The Orinoco Delta:
We sipped the whiskey slowly, listening to the ice cubes gently clinking within the sweating glasses. Then Molano began to weave a magical tale of Pan American during the early glory days of the '20's and '30's when air travel was just beginning in Venezuela. I sat and sipped and listened. I was to learn many wondrous things from this ancient mariner of the sky.
The next day Ali had to head back to Caracas and Komander showed up to start his operational training. Since there is no better training than on the job training I decided to continue the contract from the National Guard and work in the training when and where possible. That way Komander could get first hand experience at decision making and flying at the same time. We started off with some prerequisite airwork and some takeoff and landings. Again we did the touch and goes at the tourist camp of Boca de Tigre, but this time we took in the invitation to stop for lunch. It was the first time they had the aircraft stop at their camp. I took the opportunity to show Komander how to taxi through the seemingly impregnable water hyacinth that newly plagued their waterways.
Komander told me the water hyacinth was not native to Venezuela and was imported from West Africa by some ignorant expatriate who brought the plant into the country to brighten up their water garden. When the plant escaped it quickly took over the fresh water habitations, as there was no natural protection to control it's spread. Komander was quite indignant about this terrible African invader that unnaturally choked their waterways. The funny part was that the West Africans had told me exactly the same story to explain the devastating spread of water hyacinth into their native rivers during the late 1980's, except in reverse. They blamed the English expatriates for bringing water hyacinth from South America to liven up their water gardens.
As we taxied through the thick vegetation the propeller chopped and threw green leaves skyward like tossed salad. The prop turned green, but the soft leaves did no harm as we slowly made our way through toward the resort. If the hyacinth bunched up too tightly in front of the floats we would reverse slightly to get the vegetation raft off center and then continue. The only problem we had to watch for was the ICT: inter-cowling temperatures. With too much beta and reverse and not enough cooling air coming through the cowling the oil temperatures would start to rise and then the oil pressure would drop. At that point we would have to let the aircraft run into wind for a short period to let the temperatures cool.
Once we had found a clear section of water I had Komander drop the anchor and the resort boat came to pick us up. We left the floatplane in the channel as we could see it from the shore. If it pulled anchor we would have lots to time to reach it before it got away.
At the resort we were treated as special guests with a meal and a tour of the premises. The most memorable meeting was between Captain George and the pet baby tiger. Actually it was a full-grown Ocelot that was kept on a leash to keep it from making good it's escape. It was friendly enough and seemed to like Komander. They made a good pair. Partly civilized, partly bush.
Komander was experiencing the same problems that plagued Ali. They both could fly, but they were not able to loosen up and handle the aircraft when it needed handling. The Caravan can be a handful and under certain flight conditions the pilot really has to manhandle the aircraft like a stubborn bronco. Komander's 727 training made him too civilized to really be seen working the controls. He tried to set up and let the aircraft do all the work. That was fine for long finals into runways and big rivers, but would not work for getting the Caravan in and out of the rainforest rivers of the Orinoco Delta. Many of the locations the National Guard wanted us to land at were in narrow winding rivers that were lined by 100-250 foot trees. Getting in and out meant making 30-45 degree banked turns onto short final, and touching down on one float with no “way out” options.
That was easy for an experienced floatplane pilot, but how do I teach that to a 727/Hughes 500 pilot? As we tried again and again to get into a tight river location deep in the rainforest, it suddenly dawned on me that Komander was uncomfortable with the proximity of the trees. It was not natural for a fixed wing pilot to be nearly brushing the leaves 200 feet in the air with his wing tips. So I asked him, “How would you do this approach with the helicopter?” He did not hesitate to answer with his hands showing me how he would make a steep approach over the tall trees, sweep the curve of the river in a tight arc, and flare just as he reached the short straight stretch beyond the corner.
I said, “Ok, pretend you are flying the Huey at 85 knots and that you are making the same approach and that instead of transiting to a flare, you will flare at 55 kias to touch down on the water. Think of the floatplane as a helicopter and fly it around that sweep of trees.”
Watching Komander make that transition from a 727 pilot to a bush pilot was a good feeling for me as an instructor. I knew that I had found his resonance cord and struck it. Komander flew that Caravan around the bend and touched it down on the glassy tea colored waters of Guacapara Cano like he had been landing there all his life. He was thrilled with himself as well, not because he doubted his piloting skills, but because he realized that floatplane flying could provide the same kind of proximity thrills that helicopter flying could. Komander, if nothing else, was going to enjoy his life style as a bush pilot.
