Old Planes, New Purpose: Aging DC-3s Deliver Hope To Remote Villages In Colombia

The Douglas DC-3, the plane that revolutionized air travel in the 1930s and which went out of production in 1942, is still taking flight over the dense jungles of southern Colombia, delivering passengers, food and medical supplies to remote villages in the region.

A fixed-wing, propeller-driven plane that was retired from service in the U.S. in the 1960s, the DC-3 is the gold standard for what some call “one of the most perilous air routes in the world.” Operated by a number of commercial and institutional groups, a fleet of around 30 DC-3s take off from Villavicencio, a small city in the foothills of the Andes, and travel to a number of remote indigenous villages obscured by the thick, forest canopy.

"These are all-terrain airplanes, the tractors of the skies," Capt. John Acero, one of the DC-3 pilots told Public Radio International. “It doesn't matter if the runway is full of mud or water. This plane is very trustworthy and maneuverable."

The DC-3 made its first flight on June 26, 1936, and quickly became the major plane used in air transportation for U.S. airlines like American, United, TWA and Eastern. The U.S. government stopped using the plane for military service in 1982, but it remains in daily use in regions of the world deemed too hard to reach in larger planes.

For instance, in Canada, Buffalo Airways operates scheduled DC-3 passenger service between its main base in Yellowknife and Hay River in the Northwest Territories.

The ruggedness of the plane is the main reason that they are prized in Colombia’s southern reaches. There are few roads in the region, and, in the dry season, rivers are often un-navigable, so the plane is the only practical way in and out.

The DC-3’s tough landing gear, balloon tires and slow airspeed also allow the plane to land on short, bumpy dirt airstrips that would be unfeasible for modern commercial planes.

Which doesn’t mean that its flights aren't sometimes turbulent. Over the years the planes have come under gunfire from the Marxist guerrillas who, while not as strong as they used to be, are still very much present in the region, and a number of planes have disappeared into the misty jungle.

"It's dangerous,” one pilot who identified himself only as Raúl told Al Jazeera. “The slightest problem and the plane will just fall out of the sky."

The strain put on the aircraft – one pilot said his cockpit’s compass was held on by a bungee cord and that none of the DC-3s come equipped with autopilot – is the principal reason that about half the 30 planes are grounded for repairs at any given time.

Despite the risks the pilots – and their passengers – take when they lift off the ground, it appears these planes won’t be retired anytime soon.

During one recent flight, a DC-3 delivered groceries, livestock and 1,000 gallons of helicopter fuel to a military outpost in Miraflores, a town in Guaviare province. A passenger on the flight, Catholic Bishop Francisco Nieto noted that the aircraft carry more than what is contained in their cargo holds — the planes bring to seemingly forgotten villages a connection to the outside world.

"These airplanes don't just deliver food and supplies,” Nieto said. “More than anything, they deliver hope.”

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