For Colombians who live in isolated jungle villages, flying often involves climbing aboard an American aircraft that made its mark way back in World War II: the twin-engine Douglas DC-3. There aren’t many of these vintage models still in use, but Colombia has its share.
Capt. John Acero and his co-pilot run through the pre-takeoff checklist in the cockpit of one of these DC-3s. This particular one was built in 1944 — and it shows. The compass is held in place with bungee cords; there's no autopilot; and if we go down, the survival kit includes a flare gun and a machete.
Fortunately, our flight, departing from the southern Colombian town of San Jose del Guaviare, is smooth. Soon, we touch down in the jungle hamlet of Miraflores, a former cocaine boomtown that was once controlled by Marxist guerrillas.
As we exit the DC-3, its virtues become clear. The dirt airstrip at Miraflores is too short and bumpy for commercial aircraft, but the DC-3 has sturdy landing gear and balloon tires. And its slow speed allows it to put down on runways as short as 600 yards.
Capt. Acero has been flying DC-3s for 27 years, with only a few mishaps. Once the tail of his plane was hit by rebel gunfire, but he managed to bring her in safely.
"These are all-terrain airplanes, the tractors of the skies," Acero tells me. "It doesn't matter if the runway is full of mud or water. This plane is very trustworthy and maneuverable."
In the 1930s and ’40s, the Douglas Aircraft Company built about 16,000 DC-3s. Back then, their speed and range helped reduce the time of coast-to-coast air travel. They transported troops during World War II and supplies during the 1949 Berlin Airlift. Since then, most of the planes have been mothballed. But about a dozen DC-3s provide a lifeline for Miraflores and other remote Colombian villages.
Out here, there are few roads, and in the dry season, rivers are often un-navigable. So, the DC-3 is the only practical way in and out. They haul people, groceries, livestock, even small vehicles. On this flight, our DC-3 is delivering 1,000 gallons of helicopter fuel to the Colombian Army in Miraflores.
As troops transfer the gas to a storage tank, passengers for the return flight rest in the shade under the wings. One of them is Francisco Nieto, a Catholic bishop, who says this vintage aircraft makes people in forgotten outposts like Miraflores feel more connected to modern Colombia.
"These airplanes don't just deliver food and supplies. More than anything, they deliver hope," he says.
While the plane can carry 20 passengers, today, there are only 10. There are no frills here, such as seat-back trays or toilets. Seatbelts are optional. And with no barrier between the pilots and passengers, some wander up to the cockpit for a look.
After we land, mechanics spot brake fluid leaking from the DC-3's left wheel, so they replace a faulty seal. These specialists are a big reason these 70-year-old birds are still flying.
But there are only a few mechanics left in Colombia familiar with the aircraft, and spare parts are getting harder to find. Once the last DC-3 is grounded here, Capt. Acero predicts hard times for places like Miraflores.
"The day they stop flying, it will mean hunger and poverty for these people because no other plane will fly in here," Acero says. "Nothing can replace the DC-3."
Here's a video from the cockpit of a DC-3.