Our next mission was to fly back to the Orinoco to check out a National Guard location that I had previously missed with Ali. We headed up to the mouth of the Amacuro River and scouted out the guard post. It looked manned, but we decided to land and find out for sure. Komander landed into the mouth of the river right past a collection of rough looking buildings and a half sunken boat. We turned around and slow taxied back to the building only to be met by a platoon under siege. Or at least the guards posted there thought so.
The building windows and doors were filled with half hidden marines brandishing automatic weapons aimed directly at us. The National Guards failed to mention that this was a Navy base and not a National Guard base. Komander and I shut down, not daring to attempt to flee and drifted with hands in the air to let them know we were not armed. I can't imagine what they thought we were doing dropping in from above smack dap into their bored and unimaginative lives. After the hysteria of the moment calmed, several of the marines managed to get an old rubber dinghy fired up and came out to meet us.
Komander showed them our letter from the National Guard and explained in Spanish how we were supposed to prove our landing ability so that the NG could better support the Navy in their times of need. I guess that satisfied them. The guns came down and after a one sided exchange of cigarettes they allowed us to go.
Unfortunately that was not to be the end of our authority troubles. The next day Komander and I were checking out the area of Punta Marius where the villagers lived in stilt houses perched in the fast waters of the tidal delta flats. We did a couple of landings and talked to the villagers who came out hastily dressed in their finest beads and silver to find out what this strange contraption was doing in their river. They were obviously extremely poor and thought we had something to do with the oil work that was going on further west. The men were looking for work.
We left there and headed west toward the center of the newest oil development. Pedernales is the oil Mecca of the Occidental region run by BP. There was a tank farm, a camp, and a runway, as well as a little city of villagers trying to make a living off the redistribution of the oil worker's relative wealth. If I had not know better I would have thought I was in Escravos Nigeria in the Niger River Delta. The similarities were striking.
In fact, just off Pedernales in the river right beside the island of Misteriosa (Mysterious) was the Santa Fe swamp drill rig the Key Victoria. It is hard to describe my excitement when I spotted an old friend that I had flown to many times in the swamps of Nigeria. Flying over the Key Victoria was like returning home after being away for many years. I had Komander fly a steep orbit over the rig several times so I could take some pictures. Since Misteriosa Island was on our National Guard itinerary I decided to have Komander land in the large river mouth and do some practice taxiing around the flotilla of barges and tugs that accompanied the giant drill rig. After all if they were going to fly for the oil industry then the pilots better get used to maneuvering within the marine environment.
Komander radioed his intentions on the Pedernales mandatory frequency and we set up for landing. We knew that there was some notam against any landings or takeoffs within 3 kilometers of the working rig, but I knew how to circumvent such notams written for helicopters. I placed the rig position in the GPS and then had Komander land just outside the 3 km zone. Then we made like a boat and step taxied the rest of the way into the working area. Just to make sure there were no further restrictions (we were still nervous from the Navy encounter) we stayed off about a kilometer, and played around the tugs and barges. I showed Komander how to taxi and tie up against the back of a tug and how to avoid getting trapped by the tidal flow against an anchored barge and other valuable insights on how to work a floatplane in the industrial world of oil service.
Then for the take-off we step taxied outside the no flying zone and lifted off. Komander again radioed our intentions and I felt like we had accomplished something positive toward proving that the floatplane had just as much a future in the development of the Venezuelan oil industry as it did during the heyday of the Nigerian oil industry. Just then a Spanish speaking voice of authority came in over the radio calling 733C. I watched poor Komander go from a position of authority to a position of quiet resignation as he was obviously getting berated in Spanish from the voice on the other end. I tried to get Komander to explain to me what was going on, but he could hardly talk. Not to mention that he almost stopped flying. The “aviate” and “navigate” had given way to pure “communicate.”
I knew that if I could get into the conversation, that whatever we were accused of doing, I could talk our way out of. I was good at that from having flown in Africa for many years. I took over the controls and let Komander have some thinking room, and then began to coach him on how to talk our way out of our predicament. Of course, we were accused of landing within the restricted zone. Deny and quote GPS coordinates. We were accused of flying in the same zone without authorization. Apologize and quote the National Guard authority to scout out and land at Misteriosa Island. We were accused of not announcing our intentions. Deny and tell them to check their tapes for our unanswered calls. (I knew they would have no tapes.)
