The Orinoco Delta:
The most striking visual memory of the Orinoco Delta for me was flying along side a flock of Scarlet Ibis's that maneuvered in propinquity like a fiery cloud blown by a fierce and turbulent wind.
On my next trip to Venezuela I was better prepared and planned to stay for several weeks. The new pilots had been to Flight Safety and both flew the Grand Caravan making the transition much easier. Both had also been to Florida for the floatplane ratings and had been checked out locally on the amphib by their Chief Pilot using the runway only. The Chief Pilot was waiting for me to do the rest, and that was to apply all that technical knowledge to the practice of water work. Ali Oquendo and George Komander were eager and ready to take on the responsibility of floatplane flying if it meant adding something new and interesting to their career possibilities.
On arrival to Caracas I took a taxi to the city. The ride was long and winding up through what amounted to an incredible mountain pass. I was checked into the Hilton and was later picked up by George. He took me to the office where I met the Chief Pilot and we drew up our plans. They wanted to go back to Guayos at the first opportunity. I said, “why not tomorrow.” This novel idea met with a flurry of actively from the multitude of young pilots working in the office, and finally a map and set of coordinates later, the Chief says, “Yes, why not?”
In my meeting with the GM he made it clear that what ever resources the company had was at my disposal and that whatever I decided needed doing to complete the training I could go ahead and do and ask questions later. He had a no nonsense approach to getting things done. I suppose you had to in Venezuela, because as in most hot and bothered countries, the local attitude toward work is generally “tomorrow will suffice.” This wave of formalities was important, because if we had to get permission for everything we did, we would simply not get much done. I needed to be in charge and that is what he acknowledged in his waiver.
Then he brought out a letter from the National Guard. They were considering using the amphib Caravan and they wanted to know if we could have a look at 20 different strategic locations in the Delta, making drawings of possible landing areas and notes of whether or not I thought it would be possible to operate out of these waterways. I was thrilled with the prospect of being the first to scout out the Orinoco Delta and the idea that I may be the first person ever to land a floatplane in some of these locations. I knew that Pan American Airlines had operated flying boats here in the past, but I was unsure of the extent of their operations. The question on my mind was, how many of these locations had never been landed at before? The other question was how many of these locations would prove useful to the oil industry?
Considering that I had come to Venezuela to see if I could bring floatplanes to work in the opening up of the Orinoco Delta to the oil companies, I decided to start off by visiting the lion in his den. I asked the General Manager's permission to visit the Aviation Manager of British Petroleum himself and see if there were any cracks in the wall. I could tell the GM was slightly nervous about this Canadian bush pilot going in to visit the man who had awarded LTA the Beech 1900 contract and who controlled the future oil service destiny of LTA. But, I could also see that he trusted my judgment. I was confident that if nothing else, I would be able to determine if indeed LTA's fate accomplice of their Caravan was all that hopeless.
The BP aviation manager's office was mirrored glass and chrome and brass plaques, centered by a deep rich red tropical wood desk. This man's office was all business. I was pleasantly surprised to be invited in. Señor had made time for me even though I could tell right from the start he was not about to change his mind or attempt to change BP's policy toward single engine aircraft. Moreover, he had a preconceived notion that floatplanes were dangerous. His background was in flying helicopters during his long service in the National Guard, although he also held a fixed wing licence and flew a Cessna 206 recreationally on weekends.
The guy was actually quite amazing to listen too and was a storehouse of aviation knowledge and history, back up by a master's degree in business aviation. He spoke deliberately and confidently and he also spoke perfect English. I spent most of my time listening to his stories and advice and trying to absorb as much as possible for future reference. It was then I discovered that he had been with the National Guard when they had brought in two C185 floatplanes and quickly sunk them. I could see where his prejudices came from.
I then tried to convince him that floatplanes were not inherently dangerous, but rather untrained pilots were dangerous and that was why I was here. To train the local pilots on being good marine pilots as well as better sky pilots. I explained our operations in Nigeria and that after 10 years of operations we had never had a floatplane related accident.
