Crash of DC-3 in Colombia puts workhorse of the Amazon under scrutiny

Sadelca DC-3 arrives before heading off to Taraira and back

The Douglas DC-3 twin-prop aircraft is the “workhorse of the Colombian Amazon” connecting remote communities with departmental capitals. On Saturday, a tragedy involving one of these aircraft, built during the 1930s, claimed the lives of all 14 onboard after it crashed just 70 kilometers from its destination.

On what was supposed to be a routine flight between San José del Guaviare and Villavicencio, the plane operated by Latin American Air Services Company (Laser),  experienced a left engine failure along the 280 kilometer route, and as it was flying at a low altitude of 10,000 feet, the pilots attempted an emergency landing in a palm plantation, before hitting a dirt track and exploding into flames.

According to Colombia’s Civil Aviation entity –  Aeronáutica Civil – the pilots of the DC-3 reported the engine failure as they were on their approach to Villavicencio’s regional airport, and asked the control tower for help to locate alternative landing strips. The last contact between the crew and control tower indicates the plane was in descent toward a flat open area to lower its wheel carriage; but minutes later, communication was lost.

Workers of the African palm plantation and the inhabitants of the rural town of San Martín arrived at the crash site to help, but no survivors were found in the wreckage. Among the victims who have been identified by Medicina Legal are the mayor of the Amazonian town of Taraira, Doris Lizet Villegas; her daughter Catalina Araque, pilots Jaime Carrillo and Jaime Eduardo Herrera; singer Manuel Tiberio Mejía and passenger Santa Romelia Ibargúen.

The DC-3 revolutionized air travel during the 1930s by connecting cities along the East Coast of the United States with the West, and the first commercial airlines, including TWA and American Airlines, purchased the fixed-wing plane to open up new routes.

A flight from New York to Los Angeles required the DC-3 to stop three times for refueling and lasted 10 hours. The plane was so in demand that by the mid-1940s, of the 300 civilian aircraft in service, 275 were built by the Douglas Aircraft Company (DC). During World War II the plane was adapted for military use with a metal hull wide enough for fully armed paratroopers, wounded troops and crates of medical supplies.

Pilots, both military and civilian, loved the DC-3 describing it as characteristically “smooth” on take-off and landing, cruising comfortably at an average speed of 300 kilometers per hour. When production of the DC-3 ended in 1945 more than 13,000 of them had been built. As commercial air travel was replaced by turbines and planes that could connect continents without having to refuel, many of these iconic machines were sent to parts of the world to introduce air travel and became a lifeline for remote communities.

The DC-3 still flies every day across Colombia, mostly in the Amazon and Orinoco regions, some used only for freight, others still as passenger aircraft. A later version of the plane, the DC-4, is used by the country’s National Police to transport personnel to jungle outposts and is equipped with surveillance technology for detecting coca laboratories.

The crash of Laser’s DC-3 on Saturday is the worst air accident in Colombia since November 28, 2016, when a British-made Avro RJ85 transporting the Brazilian football team Chapecoense crashed into the Cerro Gordo mountain, near La Unión (Antioquia) killing 71 of 77 passengers. The charter flight departed from the Viru Viru international airport in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia) and was headed to Medellín where the team was to contest a final match against locals Atlético Nacional in the Copa Sudamericana league.

With an almost 80-year safety record, during the last 24 in Colombia, 16 DC-3s have crashed: 15 in the Eastern Plains and one in Antioquia. The tragedy that claimed the lives of 14 passengers has now put the DC-3 under scrutiny by Colombia’s civil aviation authorities, and its days of air-worthiness may be numbered.

If the DC-3 is pulled from service in Colombia, the real challenge for thousands who inhabit La Chorrera, La Macarena, Taraira, as well as so many other small towns, is how to stay connected to a country where in their regions there are no roads and most transport is by river.