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Night Flight Over the Amazon

 When I was going to school back in San Angelo, Texas I would have never dreamed that sometime in my future I'd be flying in an old DC-7 loaded with cattle over the Amazon jungle at midnight. It all started in 1973 when the president and acting manager of a Bolivia agriculture cooperative contacted me.

The cooperative wanted to improve their cattle production with superior bovine (cattle) genetics, consequently it was their desire to purchase some good Brahman and Brown Swiss cattle in Texas and fly the cattle to the country of Bolivia. The reason to purchase the cattle in Texas was because of the similarities of the climatic conditions in Texas and the cattle's destination in Bolivia.

The cattle were destined for Monteagudo, a small, outback village, located in the southwestern part of the South American country. The cooperative had a project near the village and they had planned to hold the cattle until the animals recuperated from what turned out to be an extremely hard trip. After the imported animals had recovered from the stress of the trip and the harsh environmental changes, they were to be distributed to the small farmers in the area. The purebred cattle would be crossed with the local cattle; known as Criollas (cattle brought to America by the Spaniards more than 400 years ago).

The Criolla cattle were tougher than hell, but they had to be for the horrendous local conditions. The local breed was very low in fertility, as well as beef production and at their best, the Criolla cow could only produce a couple of liters of milk a day. Juan I. Gonzalez, President of the cooperative, had sent me a telegram asking for my assistance in the selection and shipping of the cattle. At that time I was a registered international cattle consultant with the World Bank and Juan's cooperative had received one of the bank's circulars that listed international contacts in the cattle export business and as fate would have it, the cooperative contacted me.

I agreed to assist the cooperative and about three weeks later Juan arrived in Austin, Texas, where I lived at the time. Before Juan's arrival I had contacted several Brahman and Brown Swiss breeders who were more than eager to show us their cattle, particularly for the higher prices being paid for export animals. I picked up Juan at the Austin airport and Juan, who incidentally spoke some English, had coal black neatly trimmed hair and his skin was a natural amber-reddish in color. Juan was an extremely polite and soft-spoken man in his late thirties. He was about five foot, 5 inches tall, and constantly wore new gold rimmed Ray-Ban sunglasses, that he mentioned was the first thing he bought when he charged planes Miami.

He told me that he was predominately Quechua Indian and that he had been educated at a Jesuit school in Sucre, Bolivia, the colonial capitol of the country. This was Juan's first trip out of Bolivia and needless to say he was very impressed by the more modern and fascinating lifestyle he encountered in the United States. After the Jesuit school, Juan had obtained a master's degree in education, the National University at Sucre and admitted upon his arrival that he knew nothing about ranching or agriculture and was totally depending on my experience for the selection of the cattle.

The import contract was for forty-one yearling (one year old) Brahman heifers, twenty yearling Brown Swiss heifers, two yearling Brown Swiss Bull calves and four Brahman bull calves, from 15 to 18 months old, a total of sixty-seven head of cattle. The import contract stipulated that the cattle were to be purebred or full blood, with pedigreed, as well as registered with their respective associations. Another clause in the contract stipulated that the cattle were required to meet a certain health criteria that were standard policy for all cattle imported by the country of Bolivia.

After visiting about twelve ranches in four days we had selected the cattle, finished our business and Juan departed for Bolivia. I had written special instructions for Juan as to the pre-preparation of the corrals and the area surrounding the corrals, where the Texas cattle would recuperate from their trip. Everything had to be just right in order to lessen the degree of local environmental contamination of the North American animals. The imported animals, not being native Bolivian cattle, were not immune nor did they have any resistance to many of the viruses that would be present in their new home.

The local Bolivian viruses fortunately didn't affect the native cattle. After many years in the area, the local cattle had built up a strong resistance or immunity to such problems as Paraplasmosis, various strains of fever ticks and many other types of parasites, as well as numerous viruses, including several different strains of Leptospirosis, none of which found in Texas. Bolivia also had screw worms and hoof and month disease, but the later was somewhat controlled by a preventive vaccination administered every ninety days.

I had asked Juan to scrape the top 8 to 10 inches of soil from the corral floor, and disinfect, on a daily basis, the complete corral system, including the corral posts, planking, gates, water troughs, loading chutes, buildings and all the cattle working equipment. Juan was to install a good lighting system that would keep the bats away at night and he would quarantine an area of about three acres that surrounded the corrals. A water purification system was installed and all the workers were required to disinfect their boots before entering the area. In addition, the corrals and the nearby surrounding area were fumigated about every three days.