El Señor listened to my argument and conceded that since floatplane flying could be safe in Nigeria then it could be just as safe in Venezuela as long as the oil company culture of professionalism and safety was maintained. He then gave me a list of contract companies that had oil service work in the delta and who could possibly use the floatplane service. I knew that the future of floatplanes in the Orinoco would depend on enlisting the wildcats of the industry and leaving the lions alone. Señor also gave me the name and address of an “old” friend of his who used to fly for Pan Am when they had flying boats in Venezuela. If I talked to him then I might be able to answer my first question of how many of our locations had ever been landed at before. This was my lucky day.
The next day I started off with Ali Oquendo, a stocky Venezuelan with a baldhead that went from shiny in the front to fuzzy in the back and a thin black mustache to compensate. His defining feature, however, was a definite twinkle in his eye from a lifetime of mischief. He was going to enjoy flying this floatplane and he was going to insure I enjoyed teaching him. Ali always made sure we had plenty of food and drink and that we never lacked company. From the first day in Maturin he began to hustle the local girls that worked around the airport: ticket agents, car rental agents, and of course flight attendants.
Being that he made all the negotiations in Spanish I did not realize what he was up to until several days down the road when it began to dawn on me that we never spent a waking moment alone. Using me as a drawing card Ali had arranged a series of dates. When I was not instructing I was constantly entertaining some young pretty Latino girl with a short skirt and a broad smile. The only reprieve was at nights when I retreated to my hotel where the company had put us up in Maturin. The house rules were strictly “no girls,” and I found out later that the local base manager had put me in this hotel for that very reason. It was for my own protection.
Anyway, the first day we took off from Maiquetia (Caracas) and flew directly to Maturin on the edge of the Orinoco Delta. We had a quick lunch, during which time Ali made several new acquaintances, and since the trip to Guayos had been put off until the next day, we then took off for some training. Ali had no problem with the flight maneuvers so we headed off to El Tigre, where LTA had a jungle camp for tourists right on the edge of the Delta. The floatplane would not normally land here as this camp was serviced by land and boat, but it was a perfect location to do some practical water work. The camp was all in a fluster as we landed and took off several times. They had never seen a floatplane land here before. The Tigre River was already a first for us.
Again like Garcias, Ali was really lacking on the water work for the floatplane. Where he had no problems on the runway, he could not function off strip. He really had a difficult time lining up in the known safe water and keeping the aircraft on the glide path to a smooth touchdown. The difference between him and Garcias, however, was that Ali was determined to get it right. He wanted to fly the seaplane. So we continued with the water work all day.
The next day Komander met up with us. George is a stocky, clean-shaven, and handsome Venezuelan who had flown both 727s and Hughes 500s. He was very versatile and decided that adding the floatplane to his credential would help him stay employed in the vicissitudes of the Venezuelan economy. George was married, but he good-naturedly put up with Ali's constant attempt to align the heavenly bodies that frequented the airport with the movements of our universe. To his credit he behaved himself, but Ali made it tough on both of us. Not that we complained. The girls helped me with my Spanish. I quickly learned how to say “pretty eyes,” and “beautiful lips.”
For the next two days while I instructed Ali, George sat in the center second seat and observed. The co-pilot, Gamboa, was busy elsewhere and would join us later. Ali got noticeably better. There was something about his landings, however, that I knew were wrong, but I could not put my finger on. He would often land with a sideways lurch that would catch him by surprise. I could see it coming, but he could not. In the meantime, I enjoyed the beauty of the Orinoco Delta as we began to systematically scout out the locations for the National Guard. The distinction of having a letter from the National Guard was that we were in effect given clearance to land wherever the letter stated. And I proceeded to do just that. My “get the job done” and “no surrender” attitude, however, would eventually get us into some hot water.
