Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Aging DC-3s serve as ‘buses of the jungle’ in Colombia

The Washington Post's Juan Forero reports on how a nearly 70-year-old airplane and its captain, Ricardo Fajardo, is the lifeline of a small town in Colombia.

The twin-engine prop planes carry passengers and supplies across the vast forests and sparsely populated areas in a region the size of France.

By Juan Forero

CARURU, Colombia — Quite suddenly, the endless green of Amazonian forest opened up, a river appeared portside and Flight 1149 softly banked along the water.

And in the distance, a narrow strip became visible just past the treeline — a dirt runway, all ruts and holes. But that’s all there is to this Amazonian jungle outpost of 800 souls, and few pilots have landed here more times than Capt. Ricardo Fajardo.

“We’re here!” the captain said, as the Sadelca Airlines’s twin engine prop, a DC-3 built during World War II, hopped along the runway and came to a stop.

Out here in the Colombian outback – a roadless land dotted with nearly forgotten hamlets, straggling bands of Marxist guerrillas and grizzled soldiers of fortune searching for El Dorado – the only link to civilization is the DC-3 and Capt. Fajardo.

“There’s nothing out here,” said Fajardo, a pilot for 44 of his 63 years, as he lifted himself from his seat. “This airplane is everything here, everything.”

This region bordering Brazil and Venezuela, 10 states where the Andean foothills sweep into flat plains that turn into jungle, is the size of France. But only 5 percent of Colombia’s 46 million people live here, and the most isolated make their homes in villages carved out of the forest.

Those people-farmers, Indians who have migrated to villages, miners, store owners, even troops running down rebels — face arduous days on a river boat to get to a town of any size. Out here, the only fast, viable way to travel and move cargo is aboard the DC-3s operated by airlines with names like Air Colombia, Andean Airlines, the Airline of the Plains or Sadelca.

“There’s no other way,” said Wilson Hernandez, a government technician who took Flight 1149 into the interior to oversee a construction project. “You can go by water, but that can take weeks.”

Colombia, with rugged Andean peaks and narrow and poorly maintained roads, long ago spawned pioneering air travel.

The national airline, Avianca, is the world’s second-oldest, founded in 1919. And these days, modern jets offer regular service to provincial capitals – just not here in the Amazon, a region whose dirt landing strips seem tailor-made for the durable DC-3.

“Here they call them the buses of the jungle, or the tractors of the jungle, because we fly over everything that is jungle,” said Carlos Martinez, one of the owners of Sadelca. “These planes are 60 years old and, as you can see, they are intact. We find the parts and the pilots. And they can land on any strip, paved or not paved.”

Indeed, Hans Wiesman, a Dutchman who has researched DC-3s for a book and documentary film, said Colombia probably has the biggest fleet of flying DC-3s. He attributes that, in part, to the mechanics at the airport in this region’s only city, Villavicencio, who have made a fine art of overhauling DC-3 engines. “I was totally flabbergasted to see how they worked on those engines out there,” he said. “They repair to new again.”

A 1935 introduction

Introduced in 1935 by the Douglas Aircraft Co., the DC-3 revolutionized air travel, offering 14-berth sleeper transports that allowed passengers to fly from New York to Los Angeles. In World War II, they transported allied troops to Normandy and operated in the heat and sandstorms of North Africa and the frigid Arctic Circle.

That history was not lost on the passengers of Flight 1149 as it began a milk run — like most of the other flights in the region, on an ad hoc schedule — over the plains and into the jungle loaded with boxes of newly hatched chicks, big jugs of gasoline, a 32-inch LG television, boxes of flowers and a refrigerator.

“Yes, this is a plane from World War II, in fact one of the oldest that exists,” said Carlos Diaz, 42, moments after getting off at Caruru, where he serves the village government. “But it is one of the surest planes around. That has been proven around here.”

Still, an aircraft built in 1943 has its quirks, which means Jhon Rujana, mechanic, goes on every flight.

When the plane stops at some forlorn village, Rujana peers into the engine cowlings and looks for oil leaks, wrench in hand. When Flight 1149 is in the air, he stands between Capt. Fajardo and the co-pilot, flipping switches and pulling the yellow lever that lowers the flaps and the red handle that puts down the landing gear.

“You have to make sure the landing gear is down, that the flaps, the lights and pumps are working,” Rujana said after the flight stopped in the hamlet of Mitu, notorious here for having once been overrun by rebels.

At many of Colombia’s provincial airports, decaying hulks of DC-3s that crashed lie covered in weeds, a reminder of the pitfalls of faulty maintenance.

Capt. Fajardo said he also uses his own intuition to detect problems.

“The DC-3 is a very noble plane,” he explained. “But it is an old plane.”

So he said that he has to be aware of vibrations in the engines, or any noise that sounds out of the ordinary.

A few years ago, the engines began to go as Flight 1149 approached a runway. The captain of that flight – it was not Fajardo – determined the plane would not make it and opted to belly-flop in a rice paddy.

The plane, though, was repaired – it always is – and Capt. Fajardo flew it out.

Simplicity and reliability

In an era of Boeing Dreamliners, Airbus A380s and aviation breakthroughs, the DC-3 gets praise from Capt. Fajardo and his co-pilot, Victor Valencia, for its simplicity and reliability.

“I tell you, they haven’t been able to replace this plane and its performance,” Fajardo said. “There may be superior planes, but at what cost?”

Valencia calls piloting a DC-3 “another type of flying – real flying.”

Though the DC-3 has radar and GPS, Valencia said, there is no automatic pilot. Valencia and Fajardo keep track of where they are by noting the curve of a river or the thatched roofs of an Indian village they have flown over countless times.

Such landmarks are easy to spot from a plane that travels at less than 130 mph and rarely higher than 8,000 feet.

Fajardo, though, acknowledged that the end may be near as the costs to keep DC-3s flying rise and runways in the outback get paved, making it possible for jets to land. Colombia may have more DC-3s hauling passengers and cargo than any other country, he said, but at most there are fewer than 10 serviceable planes left.

In the meantime, Fajardo said he will continue piloting Flight 1149, sure that he will reach his destination.

“The day you get nervous is the day you have to retire,” he said. “Imagine getting nervous!”


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