Finally in exasperation the voice declared that he was not only the National Guard representative for the area but he was also the aviation representative for BP, and he was not to be trifled with. Agree and remind him that it is bad airmanship to argue on the radio. Luckily his professionalism prevailed and he said he would be in contact. The voice, of course, was none other than Señor himself, the Aviation Manager of BP.
Komander was convinced that his flying career was over. I was convinced that we were out of the woods. Only a conversation with Señor would define the situation either way. Suddenly Komander was not so sure he wanted to be a bush pilot. He could see his many years of experience and many dollars of training going down the river with a violation and suspension of his licence. I could only see another territorial bluff from an authoritarian figure. Komander was not used to bucking the system. I knew no other way.
On returning to Maturin we retreated to our hotel room. I did not know how we were going to hear from him, but I knew it was coming. While I was in the shower Komander phoned me, his voice audibly shaky, and said the LTA base manager, who answers directly to the GM, has flown out from Caracas to deal with this crisis. He needed to come see me immediately as the manager was very upset about this whole incident. I was just out of the shower, but I thought he would be a few minutes. So I said, “yeah, come on up.”
When Komander knocked just seconds later, I was still wrapped in my towel and dripping wet when I opened the door. Much to their embarrassment, the manager was standing right in the doorway, and the manager turned out to be a beautiful young woman. She giggled, turned red and apologized in Spanish all in one quick motion. I just tightened my towel and invited them in. I knew I had disarmed her. Whatever rank she was going to try to pull on me went out with her giggle. If she was to be my boss, she would have to work with me on this.
I further disarmed her by quickly taking the blame for the incursion earlier in the day and tried to distance Komander from any blame or repercussions. I also explained to her that LTA need not worry and they did not need to lose their main oil service contract on account of some territorial argument between a helicopter pilot and a floatplane pilot. I told her I was confident that I would only have to talk to el Señor and the matter would be settled. She was not reassured and told me that the GM himself had heard about the incident and was very upset. She warned that she was going to have to ground us.
I used her cell phone and phoned the GM directly. I told him what I told her, and added that this was no reason to discontinue the training. In fact, I would visit the Señor myself to talk this crisis through. Although the GM sounded truly worried I must give him credit. He agreed and told me to continue. He trusted me and wanted to forge ahead. The young manageress, Cynthia, could not believe how I had talked myself out of that one. She even had to talk to the GM herself to verify before letting us go. To finalize my control of the situation I then asked her out to dinner. She agreed… but only if I got dressed.
The next day Komander was too upset to fly so I took the opportunity to visit the 86-year-old Pan Am pilot who the Aviation Manager of BP had claimed was his mentor. I wanted to not only meet him, but I wanted to pick his brain about his friend Señor. Our Caravan engineer, a young man struggling to make his way in the unforgiving world of Venezuelan aviation, agreed to help me find the old man and drive me to where he worked.
We found him all right. At 86 he owned a brake shop in Maturin, which, after he retired from flying, he had run for the past 26 years. When we found him he was just closing shop for the day. It was a beautiful Maturin evening. The hot daytime air was cooling as the sun's harsh light warmed to a golden glow. Amidst the smell of brake fluid, burnt asbestos linings, and spilt grease baked black in the sun the old pilot was happy to make my acquaintance, and much to my delight he spoke perfect English.
He invited me in for a day end drink and I accepted. He said he kept a bottle in his desk drawer “in case his girlfriend stopped in.” He pulled out a bottle of Irish crème whiskey, which he poured into tumblers. We sipped the whiskey slowly listening to the ice cubes gently clinking within the sweating glasses. Then Molano began to weave a magical tale of Pan American during the early glory days of the '20's and '30's when air travel was just beginning in Venezuela and elsewhere in the world I might add. I sat and sipped and listened. I was to learn many wondrous things from this ancient mariner of the sky.
One fact that surprised me was that Pan Am strictly controlled the water landings on their floatplanes and flying boats. In fact, they only had 2 water landing areas in Venezuela. Hearing that meant that many of our water locations for the National Guard were most likely “firsts.” I love being first. Being the first to land at remote locations was my only chance in life to be an explorer, a pioneer, and an adventurer. I was doing something no one else had done before.
