It is one of the most perilous air routes in the world. Colombian pilots fly through storms in decrepit planes over dense forests to deliver food and goods to villagers isolated from the rest of the world.
Jumping off point is Villavicencio, a city in the foothills of the Andean Cordillera. The destination is any one of the number of native Indian villages scattered throughout the jungle, cut off from civilisation. The plane’s arrival in the villages is a major event. It stops here only once or twice a month, its cargo comprising vegetables, beds, dogs, chicken, TV sets.
“It’s dangerous. The slightest problem and the plane will just fall out of the sky!” Captain Raul, DC3 pilot
In Colombia, DC3s operate more like rural buses.
Somewhere over Colombia, high above the Amazonian rainforest near the borders with Brazil, an old DC3 prop plane is caught in a violent tropical storm.
No visibility. Radio silence. Undoubtedly flight 30-37 is in trouble. Captain Raul tries to stabilise the twin-engine plane to bypass the worst of the storm.
But the greatest danger is not the storm or mechanical faults. It’s the jungle 2,000m below: the Amazon. A green hell.
There is no space for emergency landings in the Amazon, an impenetrable jungle twice the size of Texas. That is also the pilot’s greatest fear. Any breakdown means the plane could crash.
Several dozen planes have vanished into the dense jungle, swallowed up by the vegetation.
Either divine intervention or Captain Raul’s skills has successfully steered the plane clear of the storm. The passengers arrive as scheduled at Acaricuara, a small Indian village.
The runway, or what passes off for one, is in view. There is no control tower here. Everything is done the old-fashioned way as it was back in the 1920s and 30s – on intuition, judgement and experience.
The landing zone is slippery and pitted with holes. And it’s also way too short. Pilots need to be able to land virtually where the runway begins.
About 100 people live in Acaricuara. Without the DC3, the village would be completely isolated and getting enough food would become a problem. There are other alternatives like the river, but it is too complicated and would take a much longer time.
“If the plane didn’t come here people starve to death,” says Camargo.
Captain Raul never spends more than 15 minutes on the ground. Just long enough to unload. He wants to steer clear of the crowds of children who get in the way during takeoff, but mainly to avoid having to fly at night.
“Kids don’t realise the danger. They run around playing on the landing strip. I have to take great care when they scatter around the plane,” the captain says.
For the return flight to Villavicencio, the plane will fly over the jungle again but the passengers are not comfortable. Chances of survival are slim if they crash. After the two-hour flight, Villavicencio appears below, at the foothills of the Andean Cordillera.
DC3s like the one flown by Captain Raul are the stuff of legends. There are still about 100 that fly regularly. They were first built more than 70 years ago, and have survived war and old age.
“During the war the flight data wasn’t recorded. It only began when we started taking passengers and freight, when civil aviation began. I think it was updated in 1962, according to this panel,” Captain Raul says.
In truth, Captain Raul doesn’t know his plane’s exact age and there is no date written anywhere. The DC3s are one of the few models capable of dealing with the conditions of flying in the Amazon jungle.
There are 30 still operational in Colombia, with Villavicencio as the world’s capital of these ancient aircrafts. Half the planes are always grounded for repairs.
Jose is one of the mechanics working on the groundfed Flight 1149 plane owned by Sadelca airline, the only plane with two on board mechanics.
Eighteen months earlier, he was on board the same plane when it was forced to make an emergency landing in a rice field 5km from Villavicencio.
“The left engine’s cylinder had a problem. It spluttered and then just stopped. We had cargo and 15 passengers on board. We opened the emergency exit and threw out all the cargo. Then the other engine shut down, the pilot decided to try landing in a [paddy] field,” Jose says.
“We landed OK, but the propellers were destroyed and the undercarriage was ripped off… but we survived!”
Now, the same engine is playing up again.
“In the USA, to fix the pump they take out the entire engine. In Colombia we’re quicker, we fix it right there and then!” Jose says.
Flight 1149’s Captain Fajardo downplays the breakdown, calling it “a routine maintenance and a slight adjustment in the engine”. “Nothing serious,” he says.
But the repairs are taking longer than expected and the passengers are getting uneasy. Five hours later and after much hesitation, the flight is cancelled.
“There’s always a problem! There’s always something wrong. Two weeks ago, there was an accident on a Sadelca plane when the propeller broke,” a couple of female passengers were saying. “People were stranded in the middle of the Amazon for a week!”
Meanwhile, Captain Raul and his co-pilot Maria will not be flying either because of the storm. But no flight means no pay. Company rules.
“If we don’t fly we don’t get any wages. So the more we are airborne the better. We don’t get a penny for just sitting around,” says Captain Raul.
He is paid far less than a regular airline pilot but he still has heavy responsibilities, having to organise the flight and to find passengers.
“Flights are ad-hoc. There’s no real flight schedule with departure times on any given day. We need to get enough cargo or passengers and when it’s full, off we go,” says Captain Raul.
Despite the unpredictable weather, Captain Raul decides to fly. The pouring rain may have penetrated the petrol tanks, something that could cause the engines to shut down in mid-flight.
The pilot and Pablo, the shipping agent, begin haggling over the payload. Pablo tries to lie but Captain Raul is keeping an eye on him. The captain will not fly at all if the plane has more than 1.5 tonnes on board.
“It’s dangerous. The slightest problem and the plane will just fall out of the sky!” says Captain Raul.
“That’s why we have to watch the weight of the cargo, because if something breaks down, we’ll have enough time to keep flying to be able to jettison any superfluous loads, so we can complete the flight”.
With fuel kept to a minimum, each extra kilo counts. Too much fuel and the plane will be too heavy to take off. If too little, it could mean crashing into the Amazon.
Miraflores, their next destination, is located about 1.5 hours from Villavicencio. It is a small town in the middle of the Colombian jungle. The landing strip is its main thoroughfare.
Until recently, Miraflores was notorious for being a drugs capital, under the control of cocaine traffickers and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels.
Back at the Sedelca repair hangar in Villavicencio, the mechanics have fixed Flight 1149. But it will be tricky to fix the engine back onto the wing and make sure it runs smoothly.
Captain Fajardo will take the plane up for a test flight. He’s been flying DC3s for seven years and knows the plane well. He was the one who crash landed in the rice field 18 months earlier. He meticulously checks everything before takeoff.
Everyone focusses on the port engine. Suddenly the starboard engine stops, then restarts. There is a slight panic inside the plane but it can fly perfectly well even with just a single engine. The pilot decides to land quickly.
“I’m just checking [the] fuel pressure. It’s OK. A bit low but we can fix that,” says Captain Fajardo.
And the DC3 is soon airborne again.
In Villavicencio, Captain Raul and his crew are carefully preparing their next flight. The storm has finally ended. But the pilot is uneasy. He will have to land on one of the most dangerous landing strips in Colombia. And it is his first time.
“Everything has to be worked out, approach speed, the precise place where the wheels must touch down.” “[If something goes wrong], we’ll crash or spin off the runway… next to which is a ravine!” Captain Raul explains.
The ravine at the end of the runway is 80 metres deep. And the plane will have on board 1,800 litres of highly-combustible fuel. One short circuit, one spark, a violent bump could blow everything up.
“It’s always nerve-wracking, especially the landings. When I see we’re running out of airstrip and the brakes are on full and we start to slide left and right,” says Maria. “It just keeps going, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
But at least for the foreseeable future, Colombia’s ancient fleet of DC3s is likely to keep flying for some time to come.