Today is Part Five of seven in the series on Panagra.If you missed Part Four Click HERE.
When I signed my contract with Pan American-Grace Airways (Panagra) on December 28, 1943, the airline had already been in existence for 15 years; having begun operation in September of 1928. The Panagra route structure covered the countries of Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Brazil was also served at the border town of Corumba. The airline had recently expanded, mainly because of the war, thus creating a need for many new pilots, of which I was one.
After hiring, a co-pilot’s first assignment upon arrival in Lima, Peru was a two week ground school session and then 10 hours of instrument qualification, in the Link Trainer. I was in Lima over a month before I made my first actual airline flight as a crew member. The ground school was a review of aviation subjects, with heavy emphasis on Navigation and Meteorology, (both, as they pertained to flying in Latin America). We also studied the DC-2 with the twin 700 hp engines and the DC-3 with 2 Wright 1000 hp engines and the DC-3A powered by 2 – 1200 hp P & W engines. The work covered weight and balance and we were given a quick course in Spanish. Most of our passengers were Latin and only spoke Spanish. At some of our smaller stations our own employees weren’t conversant in English. We all learned some aviation Spanish in a hurry as we needed to pass the test to establish our seniority date which was the date of our first scheduled flight. It’s true that most North Americans are lazy in languages but there was an incentive for us to learn, and learn we did.
At that time Panagra used no radio voice communications. We relied on our radio-operators, who used CW-Morse Code. Code was used to obtain clearances, weather information and to send position reports. Most of the old time Captains were very familiar with CW. We new co-pilots were required to send and receive 12 words per minute prior to check out as Captain.
My class had the following new pilots: Close, Hefley, Smith, Haines, Works, Wolff, Rinne and Diedrich. Management seemed pleased with our group. All eight of us had been flight instructors recently released from military flight schools by the Manpower Commission.
Panagra was divided into sections or runs. The north run was between Lima, Peru and Balboa, Canal Zone; it was usually flown by very senior Captains. The south run covered Lima south to Santiago, Chile; then across the Andes and Great Pampas of Argentina to Buenos Aires. The Jungle run operated from Lima, which was the hub or headquarters of the airline, through Bolivia into Brazil. The Jungle run exposed aircraft and crew to every imaginable type of flying. We flew the DC-3A into a dirt runway at LaPaz, Bolivia, which is over 13,000 feet above sea level; cruised at altitudes up to 20,000 feet and into sand strips only 3000 feet in length. Many of these short strips had holes and hills caused by the work of ever present ants, who constantly changed the condition of the surface by a military assembly line method of dedication to their work.
Seven of these short fields were serviced, all located in the South Amazon region actually known as the Oriente Province of Bolivia. Additionally, we flew the Diagonal run, which was down the center of the Andes, making stops at La Paz (13,400 ft. above sea level); Oruro (12,000 ft. above sea level); Uyuni (11,000 ft above sea level), all in Bolivia. This route then descended into the Humahuaca Canyon and proceeded to Buenos Aires, across northern Argentina, with stops at Salta, Tucuman and Cordoba. Panagra also operated a local Ecuadorian run.
Crews were strategically based around South America. Captains and Radio Operators were based in Lima, Quito, Santiago and Buenos Aires. Most Co-pilots were kept in Lima and temporarily assigned to runs and/or bases. Co-pilots needed to be at the main base to take advantage of the training facilities located at the Limatambo Airport complex. The turn over rate among new pilots was high . One either advanced to Captain within two years or was dismissed. I recall that during one week of training in 1944, 10 pilots came up for advancement to Class B co-pilot and 8 of them were terminated on the spot and sent back to the States. This is sure evidence that the wash-out rate was high.
Panagra’s training system was quite unique and strict discipline was demanded. Flying conditions were tough and the safety record bears out the result of the high qualification demands on all employees, both ground and flight crews alike. Most of the supervisory pilots had flown “The Hump” in China and they demanded excellence in every phase of one’s work.
In the advancement process, a system of co-pilot classification was used. After initial training, one began as a “C” copilot. This meant that you were qualified to serve as a crew member on scheduled flights. You were only given take-offs and landings under the most ideal conditions, if the pilot in command so desired. It further meant that you flew freight trips, usually with younger crews, and had to be available for any type of flight, under any conditions, at any time.
Days in town, off a regular assignment, were spent at the training facility; riding training flights as a safety pilot or just hanging around. This “hanger flying” gave one the opportunity to soak up a lot of aviation knowledge. In that period, 1944-45, Panagra still had one Fairchild FC 2 monoplane (P2) and a Stinson High Wing. Both were used for training as was a DC-2 and usually a DC-3 was available from the maintenance pool. We flew all of these whenever we could. That same Fairchild (P2), that I flew, was later shipped to Washington, D.C. and is exhibited in the Aviation section of the Smithsonian Institute.
Within 6 months, I had received sufficient training, ground, link, and flight, to take the advancement test to class “B”. A “B” co-pilot was graded by every Captain involved and usually flew with senior people who gave landings & take-offs on the line. It was really on-line training and if you did well, a senior or check Captain, might give you left-seat time. This chance to fly from the left-seat was a big help as your next step was the examination for Class “A”. I had many opportunities to fly ‘command‘. This allowed me to log 100 percent time, which was a big boost in my pilot’s career. This was especially good practice when I was flying our Jungle run. We made 10 stops per day at airports that were high; some were short fields (grass, sand or mud) and many low instrument approaches. The instrument flying was usually in a driving rain storm. ADF or Aural-Null approach procedures were used to a 400 ft. minimum. One usually lined up with the runway but on occasions it was necessary to “Go-Around’ and make another approach. The radio stations were weak. It meant dead-reckoning until you were close enough for the receiver to pick up the signal given by the station in use. Captain Frank Havelick, Asst. Chief Pilot for training, gave me my class “A” flight examination, which I passed on February 25, 1945. It was a big hurdle.
November 22, 1945, is the bench mark of an important year. This was when I passed my CAA Rating flight examination. It was really a commercial license with a multi-engine rating, instrument and instructor ratings. It served as a limited ATR (Airline Transport Rating) and I could now haul freight, instruct for the airline, and make test and ferry flights.
The entire year of 1945 was spent studying advanced meteorology and navigation (dead reckoning and celestial). That was a piece of cake for me as I had taught navigation while on the staff at Purdue University in 1942/43. We had a lesson assigned each week, the class room lecture was repeated 3 times and you were scheduled to be in town so you could attend one of each weeks lectures. A profession in aviation means a life of study and many sacrifices for the individual and his family. Life becomes a constant reviewing of current material, updating procedures and fine tuning your flying technique. Of the many aviation schools, that I have attended between 1940 and 1981, it is my firm conclusion that Panagra had the best. To be a Panagra Pilot was an honor, and you had to continually earn and re-earn your wings.
I need to add here that the Instrument Training Department of Panagra was headed by Captain “Dinty” Moore, a legendary pilot, among that most exclusive list of Pioneers. “Dinty” was a former Navy Pilot and, as such, was a crew member on the NC 4, which was a Curtis Flying Boat. They made the first Trans-Atlantic flight in May, 1919 ; leaving Newfoundland on May 8, and landing twice for fuel at the Azores and Portugal, finally arriving in England. This first Atlantic crossing by an aircraft was a formidable achievement. They covered over 3900 miles, at an average speed of just under 80 mph . The Navy had scheduled 3 aircraft to make the crossing but the other 2 crashed in the attempt.
When it came to the Instrument Training Department, you always knew who ran the show. Dinty was tough, but fair. He, very simply, demanded perfection. He often reminded us that in aviation you only get one chance. Dinty Moore no longer flew the line, because of a physical ailment, but taught in the Link Trainer and stood in the aisle of the flight deck instructing in DC-2’s & DC-3s. Aviation owes much to this man, especially us Panagra types. He had joined Harold Harris soon after the company was formed and flew the Fairchild, Sikorsky, Ford, and Douglas aircraft before taking over the instrument training section of the airline. I am proud to say that I knew him well and was once one of his students
International flying in the forties was still barnstorming and the Captain’s word was law. Once a flight had departed little help was available, or expected, from the ground people. Radio aids and communication were still not very reliable. Some pilots still preferred to make an instrument approach from a visual fix
We had a white cross marked on the top of Cerro Colorado, which was the mountain just east of Limatambo airport. If you passed over the cross at 3500 ft. and held steady on the heading and airspeed, and used the clock and a constant rate of descent for a given time, you could let down through the fog and be lined up for a landing without the use of a radio. The international airport was a dirt field about 4500 ft. long and 1500 ft. wide.
Confidence did build up in the use of the ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) after a time, and we were able to make very accurate approaches under low ceilings and visibility. Radar was not available until much later and we depended greatly on our knowledge of the terrain and our own judgment of the weather.
The mountain flying was risky as our aircraft lacked the capability of going over the peaks so we flew between them, followed river canyons and crossed the ridges at their lowest points. The DC-3’s and even the DC-4’s were not pressurized so it meant sucking on an oxygen tube or using a mask for long periods of flight.
Continual training fit nicely into the line-flying experience. With this program, under the advice of the old-timers, we maintained a perfect safety record from 1943 through the final years of Panagra, and into the merger, so that Braniff had equal success which continued until their bankruptcy in 1982.
The Panagra crew bus had picked me up at 4:30 a.m., arrival at the Operations office was 4:45 a.m. This gave time for a quick breakfast and the required 1 hour report. The 6:00 a.m. departure was on schedule and after an uneventful take-off and climb through the low stratus, we were on top of the clouds and well under way. Our first stop that day was to be Arequipa, Peru. Captain Charles Curl was in command. Both he and the Radio Operator were returning to their home base of Santiago, Chile. It was March 8 before I returned from that first trip. In fact, I was only in Lima 2 days out of my first 30 days on the line.
My first view of Arequipa, Peru is still vivid in my mind after forty years. This is probably true for many reasons. To view this splendor, as one approaches it for the first time, has to be the most important. This was my first flight as an airline crew member. It was breath-taking when I saw the city, which is 7500 ft. above sea level. While the city is in a fertile valley, the airport is even higher. It is built on a sort of shelf or plateau. All of this is well below the peak of El Misti, which is at 19,144 ft, and very close to the city and airport. The land for miles around was formed by the lava flow of this volcano. Actually, 3 volcanoes rim the area toward the east or Andes side of the valley. Chanchani and Pichu Pichu are not quite as high as El Misti which still has some fire and sulfur burning in the bowl. It has not erupted for centuries but the odor of sulfur is present near the crest. A trail winds up the eastern slope and some minerals are still taken in small quantities from the edge of the bowl. This is done with the use of mules as pack animals.
Arequipa means “Here we rest” in the Quechuan language. This is the Indian tongue spoken by most of the altiplano people of Peru. Aymara is also spoken in the eastern section of the Andes. It is believed that the Incas descend from the Aymara. The Incas had a highly civilized life style more that 700 years ago. Their social system was very efficient, making excellent use of the resources at hand. For centuries, Inca runners used Arequipa as a rest station as they rushed fresh fish from the ocean to the capital city of Cuzco.
Pizarro refounded the city in 1540. The climate there is very invigorating as it seems to be eternally spring weather except for a few days of the year when clouds cover the area and a few drops of rain or mist falls. The days are usually warm with brilliant sunlight, but the temperature can also drop as much as 30 degrees by midnight.
As we approached for the landing, I noticed the oyster whiteness of the buildings and the city in general. This is because of the construction material used in the buildings. It’s a sort of white coral like limestone, petrified volcanic lava called “Silcar”. It is cut into the shape and size of cement blocks, and used accordingly. The weight is only about 1/3 the weight of a cement block. It makes an excellent block for construction and is used extensively throughout the region.
It was just 3 hours by DC-3 from Lima and we were about to land on a hard packed surface of rock, gravel and sand; 300 ft. wide and 7000 ft. long with a gradient that showed one end of the field to be 100 ft. higher than the low end. Being near calm, at 9:00 a.m., we landed uphill or straight-in. It was a short roll-out and taxi to the terminal. We had time for a quick snack, which consisted of black demitasse coffee and a salchicha (pork sausage roll), at the canteen in Panagra’s terminal building.
Soon the bell rang, signaling our departure. It was a long taxi period to the high end of the airport before we started our downhill take off. Being already at 8000 ft. made it only a short climb to 9500 ft., the cruising altitude to Arica, Chile. This was to be our next stop. The flight time from Arequipa to Arica was just one hour. Again, we landed at an airport of dirt, mainly sand. In some parts of the rectangle the sand was drifting. The airport manager remarked that he would probably have to grade the landing strip soon and hoped that he could use some military machinery. Our passengers had disembarked to go through the simple formality of having their passports checked. Arica is the most northerly town in Chile and is at the head of a valley that grows oranges and olives and, of course, was a stronghold during the War of the Pacific. Just beyond Arica, to the southeast, begins the sulfurous stretch of Tarapaca, a region that is even more destitute and desolate than the parched wastelands of Peru.
We were on schedule, to the minute, as we departed Arica, this time taking off uphill in the sand to the west. A steady 15 kt. wind was coming from the sea. I had one quick look at the port area and cliffs before we made our turn to the south to begin flight along the coast and over extremely desolate terrain. In this area, but to the east, lay the nitrate wealth of Chile. I suppose if the region ever had rain the nitrates would wash away. However, nature made it dry and arid. Any moisture in the area would have to come from the winter coastal fog, but they rarely extended very far inland. The winter coastal fog, or low stratus clouds , covered the coast of South America for over 2500 miles, from Talara, Peru to south of Vina del Mar, Chile.
Panagra’s drafting department drew the company maps, as no official maps existed that were suitable for aviation. It wasn’t until the late forties that photographic agencies brought in high flying aircraft to map South America. I had checked out a set of company maps and made a few notes on them as we flew along, this being the accepted Panagra custom. In this manner a pilot, eventually, had maps that he personally had verified. The route from Pisco to Arequipa and then to Arica, was a VFR route except for the approved letdown and approach procedure for Arica. Now , south of Arica, we were operating an IFR route, approved for a 5500 ft. minimum altitude. This was along the coast using aerophares and ADF navigational procedures.
The expression “sighted”, in Panagra talk, meant that we had located the airport or that a station manager had seen us fly into view. When we saw the airport at Antofagasta, our radio operator, using CW, sent the coded message ‘sighted’. We knew that 3 bells would then be rung at the airport, telling one and all that a Panagra flight was about to arrive.