When I told him about the trouble I had gotten myself into with his friend Señor, Molano just laughed and poured us another drink. He asked me if I had learned any Spanish during my visit. I was embarrassed to say I had only learned un poco, “a little.” He said if I was to learn any Spanish there was two things to learn first. One was a phrase to charm the local girls. The other was a phrase I could use to get out of any trouble with authorities, especially with the BP Aviation Manager.
Molano's advice was to simply respond with “Si Señor,” and nod my head in agreement and repentance. The next day when I had my meeting with Señor he was so impressed with my contrition he offered LTA the full support of BP to set up what ever landing areas we needed to get started in the Delta. He said, "Just let me know how we can help and we will."
Of course, I also had mentioned how I had visited and learned to admire his 86-year-old mentor from the lost era of Pan Am. We both lamented that indeed Pan Am was a sad loss, and agreed that Molano was a proud reminder of what that era held dear. Honesty, hard work and integrity. Molano epitomized it all.
| Molano on Jimmy Angel. “I knew Jimmy alright.” “Jimmy had a 450hp
Fairchild.” “Now that airplane had power.” “And Jimmy fixed it himself.”
Molano on Pan American: "More than an airline, Pan Am was a school.
They trained everyone and did it very well."
Molano on his education: "In the land of the blind one eye is king."
While Komander was still licking his wounds, I decided to take a flight of my own. I was safe as long as I had a Spanish speaking co-pilot, which Gamboa was happy to provide. I had been watching the Delta for the movement of the shock troops of the oil industry. These were the seismic crews that did the basic search for possible drill sites. The entire Delta had been shot many years before when the government assessed that the Orinoco Delta held an enormous potential for oil reserves. The original seismic, however, had been shot in 2D and now the oil companies had the power of 3D seismic and PC computers to do the calculations. The difference was like Cinderella being able to look into a silver hydride coated mirror compared to the polished bottom of a copper pot. And what the engineers saw was a thing of beauty. Huge oil reserves.
The seismic crew, however, was only just cutting into the edge of the Orinoco Delta. I knew if the Caravan was to be successful here it had to be able to go where the seismic crews, and ultimately the oil companies, go. I had seen their work location only about a 20-minute flight from Maturin where the rivers were young, narrow and winding, From here the rivers were just beginning to trace their journey from the swamps through the rainforest and down to the ocean. If I could get into here I could get into anywhere.
I flew to an area called Guasina, ironically up the Pedernales, the same river where we had gotten ourselves into trouble at the mouth. Here the land was higher with majestic dry land rainforest and huge trees. And where the waters prevailed the swamp was covered with grass that could grow 3 meters high. The area was highly sensitive to invasion and was alive with ocelots, jaguar, boa constrictors, and a variety of other snakes and reptiles. Not to mention the birds: including eagles, herons, cranes, kingfishers, and toucans that depended on the area for habitation.
I had Gamboa announce our intentions on the MF of the area, and we immediately got resistance. One of the helicopter pilots came on to tell us “this was a restricted area for helicopters only and that we were not allowed to over fly at low level” I knew this was pure bullshit and I had Gamboa tell the pilot that this was a VFR environment where "see and be seen" is the rule, and secondly, "announce your intentions" because that was what radios were for. We would announce our intentions and they could pass on their traffic, thus avoiding any conflicts. Despite his initial reluctance, especially after what had happened to Komander, Gamboa passed on my message and eventually the helicopter pilot capitulated.
I found two separate camps along the river. Apparently they belonged to competing seismic companies each having different but adjoining blocks. I decided to land at the more difficult one the furthest up the river. The landing and takeoff area was just long enough, but the river appeared very shallow. I had no way of knowing by looking into the tannic colored black waters. So I decided, for the first run at least, to land down the river in known deep water and then taxi up the river with the sonar turned on. The water was completely glassy and I made a short approach and steep turn to final. I was showing off as one of the helicopter pilots had come to watch our landing.
I made a smooth touchdown and pulled beta to come to an immediate stop. When you are not sure of the waters you don't keep your speed up any longer than necessary. The helicopter pilot came on the radio to say, in Spanish, “well done.”
