Ask the pilot

Caracas: Where DC-9s go to die. Also, why Venezuela's majestic Angel Falls was named after an American pilot.


Patrick Smith
October 1, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

The thing about Venezuela is that it has no airline. Well, to clarify, it has plenty of airlines; just no national flag carrier. Not anymore.

Admittedly, "flag carrier" is an increasingly ambiguous term these days. We've reached an age when many countries, even small, politically embattled ones, feature multiple international airlines. The term "official" is open to interpretation: Do we choose the biggest? The oldest? Those that are government owned?

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Venezuela's two historical mainstays have both, sadly, disappeared.

First there was VIASA, created in 1960 as an independent spinoff of the government-owned Línea Aeropostal Venezolana (Aeropostal). VIASA's blue and orange jets flew throughout the Americas and Western Europe. In 1972 it became the first South American airline to fly the Boeing 747, acquiring a single leased jumbo dubbed Orinoco after Venezuela's famous river. Final call came in 1997 on the heels of an acrimonious takeover by Spain's Iberia, itself near bankruptcy at the time. In 37 years, the airline suffered exactly one fatal incident -- a crash at Maracaibo in 1969.

With VIASA shuttered, AVENSA stepped in. AVENSA had been established as a Pan Am subsidiary after World War II. Technically AVENSA still exists, with a single Brasilia turboprop keeping the name alive. But for all intents and purposes the company, whose Boeings and Douglases once reached Madrid and New York, is defunct. Kicking around Venezuela's airports, one sees AVENSA fossils everywhere: old check-in signs, rusted luggage carts, derelict airplane stairways -- the name still visible through cracked blue paint. If the logo looks vaguely familiar, that's because it is. Though sold to local interests in the mid-1970s, the carrier's livery continued to bear a not-so-accidental resemblance to that of the old Pan American -- the winged blue globe and barbed, interlocked typeface.

Nowadays, Venezuela's de facto national airline is probably Aeropostal, the present-day version of the company that spawned VIASA in 1960. Then and now Venezuela's oldest airline, Aeropostal was founded in 1930, though its network has chiefly been a regional one. Trying somewhat to fill the void, out-of-country routes now extend to Miami, Lima, Bogota and elsewhere.

My air-fleet books show more than 30 commercial entities in 2004 Venezuela, including a half-dozen upstart DC-9 and 737 operators, most having emerged in the past 10 years or so. Otherwise, the bulk of the country's carriers are sightseeing, cargo or air-taxi outfits, usually employing single-engine workhorse Cessnas like the Stationair 6 or the turbine-powered Caravan.

A map of Venezuela is pocked with hundreds of remote airstrips. No surprise. Like the bush flying of Alaska, the air system of rural South America is wrought from inaccessibility. The easiest way around Andean peaks, over the rugged altiplano and into the hinterlands of Amazonia, is typically by plane. For partly this reason, South America is home to some of the world's oldest and proudest airlines. Even with 75 birthdays, Aeropostal is outdone by Colombia's Avianca, founded in 1919 and second-oldest on earth. Further south, Bolivia's LAB (Lloyd Aereo Boliviano) traces its origins to 1925. (For comparison, the oldest U.S. airline is Northwest, dating to 1926.)

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Pilot Report: Aeropostal Flight VH344, Caracas to Puerto Ordaz

Class: Economy
Length of flight: 60 minutes
Fare paid: $50

The best thing about the Caracas airport is that it's not the Lima airport. Then again, that's giving Lima, one of my least favorite places and least favorite airports, too much credit.

The terminal at Caracas is a cheerless structure overhung by fat, gray beams of naked concrete. But it's clean, spacious and surprisingly unchaotic. On arrival from the States, it was less than 10 minutes from jetway to curbside -- a curbside that is free, mind you, of the anticipated gauntlet of taxi hawkers and black-market money changers. At the eastern end of the domestic wing, a floor-to-ceiling panel of multicolored stained glass imports a bit of atmosphere. Past security, where a man will eagerly confiscate your nail clippers, travelers partake of such Latin specialties as a Cinnabon franchise, a Burger King and a Benihana steak house.

