© Neil Bennett Photography 2020.

1986 - Bogota, Colombia. I was tasked with completing a control survey on an oilfield in Colombia, close to the Venezuelan border, with a very early edition of GPS gear. I had flown to the area from Bogota a couple of times on scouting trips and the project was finally kicking off. Earlier flights to the area had been in a Twin Otter but the mobilization flight was in a Beechcraft model 18, a WW2 era plane. The B18 in which we were to fly seated eight and aside from the eight people there was quite a heap of equipment.

The plane was no doubt overloaded. Everything going onboard, including me, was weighed. Only later did I hear that this particular flight was the plane’s first commercial flight in quite some time. As we milled about, a mechanic continued to tinker with one engine right up until take-off. All the equipment and people were loaded onto the plane, including the mechanic. With broken Spanish, and to no avail, I tried to volunteer for the next flight but I too was loaded onto the plane.

Bogota is at an elevation of around 8500’ and as airplanes have less efficiency lifting loads off the ground at higher elevations I was somewhat concerned with the weight we were carrying. Having previously flown in a B18 in BC I know it was probably capable of flying us to the job site however never having been weighed before a flight I was less confident in the plane’s ability to get us off the ground. We taxied towards the runway, past the broken remains of a plane that hadn’t quite made it to the runway and just as we turned onto the runway the man in the white coveralls stood up and leaned into the pilot’s compartment. He tapped a gauge, spoke to the pilot and seemed to be taking great interest in the performance of the engines. As we started our takeoff roll he remained standing by the pilot’s compartment watching those gauges.

Our pilot was a swarthy somewhat overweight man. He was sweating profusely and I could see every one of his knuckle bones as he gripped the yoke as tightly as he could. It was easy to tell he was worried. I am normally a relaxed flyer, but, this was disconcerting. Eventually the tail wheel came up and it seemed like the plane might actually make it off the ground.

There is a saying in flight that there are three things of no use to a pilot: air above, fuel on the ground and runway behind you. We were quickly increasing the amount of runway behind us with the obvious corollary that we were quickly decreasing the runway ahead of us. The main wheels left the ground for a second or two, we bounced off the runway, left the ground again for a few seconds, bounced off the runway one wheel at a time, then finally became airborne. instead of relaxing, our pilot was still sweating as the next problem quickly became apparent.

Bogota is surrounded on the east and south by mountains that are some 11,000’ high. We had to fly over them towards the east. Apart from their height they were covered in clouds and the plane did not have radar. Nor did it have oxygen for the pilot. I was hopeful that the pilot lived in Bogota, thus would have much more facility with thinner air than a pilot living at sea level. I wasn’t quite grasping at straws but the decrease in oxygen to the pilot’s brain certainly crossed my mind. “The plane clawed it’s way into the sky” certainly applied to our tired, overloaded B18.

We climbed into the clouds and from time to time I could see trees through the clouds not far below. I and the others had to have faith that the pilot had flown this route before and know there wasn’t any “cumulo granitous”, or large rock spires, in our path. We crossed the mountains, dropped under the clouds and the flight began to seem semi-normal. Certainly the engines were functioning well and, if nothing else, our pilot appeared more relaxed. Throughout our flight our mechanic maintained his vigil next to the flight compartment, nonchalantly leaning on the pilot’s seat and tapping on a a gauge from time to time. We approached our dirt landing strip, flared and landed without incident (mechanic still standing) some two hours after our unforgettable takeoff.

I am not by nature a religious person in any organized sense however I am aware that when the Pope visits a new country he kneels to kiss the ground as a sign of respect for the country and it’s people. It occurred to me that if I had leaned to kiss the ground it would have been for a completely different reason. Along with not being particularly religious I do not usually anthropomorphize inanimate objects however in this case it certainly crossed my mind that patting the plane on the wing and saying “attaboy” might have been appropriate.

- Neil Bennett
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