The same cleaning and disinfectant was used on the trucks that transported the cattle from our port of entry in Bolivia, the international airport located at Santa Cruz de la Sierra. As it was my custom, I planned to accompany the animals during the flight to make sure none of the details were accidentally over looked. Although the cattle were insured, I wanted to do everything possible to guarantee the animals arrived in good condition at their final destination.

At about the same time an acquaintance in Austin introduced me to Walter, a German, in his late fifties. Walter, a medium sized man with light graying hair and mustache, said he owned a restaurant near the university and claimed to be a professor at the same university, which could have been the truth. Walter was a very interesting person, but as it turned out, he was an incredible liar. Walter had some time on his hands and asked if he could go along on the flight and I agreed. As a youth, Walter who seemed to have had a few blemishes in his past migrated from Germany to Peru and several years later to the United States. He spoke English, German and good Spanish and although he was full of nonsense, he did make himself extremely useful on more than one occasion during the trip.

Finally the big day arrived and I was very excited. Walter and I left Austin about 10:00 a.m. and we drove to the almost new cattle quarantine facilities, located at the Houston International Airport, which was a little over two hours away from Austin. All the paper work was finished and the cattle appeared to be in good condition. I had hired a 54 foot long, single deck cattle truck to transport the cattle from the quarantine corrals to the loading area, about five minutes away and now all we had to do was wait for the airplane. Just about nightfall we were notified that the plane had arrived and it was parked at the loading area. We hurried over to the loading area because I couldn't wait to see the aircraft, which would transport us, as well as our cargo to South America. As we got within sight of the loading area, all I could see was this huge shinny, silver, four-engine airplane. The young captain, who turned out to be an ex-United States Air Force, Vietnam-war pilot, as well as the co-pilot and the flight engineer were standing by the loading ram. T

he three crewmembers were dressed in white shirts with gold bars on the shoulders, flight caps with gold braid, all very official looking with the proper insignias. Captain John, who was a tall, tanned, muscular build man with dark blond hair and blue eyes must have been in his early thirties. Larry, the co-pilot, was a young man in his early twenties. His father owned the plane and I believe only for that reason, Larry was part of the crew. I don't remember the name of the flight engineer, but I do remember he was about 45 years old, somewhat balding, average size with a large belly and was a retired United States Airforce Sargent. I introduced Walter and myself to the crew and than Captain John, the pilot, invited us aboard for an inspection.

As it turned out, I had contracted, what appeared to be about a 1948 vintage DC-7, prop engine, cargo transport aircraft from an air freight service based in Miami, Florida to transport the animals. After quickly inspecting the interior of the large aircraft, I had the impression that it had been used somewhere in Europe or maybe out in the South Pacific to haul cargo a few years after the Second World War. After the quick inspection, Larry, the co-pilot, who was the airplane owner's son, requested the payment, in full, for the DC-7's character to Bolivia, which his farther and I had previously agreed by telephone. I had the payment ready in my brief case and I counted out $28,000.00 in cash and handed to Larry. Larry gave me a receipt and the entire payment transaction didn't take more than five minutes.

The aluminum cattle corrals had been assembled and there were several layers of thick plastic covering the floor of the aircraft. Everything seemed to be in order and Captain John asked if I had a loading plan. I told him no, but if he would give me his criteria for the weight balance of the aircraft, I'd calculate and equalize the load. He agreed and in about ten minutes we were ready to load the cattle. Captain John, who appeared to be very serious, but somewhat nervous, asked me the total weight of the load and I told him about 56,000 pounds of cattle and another 2,000 pounds or so of farming equipment.

Captain John looked at me with a sort of half silly grin of surprise on his face, than he cleared his throat and said fine. We finished loading the cattle just a little before midnight. While the three-crew members were in the cockpit starting the enormous engines and doing the pre-flight checks, Walter and I, after saying goodbye to the ground crew, loaded our personal luggage, in a very cramped area just behind the cockpit. When the starboard side engines started I could see the release of a big puff of gray smoke, as I looked out the small, 10 inch in diameter porthole style window.

The smoke didn't scare me, but needless to say it was an unexpected surprise. I had assumed that the old, government surplus plane had flown from Miami, Florida to Houston, Texas without any problems, so I had blind faith that we would make it to Santa Cruz, De La Sierra, Bolivia, without any serious misfortune. Unfortunately it never crossed my mind that the old DC-7 had flown from Miami to Houston without cargo and that we would fly from Houston, to Santa Cruz, a distance of about 3,000 air miles, loaded with 56,000 pounds of live cattle and 2,000 pounds of farm equipment.