This airport at Antofagasta was nothing more than desert sand, quite hard packed with white stones outlining its border and taxiways leading to the terminal. The terminal was the standard Panagra design, made of stone, painted white and trimmed with Panagra Green. Panagra engineers designed and built most of the airports in the countries we served. Panagra also built the radio stations, installing and setting up the communications system and then training the people to run them.
After 30 minutes on the ground at “FAG”, we were once again under way. We had a full load of 21 passengers and fuel to the maximum. This meant 500 gallons, and using 90 gph as an average consumption rate, would give us over 5 hours of endurance. This would suffice for the 4 hour flight plan we had calculated for this last leg of flight to Santiago, Chile.
The winds were on the nose, but light, so we were planning an on schedule arrival just prior to sunset. Grade school geography was really coming back to me now as we departed Antofagasta and flew along the coast. Chile extends nearly 3000 miles from the tropics to the tip of Cape Horn. The average width is only 100 miles. As mentioned previously, our wise old pilots told us that navigation was easy in Chile; “when flying south don’t fly over the water, maintain 10,000 ft., and don’t hit the mountains to the east. When you are 4 hours south of Antofagasta, look for snow-capped peaks and then when you are down to your last 100 gallons of fuel, look for a large city. It will be Santiago and the airport will be Los Cerrillos”. This was the pioneer pilot’s philosophy as we tried to improve the state of the art of flying. In fact, the brackets of the Andes, to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west can guide you from Panama to the tip of Chile, at Tierra del Fuego.
It’s true that on this last leg, some flights stopped at Vallenar, Ovalle or La Serena for fuel as head winds or weather could prevent the flight from making Santiago. These small towns were located in the river valleys that emptied into the Pacific. The general terrain was still rock, sand, hills and/or desert, except for these valleys which, by the way, produced fruit and vegetables in abundance. Soon we sighted Aconcaqua, the highest peak in the western hemisphere, more than 23,000 ft. above sea level. The total block time for that day was 11 hours and 31 minutes. This was from Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile, with stops at Arequipa, Arica, and Antofagasta.
My first-visit to Santiago was very interesting. The Panagra crew accommodations were always the best available, Panagra people went first class. The camionetta chauffeur took me to the Hotel Carrera in downtown Santiago. My assigned room was part of a small suite, actually 2 bedrooms, with a bath. One bedroom was a single and another was a double. As I approached the suite, I noticed the door ajar and inside heard friendly conversation. Crew members were playing cards and drinking red wine, which was less expensive than water at that time. The porter with my bags and a waiter with more red wine appeared as I was entering the suite. This was quite a welcome to my first RON (code for “remained overnight”). I joined them and an hour later we were all on our way to a restaurant for dinner.
My viaticos (expenses), issued by the company as I debriefed at operations, were sufficient for an excellent meal at the Santiago Hotel Crillon, just a few blocks from the Hotel Carrera. The evening passed quickly as I had a thousand questions for these Panagra crew members. I was free the next day but had an assignment for a flight over the Andes to Buenos Aires the following day.
I was much impressed on my first crossing of the La Cumbre Pass from Santiago to Mendoza. Having been instructed in mountain flying was one thing, now this was the real thing. Our 6 a.m. take-off was under clear skies and CAVU weather prevailed, the forecast was ideal for flying. Meteorology advised us to expect a 35 mph wind from the west at 15,000 ft. It was a 25 minute climb to this altitude. The terrain rose so rapidly that we had to make one 360 degree turn over the San Felipe Valley before starting up the canyon. Aconcaqua was visible to the north side as was Tupungato at 22,834 ft. South of the pass, but very close to our flight path, were the Four Penitents. As we approached them from the Juncal Valley and turned left into the lowest part of the pass, the Christ of the Andes statue was on the right and we could see the lake and resort area of Portillos to the left. The Christ of the Andes Peace Statue was erected by Argentina and Chile in 1904. It is on a ridge 13,000 ft. above sea level. It had been molded from the metal of old Argentine cannons. We banked sharply to get a good view.
The air was smooth in the pass, but the wind was strong and it became very obvious to me why one needed to fly on the downwind side of the canyon, always planning to turn into the wind in case of an emergency. In inclement weather, or very gusty wind conditions, it was often best to just return or select another route. As we passed over a short airstrip at Vaca, we were then flying at 15,000 ft. Mount Aconcaqua towered 8,000 ft. above us, we had walls of rock on both sides. Oxygen was in use from a tube. This was the rule when operating above 10,000 ft. in this unpressurized airplane. Oxygen was also supplied to the passengers, from another source, but available to all of them at their seats. The seat belt “on” sign was illuminated as a precaution against our encountering gusty air. My fellow crew members remarked that, up until a few years previous, newspapers were dropped to the weather observer/radio operator at the station near the statue. The pass near Portillos was just a gap and looked to me like we were flying through a tunnel with jagged rock on all sides. Clouds and sky were overhead.
There was gusty air as we descended into Mendoza, Argentina and it was fierce, even on this relatively calm day. If one tried to cut close to the canyon wall, or cross the lower ridge of the cordillera just west of the city, you were in for a rough ride. We could see dust devils in the valley below in the vicinity of the Uspallata airstrip. It took many flights back and forth to learn the pitfalls of this route, only 1 hour and 30 minutes in length, but full of fatal traps.
I flew this route with as many as 10 different Captains, during my first year, finally flying with the Chief Pilot of the southern region, Warren B. Smith. This veteran pilot was a true expert in mountain flying. He had more crossings of the Christ of the Andes than most younger pilots had total time. He was a kind person, huge of stature, tall, heavy set and a chain smoker. I had heard much about him, wanted to fly the Pass with him, so was willing to put up with his smoking, of which I had no choice anyway. He cracked the sliding side window of the DC-3, enough to drag out the smoke and create a peculiar squeal. This made the noise level in the cockpit exceptionally high. He flew this way, hour after hour, only closing the window when it rained. He was a true CONDOR OF THE ANDES, this was Chile’s highest award for excellence in pioneer aviation and it had been awarded to this Panagra Pilot.
Warren B. literally strapped the DC-3 on when he flew. His hands were like paws or mitts that surrounded the throttles. When landing, when still about 100 ft. in the air, he would slam the throttles closed and gently three point the airplane onto the ground, just over the fence. The airplane rarely rolled very far after touch-down. I expected the throttle arms to break off at the shank. His sense of humor was great, he roared with laughter, usually at some joke about himself.
On one of our assignments, we had to RON in Cordoba, Argentina and we shared a room. I had heard stories about him falling asleep while smoking, but still was ill prepared for survival that night. I was a very exhausted young pilot that next morning. He had smoked most of the night and as he dropped off to sleep the cigarette would either fall to the floor or remain in his mouth. In any event it always went out , although I had visions of it starting a fire which would burn the hotel down.
On my last flight with him in the La Cumbre area, we had a most interesting turn of events. He was flying westbound and had picked out smooth air at 13,500 ft., about as low as you can fly without hitting the crest. As we passed Vaca, we received a report from the weather observer at the statue. It said that he could see some light through the clouds to the west toward the Juncal river valley. He also said it was snowing at his station and that the ceiling was 500 ft. As we turned the corner, it became obvious that the gap was closing and that it was really a dead-end street for us. Warren B. calmly made a 180 degree turn.
We had canyon walls on three sides of us, light snow on the windshield, and the Pass was closed, except for a narrow path that led to Vaca, from where we were able to follow the railroad track back to a wider section of the valley. As the valley widened we climbed to 14,000 ft. and flew just under the overcast. He cheerfully explained all the problems that a pilot could encounter and offered various choices. I did enjoy flying with him and learned much. We returned to Mendoza, refueled and used the south pass over Sosneado.
The rough air in the Andes indicated just how much punishment the DC-3 would take. After some flights, we would request a wing inspection, as this was the only way to determine the safety of the aircraft for the next flight. When the joining plates were removed, sheared wing bolts would fall out on the ground. I recall watching as 32 pieces of bolts were counted after an inspection from an unusually rough flight.
Even the spot weather reports coming directly from the Panagra employees at the crest, near the Christ of the Andes, failed to help us operate. We had many flights that simply returned to the departure station. This could be because of low clouds and wind or because the Captain preferred to try another time rather than risk an accident. Winds would sometimes exceed 100 mph and the DC-3 would almost stand still when headed into the wind. A pilot had to be most cautious about turning in the narrow pass as the wind could blow you into the sidewall of the canyon if the turn was not properly planned. Likewise, rain or snow could close the gap in a few minutes time.
The days of 1944 were filled with flying the DC-3 across the great Pampas of Argentina to towns such as Mendoza, Cordoba and the end of our line, Buenos Aires. A grass airport at Moron served us until the opening of the present airport at Ezeiza, both of which are a considerable distance from the central part of the city. Many tales could be told of flying in and around the pamperos, which are fast moving cold fronts similar to a Texas Northern in the States.
I was also flying Panagra’s Jungle Run which extended through Bolivia to the border of Brazil. The operation at LaPaz was a real “eye popper”. The city itself was in a gorge at the base of Illimani. That mountain and the valley below is one of the most picturesque in the world. The airport, at over 13,000 ft. above sea level, is the highest commercial airport in the world. The tarmac then was just dirt and gravel with a 1.5 degree gradient. The city was just over the cliff, to the east of the airport, down in this circular pit. Bolivia itself was a country of sharp contrasts, from desolate landscape on the high plateau to the dense jungle in the oriente, or eastern lowlands.
I always found it almost impossible to survive one night at that altitude. Due to extremely bad weather, I once found it necessary to spend 2 days and nights in LaPaz. I must admit that the second night was easier than the first. In LaPaz, the crews stayed at the only first class hotel, which was the Sucre Palace. It wasn’t much in the way of being first class, but the beds were clean and it had inside bathrooms.
Panagra also leased an apartment for the crews in Obrajes, a small town at a lower altitude and closer to the base of Illimani. The truth about spending a night in LaPaz was that one could either freeze, or suffocate from the lack of oxygen. I preferred to open all the windows as this allowed a good source of oxygen. I then piled on all the blankets and hoped to be able to sleep. To eat and drink very lightly was obligatory.
Corumba, Brazil was the eastern terminal of our Jungle routes in the mid-forties. A tributary of the Paraguay River ran along the edge of the town. The waterfront was basically a swampy lake, filled with crocodiles. We often had time to visit the water-front, usually while waiting for a connection with Panair do Brazil. The nude native boys would dive off the dock, splash around to excite the crocodiles and then speedily swim for shore. Many times these very large reptiles would be teased into a chase. The boys always seemed to provide a safe margin as I never witnessed a capture.
Panagra’s Jungle Run was a good training ground for young aviators. The run began with a 6 a.m. departure from Limatambo airport, down the coast to the first stop at Arequipa. Some of the flights then stopped at Arica prior to climbing to altitude for a crossing of the western ridge on the way to LaPaz, Bolivia. The direct route from Arequipa to LaPaz followed the Tambo River canyon around the corner from Chanchani, then up close to the volcano Ubinas. This was the lowest terrain in this region and the route was near the railroad track that extended to Puno. A cruising altitude of 18,000 ft. was safe, although I have flown it at 16,000 ft. with a few detours and always turning to follow the lowest area. One needed 20 minutes of reliable engine operation before flatter land appeared as you flew east until Lago Titicaca came into view. This was always a pleasant sight. It was pleasant for several reasons; its beauty and the fact that the shore line afforded one a place to land should you encounter difficulties.
This DC-3 (VFR) route passed over Pomato, close to Copacabana and the reed boat area near Guaqui and then to LaPaz. It was often necessary to fly the southern route, entering the Altiplano near Tacora peak, overheading an emergency strip at Charana and then direct to LaPaz. An altitude of 16,000 ft. was usually a good choice.
The construction Department of Panagra was under the supervision of that tough Dutchman, Bill Peper. He had engaged Indians to clear designated areas of rocks and mark them with the ever useful painted white rocks. Bill personally oversaw the building of most airports in South America. His career lasted over 40 years and his name must be remembered by all as a true pioneer of aviation. During the Chaco War he used Indian women to do the construction work as most of the Bolivian men were fighting on the Bolivia/Paraguay border. Bill was my passenger many times, traveling around the system on company business. I always prodded him to tell stories about the old days. On one meeting he told of trying to teach the Indians to use a wheel barrow. He finally gave up. The women moved small rocks and dirt by carrying it in their aprons and accomplished the assigned work by moving slowly along like ants in a single file.
Oruro was next and the airport was a tricky one. This was, mainly, because of the ever changing winds. This airport was really cross runways graded out of a huge sand and salt bed area, again marked with rocks painted white. Tin was the main reason for the existence of this town. One of the mines was actually in part of the town, the diggings being made in the hill just to the west of the air field.
The Jungle Run was a challenge that always appealed to me. One became exhilarated to know that with a DC-3 you could provide the only contact with the outside world for many people. Villagers walked for miles to towns like Conception, San Ignacio and San Jose just to witness the arrival and departure of a Panagra flight. We became their link to civilization, be it medical, social, business or whatever. Even the Franciscan monks at San Ignacio would walk to the airport for a few words with the crew, conversing in Spanish and asking about events in the world. All of us became conversant in Spanish. Except for a few missionaries or international passengers, no English was spoken.
Native slaves were still kept in the days that I flew in Bolivia. Small tribes or bands of Indians lived away from the villages, were uncivilized and called savages by the Bolivians. We could spot the grass huts of these people and often flew low over the area, occasionally spotting some of them running for cover. Some of these same natives were captured by Bolivians and kept as slaves. I once transported one of them from San Ignacio to San Jose. He had been sold and his new owner was at the airport to claim him. I tried to talk to him, but he just smiled and barely uttered any sound. The new owner told me that this slave was captured after he had been banished from his group for trying to steal another man’s woman. For him it was either be killed or surrender to a farmer who would provide food in exchange for his slavery.
Many obstacles existed for our company. We did have good employees. They were hard working and God fearing for the most part but an operation through so many foreign countries was difficult. We had revolutions, government red tape and having to maintain a school for pilots, meteorologists, mechanics and radio-operators was a big job. Additionally, airports and buildings had to be built plus the establishment of a radio navigation and communication network. It was a continual training program for every phase of operation. In fact, personnel were trained for the commissary department as well. Panagra ran guest houses and supplied the food for flights as well as airport restaurants. They also ran a bus line and had trucks and camionettas (station wagons) in all the cities and towns we served. Some Latins, even Indians with little formal education, were hired as floor sweepers at the age of 15 years and then 15 years later had become master jet mechanics. Our personnel took extreme care with everything they did. They had a good sense of pride in doing a job well. An opportunity to be associated with Panagra was like a dream come true for many, and I am particularly proud to say that I became one of the family.
