"A hero is a man who does what he can."
(Romain Rolland, French writer)
A while ago, I came across this 25-minute report from Al Jazeera on "The daredevil pilots of Colombia". Sitting through it, it felt like I was watching a combination of "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" and "The Flying Doctors".
According to Wikipedia, "production of civil DC-3's ceased in 1942". We are now exactly seventy years later, yet in Colombia's Villavicencio's airport, there are some thirty of these workhorses from the Douglas factories still in commercial use, to transport passengers and bring necessary supplies from this city to the isolated towns and villages in the vast Amazonion hinterland of Colombia.
As seems to be generally acknowledged, the DC-3 is the airplane par excellence to serve such remote regions where storms, mountains and the ever present Amazonion jungle form just as many perils. It is kind of odd that in our modern, high-tech world, virtually none of the existing Boeing or Airbus jets would be able to land on airstrips that are mostly made up of not much more than grass or earth pitted with holes. Pilots, trying to bring their machines on the ground, have to make sure they hit the "runway" at the very beginning for fear of running, like in the case of Miraflores, into a ravine at the end of it if they can't bring the plane to a timely stop. No automatic pilot to do the job for them, no control tower to guide them: the planes are landed purely on sight.
The images you get to see in this report are sometimes of an other-worldly dimension, when you live in highly organised, highly regulated Europe. How about a bunch of kids running along (some even right under the wing) of the plane preparing to take off ? Or how about the engine repair shop at Villavicencio's airport, where a mechanic, when there's a power outage, continues working on a broken engine by the light of ... his mobile phone ! Or the flight where the cargo haul door is taken off, because the plane is transporting highly combustible barrels of fuel and they want to avoid gasses building up inside the plane ... There's quite a number of the most unusual sights bundled into this highly entertaining report.
Still, it wasn't so much the "funnies" that struck a chord with me as it was the people the filmmakers follow.
Captain Raul and his co-pilot Maria put their lives in the scales every single day they fly these machines that have more than reached museum retirement age, but for some reason can't be taken out of commercial use yet. Any day they stay on the ground, they don't receive wages, so for them being airborne as much as possible is a must. Yet, at no time one gets the impression that for them it's only about the money. I suspect a high sense of duty in these pilots, knowing that there's people out there who totally rely on their willingness, their sense of responsability and their flying skills for their livelihood.
There's only one certainty the pilots have: if anything goes wrong, the emerald but perilous Amazonion jungle below won't let them get away alive. The green hell is scattered with pieces of planes that lost that battle to reach their destination. But captain Raul checks the cargo that is being loaded to make sure it doesn't exceed the maximum weight, he checks the fuel to make sure that it will be just enough to reach the destination and then climbs into the cockpit with Maria and an on-board mechanic and they set out to do, day after day, what is making a difference in other people's lives: flying their beloved DC-3's to the towns and villages that need them.
Were this the outback in Australia or some remote area in Africa, these men and women would most likely be wearing khaki shirts with rolled up sleeves, shorts, hat maybe ... but not the Colombian pilots from Villavicencio's airport. Dressed in impeccable white short-sleeved pilot shirts and blue pants, they display the pride they take in what they are doing by flying these almost decrepit machines.
If something goes wrong, tomorrow these people may be gone, swallowed by the jungle to never be found again. Yet I, after seeing this report, truly hope they can continue to do what they are so skilled at until they will safely have reached their retirement age. Until that time comes, I wish all of these pilots a good flight and a safe return !
Roger and out !
(pictures are screenshots taken from the Al-Jazeera report)