Rampo Fechado, May 9, 2020
It was the first week of October, 1990. I was in Belem, Brazil at the mouth of Amazon just south of the Equator.
The Dehavilland Beaver on floats had just crashed in a torrential rainstorm the previous week while carrying the movie big shots and actors. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the plane was damaged badly.
My job as the aircraft mechanic was to fix the plane.
But first, we’d have to get the plane re-floated and somehow back to the Cruzeiro hangar at the Belem international airport.
Fortunately at the north end of the airport there was a Brazilian military base with an old ramp into the Amazon River. Amphibian aircraft once used it.
So our plan was to use empty fifty gallon oil drums to re-float the plane, tow it to the ramp, lift it onto the ramp, and then move it by truck to the aircraft hangar where I’d remove the floats, put it on wheels, and then repair the plane with the aid of my friend and fellow mechanic, John who flew down from Seattle. The plane would then fly on wheels to finish its movie role.
The problem was that we’d need permission from the Brazilian commander of the base to use his amphibious ramp.
Manuele was a nice guy. He was the lead Brazilian on the aerial unit crew. He was Italian, but had lived his life in Rio de Janeiro. He was young and handsome and had a beautiful wife. Manuele smoked cigarettes and loved ice cream. His English was pretty good.
Manuele told me one hot afternoon over a few beers that he’d invested in a shipment of cargo (can’t remember what it was) that was going to Genoa. He was nervous about if the investment would pay off.
Manuele arranged for an interview with the Brazilian commander of the base to ask if we could use the ramp for retrieving our damaged plane. Manuele asked me to come along.
I remember it was the first cool cloudy day I’d seen in Belem since my arrival in late May. The summers are brutal in Belem. It’s over 100F every day and 90% humidity with a thunderstorm and torrential rain every afternoon around 4:30 PM or so.
But that October day it was only 75F and cloudy. We were freezing. It felt really strange.
The car and driver from the movie production office took Manuele and I to the base. Out front of the base was an old fighter jet on static display. The usual military jargon on signs was there, but in Portuguese. We were shown up to the second floor of a typical concrete structure with open air windows.
The commandant kept us cooling our heals in the waiting room for a good hour. Nothing happens quickly in Belem.
We were ushered into the commandant’s office. It was a modest room with fans going and an air conditioner on the wall. The commander was about my age (38) and handsome as most Brazilians are.
He had a nice smile and I could tell he was looking forward to this conversation.
Manuele started into his spiel with full Italian flourishes, plus the ones he’s learned in Brazil. He put on quite a show.
I just sat there. After six months my Portuguese was fair. I knew a few hundred words and could kind of tell how the conversation was going.
There was a rare pause in their conversation and I suddenly said,
This means “ramp closed”.
This animated the commander. He smiled and looked me in the eye and went into a long paragraph of words which I couldn’t follow.
But Manuele saw his opening and a deal was made. Suddenly we were all best friends shaking hands. The meeting took about 30 minutes.
Two days later the military had removed the posts and barriers to the ramp and we retrieved the plane. The plane flew three weeks later. And I flew home.