The shape and layout of the check-in zone -- basically a long, three-story rectangular box -- are reminiscent of the main hall at Johannesburg. The whole airport, for that matter, is a long, skinny rectangle -- laid east-to-west on a sliver of flatland between the Caribbean Sea and a clutch of mountains. The control tower is set back from the rest of the complex, built directly into the skirt of a soaring green hill -- something I've never seen before.

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Technically, this is Simon Bolivar International. As with everything else in northern South America, it honors the famous Gen. Bolivar, Venezuelan-born hero who liberated the region from Spain. But much like Narita in Japan (Tokyo), or Keflavik in Iceland (Reykjavik), the airport is commonly referred to neither by its official moniker nor by the city it serves. Savvy travelers and industry folk call it Maiquetía (My-kuh-TEA-uh), after the lively coastal neighborhood in which it rests. Caracas itself is 25 kilometers away.

The city of Caracas, by the way, despite a dramatic setting in a bowl of towering hills (green I suppose, but yellow-gray through the smog), is one of the most oppressive cities I've ever visited -- a withering metropolis fringed with dangerous and filthy slums. It's an unsavory blend of Mexico City and Bangkok: the Latin verve and ugly sprawl of the former, the traffic jams of the latter, and the noise and squalor of both.

Out on the Maiquetía tarmac, it's a rainbow array of hometown carriers -- Aeropostal, Aserca, Laser, Rutaca -- most of which appear to have a strange fixation with the McDonnell Douglas DC-9. Guatemala is sometimes described as the place where American school buses go to die. (Those who've sampled that country's public transport will know what I mean.) Caracas seems to be where DC-9s go to die. Even in Lima you'll see a fairly spiffy lineup of later-model 737s and A320s. For whatever reason, Caracas is stuck a generation or two behind.

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My flight this morning, VH344, is itself a DC-9, and I watch for the doorframe plaque as I step aboard, informing me of the jet's construction date: 1978. Not bad, really, when you consider many Northwest Airlines DC-9s are Summer of Love vintage or older. Minneapolis, maybe, is where DC-9s really go to die.

The difference is that Northwest upgrades the cabins and keeps its planes superficially modern (no wisecrack e-mails, please). The interior of YV-32C did not appear to have been refitted anytime lately, if ever. Aeropostal might have seven storied decades under its belt, but it can't match the style of more serious Latin contenders like TACA or LAN, progressives with state-of-the-art planes and swanky in-flight perks. Just the same, the antique -9 was immaculately clean -- not a crumb on the carpet or a tear in the upholstery. A sidewall panel, I saw, had been carefully repainted by hand. The jet had an heirloom feel: timeworn and distinctly oldfangled, but affectionately cared for.

It was quite the opposite, really, from the plane I'd arrived in the previous day. That one, a new-generation Boeing belonging to a Certain U.S. Airline that I'm forced to keep anonymous, looked about 50 years older than it actually was. The cabin was so unkempt and dirty that I needed a wet napkin to rub the grease from my armrest. My tray was broken, the headrest was broken, the cushions were coming apart and the moldings were smeared with pen marks. And this was first class (though the crew, I have to admit, was exceedingly gracious and the meals quite tasty).

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The hop to Puerto Ordaz takes roughly an hour. Soft drinks, coffee and a small box breakfast were dispensed by the more or less cordial Aeropostal attendants. The crew made announcements in Spanish and English.

We landed just after noon. Abandoned in the grass off the side of the runway, like an abandoned car on blocks, sat a weather-beaten 727 in the colors of AVENSA.

