With the kind permission of Tony Merton Jones –chief editor of Propliner Magazine I am able to reproduce this article which originally appeared in Propliner number 66 (Spring 1996)
Super Catalina to Cachi Porro
NICKY SCHERRER savours life aboard Colombia's only amphibious cargo 'propliner' as she carries a consignment of freight deep into uncharted territory
Although there are still a healthy number of Catalina amphibians active in various parts of the world, few are flown commercially. However, Nicky Scherrer recently discovered that the newly refurbished example flying in Colombia is used for ad-hoc cargo work to some of the more remote locations in the country. Naturally intrigued by the operation of this classic aircraft, he endeavoured to participate on one of its recent missions.
CARGO MISSION FROM VILLA VICENCIO
When I heard that the only Colombian registered amphibian, a Catalina registered HK-2115, was operating out of Villavicencio, I was naturally eager to establish the identity of the aircraft's owner and to introduce myself to the gentleman. It transpired that the owner and the captain of the aircraft were one and the same person, but trying to make contact with a pilot who has no office, either at the airport or in the town, is extremely difficult. Eventually, I found myself in a garden where I discovered the Catalina's owner. He told me about his plans to operate a cargo flight on the next day to a small village named Cachi Porro, inhabited by the local Amazonas Indian population named "Tucas''. On the next day, preparations began early to load the cargo aboard the Catalina, and by nine o'clock in the morning various parcels had been stowed aboard together with a petrol-powered generator needed by the indians to provide electricity. An hour later, the captain and flight engineer had checked the engines and declared that they were ready to depart. Villavicencio is situated in the foothills of the Andes in a chain of mountains named the Cordilleras Occidental, but to the east of the town there are no mountains, no hills and certainly no civilization. We were taking off with a moderate payload on board, but the paved 1,310 metre long runway is almost a luxury in the region, and we took off without any problems and certainly earlier than a pair of Antonov An-32s and a DC-3 that had departed during Villavicencio's 'rush hour' between eight and nine o'clock. We climbed to an altitude of 6,000 feet, and flew in a south easterly direction for two hours.
Communication with the area control centre at Villavicencio was lost after ninety minutes, and we were on our own for the remainder of the flight. Should any technical problems arise during this time, the crew has to become rather resourceful as beneath us was absolutely nothing beyond thousands of acres of forest and rivers. Here there are no roads, no boats, no civilization and certainly no airports, I had anticipated that we would alight on a broad expanse of river and unload the cargo on the river bank, but when Captain Borde started his approach I could only see a narrow stretch of river with many obstacles. The longest stretch of straight water appeared to be perhaps one thousand metres in length. This would be a landing I would remember!
Captain Borde made a very short and tight approach to the confined area of water, and having successfully avoided two high trees by raising the wingtips for a moment, the Catalina landed safely on the water. As we had arrived in the dry season when the waters of the river were at their lowest, there were some sandbanks visible and only six hundred metres of water were really suitable for use by the Catalina. One of the crew members climbed onto the nose of the aircraft using the two doors situated between the pilots, and he supervised the parking of the Catalina at a ninety degree angle to the river bank. The land here was very steep and it was almost impossible to get out of the aircraft
The small village of Cachi Porro is located some thirty metres above the level of the river, and due to the presence of a shoal of piranhas, we unloaded the cargo with the assistance of a canoe. Even the local Tucas Indians are reluctant to go into the water here because of the piranhas, and they always carry out their fishing from the safety of boats. The Indians served lunch first to the captain, and when he had finished his meal, the remainder of the Catalina's crew was invited to sit down at the table and enjoy some local delicacies. Unloading of the Catalina took about four hours, and by the time that the final items had been unloaded, it had started to rain. This was usual in this region of the world, and consequently the captain elected not to attempt to return to Villavicencio until the following day. His decision to stay overnight allowed me the opportunity to experience more of the lifestyle of the Indians and discover at first hand something of what life must be like for people living in these primitive regions. We slept overnight in hammocks surrounded by a wide selection of domestic animals including pigs, cats, dogs, chickens and ducks. We were awoken at four o'clock in the morning to a chorus led by the roosters and chickens, whilst we found that the women were already busily engaged in making bread.
PREPARATIONS FOR DEPARTURE
Our day began shortly afterwards when the crew checked over the Catalina at five o'clock in the morning, with the first task being the clear the aircraft of water that had accumulated overnight, using the electrical pumps. Four hours later we were ready to depart and the local population came down to the river to bid farewell to their overnight guests. Overhead, the trees were filled with numerous monkeys all making shrill noises, as we slowly moved the Catalina into the middle of the river using two canoes equipped with engines. We sat in the canoes and supported the wings of the Catalina as she edged out into the centre of the river. With both engines started and all crew members on board, the captain completed his pre-take-off checks and then maneuvered the Catalina into the prime position to make best use of our modest take-off run. Everything was ready, and the crew took their positions for what must be one of the most exciting take-offs anywhere in the world.
We estimated that we had 600 metres in which to become airborne, and although the empty Catalina was relatively light, nerves of steel were needed by the crew to ensure that our take-off path was clear of a couple of old canoes lying in the river, whilst there was also a bank to miss together with some tall trees over one hundred and twenty feet in height which were in our departure path. Our experienced captain, renowned as being one of the finest and most well known in Colombia, did his job well. The old Catalina lifted from the water and successfully cleared all obstacles in her path, and once airborne we climbed to an altitude of 2,000 feet. It was decided to remain initially at this level in order to cool the engines in the more dense lower air. We remained at this low altitude for the first thirty minutes of the flight, skirting over some impressive scenery below. Once we had established contact with the area control centre at Villavicencio, we climbed to 10,000' and cruised for the remainder of the flight at this chilly level. At noon, the wheels of the Catalina were lowered for the first time since our departure from Villavicencio the previous day, and we touched down on the paved runway again happy to have returned to civilization.
Although I was relieved to be back safely in Villavicencio, the flight aboard the Catalina had been a remarkable once in a lifetime experience. I smiled as local airline passengers gazed at me intrigued by my appearance - I was covered in brown Amazonian mud down my trousers and caked upon my 'hush puppies'. Mud that could tell many an exciting story