Just Plain Floats in the Amazon
Just Plain Floats, written: May 03, 1991
There are three float planes in all of Brazil, for a short while there were four. Brazil is a poor country, but the bush plane on floats seems ideal for the outback of the Amazon. There are few roads and until the recent gold rush out West near Boa Vista, there were few airstrips.
The weather isn’t too extreme. There are no blizzards, or white outs, and the magnetic compass points North on the equator. It is very hot and humid. The air (density altitude) is much thinner than it is up North. The engine strains for oxygen and the wings lift poorly in the heated humid air even at sea level. The whole of the Amazon is basically at sea level. Manaus a city of one million people a thousand miles upstream from Belem is only forty feet above the ocean.
Belem is a city of a million people, founded by the Portuguese on Christmas Day in 1601 at the Southern edge of the huge Amazon delta. “Belem” is Portuguese for “Bethlehem”. It sits on a hill by the Rio Guama, a fork of the Amazon River carrying only 10% of the flow, yet wider than the Mississippi River at St. Louis by a factor of five. Hills are hard to find in the delta and perhaps that’s why the Portuguese picked the spot.
I was there last year to maintain an airplane being used in a movie. The movie is about missionaries, Indians, Federales, campesinos, and who gets the jungle. I couldn’t help but wonder who’d want it?
The plane is a de Havilland Beaver, DHC-2. It is a famous bush plane made in Canada after WWII for the Canadian bush and the American military. It’s a very safe, strong, slow airplane good at carrying heavy loads and able to take off and land on short dirt runways. It doesn’t take much maintenance. It is also the best performer on floats ever built and easy to fly. It’s a very forgiving airplane. Make a mistake and the machine probably won’t kill you.
The plane had been flown down to Belem by a Canadian, Barry Morris. I’ve never seen a man’s eyes so sunken into his head. Barry had just flown the Beaver for five days, 64 flight hours, from St. Cloud , Minnesota to Belem.
Barry told me that the hardest part of the flight was dealing with the customs officers in each of the little kingdoms of the Caribbean. The Brazilian customs weren’t much better. They made him fly back (via airlines) to Cayenne, French Guyana, because he didn’t have a visa. We kept the Beaver in Belem.
All went well for awhile. I fixed the pilot’s squawks and David Jones, the aerial coordinator and stunt pilot, flew the plane into the quarter mile long landing strip built over the swamp at the movie location. This strip is built on pilings driven into the mud with planking on top and a covering of dirt and gravel so it looks like a dirt strip for the movie. It was very narrow. There was only five feet of clearance off of each main wheel. It was like landing on an aircraft carrier without the arrest cables and with the trees at one end. It was a one way in and out strip with no go-around for a missed approach.
The funnest part was landing there at dawn because David had to look straight into the rising sun at the dead end of the runway. DJ would come in low over the river, flaps down, & hanging on the prop. My asshole puckered the first few times and then I just figured death was as good a way as any to leave Belem. Jones, on landing, would look out the side window. It was impossible to see ahead, and as the river ended and the runway started, he’d cut the power and guess. It reminded me of Lindbergh and his periscope on the Spirit of St. Louis. He didn’t even have a windshield.
The plane survived this “runway” many times. Jones is a damn good pilot.
The first plane crash belongs to Pastor Benny. Pastor Benny and his Pentecostal Church owns two of the float planes in Brazil. He flew them both down to Brazil from the States. One is a Cessna 172, and the other one we used in the movie, a Cessna 206.
Pastor Benny is a Canadian and a great guy. He’s tall, round, wears glasses and loves to laugh as he talks nonstop. Benny wears khaki work shirts and pants and always the straw hat to protect his balding head. He has fifty minister/couples spread over the upper Amazon basin. Benny and his wife live in Manaus and he flies from there to all of his parishes. He has gasoline cached on every river to help him spread God’s Word.
Benny was nervous as I pushed out his plane into the river. He’d been flying okay in rehearsal, but this time film would be rolling through the camera. Benny also had three stand-ins as passengers. It was the “Arrival of the Missionaries Scene, a couple and their son.
