The Mules of the Amazon


In the hangar of the small airline Aliansa mechanics are busy working on a routine maintenance job for a 77 years old airplane a Douglas DC3. Nearly 11,000 of these airplanes were built between 1934 and 1945 in the US; its speed and range revolutionized commercial air travel in the 1930 and 40ties. It also played a major role in WWII as a transport aircraft for the allied forces and for its enemies, license build version by Japanese plane makers Nakajima and Showa flew against the Allies during the conflict. During the cold war they were used for the west Berlin airlift of 1949. DC3’s first arrived in Colombia in the 1950ties with the airline Avianca one of the oldest in the continent. The most recent DC3 arrived in Villavicencio Vanguardia airport in 2012. Build in 1944, in 1946 the plane leaves the US airforce and is put to use in Canada where it flew until 1993. From Canada it ended its work life in an aviation museum in New York until it was bought by a Colombian Jungle airline. It flew from the Museum in New York via Titusville, Miami, Kingston to Cartagena and Villavicencio. The plane is at present being readied for flying. Today 10 to 15 of these aircrafts still operate in the eastern planes and jungles, an area where there are no roads or trains where the only alternative mode of travel to flying is by river, which is slow, expensive and rather insecure due to the ongoing Colombian armed conflict. Here above the seemingly endless plains and jungles the DC3 has found its niche. The main advantage of the DC3 according to the pilots is its ability to land at speeds as low as 120Kmh loaded with 2.8 tons of cargo and passengers, this makes it the ideal plane for the small villages and towns with unpaved short landing strips scatter in the eastern planes and jungles. People call it the Mule, the Bus or the tractor of the Jungle; virtually everything is transported in it from people to cattle to small cars. 51 one year old captain John Acero describes the DC3: “The plane is docile when I fly my arms become an extension of the wings, it is responsive to my thoughts, it is very smooth especially at the very low speeds we have when we land on unpaved strips. I talk to the plane when the weather is bad, I try to calm him to get him to talk and respond.” DC3 pilots like John Acero and the co-pilots perform many tasks that go beyond the strict job of flying the plane. They have to be present to check that the freight agencies do not cheat with the weight, they tank the plane themselves and drain it from accumulated water, they do the flight plan and check the weather. DC3’s do have a radar and GPS but they do not have an autopilot, the visual recognition of land feature plays an integral part in the navigation of the aircraft. Weather is very unpredictable in the region. Additionally to the satellite imagery that are used to read the weather and make decision the pilots call the destination airport to check for the weather conditions there with locals that have been trained to read the weather.

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