The sonar initially showed about 30 feet but that changed as we taxied up river. As we got near the camp the depth dropped to 12 feet and then 6 feet. I continued up the river past the camp and continued to taxi until I felt the banks would be too close to risk a landing. Here the water was about 3 feet deep but even that was enough for landings and takeoffs. The river would fluctuate with the rainy season, but because this was the low water time of year the river could only get deeper. In other words, where the river was wide enough it was certainly deep enough.
Getting into the camp was going to be difficult. There was a small opening where the workers transited to the shore and they had placed two logs lashed together out from the shore. I approached the logs in feather and then shut down to ghost in the last little way like I was in the Otter. The wings both went into the foliage, but that acted to hold the aircraft in place. In the middle of the river the current was a couple of knots, but along the banks there was no current and the aircraft held fast. While I went into the camp, however, Gamboa volunteered to paddle the Caravan into the middle of the river and anchor. He was uncomfortable with the branches possibly scratching the paint on the wings so I let him paddle out, knowing that this would be a good experience for him.
I walked into the busy seismic camp where the workers paid no attention to me. With their small camp generator running they had apparently not even heard the aircraft approach. The camp manager, a small red-faced Scotsman, was surprised to see me. He introduced himself but was obviously cautious when I started asking knowledgeable questions. The seismic crews were under siege from the environmental groups and were understandably on their guard. He was noticeably relieved when I explained my intentions and we were both excited to hear that we had worked Nigeria during the same period. In fact, he had seen a floatplane come into their camp in the Niger River Delta on several occasions. I explained that since I was the only floatplane pilot in Africa during that time frame it must have been me. Small world.
The Scot then took me on a tour of their small island in a sea of swamp. He said that to prevent any permanent environment damage they were using airboats, like the ones in Florida everglades, to do their work and to transport people and supplies. They were also using the helicopters, mostly Hughes 500s, to long line sling loads to the work crew. I did not argue with him, but I could see from the air that the airboats were wrecking havoc with the swamps and the sea of grass.
Having used airboats for many years myself in the wild rice lakes of Canada, I knew what the problems were. For one, when they established a track to prevent the airboats from wandering, the track would get beaten and damaged from the continuous traffic to the point it would not recover easily. That was a necessary evil for protecting the rest of the swamp.
The second problem was that either because the grass was too high to see over, or because of the wander lust of the crew, the airboats were wandering off the tracks anyway and causing much more damage than what was the intention of the seismic companies. The meandering trails were evident from the air… where from the water level it was only possible to see the trail that you were on. How much damage was anybody's guess, but I could only imagine the Florida Everglades had gone through a similar problem with their airboats before regulation.
The big difference the Scot found between working in Nigeria and Venezuela was the number of people versus the number of wildlife. In Nigeria there were literally hundreds of thousands of residents in the Niger River Delta and very few animals. Nigeria had suffered through a major civil war where a million people starved to death. The ones that survived did so by eating whatever moved, including crocodiles, hippos, elephants, and snakes. The human population had recovered quickly, but the wildlife population never did.
In the Orinoco there were only 25,000 inhabitants in an area roughly the same size as in Nigeria, and according to the Scot there was an enormous amount of wildlife. When they first set up camp they started a map to mark where they spotted wild pigs, caiman, jaguar, ocelots, and boa constrictors and soon the map was full. They spotted so many animals they finally gave up on the map and concentrated on keeping from getting bitten. The Scot reckoned that when he was in the swamp he saw snakes every single day, all of them venomous.
After watching the helicopters come and go with their sling loads, I headed back to the river to find Gamboa and the Caravan. He had managed to get the aircraft anchored in the middle of the river, and now he had to bring it back. With no wind and little current he managed to get it close enough to shore for me to jump on board, but no sooner than I had boarded I heard a loud “whoop” and a splash. Gamboa had gone in, wallet and all. I pushed the Caravan into the middle of the river and started up making Gamboa stand outside in the warm breeze until he was reasonably drip-dry. Welcome to the world of floatplane drivers.
The next day Komander was back in full form and we spent the day visiting several seismic sites. Along the inner boundary of the delta the seismic crew were living in tents, using airboats to get around, and the helicopters landed on cleared areas of high ground in the swamp. Further out toward the ocean, the central and outer delta, the seismic crew lived in house boats, traveled by speed boats, and the helicopters landed on make-shift wooden structures built on pylons along the rivers lined with red mangrove and huge cotton trees. The temporary helipads placed along the riverbanks were tenuous at best with the helicopters having to land facing inward toward the trees and having to takeoff backwards away from the trees. I could not see where BP thought this was safer than floatplanes, but then the seismic companies could charter whomever they wanted. They were not bound by the BP regulations.