Ali, George, and I began to knock off some of the 20 exotic National Guard locations. One of the first locations was a small village somewhere in the heart of the Orinoco Delta. In the entire Delta there were only 25,000 indigenes, compared to the several millions living in the similar delta in Nigeria, and the National Guard wanted to know they could reach this community by air if need be. The problem was that the ONC aerial map we were using was not accurate and we had no coordinates. We only had a name.
On the map the village name was nowhere near a body of water, but in the delta that simply was not possible. All villages are built on the water. We flew around for a while trying to make sense of the map until both Ali and George decided to call it quits. I was surprised that they would give up so easily, and I asked why. Ali explained that with no coordinates and no proper map, and with nothing but the name, we could not possibly find the right location to land at.
I laughed and said we don't need to land at the proper location. We will just land at the nearest village and ask directions.
George and Ali looked at each other and then burst out laughing. “Ha Ha, that is funny Señor.” The girls, Ali had brought along a couple of playmates, wanted to know what was so funny. George told them and they burst out laughing as well. Can you imagine anything so funny as landing an aircraft and asking directions?
I said, “Why not?”
They then realized that I was serious. They both laughed again at the simplicity and yet the incredulousness of the idea. Landing to ask directions!! Ha Ha!
So we did. The village we landed at was so much like any village in Nigeria that I really felt at home. Only the people were less plentiful and less black. They slowly and cautiously paddled out in their dugout canoes as there was no doubt that they had never seen a floatplane before. Some of them had never seen an airplane before. When they came we quickly found someone who spoke Spanish. He told us the village we were looking for was just over on the next river. He added that it was about 8 hours of hard paddling through a tributary. To me that meant it was about a two-minute hop flying over the trees to a river that did not exist on the map.
We thanked them and flew over to land at our village. I can't remember whom, but one of the guys remembered that there was a palm heart canning plant just a few miles down this particular river. I thought it was a good opportunity to practice step taxing and so we did all the way to the plant. There was a yacht anchored in the river just in front of the plant. I instructed Ali to moor just down current from it. That way if our anchor pulled loose we would not drift into the boat. After shutting down a small skiff came to pick us up and we went two by two to shore.
The management gave us a complete tour, and the palm heart cannery turned out to be quite interesting. Basically the locals find young palm shoots and cut them into lengths and deliver them to the plant. Here the outer fibrous cover is removed and the heart is soaked and then steamed and then canned. It was considered quite a delicacy in the city, and was selling for a good price. We tried some and I agreed it was appetizing.
The tour almost came to an end when we noticed the aircraft was drifting on anchor. Ali volunteered to go back on watch and we continued the tour. We soon joined him and headed back to Maturin with a few more touch and goes enroute.
While we did the training and the National Guard sanctioned LOFT, line oriented flight training, we also mixed in the charter bookings. Our only revenue trips, however, were to the rainforest lodge in Guayos. I always enjoyed the flights because the lodge manager would inevitably invite us in for lunch and fresh Orinoco delta fish was something I could not turn down. I also visited the local Warao Indians in their village.
Definitely one of our most exciting trips was a flight to the Guyana border. For this special flight Ali and I stopped in Tucupita to pickup the Commander of the National Guard. The Commander was impressed that we could fly all the way from Tucupita to the border, land, and return without taking fuel. The entire flight was about 400 nautical miles, which was no problem for the Caravan. I was impressed with the fact that they kept a full-grown el-tigre, or jaguar, as a mascot. Although the jaguar had been kept since a kitten, he was nowhere near being tamed. Whenever I got too near the cage to take a picture he would charge the wire mesh cage with a ferocious growl that knocked me back a meter each time. No matter how hard I tried not to jump I could not stop myself.
The Commander planned to fly up the Boca Grande into the River Barima that separates Atlantic side Corocoro Island from the mainland, taking us directly to the Guyana border. The Commander wanted to visit a remote border outpost station that normally takes them a week to travel to. The guard's HF radio was down and they had not been in contact with them for weeks. As the Guyana/Venezuelan border was in dispute this region was considered a hot zone. The Commander warned us several times not to over fly the guard post or accidentally fly over the Guyana border into the “Zona en Reclamacion” as this would certainly start an international incident.