I’m wondering why these people are in the airplane when it’s just a landing and an approach to the dock. The camera can’t see who the hell’s in the plane anyway. I also think it is ironic that a missionary is flying fake missionaries in a movie that criticizes what Pastor Benny does for a living.
And Benny really is nervous. He can’t get the pattern right. His landings are too far away from the camera. The camera can’t find him in the sky. David Jones is talking to Benny on the radio and I have a radio as I stand on the runway and listen in. I ask Benny to check his fuel. Two Brazilian Army choppers fly by (sightseeing no doubt) and ruin the one good take we’ve had.
Then Benny flies over the dirt strip and I look up and he’s flying low and slow. When he does his downwind turn over the river to come in to land, he’s still too low and slow. I hear him go to full throttle and I see him crash into the elephant ear plants on the river bank.
My soul stopped for a second. I just knew that they were all dead. The impact sent water flying up into the air. I’d just talked to the man.
A second’s silence, and then the helicopter with the aerial unit’s camera takes off behind me. Boats from the movie village on the creek head out to the crash site. No one was hurt. The plane didn’t even sink or sustain major damage. All those pulpy elephant ear plants saved Pastor Benny’s ass. They towed the plane back over to the ramp and I looked it over. Everything was green. The engine compartment looked like the bottom of a lawn mower.
Benny was even more rattled than before, but the plane was okay and the stand-ins were okay, though the boy said he’d never get in an airplane again. His plane was repaired (not by me) and then he left at dawn. “Pastor Benny ran away!” His Bishop had read the script or book and discovered that the film was very anti-missionary. He forbade Benny to participate in the movie.
So Benny flew away at 5 AM back to Manaus never to return. All of his scenes had to be reshot using the only other float plane in Brazil. It was owned by a Federale Narcotics Agent also based in Manaus. He was the opposite of Benny. He was thin, mean, short, taciturn, and he didn’t crash. It only took two takes to get the scenes.
David Jones had an idea. The next movie location, The Mission, was on the Rio Acara and ninety minutes by boat from Belem. Why not put the Beaver on floats (it wouldn’t be used in any of the Mission scenes) and use it to fly the actors and big wigs back and forth from Belem in thirty minutes? The plane is just sitting there and here’s a chance to save the movie company some time and make some money for Jones/McKernan Inc.
I was not thrilled with the prospect of getting the float parts through Brazilian customs, installing them on the aircraft, and finding a way to get the float plane from its hangar at Belem Int’l Airport to the Amazon River. But that’s another story.
I put the Beaver on floats and we got it in the river. It flew back and forth between Belem and the Mission Location for a few weeks. Chris was the pilot and he was doing okay. I took a few weeks off and went back to the States. When I returned, Chris, a blonde Californian about 25 yrs. old, was thoroughly Brazilianized. His health was shot. It’s not easy resisting beautiful Belemese women knocking on your hotel room door.
I flew with him to the set upon my return to Belem, and Chris was very happy to see me. The rest of the Aerial Unit was gone. David Jones and company were back in California. Manuele and Andrez, the boys from Brazil, were in Italy and Rio de Janeiro respectively. So now it was just Chris and I to try and convince the production company that, “Hey, we need a dock!”. Tying up to a buoy in this river where the tidal currents run at 10 knots, and then putting the actors into small boats to carry them to shore isn’t very safe.
One day Chris came back to the river at the Mission Location and the plane was gone! The tide had carried float plane, buoy, and it’s 500-pound anchor upriver. Chris and Mike, the truck generator engineer for the film, commandeered a dugout canoe and rescued the plane. No damage was done. Shoo Shoo Baby’s luck was holding. Maybe that mermaid painted on the side of the fuselage can swim.
I’d work on the plane at the dock (finally installed) out on the Rio Acara, and watch trees four feet thick go up and down the river with the tides. One got caught between the floats and I had to push the log back out into the channel.
Takeoffs were always a thrill in the afternoons. The Beaver took forever to get up on the step and get enough airspeed to break free from the water. I thought there was something wrong with the propeller, but it was just the superheated, humid air. It was 105 degrees Fahrenheit with 80-90% humidity. The density altitude was probably around 10,000 ft.
