RAF in the United Kingdom until 1949. It took part in the Berlin Airlift of 1948 then went back to the U.S., for Northwest Airlines, then on to France in 1950’s with the Canadian Air Force (RCAF). A decade later HK 3923 returned to Germany (still flying with the Canadians) and eventually went to the ‘Great White North’ in the 1970’s as a commercial plane. Sometime in the 1980s, the ‘Dakota’ ended up in Florida and in 1984 touched down in Colombia.
Today HK 3923 is in very original form, from the Pratt and Whitney engines, to the cockpit layout and instruments. The only additions I can see are a very small weather radar and a hand- held GPS stuck to the dashboard.
I’m watching a shower of little green blips of on the radar screen, and sure enough the rain-laden clouds are right ahead. We descend beneath them and closer to the green treetops which stretch to the four corners of the horizon. The granite mounds of the Mavicure rise out of the clouds to the west of us. They mark the spot where the Inirida River meanders past these ancient towers of stone. Soon we cross between the watersheds of the two of the world’s mightiest rivers, the Orinoco and the Amazon, as the Rio Negro forms like a lazy black snake in the forest below.
These are the upper reaches of one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, here forming the border between Colombia and Venezuela; and soon meandering into the dense jungle of Brazil. The tinted black water – like overdrawn tea – comes from the tannins and phenols released from the leaves that fall into the myriad streams and inlets. Startling bursts of white sand glint on the edges of the rivers, and occasionally form islets in the stream itself. These are the ancient quartz sands of the Guiana Shield, the northeast corner of South America that once joined with Africa, before the great continental shifts.
The Rio Negro guides us south to the remote frontier settlement of San Felipe below, and the plane makes a lazy arc over the Venezuelan side of the river trying to line up with the dirt airstrip. There is a moment of confusion between the pilots as they try to figure out the best approach (all flying by sight), and the mechanic enters the cockpit and points some directions (he can’t fly but he’s landed here many times before). Then slowly and gently we’re down, with barely a jolt as the large steel wings and sturdy undercarriage cushion us down onto the muddy strip.
The weekly arrival of the DC-3 is a highlight for the San Felipe community and it appears the whole village is here to meet us. The rear doors swing open and a tractor comes to remove the cargo, including, I notice, a large bunch of bananas.
Could it be that we were really carrying bananas into the jungle? This must be the Colombian equivalent of “taking coals to Newcastle.” An hour later we’re back in the air.
In the comfort of my Bogotá home, I often hear the faint drone of the ‘Dakota.’ As the few DC-3s flying are difficult to maintain, I am told that they are being phased out. But no one really knows. For now, I feel privileged to have felt the pulse of history, in such a beautiful corner of Colombia, and under the spell of these magnificent flying machines.
About the author: Stephen Hide is an English writer based in Bogotá. You can read more of his Colombian adventures at www.travelswithmitzi.blogspot.com