Using the GPS and some careful map reading we flew up the River Barima. The water was alive with water birds of all sorts. The most striking visual memory of the Orinoco Delta for me was flying along side a flock of Scarlet Ibis's that maneuvered in propinquity like a fiery cloud blown by a fierce and turbulent wind. There were also flocks of green parrots, pelicans and cranes that took flight as we buzzed by.
When we got to the location, there was a huge isolated thunderstorm building directly on the other side of the border. I instructed Ali to land into the wind and toward the border and the black storm. After we landed we taxied slowly up to the border post. The guards had a small dinghy and engine that worked and they came out brandishing guns until they saw the Commander who had stepped out on the floats to avoid any such misunderstanding. I assessed the current drift to insure we would not drift in over the border while visiting and only then had Ali shutdown.
The Commander had a long talk with his obviously excited guards, but the brooding thunderstorm began to mature and it looked like it would burst down on us any moment. The rain and lightning, less than a mile away, was so intense I could smell the cool moisture and the ozone. I decided we had to cut and run, other wise we would have to taxi around in the heavy rain and wind for who knows how long waiting for a break in the weather.
I had Ali do a 20 knot gusting downwind take off, away from the border and the thunderstorm, with the storm nipping right on our heels. I left the flaps up until we had gotten our airspeed up and dumped them for a clean liftoff. By the time we got airborne we had traveled into smoother air leaving the microbursts behind. Our next stop was even more exciting as we were to follow the narrow winding rainforest fed Amacuro River up along the border to the next guard post.
This post was considered so remote that the guards are changed out only once every 3 months. This posting had already been there over 3 months with their relief only just mounting the expedition to make the exchange. We flew low up the winding river, which led up deeper into the remote jungle. The terrain began to raise into large rainforest covered hills even though the river remained calm and benign. Finally right were the map said it would be we found the guard post. I could see from the air how they could go 3-4 months with no relief. In the middle of the rainforest was a beautiful garden plantation. They grew bananas, plantain, papaya, cassava, manioc, lemons, and a host of other self-sustaining tropical fruits. I could not help thinking that this was an Eden waiting for someone to start an ecologically friendly tourist lodge. With the mist cloaked rainforest covering the hills and lining the rivers it appeared an idyllic South American paradise.
The trees on both sides of the river were incredibly tall, possibly 250 feet or more. At first approach we could not tell, because we did not have the local altimeter setting and we had little idea what altitude the river was at. The river was in a narrow canyon of trees with very steep sides. Plus, the river was winding with only a few places to land and only one area long enough for a takeoff. I let Ali mistakenly decide that there was no way in hell we could land in that confined area. I surprised him, and everybody on board by contradicting his conclusion. I had operated in and out of many similar rivers in the Niger River Delta.
When scouting a new location the first decision a floatplane pilot must make is where he wants to dock or moor. We could see a partially submerged dock in the river beside the compound. The vegetation was cut down enough that we could get our wing over the dock and between the brush without much trouble.
Secondly the pilot must decide on where he can takeoff, and what pathway he must use to taxi to the takeoff area from the docking location. This is so important because once on the water all the landmarks will look different and the entire underwater obstacle world will be invisible. You have to visually map the path in your mind and be able to replay it when the time comes to leave.
I could see a reasonable straight stretch of water around several narrow and river grass choked bends. I could also see several shallow spots where the river slowed and golden sand bars accumulated just under the surface. They were not really dangerous for our taxi into takeoff position, but they would have to be avoided to prevent the embarrassment of grounding out, if for no other reason. Moreover, we would need to start the takeoff run just before the last bend to make the most of our takeoff area. Ali could not see any of this from the air, but that is what I was there for.
