The plane flown by Capt. Ricardo Fajardo has been around for nearly 70 years, ever since it was built in California by the Douglas Aircraft Co. at the height of World War II.
But as a red and orange DC-3 hugs the treetops and skims past the Vaupes River in the remote southeastern corner of Colombia, Fajardo says he wouldn't feel more comfortable in any other plane.
With the nose slightly up, he puts Flight 1149 down softly on a slippery dirt runway –- just the kind of strips that are found across the isolated region. The DC-3, full of passengers and cargo, comes to a fast stop in the middle of Colombia 's Amazonian jungle at a hamlet called Caruru.
"We're here," says Fajardo, who's been flying for 44 years, as he lifts himself from his seat at the controls. "Here there's nothing. The plane is everything."
Indeed, Caruru, 100 miles west of the Brazilian border, has no roads linking it to the outside world. And its 800 residents know that going by river to a sizable town would take days of arduous travel.
"The DC-3 is what brings the food, all the things the town of Caruru needs," says Carlos Julio Diaz, one of the hamlet's officials, as he gets off the plane.
In a sparsely populated swath of plains and jungle the size of France, the runways are muddy and the cargo is heavy. The only plane that handles the job of ferrying in heavy supplies must be lumbering, with big balloon wheels and the durability to take a pounding, says Hans Wiesman, a Dutchman who's searched out DC-3s the world over for a book and a documentary film about his exploits, The Dakota Hunter.
Old Enough For A Museum
The DC-3 may be a relic in most places. The first DC-3s went into service in 1936, and one now hangs in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. But Wiesman has found them in remote regions, from northern Canada to South Africa, Bolivia to Tonga.
He says the biggest concentration of DC-3s are flown out of Villavicencio, the honky-tonk city that is located on the edge of Colombia's southern plains. They're known by locals as the "buses of the jungle" and serve the region as the only links to hamlets barely touched by modernity.
In fact, Wiesman says, there are about 10 or so of the planes flying out of Villavicencio, with another 10 or so in various stages of disrepair. He says it's the DC-3's reliability, plus its ability to fly more slowly than other planes and take the pounding of unpaved runways, that has given the old planes a lease on life in Colombia's Amazon.
"The DC-3 flies in low and slow in places where no jet, truck or boat can go," Wiesman says. "That is exactly the survival law for the DC-3."
He adds: "They do not make planes anymore that come in at that low speed, with those big wheels and that can handle 3 tons of cargo."
On Flight 1149's recent milk run, the DC-3 –- one of four in the Sadelca airlines fleet -– is loaded up with gasoline, fruits and vegetables, a wide-screen TV and boxes of newly hatched chicks.
With cargo at their feet, about a dozen passengers sit with their backs to the fuselage –- just like the American paratroopers who were transported in the same planes during World War II.
Flight 1149 may have a GPS and radar, but there's no automatic pilot or fancy avionics or pressurized cabin. The plane flies as low as 4,000 feet from one hamlet to another, at a speed of about 130 miles per hour.
"It's another kind of aviation, real aviation, as you can see," says co-pilot Victor Valencia. What he means is, someone's hands are on the controls at all times.
The pilots also keep careful track of landmarks like the curve of a river and the thatched roofs of an Indian village. And vital to the success of each flight is mechanic Jhon Rujana, who's in the cockpit making sure nothing goes wrong as the plane prepares to touch down.
He yanks the yellow lever that lowers the flaps and the red one that puts down the landing gear. "You have to make sure the landing gear is down, that the flaps, the lights and pumps are working," he says.
Once on the tarmac, as the plane cools down, Rujana, wrench in hand, checks the engines, the landing gear, the oil.
Sounding pensive as he rests between flights, Capt. Fajardo, who retires in about a year, says he foresees that one day the DC-3s in the region will be replaced. Once runways are paved, he notes, there won't be as much need for the rugged workhorse planes.
But he still marvels at what the planes can accomplish, after so many years in the air.
"I tell you, they haven't been able to replace this plane and its performance," Fajardo says. "There may be superior planes, but at what cost?"