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AIR COLOLMBIA DC-3

(Re-visited (April 2015)
Article by Jan Koppen & photography by Michael Prophet

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La Vanguardia airport (VVC) is the main airport located at Villavicencio, Colombia. It serves regular passenger, charter and cargo services within the Meta province. Back in the early 1930s an airfield was constructed by "Sociedad Colombo Alemana de Transporte Aero" (SCADATA). This airfield provided basic radio equipment, beacon and weather facilities for the local region. During 1949 Avianca had built a new airfield which is the current airport. It is located beside the river Guatiquia on the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental and includes a hardened runway and modern facilities.
Currently (April 2015) three airlines serve La Vanguardia: Avianca, Lan Colombia and Satena. These operators serve the cities of La Macarena, Mitu, Puerto Carreno, Puerto Inirida and Bogota. Current aircraft types that can be found at VVC are Embraer 170/190, ATR -72 and the Dash 8-200. La Vanguardia still holds the title of being the DC-3 capitol of the world. Several passengers and cargo companies can be found at this modest South American airport. All of them still operate the venerable Douglas DC-3. Currently there are five companies active: Air Colombia, Aliansa SA, Allas, Arall and Sadelca.
Additionally Selva operates an all Antonov fleet, next to their recently acquired Boeing 727-200F.

Air Colombia S.A.S is also one of the main DC-3 operators at La Vanguardia. Air Colombia has an exclusive ramp along the main runway, which incorporates a large maintenance facility/hanger and offices. Air Colombia performs its own in-house repair, overhaul and maintenance on its fleet of DC-3s. Its ramp also serves as a cargo loading platform for its daily operation. Back in 1999 when I first visited Villavicencio they were still operating a DC-6 freighter. Currently only two hardworking combi DC-3, where active while two other DC-3s await restoration in the large open hangar.
During our visit HK-3292 & HK-1175 were operational, while inside the hangar HK-3293 and HK-3359 were awaiting repair and/or restoration.
One of the reasons to visit Colombia was to fly onboard a Douglas DC-3 to one of the remote jungle destinations and witness the flying activities of the Colombian aviation at first hand. There were a couple of agency′s were a ticket could be bought and their offices were located just behind the main terminal at La Vanquardia airport. The usual practice was to purchase a ticket for a certain date in dollars or local currently. On the departure day any of the operational DC-3s would then be signed in for that particular flight.
A ticket for a return flight to Mitu was purchased and on the morning of departure it turned out to be the Air Colombia DC-3 HK-1175. This morning′s flight crew was veteran Capt. Joaquin Hernan Sanclemente and his co-pilot Ovidio Alarcon Gonzalez. After departure Air Colombia Operations Control re-routed the flight for commercial reasons several times that day. Finally our routing was from Villavicencio to Caruru, to Mitu, to San Jose del Guaiare, to Miraflores, back to San Jose del Guaiare and finally at sun-set back at Villavicencio.

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Douglas DC-3 HK-1175 (c/n 20432) This aircraft left the factory in May 1944 for delivery to the USAAF "43-15966". Originally this DC-3 has been manufactured as a C-47A-90-DL "Skytrain". This military DC-3 variant had two 1200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92′s engines with a MTOW of 13.320 kg. Basically it was a DC-3A-456 with a 24 volt electrical system and hot-air heating. After the war she was first registered civilian as NC65743 of Miami Airline Inc and designated as a DC-3C. Fate hit a blow on April 1953, when it crashed near Selleek, WA. Fortunately it was not fatal and she was rebuilt. For a short period she flew in Canada for Montreal Air Service as CF-DME. Via Miami Airline she was exported to Colombia in 1964 and her next operator was "Lineas Aereas La Urraca" from Villavicencio. The aircraft changed hands once more as she was acquired by "Transamazonica" Ltda. In 1972 she was seen derelict at Bogota Airport. Finally this frame has been rebuilt and is presently part of the Air Colombia fleet.

Villavicencio – Caruru
Our flight, like most of the other flights in the region, began as an ad-hoc schedule, flying low over the plains and into the jungle, loaded with boxes of newly hatched chicks, big jugs of gasoline, a 32-inch LG television, boxes of flowers and a refrigerator. Our first destination Caruru was a small jungle dirt strip next to the Vaupes River and is a jungle outpost with only 800 souls. There is no control tower in Caruru and our DC-3 had no problem with the potholed and wet dirt strip thanks to the seasoned crew.

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Mitu – San Jose del Guaiare
Our next destination was the small city of Mitu also situated along the Vaupes Rives, located in south eastern Colombia in, but this time we had the luxury of a paved runway. Other aircraft at Mitu that day were: Aliansa DC-3C HK-2006, Aer Caribe An-26B HK-4730 and several Cessna′s ranging from 172 to 208. After unloading some cargo and picking up some additional passenger we took off from Mitu - Fabio Alberto Leon Bentley Airport heading for San Jose del Guaviare airport located next to the Guaviare River.
San Jose del Guaviare, city, southeastern Colombia lays in a transition area between the Llanos (grassland plains) to the north and the tropical semi deciduous rainforests of the South. The principal economic activities are cattle raising and farming. The airport is partly a military base.
Here our DC-3 will be reloaded with boxes of newly hatched chicks, big jugs of gasoline, a 32-inch LG television, boxes of flowers and a refrigerator bound for our next destination Miraflores.

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San Jose del Guaiare – Miraflores Guaviare
The small jungle town of Miraflores, Guaviare also lies direct next to the Vaupes River and was during the 1980s famous as a ‘cocaine’ boomtown that once was controlled by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels. Today the region is mostly active in logging, fishing and some tourist. Miraflores is only accessible by air and river and its main (dirt) street also serves as main runway for the Colombian DC-3s! Its landing strip is considered one of the most dangerous in Colombia. When we landed I noticed at that the Aliansa DC-3 HK-2600 about to move away and we created an afternoon traffic jam. The main dirt strips was muddy and brown, but Captain Sanclemente pushed the DC-3 engines throttles so we could park along the fence line.
It was a beautifull tropical day with temperatures above the 30 degrees celcius, our passengers for the onward flight rest in the shade under the wings. Captain Sanclemente never spends more than 30 minutes on the ground there - just long enough to unload. He is particularly keen to steer clear of the crowds of children who gather round and get in the way during takeoff. An on-time departure was needed to arrive before the 18.00 hours curfew at Villavicencio airport.

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