Finally we had to decide where to land and how to taxi from the landing area to the dock. I could see a short but perfectly straight landing area near the dock, but we would have to land past the dock and then return taxi. That would not be a big problem except the river was too narrow to execute a normal displacement taxi turn. I had that figured out as well. I pointed this all out to Ali as we circled a few times, and then asked him whether or not he was up to it. I felt comfortable with doing the landing in the right seat, but with Ali's growing skills, I also felt comfortable guiding him down. To his credit he took the challenge and decided to stay in control.
There is no doubt that Ali had never attempted such a difficult landing and most likely has not done one since, but he sure came through on this one. He made a long majestic sweeping final and lined up early, slowing the big bushplane down to 85 kias and full flaps. We brushed by the lush green hillsides and then continued down into the canyon of riverine trees.
As we passed through the canopy we could feel the rainforest close in around us as we were literally swallowed. Just below the canopy was the go-around decision point, as any lower and we would not have the room to make it out, but Ali had the glide path in full control. We could see the light fade and feel the air cool like the passing of a full eclipse as we descended into the heart of daytime darkness. The air was still and heavy like it had been lying undisturbed since the Jurassic period. The Caravan was whisper quiet in descent and inside the cabin we all held our breath. I could imagine the howler monkeys with heads bowed watching us drop below their canopy roosts in silence. The eeriness of our transcending was like the chill of passing into another world and another time.
Ali did a perfect landing onto the absolutely glassy water. I even had to take his hand and guide him into beta as he was not sure we had touched the water. As we fell off the step I helped him with right rudder and came into displacement taxi. Ali let out a whoop of relief and the passengers joined in clapping and congratulating him. Then we had to turn around. A dark cloud came over Ali's face as he realized there was simply no room for turning that 50-foot wingspan in such a narrow river.
In that we landed down current, however, the turn into current was actually quite easy. I showed him that all he had to do was first stop the aircraft in the middle of the river using slight reverse at the same time kicking hard left rudder to get the nose swinging left before losing all momentum, then find perfect beta, with no forward or reverse thrust, and wait for the starboard side exhaust to slowly turn the aircraft on the back of a turtle.
As we started around I had Ali lift the water rudders to help the pivoting action and we swung around beautifully to face up current. The transiting from downstream to into-stream effect also helps in turning the aircraft as it acts a bit like weather cocking against the water rudders. It is the exhaust propulsion, however, that makes the turn so sweet. We never used more than the wingspan to turn completely around. We then taxied up to the submerged dock and I helped Ali run the right float up onto the dock, with the right wing brushing the dense foliage, and we shut down in feather to get the prop to stop quickly.
In the meantime, the Commander had been waving to the wary onshore guards to insure they knew we were not an invading force from Guyana. We tied up and enjoyed a quick tour around the beautifully kept gardens of the compound. I guess there was little else for them to do as even their little outboard engine had quit on them. Naturally they hit up my passengers for every last smoke they had.
The takeoff was easy as we already had it planned and mapped out. We accomplished a drift start facing into the current and taxied forward toward the straight stretch around the double bend. The grassy areas and sand bars were easy to see in the clear waters. I had Ali start his takeoff run before the second bend and then plow left around the corner as all the natural forces of physics helped to pull us up onto the step. As we got on the step we were facing straight down the river with the maximum run now available to us. The lift off was smooth and at best rate of climb and 80 kias we were well clear of the canopy before the next river bend. For me in Africa this would all be in a day's work. For Ali and our passengers this was flying like they had never experienced before.
On our way home the Commander wanted to visit a busy Orinoco River port. He said that much of the smuggled drugs and contraband came up the river into this port. Curiapo was not known to be a friendly place. The Canadian who canoed from Canada's Arctic to the mouth of the Amazon said this was one of the least friendly places he had the displeasure of stopping at on his entire journey. Over all he ended up with an unfavorable view of Venezuela, contrary to the experiences I had had so far. But, the Commander did not want to stop there; he simply wanted to prove we could land there. His main concern was that they could provide support for the Navy, who patrolled this river, if requested.