As it turned out, Walter and I would sit on two small jump seats just behind the wall of the cockpit, in an area that was about 3 foot deep and the width of the fuselage. To the left of our seats was a narrow door that opened into the very crowded cockpit and the entire interior of the aircraft, including the cramped cockpit was painted a cheerful Government Issue faded olive drab color. As we stored our bags, we could hear the loud, moaning whine of an electric motor closing the large cargo door, that finished its slow descend with a heavy thud. Suddenly the aircraft jerked and we started rolling slowly down the taxi lane to the runway. I

t caught my attention that although the cattle had been bawling and restless when we loaded, the animals became very quiet and didn't move a muscle when the plane started taxiing. We finally reached the end of the taxi lane and turned on to the runway. I opened the metal door to the cockpit and to my surprise, Captain John was sitting shirtless and he was wearing a pair of heavy, rawhide leather gloves, that extended half way up his forearms, the type you see in the movies being worn by the old-time locomotive engineers. As Captain John revved up the four huge engines, the other two-crew members checked the lights, gages and other instruments.

There seemed to be a satisfactory mutual agreement between the crewmembers that the pre-flight check was affirmative and the plane began to roll down the runway. In only a few seconds the green and blue colored lights along the side of the runway began to past very rapidly and it seemed that we should have began our lift off, but strangely enough we were still on the ground, building up speed. I looked at Captain John, who appeared to be pulling and struggling with the flight controls and oddly enough kept mumbling, "Come on now, damn you, come on", until at last, in a time span that seemed to last forever, the heavily loaded plane sluggishly became airborne. I looked out the porthole window and I could see the two long lines of twinkling runway lights, near but gradually fading far in the distance and the obscure deep water of the Gulf of Mexico just below us. It could have been my imagination, but at that moment I would have swore the plane was overloaded.

Captain John assured us that everything was normal and under control as the cumbersome plane continued its slow climb upward. He said we would ascend to an elevation of about 10,000 feet, which was our cruising altitude. The plane couldn't cruise at a higher altitude because it wasn't pressurized and it didn't have oxygen. I glanced into the cargo area and the cattle seemed to be relaxed and without discomfort, considering the circumstances. Walter and I had packed a brown bag lunch, so we had a bite to eat and in no time we had dozed off.

Ever so often one of us would wake up, look out the porthole or talk with the crew and than doze off again. Neither of us slept for more than a couple of hours that first night. It was about 9:00 a.m. the next day and Captain John informed us that we would be landing at Barranquilla, Columbia in about an hour's time, where he had planned to refuel the airplane. Again I felt excited, I'd never be in Barranquilla and I was really looking forward to the experience. We had a very smooth landing at the Barranquilla airport. While the DC-7 was being refueled,

Walter and I decided to stretch our legs and we went into the terminal for some breakfast. We finished breakfast and meet Captain John at the terminal entrance where he informed us that we'd takeoff in about another hour. There really wasn't much to see at the old, domed terminal building, just a few primitive looking thatch covered food stands. With nothing more to do, we decided to walk around and talk with some of the local people. The weather was hot and due to Barranquilla being so near the ocean, the humidity was high. The cargo door of the plane had been opened and the cattle were given fresh water. The cattle were calm and the condition of the animals was acceptable considering the very hot and humid weather. Thank goodness, for the sake of the cattle, we'd be leaving Barranquilla in the next thirty minutes.

The take off time at Barranquilla was much shorter than it had been at Houston International. In almost no time we were airborne. The cattle were quiet as we began what we anticipated to be the last leg of our trip, which happened to pass through a section of the Andes Mountains and than the final jaunt over the Amazon jungle. Our scheduled arrival time at Santa Cruz De La Sierra, Bolivia was about 8:00 p.m. I was thinking what a long flight from Texas to Bolivia. It took us about 10 hours to fly from Houston to Barranquilla and it would take another 8 hours flying time from Barranquilla to Santa Cruz, a total of 18 hours. After about four hours flight time out of Barranquilla, it was just late in the afternoon and I was really tired so I decided to close my eyes and take a short nap before we landed.

The loud, but now familiar roaring hum of the engines was almost soothing, consequently it didn't take me long to fall asleep. I guess I'd slept longer than I'd thought and without warning I was all of a sudden woken to the sounds of "May Day, May Day". It was pitch black outside as Larry, the co-pilot continued his May Day, May Day pleads for help. Walter was awake and he quickly filled me in on our situation. It was about 9:00 p.m. and thank god I could see from the tiny porthole window, that it was a bright clear night with a full moon.

