Thursday, April 8, 2010

the last flight

I won't win any prizes for my model of the Grumman Duck bi-wing amphibian, but building it has been a nice way to tease out some memories of times long past. The Duck was the last single-engine plane I flew in.

The one I made my last flight in, like a lot of other old war birds, went to South America as war-surplus to haul cargo. A half dozen versions of the Duck were produced, the last having a 1,050 hp air-cooled radial engine.

In early 1960 I found myself just north of Colombia's southern boot heel at a mission outpost on the Mirití-Paraná River. I enjoyed my visit immensely, but after a month there I needed to get back to Leticia on the Amazon where I could get a plane back to Bogotá. The up-river trip in a series of increasingly smaller river boats had not been so enjoyable, and I was not looking forward to repeating that ten-day ordeal down to the Caquetá, and then up-stream on the Amazon to reach Leticia.

By good luck a tropical fish exporter based in Leticia was just then experimenting with the old Grumman Duck as a means of hauling his fish out of the rain forest so that they could be sent on to Miami, usually by means of some converted WWII bombers which made regular stops in Leticia. When the pilot of the Duck offered a ride to a friend and I, it was too good a chance to pass up.

We rode down in the cargo compartment, accessed through the square hatch just behind the lower wing. We shared the cramped space with some water-filled plastic bags for fish, and one large up-ended turtle. It was difficult to see out during the ride, but the view was not very interesting anyway -- just the unbroken green canopy of the tropical rainforest. With a cruising speed of 150 mph, the Duck got us to Leticia in a bit over an hour.

Judging from the Google Earth view, the place hasn't changed much in half a century.

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