“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.