From Oruro to Cochabamba was just a short run of 35 minutes unless clouds and rain filled the pass. This was strictly VFR territory until we began the DC-6 flights as that aircraft could fly over the peaks with some margin of safety. We had many off scheduled layovers in Cochabamba which was a good RON and most pilots enjoyed a stay there. The hotel was good and there were several good eating establishments that served charcoal braised meat along with beer brewed from excellent mountain water. The altitude was only 8,000 ft. so one suffered little from the cold or lack of oxygen. It really made a good vacation spot
It was a full days work to operate a flight from Lima to Santa Cruz, Bolivia and rewarding when you reached the scheduled overnight. Santa Cruz was the regional headquarters of Panagra for the Oriente. Our dispatch center and flight following office were located in the Panagra terminal building. The next days work was usually out of this station, it then being routine to return to Lima on the 3rd day unless the loads were heavy. Then we would alter the plan with a special flight to give more service where needed. These towns were generally serviced twice a week but we never hesitated to make a stop for medical or any legitimate reason. Our motto was to serve the people with excellence and maintain perfect safety.
Panagra had built the airport at Santa Cruz and everything that went with it including the radio station, restaurant, maintenance shop and the works. The guest house adjoined the airport building and was under the supervision of the Panagra Station Manager.
“Double saw-tooth” meant an operation that went from Santa Cruz to Puerto Suarez with stops in both directions at Conception, San Ignacio, San Jose and Robore. Ten approaches in either hot humid jungle heat or in a driving rain storm was a days work. We usually flew the extra few miles to Corumba, Brazil and later to Campo Grande, prior to making the return. This could add up to several more hours of flying and two more stops.
The normal schedule was a 7:00 a.m. departure and return by 3:00 p.m. All these routes were IFR approved even though the strength of the radio stations for approaches barely extended to 15 miles. There was seldom any traffic, no control towers, all communications were in Spanish and CW. The Germans had originally built the airfields but Panagra enlarged them to 3,000 ft. in length and 100 ft. in width. They were just sand, turf or gravel, sort of a combination of sand and mud, depending on the amount of water present.
Frontal weather, similar to what we have in the U.S.A., is prominent on the east side of the Andes. A special phenomenon occurs around Santa Cruz. That is, that cold fronts can pass through the area moving toward the Amazon Basin. They can be fast moving but slow down at night and be pushed back south, then come rushing through again moving up to the north north-east.
We tried our best to complete the flights prior to sundown but often had to skip a stop. This was in order to give service with safety but not be caught out at one of the jungle stops over-night where we had no accommodations for sleeping and/or meals.
Our flights were usually completed before 4:00 pm. This gave time for a cool drink and a hamburger, loaded with onions and tomatoes. It was quite a treat, after a very hot perspiring 12 stop day, to have the snack waiting for us. The hamburger rolls were always freshly baked. The staff treated us like kings.
The meals were excellent. For most of the period that I flew this run, the restaurant was operated by a White Russian. He had a fierce temper and chased many an Indian helper with a cleaver. He was always good to the crews and would serve us anything that was available. We brought him pisco from Peru and swapped it for chickens and lomo (tenderloin), which we carted back to our homes in Lima. We hauled bags of cokes and beer from Cochabamba for the foreign personnel.
Captain Bob Disher, who was the Flight Operations Manager of Panagra was scheduled to make an airport inspection and route survey in late 1945. It would cover the entire operation south of Lima, Peru. I was assigned to fly the flight under his supervision. Regular reports of all airports conditions and facilities, including route information, were kept in his office.
We would now take an aircraft and fly the routes checking minimum altitudes, landing when possible and literally inspect all phases of aviation as it applied to Panagra. To accomplish this we used an aircraft that needed to be delivered to our maintenance facility in Buenos Aires and return with another which had just completed a modification and would be ready for use on the system.
We only made Arica, Chile that first day out of Lima but landed at Pisco and Arequipa. We also descended and dragged Ica, Nasca, Vitor, Mollendo, Moquegua, Ilo and Tacna In Arica, we stayed in a very old hotel with high ceilings, big brass beds with a huge chandelier. I remember it well as we experienced an earthquake during the night. The beds moved a bit, about 30 degrees to each side, while a few tiles fell from the bathroom walls. Quite a shake!
To watch Captain Disher conduct his survey and be a part of the discussions at various airports was important to me. Between Arica and Santiago, we landed at Antofagasta, Vallenar, Ovalle, LaSerena and dragged Iquique, Copiapo, Domeyko, San Felipe and Los Andes.
On the third day we planned to check a few minimum altitudes and routes that would later be flown with four engine equipment. The Andes needed to be crossed under instrument conditions therefore we simulated an instrument departure from Los Cerrillos to the south homing on the aerophare at Curico. This radio station is in the foothills of the Andes. From that station across Sosneado to San Carlos is really the lowest part of the mountain range and was acceptable for the Andes crossing between Santiago and Buenos Aires. This eventually became the standard IFR route. What a thrill to fly along the crest at 20,000 ft.! We were almost empty so the performance of that DC-3A was excellent at that altitude. Captain Disher finally remarked that we had done enough joy riding and we headed from near Tupungato to Mendoza for a landing.
The next station was Cordoba, where the same routine was followed before we proceeded to Moran airport serving the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was after sunset, so it meant that we had to sleep fast before starting the return flight up the diagonal route, our plan being to make Santa Cruz, Bolivia by nightfall.
I did all of the flying, making every landing and take off, while Captain Disher sat in the copilots seat and worked on his reports. We flew a direct course for Tucuman, made a quick stop there and then also at Salta where we filled the fuel tanks. I departed Salta turning to the north to follow the Humahuaca Canyon until we needed to change course to look for Jujuy and Oran before going directly up the eastern slope to Yacuiba. We landed on this dirt emergency strip.
Captain Disher felt that this clearing could be improved and, with a new radio beacon, serve as an alternate for the DC-4’s which we were about to receive. The DC-4’s had been on order for a long period but delivery delayed by the war needs. He reviewed a climb-out and let-down procedure he wanted to submit to the CAA. My mission was now to fly these patterns so we could check for minimum ground clearance. It was important to align the approach track with the lowest terrain. It took 45 minutes to fly through the procedures 3 times. It was then a climb and cruise to Santa Cruz. We took a look at the airport at Tarija on the way. That RON at Santa Cruz, Bolivia looked good to me.
LAB, the Bolivian Airline has serviced some of these towns and they were expanding their operation. We had close ties to this airline. Their headquarters were at Cochabamba, Bolivia. This was to be our first stop the next day. Panagra pilots were usually assigned to train the LAB crews and supervise their operation. At this station LAB had meteorology & maintenance departments that represented us in Bolivia. They formed the link in operations between Santa Cruz and our home office in Lima.
It was puzzling when Captain Disher ordered full tanks for the 8:00 am flight to Cochabamba, just 1:30 away by DC-3. In any event, my calculations showed that we would be landing there with the maximum allowable weight. The climb-out and initial cruise from Santa Cruz was uneventful. While cruising at 12,000 ft. with 50 miles remaining to CCH (Cochabamba), Captain Disher informed me that the flight would continue with a simulated engine failure. He reduced power on the right side engine, while I completed the emergency procedures and engine shut-down check list. This also included a radio notification of our intended course of action.
Making plans for the maximum weight landing was routine as I mentioned to him that I could lighten the load by dumping fuel if necessary. I was able to hold 12,000 ft. with less than METO (Maximum Except Take-off) power on the good engine and the power was further reduced as we approached the Cliza Valley. Now, just 30 miles remained to the aerodrome, I planned a straight in approach to the northwest. The drift down rule was used as I traded for power and speed, finally being able to still reduce the power more. It worked very well and we landed quite uneventfully. After that it was an easy 5 hour non-stop flight direct to Lima . We had logged close to 37 hours of flying and made 16 landings and take-offs in 5 days.
Most of my airline flying for Panagra during 1944 and 1945 was on routes south of Lima, Peru. I did have several trips to Balboa, Canal Zone in 1945. They were assignments with the more senior of the Panagra Captains. I recall one of those early flight assignments. It was with Captain Tommy Jardine, known as “numero uno”. He advanced to the number one position on the seniority list shortly after I joined Panagra and that is the reason for the nickname. My log book shows that this flight with Tommy was in May of 1945. The first day was the usual Lima to Balboa flight, with stops at Chiclayo, Talara, Guayaquil and Cali.
Flying a DC-3A on that route, in 1945, was one of the most tedious of flying challenges. Tedious is used to mean that it was often frustrating and that a pilot’s skill was stretched to the limit. The word difficult doesn’t describe the situation as our Captains had experience, knowledge of the route and the various weather patterns. It was a requirement and compulsory before any pilot was promoted. Aerophares, non-directional beacons, were the navigation aid of the day. Our airplanes were equipped with dual ADF’s (Automatic Direction Finders), so we had the best that was available.
Except for the section that was within 50 miles of the Canal Zone and about 30 miles from Turbo, Colombia, the entire route was strictly VFR (Visual Flight Rules). This translates to an allowable departure on instruments. If a diversion, or use of Turbo as an alternate became necessary, one could make an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) approach. From a navigational standpoint, it was pilotage all the way. Pilotage is a part of Dead Reckoning Navigation. This form of navigation demands reference to the ground and accurate maps, and precision flying.
Panagra had developed the system of dead reckoning to a very high performance level. We could run air plots and very accurately determine our position with the aid of ground reference. Headings, altitude and airspeed were closely watched and we used a drift scope to check our position over the ground. All of this depended on being able to see the ground at all times. As a general rule, most of this route was clear of clouds or, at least, we could fly around or over them. The clouds or heavy weather that caused difficulties were on the ridge to the east of the Atrato River Valley.
The western ridge that we had to cross extended the full length of Colombia from Cartagena to the Ecuadorian border. There were many low areas and four passes that we generally used but a pilot had to find the pass and this meant that you had to be able to see the terrain. No method of locating your position by instruments was available. It was strictly a look-see factor that determined if you could continue.
The ridge was narrow near the city of Cali and you could be flying in absolutely clear conditions looking east at a band of clouds covering the ridge knowing full well that your destination was only a few miles beyond the clouds. It was tempting to climb to a safe clearance altitude and just fly on instruments for a few minutes knowing that you would break out in the clear with the Cauca Valley below. This was a procedure that was used in later years when we had radio equipment and airplanes that made it an IFR route and perfectly safe.
The DC-3A was a very versatile airplane but it, like every airplane, has some limitations. In this case, the prohibiting factor was endurance. That endurance capability was limited by our alternate. There was only one suitable airport between Panama and Cali, Colombia. This was not a factor once you entered the Cauca Valley as many airports were within range. If a crew flew 3 hours toward Cali and failed to find an entrance because of weather, you would have to return to Turbo, Colombia, as it was the closest alternate.
Turbo was not very close and would take almost 2 hours of flying to reach. Here is a case where the feasibility of having a guaranteed place to land, when the route weather was marginal, was a strong factor. Normally, pilots think of alternates as a place to go if the destination becomes unavailable but this was not that case. You might be in a position of not knowing if you would be able to enter the valley just west of Cali until after you had canceled your option of returning to Turbo. A variety of obstacles existed and had to be set in a safe order of priority. We always faced the extreme condition where you might be obliged to fly for 5 hours total, before arriving at Turbo, and still have :45 minutes of reserve fuel. Our loads were such that we rarely enjoyed the luxury of having sufficient fuel to carry out the extreme that is mentioned. In short, it meant that you would not know if an entry was possible until after you had exceeded your available fuel range, making it impossible to return.
It was an unwritten procedure to always enter the valley at the first available pass. This was for the obvious reason that then you could cancel your Turbo alternate and have airports like Medellin or Cartago, both being very close at hand.
This was the condition, on the 22nd of June, 1945. Captain Jardine was in command. We made all the stops on our way to Lima, Peru with inclement weather the entire route, including our final destination. In fact, that was the evening that we landed at a sandy field called Pampa Grande to find that a revolution was in the making. We flew 11 hours and 34 minutes, that day.
Tommy was an excellent pilot and had been Chief Pilot for a few years. He qualified and flew Captain on all the Panagra aircraft until the jets arrived in late 1959. Tommy and I became very good friends while operating Douglas DC-6 and DC-7 series airplanes from the Miami, Florida base. We had lived within a block of each other in Lima, but those were the old days when Captains were above lowly co-pilots and close association was not practiced.
Captain Moore had been grounded for medical reasons prior to my employment with Panagra. He was in charge of instrument training and had much to say about any promotions. Again, like most of the old-timers, he was gruff and demanding but with a heart of gold and the patience of Job. We often said that when you were flying the line and operating in instrument conditions, Dinty was with you. You could hear his voice as he had a direct hook-up to your brain. This voice would tell you what to do. Repetition was the name of the game. He drilled procedures into every pilot.
Each Link Trainer recorded the path you flew on graph paper through a stylus system. He watched the pattern that recorded your given assignment. In a no wind situation, you were required to fly a pattern that joined the termination of the period with the beginning. For example, you would fly north for 2 minutes, turn west and fly for 2 minutes, turn south and fly for 2 minutes and then turn east and fly for 2 minutes. Your pattern had to make a perfect box. This meant that your speed control, headings and time had to be perfect.
Turns were timed, that is you made a two needle turn by the clock. We were also obligated to count the seconds without error, in case of a clock failure.
It was a needle, ball and airspeed regime. We had directional gyros, but Dinty made his students use the magnetic compass. A magnetic compass swings so you have to lead or delay the roll out from a turn in accordance with compass errors depending on the magnetic quadrant that you would be in after roll out. He often applied a wind factor to teach the correct drift procedure.
Dinty designed this approach for arrival at the Limatambo Airport. No radios were required. He placed a stone white cross marker on the top of the peak that is just east of the airport. The procedure was to be used when Lima had ceilings of 400 ft. Visibility was important and it worked best if you had at least one mile. This worked in any airplane. We practiced in the Link Trainer, flew it in the Fairchild, Stinson and DC-2 and DC-3’s. The clue was accuracy of heading, airspeed, rate of descent and a perfect turn.
I can’t remember the exact heading but it was close to 265 degrees. If you flew over the cross at 3,500 ft. and maintained 90 mph and descended at 500 feet per minute for 4 and 1/2 minutes, you were in position for a 90 degree left turn. This took a total of 5 minutes. At this point you would be at 1,000 feet above sea level and 500 feet above the airport and within 1/2 mile of the threshold. Look out the window, there was the field.