Again I let Ali read the waters of the wide and sweeping muddy Orinoco River (technically the Boca Grande), and he concluded that we could land almost anywhere. I had to let him down gently as I concluded that we only had a narrow band of water in which to land, with the rest being either impractical or just plain dangerous. He shook his head in disbelief. With the waters too muddy and the waters so low with the beginning of the rainy season, there was no way you could see to any depth to know where the sand bars were and where the deep water channels were. I knew how to read the water from my experiences in the similar Niger River.
A floatplane pilot could only judge where the deep water is by the lay of the river, by the sweep of the current, and by the passage of riverboats. As Curiapo was built on the north side of a wide long section of the river there was no way the lay of the river could help me, except to suggest that there would only be one deeper channel meandering amongst plenty of shallow sand bars along the width and berth of the river. Watching the riverboats confirmed that there was one main channel that led to Curiapo, but it ended somewhere ½ a kilometer from the docks. As this was the low water season only smaller draft boats could use the docks. We could no doubt get near the docks if need be, but getting there across the sand bars would be tricky.
Finally, I let Ali do a low and over into the sun, where I could see the sun reflecting off the water currents. By reading the water currents I could see the deeper water running through the shallower water by the type of ripples the current formed. The deep-water ripples were long and smooth, like sinews of a muscle, while the ripples in the shallow water were sharp and choppy. I could see the deep current curve slightly as it ran out to the main body of the river. This would be super important to remember when making the takeoff, as you will not see the curve so easily from under the nose of the aircraft on the step.
Luckily there were also a series of sticks that the boat captains used to guide them in to the very last section of the deep water before the docks. The sticks were near invisible from the air, but you could see them once on final if you looked ahead. They were too close in to land beside, but you could use them for reference on a heads up final. It was here that I suddenly realized where Ali was having his landing problems.
As he lined up on the final that I set for him he started a barely perceptible drift. The wind was about 3 knots from the left and Ali started a 3 knot drift with the wind. As we touched down we were moving 3 knots sideways and the Caravan veered accordingly. I understood that Ali, who had never previously landed on anything but runways, had no idea of what to use as a reference for drift correction. Without the painted centerline he was lost.
He was even more surprised when I had him turn on the sonar depth finder. In the channel we had 18 feet of water much as he had expected. With the confidence of deep water, however, Ali suggested we taxi directly toward the jetty. I told him to try as I watched the depth finder. Within a few meters of turning off the channel the depth went from 18 to 12 to 8 to 2 feet. The Caravan floats were touching the sandy bottom as Ali realized we were going nowhere fast.
The only reason I wanted him to get off the channel was so he would realize how impossible it was to determine the depth of the water by trying to look into it. The silt-laden waters all looked the same no matter what the depth -- even down to a few inches. The only way you could really determine water depth was by reading the flow and sweep of the river. And this was not something I could teach in a few short weeks.
What I could teach Ali, however, was how to read his crosswind drift and how to correct it without runway markings for reference. The next day I had Ali fly to a large open bay near the ocean that was white capped from the daytime breeze. In this bay the wind was coming onshore at about 15 knots, which was perfect for starting the training. I had Ali line up with a 90-degree crosswind from the left and fly the aircraft in landing configuration down to just wave top height. Then I had him drop the into wind wing and fly in a straight line correcting for the drift.
At first he drifted, but after raking the bay a dozen times in each direction he got the hang of watching the waves drifting under the aircraft and using a checkpoint on the distant shore to judge the amount of wing low correction he required to keep the aircraft on track. When he got good at that we traveled further in land and found a large river with a slight crosswind and practiced his landings using this new technique. After our hard day at work we headed back to Maturin with both of us feeling like we had accomplished something. Ali was really getting the hang of the floatplane flying.
Continue With Part Three Here.
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Last modified on
July 29, 2002
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