Poor Chris was really sick. He’d spent the day in the director’s cabin on the “death boat” moored at the Mission Location for the grunts who wouldn’t be going back to Belem except on Saturday nights. Then it was back to “Das Boot” on Monday. I called it the “Amoebic Dysentery Cruise Line.” The intake for the ship’s water was either just upstream or down from the ship’s wastewater outlet, depending on the tide’s direction.
Chris was spent. It was late, maybe 5 PM, and an hour until sundown. It’s your basic 6 AM to 6 PM day year-round on the Earth’s middle. It was hot and humid and the sky was still blue. The daily afternoon thunderstorm was late. Everyone “Big” in the movie wanted to go back to Belem.
And they were literally “Big Shots”. Saul Zaentz , producer; Hector Babenco, director; Steve Andrews,1st assistant director; and Phil 2nd assistant director, were all over two hundred pounds each. On this takeoff, Steve and Phil were in the rear seats with skinny Annette Carter, the script girl, between them. In the middle seats, we had Nelo, the Finn boy who plays the missionary’s son in the movie. He sat between his large Finnish governess and another heavyweight, ah, yes, Kathy Bates, sorry Kathy, no offense.
I had the co-pilot’s seat. The ringside seat. The death seat.
Chris taxied out into the river and headed upstream, which was now down current due to the tide coming in. He pushed up the throttle for takeoff. We went aways upriver and he pushed up the throttle some more. The plane wasn’t “getting up on the step”, the transition stage between boating and flying.
The RPM gauge was at the red line and so was the Manifold Pressure Gauge. Our airspeed was stuck at 40 knots. It takes at least 45 or 50 knots to make the Beaver fly. We mushed along on the water through the heat and humidity.
Suddenly Chris jerks the plane up on the left float and pulls back on the elevator control yanking us into the sky! The big shots in the back immediately lowered our tail with their weight and we are falling, stalling, back to the river left wing first.
“My God, he’s stalled us!” Was all I could think.
I felt Chris push in full right-hand rudder and crank the wheel hard right. The noise from the engine was strangely gone. All I saw was blue sky as I waited for the muddy brown water.
A second later we were flat… splatt!!!
Chris had lowered the nose? The mermaid on the side had straightened out the plane? Irish luck or prayers from home?
The plane had stalled flat onto the water and we hit with a big splash! But both floats hit at the same time absorbing the shock. We bounced back up into the air like a beach ball and Chris kept her level through two more controlled crashes, then we were airborne, slowly climbing, breaking every rule in the Beaver Flight Manual. The Beaver is a forgiving airplane.
Chris and I were afraid to talk to each other over the intercom. We both looked straight ahead for five minutes waiting for our passengers to say,
“What the fuck do you bastards think you’re doing?!” But it never came. Our Hollywood know-it-alls didn’t know they’d just won the lottery.
Then it was a laugh, a joke, but Chris didn’t fly for another two weeks. He was very sick. It was touch and go for awhile. He had the lung bug, the “Gripado”. The same bug that sent me home two months later. The Brazilian doctors prescribe mega doses of antibiotics to fight the disease. It’s a contest over whether the drugs will kill you or the disease.
I changed the seats around in the plane so the center of gravity wouldn’t be so far aft. No more near crashes for me, thanks. I installed the three-place center seat (yes, the famous Kenmore seat) and put two jump seats in the back.
This limited the number of passengers to six instead of seven and moved the center of gravity (c.g.) ahead two feet. It made the plane more balanced and safer.
Chris and I made one more week of flights out to the Mission Location on the Rio Acara after he was well.
And the week after that was the big storm and plane crash in Belem, but I’ve already written about that. Again, no one was hurt, that mermaid on the side of the plane really was looking out for all of us.
And the plane is still flying. Last I heard in Anchorage, Alaska with a new paint job. The mermaid is long gone.
PS: N9193Z Beaver disappeared without a trace in Southeast Alaska years ago. A sad end to the Mermaid.