Check-in and boarding: D-plus
(No announcements and disordered queues at counter and gate)

Punctuality: C
(Departure 20 minutes late; no announcements or apology)

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Aircraft cleanliness and decor: C-plus
(Give them credit for caring)

Food and service: A-minus
(Coffee and a scrawny sandwich? More than you'll get in the States on any 60-minute domestic ride.)

All of this, if you're wondering, and since I'm itching to write about it, was part of an excursion to Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall, deep in the Guayana region of southeast Venezuela. Believe it or not, I hadn't gone all this way just to watch airplanes or have lunch at Benihana.

Venezuela is my new favorite country, but a narrative of my trip begins with the sour part: depressingly, and as usual, I encountered almost no Americans. It was Germans, Brits, French and Dutch aplenty, with hardly an American in sight. Help me with this: Venezuela is a three-hour flight from Florida, versus up to 12 from Europe. And what is it with the Dutch? The entire population of Holland is less than that of Florida, yet I've run into hundreds of Dutch tourists in every corner of the world. It's perplexing enough, but in Venezeula, a few short hours from Miami, it's infuriating and embarrassing.

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Getting to Angel Falls required the trip to Puerto Ordaz, followed by a drive to Ciudad Bolivar, on the banks of the Orinoco. Ciudad Bolivar -- yet another toast to the General -- is formerly the city of Angostura. Yes, this is where Angostura bitters come from. It's a colonial town with an old historic center -- a cathedral, stuccoed houses of sun-bleached pastels, etc.

From here, a single-engine Cessna takes you to the airstrip at Canaima. The flight lasts about an hour and the scenery is fantastic. Seated up front, I couldn't help but notice that approximately half of the instruments on the Stationair 6 were actually operable, the fuel gauges, directional gyro (heading indicator) and attitude indicator (artificial horizon) not among them. I wasn't worried. These guys are salty bush flyers who know the area cold, and could probably maneuver a Cessna sideways through the fronds of a coconut palm. "Sometimes we fly to the mines," the pilot told me, nodding toward the horizon. "Nine-hundred foot runway." The stall vane on the left wing, I'd noticed, had been jammed open with a wad of paper, to keep the buzzer from sounding during those envelope-pushing approaches.

Canaima is the launching point for the river trip to Angel Falls. This part of Venezuela lies at the edge of what's called the Gran Sabana, an exotic wilderness that inspired the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World." Jutting from pristine tropical forest are immense flat-topped mountains, some of them spouting thousand-foot vertical waterfalls. Angel is the biggest of these. It doesn't plunge from a river, it comes pouring out of the top of a tepui -- a tabletop mountain rising from the jungle like a gargantuan fortress. Other tepuis are all around. Essentially you're in a canyon, looking up at the falls.

The geography of the area is mind-bogglingly spectacular, and strikes me as a sort of upside-down Machu Picchu. It's nearly as breathtaking, but inverted. Instead of standing atop the mountains looking down, you're beneath them gazing upward.

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Angel Falls tops out -- or bottoms out, depending how you see it -- at more than 3,000 feet. That's one of those tough-to-visualize statistics, so think of it this way: At any given moment, hundreds of tons of water are dropping two-and-a-half times the height of the Empire State Building. (Lucky me, I've now stood at both the largest cataract -- Victoria, on the Zimbabwe/Zambia border -- and the tallest.)

And the noise. The sound of all that water splashing 3,000 feet to the rocks is not the sound of some primordially majestic Mother Nature. It's the sound of Judgment Day. The noise does not inspire you; it scares you.

It isn't called Angel Falls for the reasons you're probably thinking. This is Catholic Venezuela, sure, but the name comes from Jimmie Angel, an American pilot who, searching for Venezuelan gold in the 1930s, flew past the falls and brought news of it to the rest of the world. In 1937, Angel crash-landed his airplane atop a tepui not far from the falls. Unable to take off again, he and his party reached safety after an 11-day trek through the wilderness. The plane, El Rio Caroni, was later recovered and rests today outside the terminal in Ciudad Bolivar.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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