Komander and I landed at the main camp on the Cano Pedernales, another branch along the main river that flowed past the BP oil terminal of Pedernales. I actually took a little longer than usual to find this camp because it was not where anyone had pointed out on the map. I had Komander shut down as a workboat approached and we stopped to talk to the camp manager for a while. He was impressed with our Caravan and gave me the name of his boss in Maturin.
From here I took Komander back to the inner delta seismic camps and we landed in a similar river as I had done the day before and anchored in front of the tented seismic camp. The crew came out to meet us in a rowboat and took us to shore and invited us to stay for a camp lunch. We ate a simple meal of fried beef and spicy fried rice and then went for a short jungle walk. The trees were alive with parrots and toucans and we saw shadows of monkeys leaping from tree to tree ahead of us. Here the rainforest was quiet and beautiful and dynamically alive at the same time. There was no comparison to the deathly quiet of the Nigerian rainforest where the trees had been stripped of any wildlife. When I first started working in Nigeria, the flocks of African Grey Parrots filled the evenings sky. Now they were reduced to a few mating pairs speedily darting across the open rivers.
I took a picture of a baby toucan and of the amphib Caravan sitting quietly in the calm river, and then left for Maturin. I knew that when we were gone from that tranquil river there would be no trace of us having been there. The floatplane leaves no footprint.
The environmentalists say that the oil companies destroy the rainforest in their quest for black gold. That is not entirely true. Or at least that belief needs to be qualified. Over a period of 17 years I watched the oil companies open up the Niger River Delta, and I monitored the results. By themselves the major oil companies including Shell and Chevron did very little harm. They planned their projects to have minimal impact and cleaned up where they messed up. And if there were no other forces at play the environment would have been left intact. But, the forces of man are many and I have come to the conclusion that in order to control any development in a wilderness area the local government and the local people have the most important role in safekeeping their national treasures.
I could write a 30 page study on how to minimize the impact of oil development in a nature reserve or wilderness area, but to attempt to sum up in a couple of paragraphs would not do the subject justice. I can say however, that although the responsible oil companies like Chevron, Shell, Exxon and the like do minimize their impact on the environment it is not what they do that causes the problems. The problem is two fold. First of all, it is the necessity to use the local contractors and the lack of controls on the contractors that cause the most amount of initial damage. And secondly, it is the infrastructure that the oil companies build to get to the oil fields that does the most amount of long-term harm because it allow access for the local people to get to otherwise remote areas.
It is not the oil companies that plunder the wildlife and forests, but rather the local inhabitants, who naturally increase in number as their territory increases. The politicians of course do nothing to stop the destruction, as they are "enfranchising the landless" or because they own the logging companies, or just because it is much easier to just blame the oil companies for bad management or local corruption. And life goes on as the rainforest dies an unnatural hurried death. 1.
I do believe in the ecological benefits of using the amphib Caravan, however, and so in-between flights I managed to visit some of the managers of the oil service sector where I hoped to garner some business. Companies like Willbros, Schlumberger, Halliburton, Smith Tools, and LL&E were all keen to at least give the Caravan a try. I knew that if they indeed had business in the delta I would be able to win them over to using an amphib service. My timing was bad, however, as I only had a few days left before I had to head up to a contract I had arranged in Churchill Manitoba. None of the managers could rearrange their schedules in such a short notice so I decided to give another idea I had a go. I arranged for Komander and myself to fly up to the Canaima National Park and to stop on Lake Guida along the way.
Canaima is a series of falls on the Hacha River just north of the savannah area they call La Gran Sabana. I also had hoped to catch a sight of the tallest waterfalls in the world, Angel Falls, although it was not actually on the itinerary. The idea of this trip, however, was to find ideal locations to set house boats along Lake Guida to fly in sport fisherman like we do in Canada. The lake was teeming with a fighting variety of huge Peacock Bass which the American oil servicemen talked about obsessively. It was a perfect job for an amphib Caravan. I would fly the oil industry people from Maturin or American tourists from Caracas out to the houseboats where they could spend 2-3 days fishing on the edge of the wondrous Canaima escarpment. The flying time was just over an hour compared to taking the entire day to get there by other means. If you left at 9am they could be fishing by 10:30am. Normally if they left at 5am one day they would be fishing by 9am the next day. I was actually amazed that no one had already exploited this veritable goldmine of a sport fishing market.