I saw this used in an actual arrival, as I was the co-pilot on a Panagra passenger flight early in my career with Panagra. This flight was arriving from Santiago, Chile with intermediate stops. The coast of Peru was covered with stratus, meaning fog. It was clear above with bright sunlight, about 1 hour prior to sunset. Each valley or river that flowed to the Pacific contained fog. The outlines were clear as the fog had a definite top. The top was about 2500 feet that afternoon.
As I began to tune the ADF to the Limatambo radio station, the captain said, “I won’t be using that today, as I intend to make a Colorado Approach”. It was absolutely calm and the perfect time to use it, I did admit. He did make a beautiful approach. We had a 500 foot ceiling. At the appointed time we looked out and there was the airport straight ahead, waiting for us. I was a believer.
For years after Dinty died, we still could hear his voice giving us instructions on what to do next under instrument conditions. His method of training became obsolete when the artificial horizon instrument became reliable in the late 1940’s. Within a few years the company removed the turn and bank instruments from the airplanes. We had a pilot meeting to protest the removal as some old-timers preferred those old instruments.
Meteorology plays an important part in aviation. It was not a very well developed science in my early days of flying. The scientific facts were known, but we often lacked accurate data to determine or make a forecast. Panagra had conducted a very valuable research program in Lima and could forecast the ceiling and visibility accurately. It was expensive research but provided the information needed to maintain a scheduled operation. This was particularly true during the winter when we went for weeks without seeing the sky.
Pilots that were in the final stages of promotion to line captains were used for a number of projects. After soloing, they instructed other pilots, flew maintenance test flights and made weather hops. All of these projects were very beneficial to the pilots and the company. It was training under actual conditions.
A weather hop was usually in a DC-2 or DC-3 but on occasion the Stinson was used. You knew prior to departure that it would be some time before the weather cleared enough for you to return. A weather hop that departed at 4:00 a.m. had no chance of landing until about 1 hour after sunrise or about 6:30 a.m. You departed under very marginal weather conditions probably entering the fog almost immediately after breaking ground. Temperatures were taken every 500 feet as you climbed to above the overcast to 10,000 feet. The top was recorded in feet above sea level. That was the inversion point as there was an immediate rise in temperature. We radioed these figures to the company. Panagra meteorologists kept records for many years.
They might be combined with a weather hop. The P & W 1200 hp engines used on the DC-3As were very reliable. We did depend on them to be so because of the extreme performance that Panagra routes demanded. For this reason, each engine was tested at 13,000 feet after every overhaul prior to assignment to a scheduled flight. This meant that if a newly overhauled engine was installed on an airplane it must be flown to altitude to check it’s altitude take-off performance. It seemed like these flights always came up during the night and that the ceiling and visibility was low. I made many of these flights
Captain W. B. Smith gave me the instrument training around the Santiago area. The instrument approach to Los Cerrillos Airport was very unique in that it was a double aerophare letdown. With 2 ADFs we shuttled between the 2 stations. This was the method of departure and arrival. With mountains in every direction it kept the flight path close to the airport and avoided the very high terrain. It was a pleasure to fly with the “Old Condor of the Andes”. What a super guy and expert pilot!
Many interesting events were associated with flying for Panagra. Not all can be recalled in detail but others are very clear to me. The crew scheduler asked me take a 10 day temporary Captain assignment to Quito, Ecuador. The flying from the Quito base was for the local Ecuadorian routes. Departures were at 7:00 a.m. and scheduled for return by 3:00 p.m., in time for afternoon tea. This routine was for 5 days with Saturday and Sundays free. Most all of my flights were on schedule but occasionally we encountered some weather or maintenance delay
As the end of the 1940’s drew near, Panagra had instituted DC-4 service on some of the routes and then, finally, DC-6’s. I continued flying the DC-3s, over all of the routes, in Latin America. Panagra was able to work an interchange arrangement with Pan American Airways so that we could give through service to Miami. We had no route extension and the Pan American pilots received by-pass pay but at least our aircraft, pilots and passengers could fly in and out of Miami, Florida, to Panama and on to any city served by Panagra.
It was becoming more apparent, each year, that the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board) was not about to allow Panagra to expand. The airline was making a good profit, had an excellent safety and on time performance record, but didn’t fit the ownership criteria that they wanted. Passengers liked to fly Panagra. Panagra was a welcome word in most circles. The Indians in the high country of Peru thought that Panagra was the word for airplane. The DC-6 operation was called El Interamericano. It offered a sleeper service in the first class section of the airplane.
A serious problem began to face our management. Since the beginning of Panagra, they had always been closely aligned with local airlines. Panagra trained many people in every phase of aviation who then began work with the local airline. We always had a good working relationship with LAB (Lloyd Aero Boliviano) . They expanded and were able to fly many of the local routes of Bolivia. This included the operation in the Beni section of the country but now they operated flights to Santa Cruz and served cities that had been a monopoly for us.
Several airlines began to fly under the Ecuadorian flag. This diluted our local Ecuador business and we eventually stopped our operation to Salinas, Manta, Esmeraldas and Loja, Ecuador.
Fawcett, a Peruvian Airline, had operated in Peru for about the same period as Panagra. We had never been in competition with one another but now they began to expand and another airline, Peruvian Airways, began an international operation as well.
The same condition existed in Argentina. When local flag airlines began, they were able to service their own country and their governments commenced to curtail the authority of Panagra to carry local passengers.
A major change in the route structures and authority was under review. It was not a sudden change but apparent to any who studied the issue. As the new and faster and larger airplanes were put into service, a cutback in employees began. Technical advancements in voice radio eliminated the radio operator aboard our aircraft. The DC-3 crews were now reduced to 2 pilots. The flight dispatch service was streamlined and fewer dispatchers and clerks were needed.
There were changes in top management. John Shannon, who had been Vice-President of Operations transferred to Pan American. Tom Kirkland, who had been called to active duty as a Navy Officer, returned from the service and assumed that position. The military contract that Panagra operated out of Miami during the war was completed and some of those pilots moved to Lima.
It became apparent to the company that we were destined to be a small operation and the company had to be streamlined and the major and/or only crew base should be Miami, Florida.
A Panagra base was established in Miami, Florida. In essence, all of the 4 engine flying was scheduled for the crews living in the U.S.A. A DC-4 remained in Lima and was used for a few schedules along with the DC-3’s The real cutback was beginning in earnest.
Panagra’s extensive apprentice program to train people in every phase of aviation started in its very early days. The founders realized that they needed qualified people and the best way to get them was to train them from scratch. Some of the Peruvians I met in 1944 were just beginning training with the airline. I can remember the most outstanding of them. For example, Chester Vargas was a DC-3 mechanic who often serviced an airplane that I was about to fly during my training flights. He became the Chief Mechanic at Lima and supervised the Jet maintenance in 1960.
Jimenez was a young Peruvian boy who had worked his way up from a cleaner to a DC-8 mechanic. He not only became an expert on the jets but learned to speak, read and write English as well as any of us.
Willie Henderson was another top mechanic in Lima, who had worked for the company for years.
This story must give credit to more maintenance people. The discussion should start with O. Z. Johnson who was the Superintendent. He and his chief assistant, Freddie Burkhardt, were responsible to Tom Kirkland, Vice-President of Operations. The station chiefs of line maintenance worked under them and they were a group of very devoted employees. Major maintenance was done by PAA, in Miami, but the South American team kept airplanes moving.
The logistics of providing the required spare parts and manuals was a big responsibility. Another factor was that all of the mechanics down line were non United States Citizens and yet had to be licensed by the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority). All of the maintenance had to be completed under the rules of the U.S.A.
All these people were dedicated people and worked long, hard hours on each job until it was completed satisfactorily. Some like Garro, the Chief in Buenos Aires, met every flight. This meant that he was on duty every evening, just to make sure that all was in order. He had many excellent people able to handle the job and he often stayed for only a short time but he was there if needed. My relationship with Garro was on firm ground, especially when I later flew Braniff Jets to Argentina, as he went along with the merger. I knew that he could read and write and understand English but he never spoke a word of English to me. It was after years of conversing in Spanish that I found out that he also spoke English to other pilots.
Others like Louie Saenz, in Guayaquil, and Quito Eddie, were always available when needed. They would work around the clock, if necessary. They were all proud men, pleased and confident of their abilities and knew that they were appreciated, especially by the pilots. They, perhaps, as much as any department of Panagra, contributed to our success.
When I reminisce, of the period spent preparing for the jet age, I marvel that the company could afford to invest so much in training. Dozens of employees spent months in training on full pay with all expenses, hotels and meals included. It was a sizable investment to Panagra. Again, Tom Kirkland, supported by Andy Shea the President, never short changed a person or omitted an item of importance. We were never asked or expected to move a piece of equipment until all was perfect and the rules and regulations had followed to the letter. That support made us great in the eyes of the aviation world.
We called them pursers in the old days. They were all males although a purser need not be a male. The term actually means the person in charge of passengers and the arrangements that affect them while traveling.
When the DC-4’s were delivered after WW II, Panagra began to hire women and they were called hostesses. Irrespective of the gender, we had some very wonderful people as our cabin attendants. All were non U.S. citizens and non-union. The company tried to hire the best from every country, so we had a mixture of people from every walk of life. Many were of European background while others could trace their ancestry back many generations in South American countries. All were bi-lingual and most multi-lingual. If I singled out any special friends, I would have to name dozens of them. Some had been with Panagra since we flew the jungle run in DC-3’s. As the employees that had the greatest contact with a passenger, they probably deserve as much as any employee the thanks from all of us. They sold the airline by being efficient, considerate, and compassionate and having personalities that displayed confidence under all flight conditions, without emotion.
My last flight as a Panagra flight crew member was on January 22, 1967, it being a return to Miami, Florida from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Twenty-three years ended on a good note as I continued employment as an airline pilot and operated a Braniff flight on February 4, 1967.
I left Panagra in 1959, not that I was unhappy with the company, but I took the job as Executive Vice President of the American Association of Airport Executives, a Professional group of airport managers around the country. In 1984, I formally retired, but I do a special job or two for the Association now and then. I also was recruited a few years ago to go back to Bolivia to work on a proposal by the government to privatize their airports.
I’ve had a lot of fun reliving and writing about these incidents. If there is a liberal use of “I”, it is only because I was directly involved. Most everything said in these stories is factual. They are based on my ten years working and living in South America, principally Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile while employed by Pan American-Grace Airways as manager of one of their many airports.
All occurred before 1954, and most of them between 1946 and 1950. That’s almost forty years ago, so if a fact or two is distorted, it must be blamed on the passage of time coupled with a dulling of memory.
I had one very strong reservation about writing this where others could read it. In many cases, the narratives might appear to be poking fun at or ridiculing the “Nationals”, e.g. Bolivians, Ecuadorians, etc. Consequently I want to dispel any notion that I was the “know-it-all-gringo” with a low opinion of the resident population. Panagra operated in some of the most difficult conditions in the world; over the Andes that tower up to 23,500 feet, above barren deserts and impenetrable jungles, marginal navigation aids and particularly, off unpaved runways, many in excess of 10,000 feet elevation. Panagra flew in this environment for over twenty six years without a death or serious injury to an aircraft occupant. Such a record could not have been compiled without knowledgeable, dedicated employees.
It is true that the airline employed only U.S. cockpit crews; however, all the support service mechanics, meteorologists traffic agents, weather observers, ground radio operators and technicians, airport managers, flight attendants, tower operators, and the many other specialists required by an airline, were in most cases “Nationals”. Obviously, the great majority of them must have been doing something right to collectively permit the airline to compile such an enviable record.
Much credit goes to my wife Helen. Why? Many U.S. employees based in South America had wives who complained frequently about local conditions which, let’s face it, were not in many cases comparable to those in the U.S. Some complained so frequently that the husband resigned and they went home. Other wives were so bored with their lives, with little responsibilities as servants did the housework, prepared the meals, and took care of the kids, that some became alcoholics. Helen voiced few complaints. We moved several times during our ten years there. When I would come home with the news “We’re being transferred”, she never asked “Why” but “When”, looking forward to whatever experiences awaited us at the next new and strange location. As to being bored she solved that by, as an accredited teacher, teaching at the American School in Quito, running her own grade school in our apartment in LaPaz, and co-sponsoring a school conducted in an annex to our residence in Santiago.
Almost everybody has some claim to fame—wrote a book, flew around the world, served as an ambassador, etc., etc. Well my claim to fame, whenever I was in the company of my colleagues, was “I once held the highest position of any airport manager in the world”. This would often duly impress those unfamiliar with my background—that is, until they found that my claim was based on the meaning of “position”. The LaPaz airport is, or at least was, the highest in the world—hence as its manager I must have been in the highest position of any airport manager.
The airline of course concentrated on the carriage of passengers; however it made a nickel or two through the carriage of birds and animals which were a joy to handle as they never complained. The birds and animals came in various categories and under varying circumstances:
–Penguins: For awhile in the fifties, Panagra was accepting for shipment to the States, penguins caught off the coast of Chile. After a number of shipments, they were no longer handled for several reasons. 1) They required frequent watering, done at enroute stations, resulting in water in the baggage compartments which trickled down into the control cables: 2) The SPCA or similar animal advocacy organization registered formal complaints that the shipping cages were not high enough to permit the penguins to stand erect; and 3) Our baggage handlers complained that almost every time they went to move a cage, they got their fingers nipped when the penguins would shove their bills through the wire grill of the cage.
–Parakeets: Some shipper in the interior of Bolivia obviously did not know the habits of the things he shipped. We found, when the aircraft transited LaPaz, a large crudely made cage in which some small weasel like animals were loaded on a top shelf and a bunch of parakeets loaded below them in the same cage. The animals were a blood thirsty lot as they managed to gnaw through the separation and systematically had literally slit the throats of the birds–all were dead or mortally wounded. (It would have been interesting to note who paid for the damages of this shipment).
–Parrots: The Captain of one of our DC3 flights from Santa Cruz into the jungle stops in Bolivia reported the following: While in flight, he had occasion to go to the rear of the aircraft. When he opened the door from the flight compartment, he noted all the passengers on the left side ducking their heads almost in unison, then everybody on the right side ducking. Why? It seems some passenger had brought a big parrot on board; it got loose and was airborne, making flights first down one side of the aisle then back again on the other side. Flights ceased when the Captain managed to throw a blanket over the bird.