The unfortunate thing is that we were somewhere over the Amazon jungle and much to our surprise, the huge DC-7 was very low on fuel. I immediately spoke with Captain John and he said we were heading in the right direction, but he didn't know exactly where we were over the jungle. We're somewhere between here and here, he continued, as he pointed to the aeronautical map. I could see the indicator needles on the round fuel gages almost bouncing off the empty mark and Larry, the co-pilot, who didn't speak a word of Spanish, was still calling out "May Day, May Day". I asked Captain John what were our alternatives and without hesitating he replied "We're looking for a dry river bed, where I can set her down, when the fuel runs out!" He continued by saying it was best for Walter and I to go to the rear of the plane where it would be safer, if and when we crash-landed.

A thousand things were going through my mind at this moment. I went to the cargo area and climbed along the aluminum fences and between the cattle to the rear of the plane where the farm equipment was loaded. It was pitch black, but with the dim light from the flame of my cigarette lighter I could make out the outline of some of the equipment. There was a large red piece of "I" beam steel, that was part of a plow and I decided this would be as safe a place as I could find should we crash. Crash and burn in a large cargo plane loaded with cattle, in a riverbed, located somewhere in the middle of the Amazon jungle at midnight, damn, the frightening thought hit me like a bucket of cold water, as I hurriedly made my way back to the front of the aircraft.

I entered the cabin and Larry; the co-pilot was still calling out May Day. I told Walter to get on horn and speak Spanish to see if someone could understand him. Walter began his plea of "May Day, May Day, Emergencia, Emergencia" and began speaking in Spanish. He asked if anyone could acknowledge our request and continued his plea for help. I could see that the pot-bellied flight engineer was trembling as he studied the map and nervously he finally told Captain John that he thought he had found a dry riverbed. I was really annoyed with the dry river bed nonsense so I tried to explained to Captain John, over the roar of the engines, that if it had rained recently in this area, you couldn't depend on the rivers being dry. I than asked him how he could be sure if the river was dry if he couldn't see it, but he didn't answer.

Everyone was claim but it was a really tense situation and I'm sure I wasn't the only one that was scared to death. Suddenly we could hear a crackling sound over the radio speaker and it sounded as if someone was trying to communicate with us. Soon the static and crackling radio sounds became clearer and at last we could understand that a ham radio operator in the small town of Trinidad, Bolivia was attempting answering us. Walter told the engineer to look for Trinidad on the map and sure enough the engineer found it. Walter explained our situation and asked if there was an airport nearby. The man on the ground replied that yes there was a runway in Trinidad, but it had no lights.

The engineer gave Captain John the map coordinates of Trinidad, which was about 300 degrees on the compass. We all strained our eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the lights of Trinidad, but it was in vain, it was pitch black outside and we couldn't see a thing. We all kept peering into the darkness and after a few moments Captain John saw what he imagined was a flick of dimming light off to the left, in the distant horizon. The radio connection with the ham operator on the ground became much clearer and Walter continued talking, I guess he was afraid he'd lose the connection if he didn't say something.

At the moment of the sighting of what he thought was a light, Captain John brought the plane around and headed straight for that glimmer. In, what seemed to be only a matter of a few seconds we could see the twinkling, god sent lights of the town of Trinidad in the far distance and I suddenly felt a astound sense of relief, like I'm sure everyone else did. It was a very emotional experience, but we all managed to control our feelings, at least until we were safe on the ground. As we neared the town it looked like there were thousands of fireflies, swarming around on the ground, moving in all directions. Captain John warned us that we only had one shot at the landing and I could see why, not only did it seem that one of the engines was stalling, the indicator needles on the fuel gages had stopped bouncing around and were sitting on the empty peg! We passed, in a left-hand banked turn, over the town one time and as we did we saw that the fireflies were actually cars, trucks and motorcycles, with their lights on, heading for what must have been the unlit runway.

The ham operator told us that he had put out an a general alarm and all the town people, who had vehicles with lights, were rushing to light up the landing strip. Captain John had brought the plane around, more or less circling the town and we could see the runway directly in front of us. That courageous and luckily very experienced pilot had lowered the flaps and we were flying low, preparing to land. It all happened in a matter of seconds, but as it turned out, John delicately set the big plane down and made a superb landing on what turned out to be a half-paved runway, with not even the slightest bounce.

However, just as we touched the ground, Captain John, with fear in his voice, suddenly screamed to Larry to go to full flaps, because it looked like he wouldn't have enough space to stop the aircraft. The plane began to slow down but without any warning, we unexpectedly ran out of paved runway. The huge plane, although moving much slower now, kept rolling on the hard packed dirt surface and we could see several cars and motorcycles facing us, blinking their lights on and off, parked at the end of the strip where the deep jungle began. Captain John gently brought the aircraft to a stop and when he did the flight engineer pushed opened a small exit door just below the cockpit and I jumped out.

