What am I doing here? I’m flying at 3,500 feet over water, heading into the unknown in a single-engine Cessna, and it’s dark!
This is what I asked myself as I flew 10 miles out over the Bay of Panama before dawn. I had taken off from Paitilla Airport in Panama City half an hour earlier when the controllers first came on duty at 5:00 am, where I waited to get takeoff clearance before the long line of air taxi flights.
Now I was en route to a jungle strip in the Darien, on the eastern edge of the Isthmus. It was my first expense-paid flight of what I hoped would embark me on a bush-flying career. At least, that’s how Eddie Armbruster, my mentor and friend, had painted it. One thing about Eddie: he inspired confidence with his “It won’t get done until you do it” attitude. Eddie had just finished polishing off my skills for my private license, and here I was in my new 25-year-old Cessna 170B.
So as daylight slowly started to reveal a beautiful, eerie sight, I continued on my easterly heading. Off to my right, I could see the Archipielago de la Perlas with its many islands and clear blue water. To my left, I could see a maze of clouds covering the inland coast. Below me lay nothing but the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean in between the cloud layers. At this altitude, I couldn’t talk to any ground stations, but I was picking up all the chatter of the air taxi flights racing each other to deliver and pick up passengers in the San Blas Islands and the Darien.
As the color of the water below turned murky, I realized I was approaching the coast. Clouds above, clouds below, and clouds in front. From the plane-to-plane conversations I knew that the twin-engine Britten-Norman Islanders had caught up with me and were in the area. What was worse, we were all in and out of clouds. So… when in the Darien bush airspace, do as the locals…
I announced I was approaching the mouth of the Chucunaque River (at least I thought I was) and that I was descending to 500 feet. My throat went dry when one of the Islander pilots snorted, “500? Buena suerte [Good luck].” Well, he knew what he was talking about because as I went through 500 feet, I was still in cloud. I finally broke out at 300 feet over the water. The mouth of what I hoped was the Chucunaque was half a mile ahead. What a relief. The only clearing was right over the river, which was lined with mid-size sloping hills on both sides.
Ground fog covered the landmass right down to the treetops. Following Eddie’s training on flying under such conditions, I lowered flaps and transitioned to slow cruise flight. The further inland I flew, the more pronounced the curves in the river and the lower the ceiling. At one point I was so low that I found myself looking up to see the treetops. I began to perspire. What if the planes ahead of me had already landed somewhere and picked up his passengers and was heading downriver? I tried creeping to the right. Just in case. But there was no way two airplanes could squeeze through here at the same altitude.
After what seemed ages, I spotted a clearing on the right riverbank about half a mile away. I deduced it must be the El Real runway, my destination. During hangar flying with other pilots in Paitilla, I had heard that missed approaches here were highly discouraged unless you were flying an aircraft with a powerful engine. My 170 had only 145 hp under the cowling, and right at the end of the runway I could see the terrain rising and disappearing into the base of the 300 foot ceiling. Sure enough, there was the 1,000 foot mud strip that served one of the first Spanish settlements in the new world: El Real de Santa María.
I executed a soft field landing in the mud. Gary Cohen, a Californian entrepreneur, met me at the plane. He had what he referred to as “laboratory reptiles” all packed in vented cardboard boxes ready for me to fly out to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, where they would then be flown to Holland on a noon KLM flight. Since I had removed all seats except the pilot’s, there was plenty of space available.
It was all used up. It took us over an hour to load and secure the boxes in the plane, and by the time we finished, the ground fog was beginning to show signs of burning off. I lined up at the foot of the hill and took off towards the river, banking sharply to the left to make sure my climb out was over the river. I flew low and slow, but this made me too uneasy so I decided to climb through the cloud layer and get on top. It got so bumpy that the neatly packed boxes were thrown all over the cabin. We hadn’t secured them with a net, just ropes. I broke out in the clear at around 6,000 feet and leveled at 6,500. Then I began trying to rearrange the load.
That’s when I noticed a pointed head with a forked tongue peering through a vent hole in the side of the box. The reptiles that I had assumed were lizards and chameleons were nothing of the sort. They were snakes! And I froze. Not all snakes are poisonous, I told myself, and if I didn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother me. Not much of a relief, but I finally got hold of myself. Then I thought, “What if it gets bumpy again and, and…”
Luckily for me, I was soon over the ocean, the air was smooth and clear, and I could see all down the coast leading to Tocumen Airport. But I flew all the way with my heels on the top of the rudder pedals just in case one of the reptiles was crawling around in the floorboard.
Once I landed at Tocumen, it took me a couple of hours going from office to office and talking to just about every official at the airport before I finally unloaded the boxes at the KLM cargo depot. A five-minute flight put me back at Paitilla airport, my home base. It was mid-afternoon, and I had been up since 4:00 am. The $50 I was paid for this charter barely covered the gas. But the thrill, the excitement, and the experience as a budding bush pilot I could not have gotten anywhere else but in the field. I was ready for my next charter.
This adventure took place in 1978 and since then, I have gone on to fly Twin Otters for a bush air taxi outfit in Panama, then the Short 360 for a regional airline, and finally the Casa 212 for a Part 135 charter company operating in Central and South America, and the Caribbean. I now fly my Cessna 140A for transportation and pleasure.