–Bovines: They’re heavy but some went by air. “They” included a shipment of five cows and a bull from Quito. I had had little animal loading experience but we did our best loading these animals on a cargo C-47 equipped with temporary stalls, three in a line on either side of the aircraft. As the bull was the heaviest by far, I thought it made good sense from the aircraft’s weight and balance standpoint, to load the bull second behind the first cow. This we did. However on making a last minute check for tie-down, etc. I noted with some concern, with the animals so closely loaded nose to tail, that the bull had its nose in rather close proximity to the cow’s rear. Granted I knew little about animal husbandry, but I did know a little bit about the “birds and the bees”. So I made one of those executive decisions!; even though it meant delaying the departure; “Forget weight and balance–we will reload with the bull in the number one spot where all he could sniff would be just the thin air and perhaps the crew”.
–Dogs : We in operations frequently accused the passenger sales people of “promise them anything” and then let the airport personnel take care of the problem. This was the case of a dowager who was told when she made her reservation that: Yes, she could carry her pet poodle aboard. When she checked in at the airport, we said: No, you can’t carry your dog in the passenger cabin. She was furious, threatening to cancel, etc. In an effort to keep a passenger and yet follow company rules, I invited her out to the plane on which she would travel to show her where her dog could in fact travel–in the baggage compartment between the flight deck and the passenger cabin. Unfortunately the flight deck outside door was open, and a stiff cool breeze was blowing. She said: No way would her dog be able to stand such discomfort. I countered with: The crew ride up here and they find it quite comfortable. Her reply: My dog is not a pilot and he can’t be expected to endure such hardship. (She canceled her trip)
At the in-transit stop at Santiago, the three man crew remained in their respective seats –normally they would get off to stretch, check load, etc. I was asked to come out to the plane and inquired if they had a problem. Yes–definitely ! A large German-shepherd type dog had been loaded in a large crate and the crate stored in the compartment between the flight deck and passenger cabin. Enroute the dog had managed to gnaw the wooden slats off the cage, then chew through the nylon webbing that restrained the cargo, and thus was free to wander forward. Fortunately he was satisfied with the operation of the aircraft and made no menacing moves toward the crew. However after landing when the crew wished to deplane, he growled ominously. He was unwilling to let anyone leave or enter the flight deck. We managed to get his crate out through the passenger cabin, repaired it, then with a choice morsel of red meat, lured him back into his crate.
Panagra operated DC-6s from Buenos Aires to the States equipped with both upper and lower berths in the rear cabin. Panagra had a regulation that no pets were to be carried aboard. On a flight destined to Miami when bed-time approached, the flight attendants made up the berths and soon thereafter the berth occupants settled done for a night’s sleep. On this particular flight, they did not sleep long. One elderly lady passenger had managed to smuggle her Pekinese aboard and she and it were snuggled together in a lower berth. The lower berth forward of her berth was occupied by a wealthy textile merchant who traveled frequently and usually imbibed not only the drinks offered by the airline but also from his copious supply.
All was peaceful in the rear cabin until the merchant decided to make a trip aft to the restroom. He was in bathrobe and slippers. Just as he came abeam the lady’s berth, her Peke jumped through the curtain and out in the aisle. The lady immediately made a grab blindly through the curtain hoping to reach her dog–unfortunately she managed to grab, not dog, but the bare legs of the merchant. Instead of being a gentle-man, ignore the grab on the leg, and assist in retrieving the dog, he was drunk enough to yell out that he was being attacked by both dog and passenger. Lights came on, confusion reigned but finally the long-suffering hostess managed to: 1) Corral the dog; 2) Mollify the matron; and 3) Pour the guy another drink; thereby restoring some semblance of order in the rear cabin.
After a flight that had originated in the States had been unloaded and departed, I was asked to come down to the air express room. There was a big crate containing a very scared but friendly beagle. A shipment of a dog was hardly an event but this one was different. Conspicuously posted on the top of the crate was a sign reading: “My name is Buttercup; I am traveling to Santiago; if I get into any trouble, please contact Russ Hoyt, Panagra manager, Santiago airport” (Fortunately she did not get into any trouble). It seems that friends of ours living in Santiago wanted a mate to go with the Beagle they had–hence the shipment of Buttercup from the U.S.
The crew of the local Bolivian airline had to make a forced landing in a jungle area. The search plane found them and signaled them to jump off the wing and walk to the nearest clearing where a rescue plane could land. The crew refused to budge from the wing–why? A least one boa constrictor had been spotted enjoying the relative coolness in the shade under the wing.
–Llamas: Obviously the llamas collectively had a good public relations agent. The first thing that most U.S. tourists wanted to see on arrival at LaPaz was a real live llama. So we obliged. One of the baggage men was an Indian who kept a small llama herd. We “negotiated” with him to lend, on a long term basis, one tri-colored, aloof-appearing llama. We also had custom tailored, a green blanket with PANAGRA lettered on both sides. When a Panagra trip approached the airport for landing, the baggage man quickly robed the llama with his green blanket and tethered the llama in the area between the aircraft ramp and the terminal building. This llama or its successor (the first died at a rather tender age, due no doubt to too much tender loving care) must have had his photo taken hundreds of times by incoming tourists. We did not encourage too much togetherness as the llama has been known to spit a very foul smelling liquid when he gets irked, which is rather frequently.
–Presidents: Ibanez (Chile); Arosemena and Galo Plaza (Ecuador); Estensoro (Bolivia) were among various S.A. presidents that traveled Panagra on one or more occasions with the accompanying pomp and circumstance. There were also such notables as assorted ambassadors, diverse diplomats, and political prima-donas. One thing was evident from handling these various big-shots –the worst thing the airline could do for them was give them the so called VIP treatment.
Panagra airport employees were well trained in handling passengers, loading baggage, collecting passports, assigning seats, making reservations, etc. on a courteous but routine basis. However the downtown sales personnel, always trying to show how good the Panagra service was, would sometimes short-cut or otherwise up-set our “standard” passenger handling procedures. This frequently resulted in mis-routed baggage, mixed-up seat assignments, passports left in the office, say on Sunday when the office was closed, and other inconveniences–service that no passenger, to say nothing of a VIP, should endure.
–Drunks: No matter how fast it flies, it seems to take an airplane a long time to reach destination. Most of our West coast flights were about five hours duration. Some passengers spent this time sleeping or reading; however a few spent it drinking, first the moderate amount offered by the airline then from their own supply smuggled aboard. On one flight, Santiago/Lima, one guy got so drunk that he became not only a nuisance but a safety problem; consequently the captain elected to make an unscheduled stop enroute to off load the drunk. Panagra promptly billed this passenger for the cost of this landing (and to the passenger’s credit, he paid the bill
–UNESCO: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization met in Santiago in the early 50’s. High ranking delegates from nations around the World attended this meeting which lasted about a week. This meant diplomatic big-wigs arriving and leaving for a period of a week or ten days. Such VIPS are usually hard to handle, they demand and expect special treatment, privilege or recognition. However at this meeting a short, pot-bellied, cigar chewing staff member was in charge of logistics. He was completely un-awed by the importance of these diplomats. He consistently herded them in and out of busses and limos, collected and delivered their baggage, handled their diplomatic papers –all without fear or favor AND his crowning achievement as far as we at the airport were concerned, was getting each and every one of them to the airport at the appointed hour, day in and day out, without a hitch.
–Pole Vaulters: The Chilean pole vaulting team left Santiago for the Olympics. They were few in number so no problem EXCEPT they brought their own poles which must have been 15 to 18 feet long. How does one load such a length in the aircraft’s baggage compartments? Our innovative chief mechanic was equal to the task; after consulting his maintenance manuals, he removed the several partitions that separated the front and rear belly compartments. The poles were then “threaded” into the rear compartment through to the forward compartment.
–Congressional Delegation: Thirty-nine Members of Congress descended upon us from the U.S. The majority came via military aircraft but Panagra provided transportation for some and all ground and dispatch services. This was listed as a “fact-finding mission”. Just what facts were unearthed, we did not know but apparently there were many more “facts” to be found in Valparaiso, a plush resort on the beautiful Chilean seacoast, as the delegation spent minimal time gleaning “facts” from government officials in Santiago.
–Chilean Navy: The Chilean government purchased, or was given, some U.S. naval vessels. Over 900 Chilean sailors were flown via :Panagra. (NOT in the same plane!) to the States to man these vessels. We loved the sailors–they each traveled with only one duffel bag which they carried, on command, directly to the plane’s cargo compartments; and when the departure was called, they marched in formation promptly to the ramp and into the cabin.
–Pianists: At one time the schedule in Santiago called for the flights from Lima and from Buenos Aires to arrive within a few minutes of each other. Consequently passengers for both flights were often at the airport simultaneously. On one occasion, fog moved in just before either flight landed so they both circled for weather improvement. Arthur Rubinstein was traveling Northbound and Claudio Arrau was destined to Buenos Aires. There they both were patiently awaiting their flights and we could not locate even one piano in the terminal!
–Movie Stars: For some reason, in the early fifties at least, Montevideo had a great appeal to U.S. movie stars. As Panagra offered the best service to that city, on more than one occasion movie stars were either in-transiting or stopping over in Santiago. Whenever the word got out that a certain actress was to be seen at the airport, large crowds plus the press congregated at the airport. We handled these famous passengers with our usual efficiency but they did cause a problem or two. Immigration officials could care less what their stage names were, the officials demanded their names as they appeared on their birth certificates.
Some imbibed rather heavily enroute. One was so looped that she refused to budge from her seat to greet her admiring public which had gathered just before her arrival. The press were so insistent on interviewing her that they began forcing their way onto the plane; we had to request police assistance to “protect her privacy”.
The more discerning Chilean gentlemen observing some of the U.S. actresses were heard to comment: “tan flaca” (too thin).
–Basketball Players: The Harlem Globe Trotters played an exhibition game or two in Quito. They thought our service was excellent but did complain that-the ceiling of the DC-3 required them to stoop a bit: The local press and others aware of their arrival from the States came to the airport in droves. For crowd control purposes, we requested assistance from the Ecuadorean Army Cadet School located just off the airport. A delegation of cadets, in full uniform arrived, and as the plane taxied in, they promptly formed a line on each side of the path from the plane to the terminal. The moment the players stepped off the plane, who do you think were the first to mob them? Right–the cadets!
–Symphony Orchestra: The New York Symphony Orchestra in the late forties made a tour of principal West Coast cities, including LaPaz. Because of the elevation, aircraft loads were severely restricted. Two planes were required for the musicians and staff; and two freighter trips required for the instruments. Our cargo loaders, much more expert on loading animals, gasoline drums, cases of local beer, fresh fruits, etc. than loading musical instruments were constantly harassed by symphony staff during the loading operations with: Careful of the harp; don’t crush the timpani: the violin cases go on top. The piccolo player seemed to be the only one who was unconcerned with the loading.
The Panagra trip from Buenos Aires radioed ahead that a passenger had suffered an attack of some kind and had been pronounced dead by a doctor who happened to be aboard. This meant that among other things we in Santiago should immediately attempt to summon the local official who, according to law, had to examine the body before it could be removed from the place of death, in this case, the aircraft. With the plane now on final approach, we still had not been able to reach the proper authority. So it looked like a lengthy delay once the trip got on the ground; this would be serious as the trip was destined for New York.
Sargento Bustos in charge of the Carabinero (police) detail at the airport was on duty awaiting the arrival of our trip. We enjoyed a good relationship. We had done him a number of favors and he in turn had been very cooperative in past “crises”. So I went over to him and explained our predicament that we could not locate any official and consequently were fearful that the trip wouldn’t be able to continue without a lengthy delay. Did he have any suggestions? He came up with an excellent one. “Are you sure the passenger is dead; perhaps he is only very, very ill and dies just after he is taken by stretcher from the aircraft.” He obviously was willing to cooperate! Sure enough, he got an ambulance at ready. The medic crew which rushed aboard under his direction, made a big deal of removing the deathly ill passenger, who according to the tongue-in-cheek sergeant, dies as he was being placed in the ambulance. Our trip departed on schedule, the ambulance remained on the ramp for about an hour and a half before the official arrived and authorized the movement of the passenger to the morgue.
Under certain weather conditions, flights from Santiago to Buenos Aires had to cross the Andes during daylight. “Daylight” was carefully calculated as it varies with time of year and latitude, and shown in tables in the station operations manual. If a flight was behind schedule and weather marginal, we in Santiago could figure out quite accurately when the trip had to leave Santiago in order to cross the Andes during official daylight. If there was not enough time, then we prepared for an overnight of the trip. However, if there was a remote chance of shaving the scheduled forty minute ground time by fifteen or twenty minutes, and thereby beating the deadline, then we went all out.
“All out” meant going to each employee group, explaining the situation, and asking them to be ready to help out. The esprit de corps or gung-ho attitude was tremendous. Traffic clerks closed the papers, radio ops temporarily signed off the network, weather observers closed their office, chauffeurs left their vehicles, supervisors became baggagemen, and so on.
On arrival the plane was positioned for a straight out taxi path; the second the props ceased turning, a horde descended on the plane: bags were unloaded but left on the ramp until outgoing bags loaded; crew remained at the aircraft; cabin cleaned up; ash trays emptied; seat covers changed; toilets cleaned; food service boarded; fuel loaded; #3 and #4 engines started while passengers were boarding–all this activity– most of it done by employees not normally involved–would result, hopefully, with an overnight avoided which in turn avoided passenger inconvenience and company expense.
Inflation was (and is) a perennial problem in many South .American countries: Bolivia was certainly no exception. The big challenge for those paid in U.S. dollars was how to carry enough money without using a suitcase. The denominations of the Boliviano never could keep up with inflation. This meant for example with an 84 Boliviano to 1 U.S. dollar rate, exchanging one hundred dollars meant receiving 8400 in the local currency. The largest denomination in general circulation at that time was the 100 Boliviano bill, but 10s, 20s, and 50s were more common. To permit ease in counting, the banks or money changers made 100 Boliviano “bundles”‘–each bundle was made up of: 10-10s or 5-20s, or 2-50s, or 1-100, all folded once in the same direction. Then the bundles were stacked alternately–that is, the first bundle with the fold to the right, the second to the left, the third to the right, and so on. Therefore with the exchange of $100, one received 84 bundles of varying thickness, depending on the denominations in each bundle. This could easily make a stack 20 to 24 inches high. The money changer would unceremoniously wrap the stack in a sheet of old newspaper and off one went down the street with a “package” under one arm of local currency that looked both in size and shape like an ordinary loaf of bread.