We arrived to find a large beautiful lake held back by a man made power dam. The lake was calm and perfect for floatplane work but we elected not to land near the dam and to explore further up the lake toward Canaima. We only found out later that there was a no fly zone in and around the dam that we had already violated with our low flying. Not landing was a good decision. On the other end of the massive lake we did however scout out two other perfect locations for setting up the houseboats. At the time I was quite excited about this business prospect as the fishing potential was incredible. I had seen pictures of the bass that the American Halliburton manager, Joe, had caught on one of his expeditions. They were beautiful to look at, good to eat, and moreover, he said, they fought like hell. These Peacock Bass were an American fisherman's dream. And the Caravan was the perfect access tool.
After scouting out the lake we flew directly up to Canaima where the local airline had set up a tourist lodge in this awesome setting of emerald forests, white sand beaches, and plunging water falls. I elected to land on the ugly gravel runway because well… it was there. The flight up was memorable as the landscape reminded me of a backdrop for a movie titled, “The Land Where Time Stood Still.” It was so sculptured and perfect: the high rising escarpments with their varied colored vertical walls, the lush green rolling forested hills, and the cascade of plunging rapids all contributed to a surreal feeling of disbelief. In fact, the area and the falls were featured in two movies that I knew of: “Acrophobia” with John Goodman and “Jungle 2” with Tim Allen. The Canaima Falls scenes were at the beginning of both films. (I told you that so you don't have to watch the entire movie.)
After a boat trip up to the falls that engulfed us with spray we ate lunch and then had to make the tough decision of passing up the further flight to Angel Falls. It was almost too good to pass up, but I could not really justify it to the LTA manager. The scouting trip for the bass fishing was worthwhile, but a boondoggle to the falls would be a bit out of our way..
With the National Guard contract and the pilot training completed it was time for me to head back to Canada. Ali, Komander, and several of our escorts took me out to a local disco for my last night in Maturin to celebrate. Maturin is known to be the Wild West of the Occidental oil boom and where there is new money there is soon trouble to follow. We never had any trouble, but the tight security made me wonder what had happened to bring all this on. For example, as we got out of the car the Kevlar vest wearing security guards, armed with automatic weapons and low slung sawed off shotguns, escorted us inside the disco with their backs to us facing any potential threats that might come our way. Then we were frisked for weapons and had to walk through a metal detector. All this for a drink and a dance!
Unfortunately all my work and scouting came to no worthwhile end. The oil boom never materialized in Venezuela as the government led the country into near bankruptcy. Many of the oil service companies pulled out and LTA eventually sold their amphib Caravan. It was a sad turn of events because I had proven beyond any doubt the ability to run a profitable Caravan amphib operation.
I had shown that a Caravan could easily and safely service the oil industry in the development of the Orinoco Delta. More importantly I showed that there was potential for developing the tourist industry along side the bread and butter contracts of the oil work. There is no reason that some adventurous company could not emulate the success of the Chevron Caravan in Nigeria and take up where LTA left off. After all the amphib Caravan has the proven ability to do what it takes in the Orinoco Delta to be successful.
Note from the Editor. LTA moved on and I did as well. I was offered a chance to be on the ground floor of starting a new seaplane company in the Maldives and it was a tough decision not to go back to Venezuela. I made some great friends and really fell in love with the country. It is so large and diverse I would recommend many of its tourist areas, especially the lowland rainforests of the Orinoco Delta, the La Grand Sabana areas of Canaima Falls and Angel Falls, and the Caribbean islands of Los Roque. Each destination is totally different and yet it is feasible to visit all three in a 2-week holiday. Linea Turistica Aereotuy is still in the tourist business and they can still fly you to any or all of these locations with their Grand Caravans.
1. Click Here to read "Plundering the Rainforest." A short article on some of the causes of oil related ecological destruction in the rainforest.
Click Here to read "Wish You Were Here." The story of my trip to the beautiful Caribbean Islands of Los Roque.
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John S Goulet Editor
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Last modified on
July 29, 2002
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