There was no radio communication at the airport and Captain John wanted to know where to park his flying corral. A short middle aged lady, riding a small, red motorcycle, surprisingly pulled up next to me and motioned, with her hand, for me to get on the back and without a second thought, I jumped on the rear of the bike. I'm a genuine Texan, 6 foot, 4 inches in height, I was carrying my briefcase, wearing Levis, a shiny silver belt buckle, western boots and holding down my western straw hat, with one hand, trying to keep it from blowing away. Now as I stop to think about it, I'm sure that all the people that were there at the airport must have thought I was a very strange sight. The lady driving the motorcycle was trying to talk to me but I couldn't hear a word she was saying because of the blowing dirt and the tremendous roar caused by the DC-7 engines.

The lady drove away from the plane and as she did I asked her if she knew where we could park the aircraft. The lady than stopped the motorcycle and she said in heavy accented English "tell them to follow me". Upon her command I waved with my hand to Captain John to follow us. It was a short distance to the parking area and within a few minutes the plane was parked and the engines were turned off. The weather was warm and I yelled to Captain John to open the cargo door. The door was opened and the engineer dropped an aluminum ladder from the cargo area and I climbed up into the cargo area to check the cattle. All the cattle were calmly standing and they seemed to be good condition.

Meanwhile Captain John, Walter and Larry, the co-pilot, were escorted to the local police headquarters to have the flight plan checked. I found a couple of men who wanted to help and I asked them to water the cattle and than I took off for the police headquarters with the lady on the motorcycle. It was past midnight but the police headquarters was humming with activity. Our landing was the most exciting thing that had happened in Trinidad, Bolivia since the last revolution, which was about four years before. Walter, who was translating for Captain John, was trying to explain to the policeman in charge, who I think was a major, our situation. Unfortunately Captain John could only produce one half of a torn flight plan which didn't seem to be acceptable.

As it turned out the local authorities thought the cattle were stolen. I showed the authorities all of my documentation on the cattle, including the letter from the cooperative and the recorded cattle brands on the health certificates and suddenly everything was in order. I asked Walter to invite everyone who had helped us, including the military officers, for a beer and suddenly everybody was smiling, congratulating us, shaking our hands, hugging us and patting us on the backs. The lady with the motorcycle, who by chance owned a small hotel, took me to her home, showed me the hotel and offered me the use of her motorcycle, she couldn't have been any nicer. I asked her to reserve us a couple of rooms because we'd be back in no more than couple of hours and after she gave me the keys to the rooms I took off for the police headquarters to pickup Captain John. Captain John had just signed the official report and he told me that Walter, Larry and the engineer were already having a beer and celebrating with the people from Trinidad.

During all the commotion I had somehow managed to exchange some US dollars into the local currency, Bolivian pesos, so now we were on our way. Captain John bought two liters of beer; at a sidewalk cantina and with an open liter in each hand he jumped on the back of the motorcycle. We quickly went to the airport to check the aircraft and the cattle. As it turned out, the police major was nice enough to have sent two men to guard the cattle and the airplane; the cattle were relaxed and drinking water, so everything was taken care of. After asking directions and following the light of other motorcycles we arrived at the celebration. The only way to get to the only place open in Trinidad, Bolivia, at one o'clock in the morning was by going through narrow dirt trails, but we didn't have any problems. There probably was an easier and shorter route, but we just followed the crowd.

As we got closer to the party, we could hear the loud music coming from the dance hall or locally known social center, which turned out to be a house of prostitution. The place was full of men, women, and children and of course right in the middle of everything was our crew. We joined our group and after hugs and handshakes of jubilation we took a sit at long wooden table. I think that at that moment we were the five happiest people on earth and it all of a sudden struck me, just how close we had come to crashing and how fortunate we had been not to have gone down in the dense jungle. The local people kept coming by the table to congratulate us and brought us more food than we could ever eat. We were drinking the beer straight out of the dark green liter bottles and really enjoying ourselves.

After about two hours of celebrations, the majority of the people had thanked us and went home. I paid the bill, which to my surprise was less than $200.00 and then John and I rode the bike back to the hotel. Walter and the other guys managed to get a ride back to the hotel with one of the partygoers who had helped us at the airport. The five of us doubled up in the two rooms; Walter and I awoke about 10:00 a.m. the next morning; however John and the flight crew had gotten up earlier and were down at the airport.
Charlie Lacy R. Alajuela

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