The Panagra trip from Lima with connections from the U.S. had arrived and passengers were milling around claiming their baggage. One family returning from a shopping spree in New York had a pile of bags which were lined up for customs inspection. The bags were cleared and loaded into a taxi. Just before the family left, an alert baggage man called to say that they had left a bag behind.
“Thank you, but it is not ours”.
“But it was checked in with your other bags when you left New York”
“Could be, but it is not our bag–we have all our bags OK”
So there the bag sat. Other than the LPB destination tag issued at LaGuardia where the LaPaz family departed, there was no other identification. As the bag was not locked, we opened it to perhaps find a clue as to owner’s identity. The only “clue” was the passenger receipt portion of a ticket issued by American Airlines for a passenger traveling Providence/LaGuardia. We immediately sent the following message to the station agent at LaGuardia: WEHOL BAG TYPE A OAPAX PVD/LGA AA123 JUNAB PAG OALPB ~
American at LaGuardia would have had no trouble in reading this message as “we holding a bag type A .(the airlines used a sort of universal chart which depicted and classified various types of baggage) of a passenger who traveled Providence/LaGuardia via American Airlines flight 123 on June 12”. I’m sure that “PAG OALPB” drove the agent to his code book. PAG, short for Panagra in turn short for Pan American Grace Airways, was far from a known airline at LaGuardia and although the “OA”, meaning airport operations, was in fairly common usage, the “LPB” (all airline airports have a unique three letter designator) no doubt caused some bewilderment.
Eventually the agent found the “translation” for LPB, but greater bewilderment undoubtedly followed. How could a small bag of a passenger traveling just across Connecticut, probably a half hour trip, end up in LaPaz–probably 3500 miles distant from `New York?
We never did figure this one out.
One of the U.S. families based in LaPaz noticed that their live-in maid was obviously pregnant. The lady of the house solicitously asked who the father was.
The: maid explained: “It (conception) occurred during Carnivales (when for three days prior to Lent, the Bolivians literally have a ball–dancing, drinking, throwing water balloons with almost everybody running around in masks and costumes). I’m not sure exactly who it was but one thing I do know–he was “vestido como un leon”. (dressed just like a lion).
Our DC6 from Lima reported a few minutes out from Santiago that he was experiencing difficulty in getting a green light indicating that the nose wheel was down and locked. The tower on a fly-by, reported that the nose wheel looked OK so the landing was made. The pilot held the weight off the nose as long as possible but eventually it had to receive weight. When it did it slowly retracked with the aircraft sliding the last few hundred feet on its nose and bent prop blades. The nose down “landing” was so gentle that no one was even aware of anything unusual except the angle of the cabin when the plane came to a halt. We on the ground immediately responded and assisted the passengers out the front cargo door which was the closest to the ground.
After the passengers claimed their luggage at the terminal, they went their separate ways. The company, at the least its lawyers, immediately instructed me to get a release from each of the passengers. So armed with a passenger list and the passengers’ temporary or permanent residence in Santiago, I called on each. There were thirty nine South Americans–chiefly Chilean, Peruvian and Argentinian. To a man (and woman), they cheerfully and readily signed the release expressing their admiration for the skill of the pilot and the concern of the company.
There were also two U.S, and one Canadian citizens who were passengers. Did they sign the release? No way! The Canadian claimed that he was not badly injured but his bag was ruined. The company didn’t argue, simply replaced his bag even though there was no way his bag could have been damaged in this incident. One U.S. passenger said he was sorry to report that he was in agony all night long due an injured back. Subsequent investigation by the company revealed that he was a perennial or perpetual bad back complainer and got nothing when he sued. The other U.S. passenger said he felt miserable due excruciating head aches caused from the severe jolt after the landing. There was of course no severe jolt and his case dragged on with settlement unknown.
This same accident almost caused a severe diplomatic squabble. Immediately after the accident, Lima headquarters were notified and a message came back: “Do not move the aircraft nor otherwise touch the aircraft, except to remove passenger’s belongings and mail, until the accident investigation team from Washington arrives Santiago and permits aircraft removal.”
We were aware of the fact that accident investigation is made much simpler if the investigators can view the actual position of the plane, etc..; however we were also aware of at least two other facts: The investigators at best could not arrive Santiago for another twenty four hours: The Santiago airport serving the Capital of the nation had only one runway! It would be ridiculous to demand from Chilean authorities that no one touch our aircraft which would be blocking the one runway for at least 24 hours.
The Chilean Air Force was the operator of the airport and a full Commander was in charge. He and I had numerous past occasions to talk on business matters and our relationship was quite good. I went to him and asked him to order me to remove the aircraft. He protested saying that he did not feel it necessary to issue an order. I repeated the request for an order. Finally after several exchanges of this type, he saw my point. “Senior Hoyt, the airport has been closed due your aircraft blocking the runway. Traffic is tied up. You must remove it as expeditiously as possible’.
Armed with this order, we went to work:- borrowed a large flat bed truck: positioned it just in front of the aircraft: placed a pile of old auto tires under the tail (which of course at that time was way up in the air); gave about thirty urchins, observing the situation., a thrill by letting them aboard and move to the extreme rear; thirty wasn’t quite enough so more, a few at a time, were admitted until the combined weight was such that the tail slowly sank onto the cushion of tires; the truck was backed under the collapsed nose wheel: and with the aid of tugs at each main gear, the DC6 slowly moved off the runway.
Sure enough about 24 hours later, the investigators arrived and immediately gave us a lecture and reprimand for not leaving every thing “as is”. We deferentially explained that we sure wanted to leave the aircraft as it came to rest but were caught in a bind: obey instructions from company headquarters, or to comply with a direct order from the Air Force Commander who, after all, was in charge of the airport which was located in Chile, NOT the U.S.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has its operators and procedures throughout the world. It took me several months after my arrival in Quito to realize that Panagra had its own “CIA” within Ecuador. According to the U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, it was far superior to the U.S. Embassy intelligence gathering.
Panagra in addition to offering international service to and from the country also served, with aircraft based in Quito, seven Ecuadorean cities. Panagra airline personnel were in each of these cities and among these employees were radio operators who regularly handled airline related messages to and from the Quito station and among the seven cities.
For some reason, the radio operators, as a group, were more politically oriented than most other employees. During those times when official business was light, they would “shoot the breeze” as the saying goes with fellow operators at other stations keeping them current on events in their particular city. The Quito chief radio operator was a very conscientious person and felt it his duty to report to me any news that he picked up from our radio network that might in any way affect our operations. Consequently, I was quite well informed on a variety of current topics, e.g. university students in Cuenca were on strike; Peruvian troops were conducting maneuvers near the border at Loja; the Guayaquil dock workers were on a work slow-down; etc., etc.
I did not do much with such information until one day the U.S. Ambassador came out to the airport and asked me to join him for a cup of coffee. After the usual pleasantries, he got to the point which was essentially: Through the Panagra radio network throughout the country you receive on a very informal, but nonetheless reliable, basis various bits of news concerning activities throughout the country. I have very little confidence in our Embassy efforts in gathering “sensitive” information. So I’d like to come out occasionally to “compare notes” with you on what you may have learned recently on events within the country.
So from then on, until that Ambassador was transferred some months later, Panagra’s “CIA” functioned over an occasional cup of coffee.
The LaPaz airport is situated on a high plateau. To get onto this plateau from Arica at sea level, the DC-3 often came climbing up through a pass in the coastal mountains. The LaPaz/Arica railroad track snaked its way through this pass. A tourist who had just arrived on our trip from Arica, in casual conversation with me, mentioned that flying in Peru and Bolivia must be quite a challenge due to terrain and elevation. He asked several questions about Panagra’s operating procedures. I explained our take-off limitations at LaPaz, our emergency landing strips along the route, and our requirement to maintain a minimum of one thousand feet over all terrain. This last rule caught his attention. “A minimum of 1000′! Hell, on this trip up through the pass, if we had met a train going the other way, the pilot woul have had to climb to avoid a head-on!”
We had not been in Quito many weeks before we were invited to a party hosted by an Ecuadorian Army Major and his wife. Their apartment was located on the second floor of a building which overlooked a large park. The Presidential Palace was located directly across this park.
We used a cab to get to this party. Enroute we heard irregular noises which I attributed to vehicle back-firing. We arrived at the apartment about the same time as another couple who immediately after ,getting out of their vehicle. dropped to a crouch position and shielded by their own auto made the comparative safety of the apartment entrance.
When in Rome, etc. So we ducked down with our taxi to protect us and also reached the haven of the entrance. The “back-firing” was in reality gunfire from a neighboring hill, fired over our heads toward the Presidential Palace.
Once inside, we noticed no one seemed particularly concerned and the party continued unabated. A loud rumbling sound was heard outside on the street. Our host looked out, spotted what was apparently a tank from his unit, grabbed his sidearms, excused himself, went out and flagged down the tank.
After continued but spasmodic gunfire, our host came by in his tank, grabbed a drink or two, danced a dance or two, excused himself again and went off “to the war” in his tank. Later he returned, again offering apologies, and explaining that a revolutionary coup had been averted through the timely response of loyal government troops, and reporting that now things were back to normal. When the party ceased, the Major. still playing the part of the perfect host, commandeered an Army jeep and personally escorted us back to our residence. We were greatly tempted to refuse his offer, feeling that the military vehicle was a perfect target for some unrequited revolutionary.
No doubt other airlines had special techniques or equipment to fit their special operating needs. Panagra operated in some of the most difficult terrain in the World: over water; in and above the Andes; over low lying jungles; above barren desert wastelands. Each Panagra aircraft had bright yellow bands that encircled each wing about fifteen or so feet from the tip. Decorative, yes, but they were there for a much more practical reason. Yellow was the most conspicuous color particularly viewed against the brown of the desert or the green of the jungle. Therefore the aircraft would be much more readily spotted from the air should it make a forced landing somewhere.
Each aircraft operating in Bolivia, at least, was equipped with a survival kit: machete, flares, limited rations, water, first aid kit, and a bottle of Scotch–snake bite you know! There was, however, a perennial problem. Each time the periodic inventory of the survival kit was made, the Scotch was missing.
Specially treated fuselage just in front of the tail wheel of the DC-3s was advisable. It was found that the unpaved runways at both Oruro and Uyuni, Bolivia contained chemicals which when mixed with water (landings or take-offs during or just after a rain) made a highly corrosive mixture which damaged the aircraft skin. LaPaz had a specially built wheeled water tank with pump. On any arrival from Oruro or Uyuni, the underside of the rear fuselage was carefully flushed.
A well marked “path” leading from the end of the LaPaz runway to the beginning of an emergency landing strip located about sixteen kilometers to the West was deemed necessary due the dirt landing strip blending into the rest of the barren terrain. Finding landmarks to mark the path was no problem. The Indians, when they cleared their land to grow potatoes, found rocks wherever they turned. They piled these loose rocks in mounds all over the place. All we had to do was sight a line from the LaPaz runway to the emergency strip and then conspicuously paint each mound that was on this line.
Let the record show that the airline engineering department, using surveying instruments and starting at each end, failed to meet midway by several hundred feet. The so-called uneducated Panagra obreros solved this “engineering” problem by using three men. One stood on the roof of a truck at the end of the runway.; Another stood on the roof of another truck at the beginning of the emergency strip and the third walking between the two trucks guided by hand signals to maintain a straight line. (Visibility at LaPaz is almost invariably unlimited.)
Guayaquil to Quito, from the principal seaport to the Capital, was l65 miles by air. Who knows how far it was overland with literally hundreds of curves and switchbacks?
Panagra received delivery of a large van in Guayaquil but for use in Quito. Three of us–a Quito based pilot, Captain Schultz, the Guayaquil airport manager, Dick Horton, and the Quito airport manager, me)–volunteered to get the van to Quito.
We loaded spare gasoline, food, blankets, emergency tools, tow rope, etc., etc.; then drove to the Guayaquil riverport and onto a small barge lashed to the side of a river freighter. Off we went up the Guayas River.
The river pilot obviously had not been thoroughly briefed on the extra width resulting from the barge tied in parallel to the freighter. This was obvious as during the night he managed to negotiate the freighter without problem but on several occasions ran our barge onto sand bars and other obstructions. Each time brought confusion and shouting among the crew. Reverse engines, hard right rudder, cast off the rear line and, finally, full speed ahead.
On arrival at Babahoya, our barge was maneuvered parallel to the river bank and two 2″ x 8″ x 12′ planks were placed from barge to bank. I was instructed to jockey the van around and depart over the planks. We protested that the planks would never support the van. This protest was countered with: “We’ve used them before and they didn’t break!” I inched up the plank, heard an ominous cracking sound, gunned the engine gaining sufficient momentum so that despite the plank failing, the rear wheel hit close enough to the bank, even though at a dangerous angle, to climb to firm ground.
The barge crew shrugged their shoulders and were worried only about replacing the broken plank Once on land, we drove on fairly flat terrain and then began to climb into the Andes. The road, if it may be called that, was dirt, one lane wide, steeply uphill, and a continuous series of S curves and switchbacks. The proper driving technique was to blow the horn almost continuously and always remain in the middle of the road. (Keeping to the right on curves is definitely NOT recommended. Should an opposite bound vehicle be met, it is far better to try and stop in a head-on position. (To bear to the right on an outside curve could run the distinct danger of a side swipe followed by a plunge to oblivion thousands of feet below.)
On one occasion, when we met another vehicle and managed to stop bumper to bumper, both vehicles were jockeyed in order to pass. We happened to be on the outside. On inching by the other vehicle, which was hugging the inside bank, our right rear outside wheel ended up hanging free. We managed to get out of that predicament by carefully constructing a platform of rocks under the hanging wheel. Luckily, the platform held so we got safely back on track.
Our average speed was probably less than ten m.p.h. but by nightfall we managed to get to Ambato which at least had lodging and a hot meal and a bar. The Ambato/Quito portion the next day was relatively uneventful, that is, if one does not consider continuous turning, climbing, and near-misses eventful.
We thought we had it made and got careless. Only one of us had a valid Ecuadorian driver’s license. At previous checkpoints, we made sure that the license holder was driving. We were rounding a curve just before entering Quito, when another check-point was spotted. Too late, this time we did not have time to change drivers. When I, as the driver, was asked for my license (which I did not possess), I tried to give the impression that we did not understand Spanish. That ruse did not work so our one licensed driver who had been relaxing in a rear seat dutifully passed his license forward which I in turn gave to the police. All licenses carry photos. The policeman looked at the photo and then looked at me. Did this several times as obviously the photo was of a blond round faced person and I was of dark hair and leaner face. Finally he gave up the comparison, shrugged his shoulders, handed the license back and waived us on.
The airlines were always great in extending so-called VIP treatment to those passengers that the airlines considered important to them for business reasons. Panagra was no exception. The Chairman of the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (Sosthenes Bens) made a trip around South America. After his trip, he apparently was asked about how he rated the services offered by Panagra. The story goes that he reported quite favorably EXCEPT for one item: the toilet paper furnished in his room at the Hotel Carrera, Santiago’s leading hotel, left much to be desired. He certainly had a point. During the early fifties, Chile did make toilet paper. Unfortunately it was rather crude, being sort of sand-papery on one side and waxy on the other, giving rise to the comment heard locally: use one side to clean, the other to polish.
Some months later, this VIP planned to travel again on business over Panagra routes, including a stop-over in Santiago. Panagra went all out to assure that his trip was a success in all respects. About a week before his planned arrival in Santiago, I received a package, delivered personally by the Captain of one of our flights, which was labeled: FOR THE SOLE ATTENTION OF F.R.HOYT, LOS CERRILLOS, SANTIAGO. I immediately opened the package; within it was another package labeled: FOR IMMEDIATE PERSONAL DELIVERY TO TONY VAUGHAN, GENERAL MANAGER, HOTEL CARRERA, SANTIAGO. I did as directed, delivering the package to Mr. Vaughan personally.
He was so curious, he opened his package while I was still in his office. The letter accompanying the package stated very clearly: JUST PRIOR TO MR. BENS CHECK-IN YOU ARE TO PERSONALLY SUPERVISE THE PLACING OF ONE ROLL IN THE TOILET PAPER HOLDER OF HIS BATH ROOM, AND THE STORING OF THIS EXTRA ROLL IN THE CABINET ABOVE THE LAVATORY.
Needless to say we were both very much impressed with the detailed planning and execution that went into assuring the availability of good-old U.S. grade toilet paper in a VIP’s bathroom.
Some contrast! Panagra served the city of Esmeraldas, located along the Ecuadorean coast, with the most modern of transportation at that time, the DC3, which got the passengers onto the airport. To reach the center of the city, however, they were transported across a river by dug-out.
Getting aviation gasoline to LaPaz wasn’t easy. It left the refinery at Talara in drums then by ship down the coast to Mollendo, Peru, then by railroad to Puno on the West side of Lake Titicaca, across the lake by boat, again by rail to a siding near the airport. There it was loaded on our own truck to the airport. Shipments usually consisted of at least 150 drums.
When the drums came off the truck, they were neatly stockpiled in rows three drums high. This represented a fair amount of extra work so three or four day laborers were hired to load, unload and stack the drums.
On one occasion some obreros (Laborers) had not quite finished the stacking operations, so were told to return the next morning to. finish the job and get paid. But during the night a revolution broke out. Among other things, there was spasmodic rifle fire in and around the airport. Also the loyal government forces had taken over the airport and instructed us to permit no aircraft operations until further notice.
As we feared that a stray bullet might hit a drum, causing the whole shipment to go up in flames, and also wished to make sure that no planes could in fact operate, when the obreros returned in the morning their “orders for the day” were drastically changed.
“Remember all those drums you spent yesterday unloading and stacking?” “Si, señor.” “Bueno, now go back and roll the drums all over the airport; some on the runway, some along the edges, others down beside the buildings. Don’t put any two drums together.” At that point the obreros looked a little puzzled but shrugged their shoulders and went off to do as instructed– probably figuring as long as we get paid, we don’t care if the jefe is nuts and wants drums stacked one day and unstacked the next.
It was just a few days later when peace was restored. Then we had to get a crew to recover drums from all over the airport. Strangely enough, a quick inventory showed that only two drums were “lost”.
PANAGRA vs. Panagra
What did ZEROX , KLEENEX and PANAGRA have in common? The particular brand name was often used generically by the public in referring to any brand of copier or to any brand of facial tissue, or, in Panagra’s case, to any kind of aircraft.
In Ecuador, the word “panagra” was often used, by those with little or no education, interchangeably with airplane. This common usage did not always work out very well for Panagra’s reputation for accident free operation. On several occasions, the Quito newspaper carried lurid accounts of a panagra crashing into a mountain or ditching at sea or being lost in the jungle. Such accounts would of course prompt a reaction from Panagra officials. This in turn would occasion a subsequent article in the paper carefully explaining that the panagra that was reported to have been in an accident was not a panagra that belonged to Panagra but a panagra that belonged say to the Air Force or a local entity!!
Another “panagra” was the name given to the second balcony at the opera house, presumably because anyone occupying such a dizzy height was really flying high, hence in a panagra.
This confusion of Panagra vs. panagra resulted in at least one embarrassing situation. One afternoon an official car of the U.S. Embassy arrived in a cloud of dust at the airport. The second-in-command of the Embassy quickly came to my office and without formalities asked: “How bad was the crash?”
“What crash–where?”, I asked.
“We just received word that Panagra crashed near Loja, Ecuador.”
“That can’t be true–I would have received word from the company by now”
“I can understand why you are reluctant to keep this news under wraps but we in the Embassy must insist that we be given the details. You had a scheduled trip to Loja this morning. This must have been it”
“No, it couldn’t be–we canceled the Guayaquil, Loja, Guayaquil trip due high winds at Loja; the plane that was to have made this trip has returned and there it is on the ramp.”
He still thought I was trying to cover up so I ended up calling our flight dispatcher on radio telephone and receivinq from him a position report of any Panagra flight that was North of Lima and South of Panama. He was finally convinced.
Subsequently we found out that there was in fact an accident but not of Panagra but rather a panagra belonging to the Peruvian Air Force operating near the Peru/Ecuador border.
High altitude affects machines as well as man. The efficiency of the internal combustion engine suffers significantly at the high elevations. For example, Panagra took a severe weight penalty for piston-engined take-offs from LaPaz: 14 (instead of 21) passengers with normal baggage were just about maximum permissible payload for a DC-3. Heavily laden trucks occasionally would be unable to negotiate the steep hills at 14000″ to 15000′ elevation.
Friends of ours had just acquired a new Chevy from the States. We (two couples) had taken a trip down into the Beni region, thousands of feet lower than LaPaz, and were returning when he came up behind a fully loaded truck just barely moving up a steep narrow dirt road at approximately 15000′. Finally it just stalled out. As stalling under such circumstances was not exactly unheard of, the “crew” of the truck followed this standard procedure. The “copiloto” whose position is outside the cab on the right running board, immediately trotted to the rear and shoved a large wooden chock behind the rear wheel. All the Indians who had been riding atop the cargo, jumped off. Then a portion of the cargo (oranges in large sacks) was then unloaded. On signal, the driver got the engine started, raised it to maximum rpm, and started slipping the clutch. The truck would hopefully move slowly forward, at which time the copiloto moved his block upwards to make sure that the few inches gained would not be lost. This inching forward was repeated until the truck gained sufficient momentum to continue up the hill. At the next fairly level spot, the cargo was dragged up the hill by the Indians, and the Indians themselves got back on, and off the truck rumbled. As there was no room to pass, we had watched this entire episode with considerable interest.
As the truck was now far enough ahead to permit us to move, we climbed back in our car, Jim gunned the engine, engaged the clutch only to have the engine gasp and die. Now what do we do? Precisely what the truck copiloto had done earlier. I moved a chock (handy rock in our case) up behind the rear wheel every time the Chevy gained an inch or so until the car got going , then walked up to join the car at the next level spot.
Although there were few that thought it would do much good, Panagra had rudimentary crash fire/rescue protection at its airports. At LaPaz, we had an old Ford chassis with a 40 gallon foam extinguisher plus a few smaller ones carried aboard. Each airport manager was expected to conduct and report a fire drill to headquarters every three months. I had been there four or five months when I received a curt reminder from headquarters that no drill had been reported (and presumably had not been conducted) for at least three months.
Without giving my reply much thought, I immediately answered saying that we had been so busy going to the real thing that we had not had time for a drill. (I was told later that our Superintendent of Stations was so intrigued with the reply that he had it posted on the company bulletin board.)
My answer had considerable basis in fact. Unless a pilot knew exactly what he was doing, operations at 13,400′ were fraught with problems; and a number of pilots obviously did not know exactly what exactly what he was doing. During one six months period, our little crash truck manned by maintenance personnel, responded to:
Hence my apparent flippant but factual response to “How come no fire drill?”.
Strangely enough, none of these incidents involved fire. At that elevation the thin air does not readily support combustion. A lighted cigarette will go out if not puffed frequently. (P.S. Let the record show that at no time during my two years at that airport did our truck have to respond to a Panagra aircraft, we had pilots that knew what they were doing.)
What you don’t know …….
Any tourist visiting in Quito was invariably warned: “Don’t drink the tap water”. The suggested alternative was drinking bottled water, usually taken from pure water springs. No doubt the water was pure when it emerged from the ground, however it had to be put into containers, which were bottles of dark color and NOT the throw-away type.
The empties were returned to the bottling company, washed and refilled. For the mental well-being of the consumers, it was just as well they never witnessed the wash cycle.
An employee out in the back patio of the bottling plant with a mountain of returned bottles, was provided with two large tubs. The “wash cycle” consisted of the employee, an empty in each hand, dunking them in tub #1; the “rinse cycle” was dunking them in tub #2. The water in the tubs got progressively more contaminated as the day wore on with all sorts of contaminants having found their way into the empties.
And anyway the water in the tubs was the very tap water that the tourists were to avoid.
Most Americans in South America for the first time were unaccustomed to having maids. Then when they did hire a maid, who often was fresh from the country, they assumed that she knew a little bit about the finer things in life.
A newly hired maid reported that the bathroom was out of toilet paper. The lady of the house carefully removed a roll from the tightly locked storage closet (toilet paper was almost literally worth its weight in gold) and gave it to the maid. After an extended period, the lady of the house became curious as to why only silence emanated from the bathroom where the maid was supposedly working. Upon entering the bathroom, the senora found the maid squatting on the floor carefully transferring the paper from the full roll in her hands onto the empty roll which she had not removed from the paper holder.
Revolutions were almost a way of life in Bolivia. Successful revolutions, aborted revolutions, rumors of imminent revolutions–made work at the airport interesting to say the least: The small terminal building was literally battle scarred, having a number of conspicuous holes caused by rifle fire from an earlier clash between revolutionaries and loyalists.
Occasionally we were asked how the political unrest affected our airline operations. Our standard reply was that it was good for business! All the leaders of a previous revolution who had been exiled, felt the time was ripe for their return. That meant increased incoming passengers. All the leaders of the current revolution, which was unsuccessful, were only interested in fleeing the country. That meant increased outgoing passengers.
As a case in point, when I answered the phone in my office one morning after a coup had been attempted, I was asked: “What time does the first trip leave?” I thought it rather relevant to know where the inquirer wished to go, so I responded with: “To where?” His immediate reply: “No importe” (that’s not important).
An old BT-13 (a single engine trainer used in WWII) with Red Cross insignia conspicuously painted on its wings and fuselage was fired upon by anti-aircraft guns as the plane circled LaPaz. This heinous crime was roundly denounced in the leading newspaper accusing those that fired on the plane of violating all humanitarian principles. The next day it was disclosed in the same newspaper that the pilot and passenger in the plane were actually intent on dropping a hand made bomb on the airport, using the Red Cross marking to confuse the “enemy”.
“Who’s in charge here?” demanded young Bolivian Army lieutenant as he stormed officiously into the airport office. He curtly stated that due to a recently imposed martial law, no one was to leave or enter the country without first being cleared by him. He demanded the use of a desk with full view of the airport. He insisted that our tower operator communicate only in Spanish (our operator was bi-lingual; the officer was not). He required that only those employees in airline uniform deal with him. He interrogated me at some length as to my politics in the present crisis (I convinced him I had no revolutionary leanings).
During the course of the morning we followed his orders to the letter, delivering to him lists of all incoming/outgoing passengers, summoning those he wished to interrogate, and affording him every opportunity to inspect each plane and its cargo. Along about lunch time, his military bearing sagged perceptibly. After all his military bravado of the morning, he reentered my office, cap in hand, humble in demeanor and asked very apologetically: “May I go to lunch now?”
During one of the revolutions, the rebels “captured” the Panagra airport in Santa Cruz and the loyal government forces took over the LaPaz airport. The government won, the rebels lost. Consequently the government arrested our Santa. Cruz airport manager and threw him in jail for “collaborating with the enemy”.
When we in LaPaz heard about this, I went immediately to the U.S. Embassy which offered to do absolutely nothing in behalf of our manager even though he was a U.S. citizen. Consequently he languished in the Santa Cruz jail, which did not have what might be termed first class “accommodations”. In fact the prisoners weren’t fed much, if anything. As Santa Cruz was an overnight stop for our service across to Brazil, Panagra had a fairly complete in-flight food service set-up. When the word got to the airport that the boss was not only in jail but hungry, the staff sprang into action. It fired up the kitchen, got out the thermos’ and tray carriers, loaded up the station wagon and headed for the jail with at least a four course meal not only for the boss but his fellow inmates. The same procedure but with a different menu was repeated for breakfast the next morning.
Needless to say our airport manager was sorely missed when he was “sprung” from jail later that morning, thanks to the intervention of the Brazilian consul (NOT the U.S. authorities) based in Santa Cruz.
While the revolutionaries were still in control of the Santa Cruz airport, they took over a C-46 aircraft belonging to one of the meat companies. Soon thereafter we received a message via company radio from our Santa Cruz manager. The message was very lengthy, in English, and did not make too much sense. I finally figured out that he was trying to tell me, without the rebels knowing it, that a bombing “mission” was about to be directed toward the LaPaz airport where the loyalists had taken over our airport. To be on the safe side, we advised our flight dispatcher to hold a LaPaz destined flight until the situation could be clarified. Sure enough about an hour later, a C-46 appeared high in the sky, perhaps 18,000’to 20,000′. Immediately the loyalists launched their only “interceptor” –a tired AT-6 (Single engine, advance WWII trainer).
It deterred the C-46 not one iota as it was well above the AT-6 ceiling. We then noted three or four columns of dust arise in the general vicinity of the airport.
The “bomber” then left the area. We found out later that the rebels had confiscated our oxygen bottles. (The DC-3 is unpressurized so both crew and passenger oxygen bottles were routinely put aboard all flights out of Santa Cruz for operations at high altitudes). The bottles were emptied of oxygen and loaded with explosives and “anti-personnel” fragments (nuts, bolts, any piece of metal small enough to fit into the bottle opening). Four of these loaded bottles were loaded on the C-46. Also on board was a crudely made three sided wooden chute.
On overheading the LaPaz airport, the cargo door was opened, the chute extended, and “bombs away” (launched out the trough). Fortunately two things combined to cause no injury nor damage–the aim was poor and the “bombs” did not explode on impact.
A day or so later, the loyalists retaliated, sending their ace aviator in a P-38 to strafe the Santa Cruz airport. This he did, returning to a hero’s welcome at the LaPaz airport. While all were standing around the P-38 congratulating the pilot on his daring, one of the mechanics helpers went directly under the wing and, as he inspected the underwing, muttered “uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, si, ocho veces”.
When our pilot hero learned what the mechanic was counting, namely, the number of times the aircraft had been struck by rifle fire, he turned pale, then indignant. Imagine, those he was strafing had the nerve to shoot back!
Incidentally this was the same pilot who earlier in his career and while flying a P38 approaching the Washington National airport, descended directly onto a DC-4 also approaching to land. All occupants of the DC-4 perished; he survived. The LaPaz paper had headlines the next day which began with EL AS DE BOLIVIA. . .
There were several Gringos in LaPaz, acquainted with this P-38 pilot, who, after reading this headline agreed that “As” (which means “Ace” but is pronounced “ass” in Spanish) was quite appropriate.
Panagra employees were on duty at the airport but we didn’t have much to do. Because of a revolution, the airport was closed to all traffic. Suddenly a DC-3 approached from the South, made no contact with the tower, came in high to avoid runway closed markings, and taxied quickly to the terminal ramp. We dared not venture out, not knowing whether it was friend or foe; and no one aboard made any move to get out. After several minutes of this stand-off, the passenger door was opened a crack and a white flag (somebody’s.white shirt) was waved, Emboldened by no gun-fire, the crew opened the door fully, jumped out, and made quick dash to the Panagra office. They were greatly relieved to find that they were among “friends”, and related this story:
Their loyalties were with the existing government. When the rebels took over the Santa Cruz airport, they also took over the DC-3 that this crew was operating. The crew was ordered to fly to a rebel outpost further in the interior. To keep the crew “honest”, the DC-3 was given an armed escort (a single engine AT-6 with a rebel in one seat armed with a machine gun). Both planes got airborne and proceeded on course with the AT-6 flying diagonally behind the DC-3. Both entered a towering cumulus cloud. Within the cloud visibility was extremely limited. The DC-3 crew, wanting no part of this whole exercise, made a sharp combined descending turning movement. When the AT-6 emerged from the cloud, still on course, the DC-3 was no where in sight. Thus, freed of its escort, the DC-3 made bee-line for the LaPaz airport, hoping that the airport was under government control. However as the crew was not certain of this, (and wished to maintain radio silence), it landed, sized up the situation, and, to be on the safe side, displayed the flag of surrender..
At one time, the staff of the Chief Pilot’s Office of Panagra consisted of: The Chief Pilot; The Assistant Chief Pilot-Operations; and The Assistant Chief Pilot–Technical.
The first names respectively of these three supervisory pilots were:
Panagra owned and operated the “works” in LaPaz; the landing area, the terminal building and even the control tower. The principal runway, almost 12000 feet long, had a noticeable grade. Unless the wind was a significant factor, landings were made uphill and takeoffs down, that is, in the opposite direction.
One day, a Panagra DC-3 flight was ready to go, requested and received tower clearance, lumbered West down the runway, gradually picking up speed. Suddenly a BT-13 showed up from the South, made a 90 degree turn and landed to the East without tower contact. As the BT-13 slowed, the DC-3 roared by and miraculously lifted off without colliding. The tower operator was speechless, then regained his composure and yelled down to me: “Should I contact our trip?”
“No, better wait until he calls you.”
A few moments later, the Panagra crew began its call, “Now that we’ve cleaned up the flight deck . . . .” Meanwhile I ran out and climbed onto the wing of the BT-13 as it was parked and began to berate the pilot for his stupidity. He contritely acknowledged that perhaps he should have called the tower or at least observed traffic before landing. However, he was firm in his conviction that safety was never compromised because: “The wing span for my aircraft is fourteen meters, the DC-3 wing is thirty meters, and I kept to the right”.
The City of LaPaz sits in a valley some thousand feet below its 13,000 foot airport. Proceeding to LaPaz from the Pacific, terrain is flat and almost completely devoid of civilization. Because the airport is located in such barren surroundings, the runway unpaved, and the city not visible, passengers unfamiliar with the area were often convinced that the plane was making an emergency landing on rough ground short of its LaPaz destination. Some of the more experienced pursers often advised the passengers, after they heard the landing gear go down, that the trip was in reality landing at, not short of, the airport.
Prior to putting a new type of aircraft into service, Panagra ran exhaustive tests on operational performance at LaPaz. (This was sort of a pioneering effort as few if any other airlines had to operate off airports at 13000′ elevations.)
The old faithful DC3 managed to get in and out of LaPaz for years without any extra help, although with a much reduced payload. When the DC4 began operations, we had to hang JATO (Jet Assist Take Off) bottles on it. JATO was not used for normal take-offs; it was there is case of engine failure on take-off, as it was impossible, once take off speed was obtained to abort the take-off due to insufficient stopping area even though the runway was 12,000 long, down hill, and into the wind.
During the tests before regular service was begun, on the second take-off, the tower reported seeing something fall off the plane, and the crew reported problems with the landing gear warning system. On checking the runway, we found pieces of retreaded tire all over the place. This happened once again in a later test resulting in a closer examination of the tire problem. It was concluded that due to the abnormal high speeds necessary for take-off, the main wheels rotated so fast that the rubber separated from the rest of the tire. (Airlines routinely retread tires many times before they become unserviceable). From then on, no DC4 operations were conducted at LaPaz unless all tires were new, that is, never retreaded.
Many will recall the familiar scene of the mechanic on the ground giving the thumbs up signal to the pilot who immediately activates the starter, the engine catches, and away they go. What happens however if the starter doesn’t work and the nearest replacement is hundreds of miles away? One starts it the hard way! Tucked away in the dark corners of some of Panagra’s maintenance sheds was a rudimentary contraption used to start engines with no functioning starter. It consisted of a long, very long, thick bungee cord at one end of which is a large leather boot, about three quarters out along the bungee, split into a V. The boot is slipped over a prop blade tip, the propeller is turned by hand until this blade is up just a few degrees from vertical, the pilot gives the ready signal from the cockpit and at least four men on each length of the V of the bungee walk away at right angles from the prop. As they walk out holding the cords, the tension is increased exerting a tremendous pull on the prop. The blade does not move, however, because men are holding the prop stationary using the other two blades. On command, the prop holders let go. The bungee tension is (hopefully) sufficient to pull the prop through fast enough for the engine to catch.
If anyone is wondering why the end of the bungee ends up in a V shape, the answer is: a matter of survival. The boot, once it slips off the blade, comes back at a speed that would probably kill anyone in its direct path. The V permits the boot to fly harmlessly between the two groups that were tensioning the bungee.
Our trip from Buenos Aires had come and gone when I noticed a tourist wandering around the airport with camera in hand. As I did not wish him to venture out on the airfield, I went out to chat with him. After a few pleasantries, he inquired quite seriously as to the actual elevation of the airport. I pointed to the sign in front of the terminal which read:-
He immediately went over and took several photos, explaining that when he was planning this trip around South America some smart aleck amateur pilot back home told him that obviously there was a misprint of the airport’s elevation because “No airplane can get airborne at that elevation”. After he took his photos, he left the airport.
However two days later, just before the departure of his trip, he came into the office to ask a favor. Give him something in writing to “prove” to his skeptical friend that the airport was in fact 13,404 feet. To oblige, I put a Panagra letterhead in the typewriter. My short letter stated: “This is to certify that NC 23456, a DC3, at approximately 12:30, June 17, 1949 departed the LaPaz, Bolivia airport, situated on a plateau at an elevation of 13,404 feet, with a passenger complement of fourteen and a crew of three without incident. This is to further certify that Pan American-Grace Airways has in fact been landing and taking off from this airport for at least the last thirteen years without incident”.
He was happy with this “proof” and boarded his flight. (Fortunately the trip, as had all its predecessors, took off without difficulty.)
Passengers on international flights getting off at Santiago were required to present their passports to immigration officials. Usually a line formed in front of the immigration desk. After the arrival of a flight from the U.S., I happened to be in the passenger arrival area and noted a lady who was obviously confused. I offered to assist her. She said that she understood that she was to present her passport. I advised her to stand in the line in front of the immigration desk. She responded, “I was in that line but found that it was for foreigners and I’m from the United States”.
Taxi drivers have a well earned reputation world-wide for being wild drivers. Those in Santiago had such a reputation. A Panagra crew had occasion to over-night Santiago so a cab was hailed at the airport to bring the crew downtown. However, before entering the cab, the Captain queried the driver: “What’s the fare to the Hotel Carrera and how long does it take you to get there?” The driver responded: “120 pesos and about twenty minutes.” The Captain then engaged the taxi under the following conditions: “150 pesos IF it takes you at least thirty minutes to get there.”
After three months of training in Lima, I was assigned as airport manager at Quito. We were just getting organized when Helen had severe pains which the local doctor diagnosed as appendicitis. The appendix had to come out. We took a quick look at the local hospital and were convinced that a burst appendix was probably preferable to having an operation there.
Fortunately at that time, the chief mechanic had been with the company long enough to know of the company’s concern for the well-being of its employees and family. He advised headquarters of our predicament and the next thing we knew we were really offered the VIP treatment.
A radio message from headquarters read: “If Mrs. Hoyt’s condition permits and Hoyt willing, we authorize special trip (we had DC-3s based in Quito) Quito/Talara to IPCO hospital” (The International Petroleum Company, with refineries in Talara, Peru had a small but adequate hospital to serve its rather large foreign employee group).
It so happened that the urgency subsided, so we used a regularly scheduled trip to Talara but always kept a warm spot in our hearts for a company that would authorize the use of an airplane and crew solely to transport an employee’s wife who needed an operation.
There are a few examples of an airline named for a person. e.g., Braniff, Hughes, Faucett, etc. but a person named after an airline?
A Panagra flight enroute from Miami to Santiago made an unscheduled stop in Guayaquil, Ecuador because one of its passengers had just given birth to a healthy male child. The parents were of the wealthy wine family–Underraga. They were so impressed with the novelty of birth aboard an aircraft and the service rendered by the airline in this rather unique situation that the child was named Carlos Panagra Underraga.
It later was rumored that the child could have had its choice of three nationalities. Ecuadorean as he was born in Ecuadorean airspace. U.S. as he was born on U.S. territory (an airline with U.S. registry) and Chilean because of his parentage.
Refrigeration, except in the homes of the more affluent, was a rarity in LaPaz. Meat was slaughtered and consumed practically the same day. One problem with this arrangement was that the “meat” on the hoof was located chiefly in the Beni region. This required air lifting the meat. There was no refrigeration on the supply side either. Therefore no slaughtering was begun until the aircraft, based in LaPaz, was actually airborne and had reported crossing the mountain ridge. The moment the aircraft arrived, the fresh meat was piled in a heap on the aircraft floor and off the plane went. If it was unable to cross the mountains due cloud build-ups, the meat company might end up with a load of ripening beef.
Nothing went to waste in the cattle slaughter. In fact, the Indians that unloaded the meat at destination had worked out a sort of unofficial deal with the loaders. After all the marketable meat was put on board, the loaders tossed in a few “unmarketable” odds and ends. We have photos of an Indian trudging home from the airport with four hoofs dangling forward counterbalanced with a head (minus the tongue) hung backward off his shoulder.
Quito, although over 9000′ in elevation, sits in a valley surrounded by some awesome peaks. As some of the natives live on the slopes, there were a few primitive dirt roads that inched themselves up and around the peaks. I was in my office one day when the pilot of a Bristol freighter dropped in for some information. His first statement, after a friendly greeting, was: “I say, old fellow, this is indeed a strange country. It is the first time that I’d ever been flying a 10,000′ and spotted a bus at 12,000’!”
It is important, I think, to point out that despite all innuendoes, rumors, and accusations, I know of no instance where a pay-off or bribe was required to conduct airport or airline business with government officials, at least in the countries that I was most familiar with. Sure, we bought some one a lunch or a drink now and then, gave an official a ride or two in company vehicles, remembered them at Christmas time and other friendly favors. Not only was a pay-off not expected but excellent cooperation in all business dealings was the rule.
Occasionally one of our flights might arrive with immigration or customs papers incomplete, erroneous or missing. Almost invariably, if the omission or error appeared to be a honest one, the officials “looked the other way” or “bent the rules” slightly.
Crowd handling, a bothersome issue as we had so many internationally famous passengers often traveling on our aircraft, was handled efficiently and with little heavy handedness.
Although Panagra, operating daily between many countries, was occasionally accused of being involved in smuggling contraband, upon presentation of proper evidence to the contrary, we were exonerated promptly. Immigration, customs, and other officials were” usually quite polite and cooperative with the passengers they were dealing with, even with some overbearing Gringo that sometimes made us foreigners ashamed that the rude person was from the States.
No “Yankee-go-home” feeling on the part of the local Panagra employees or government officials (except perhaps in Peron’s Buenos Aires) was ever directed to me.
And on a very personal note, when we were to leave Santiago permanently to return to the U.S. with our recently acquired Chilean children (we were unable to legally adopt them and had only legal custodianship at that time), the head of the immigration at the airport, knowing the difficulty we had been having getting proper U.S. and Chilean papers, came to me and quietly said: “When the time comes that you wish to leave with the children, I will personally see that nothing official stands in your way”.
When Panagra operated from Santa Cruz eastward over the jungles to the Brazilian border, pilots reported that members of certain of the Indian tribes actually shot arrows skyward at the Big Bird flying overhead. Apparently they scored no direct hits because I believe there were no reports of downed or disabled aircraft.
In 1988, an airport organization donated $1,000 to the WINGS OF HOPE which assists many humanitarian and charitable users of bush aviation and radio communications in remote areas of the World. In their letter of thanks, the spokesman for the group wrote: “In late June 1988, we sent out a Cessna for service in southeastern Bolivia. This aircraft replaces a similar plane which we helped provide back in 1980 for mission work in Bolivia. That plane was machine-gunned and blown up in ’87 by the cocaine people operating in a remote Bolivian village, killing the pilot and three passengers.”
Makes one wonder –who is the more “civilized”– the jungle aborigine or the sophisticated white man?
Take care, enjoy the day, and join me next week when we continue our series on Panagra.
October 1, 2021