|S a v i n
g ..S o p h i e
By Mike Galster
July 28th, 2003
Douglas November 471Delta Kilo
The day had been trouble from the onset. La Casa Airlines had lost my bags coming from New Orleans and over 100 pounds of antibiotics I had begged borrowed and stolen were traveling in the belly of a 727 somewhere in South America. I was trapped along with about 400 other pitiful people in the sweltering terminal of Tegucigalpa’s only airport. An entire Honduran family sat against the wall beside me, toddlers crawling on the little group’s makeshift bags and rope wrapped boxes, the young mother weeping softly into her husband’s shoulder.
Just about everyone here had been displaced by the hurricane. It was a bad one. A storm that couldn’t make up its mind. It would move offshore every day and inshore, into the mountains, every night. Most of those I saw were homeless, their property literally washed away. Only the lucky ones had escaped without the loss of a family member. For five days the walls of water had blown in from the sea and sat over the steep fertile mountains of the central states. The little villages nestled along the tropical rivers had no recent history to warn them against the dangers. As the soil let go at the top the momentum carried everything with it and an avalanche of mud and rocks and trees instantly obliterated dozens of towns and settlements in the heart of the country. By the end of the sixth day over 10,000 people were known dead and 15,000 were missing. Most of the bridges were destroyed and the hydroelectric dams, the only source of power, were knocked offline. By the seventh day cases of cholera and typhoid were popping up throughout the country. By the tenth day those families and business people who had the means had flooded the airport to try and arrange an escape. That’s when I arrived.
I had worked on and off as a young medical missionary over the past couple of years and had grown to love the country of Honduras and her people. My wife and I had even thought about adopting one of the abandoned children from the agencies there. I had been following the news of the storm and when I heard of the outbreaks of cholera it reminded me of all the children we lost to that disease in Korea during my first mission experience a few years before.
Within hours I made the calls to my doctor friends all around the states of Arkansas and Mississippi. Some of them met me in the middle of the night at their clinics to rob their sample bins of the antibiotics and antidiarrheal medications I would need to take to the isolated villages. I begged my way onto a flight in New Orleans and now was dead-ended without my supplies or transportation to San Pedro Sula.
In frustration I wandered out of the mud caked terminal and onto the tarmac. At the end of one of the open fronted hangars was a Douglas C-47 Dakota in camo paint. A group of Honduran Red Cross workers were milling about looking at the old war bird. After a brief question and answer session in Spainglish I found that they were waiting on a pilot and mechanic to arrive via helicopter to crank up the old girl. She was Honduran military equipment and hadn’t been flown in a couple of years and obviously hadn’t been cleaned in twice as many. Their idea was to fly supplies into several of the isolated areas with as many planes as the officials could scrounge together. This old girl, built for the US war effort back in 1942, was going back to work!
I had flown in several C-47’s and DC-3’s through the years. A friend of mine used them to fly genetically superior one-day-old chicks (yes, chicks, as in chickens) into Mexico and Central America and occasionally I would ride with his crew and several hundred thousand peepers. But I really fell in love with the planes when we would fly from the mainland in Mexico and Honduras over to the islands of Guanaha and Roatan and Cozumel back in the early 1980’s. The Dakotas were used as huge, wonderful bush-planes, in and out of barely improved strips.
One old pilot, Captain Joe, would make the jump from La Ceiba to Roatan every morning, flying tourists for the scuba diving operations. After he unloaded most of the passengers he would take off on his way to Utila and deliver his morning newspaper route. He would have a pile of newspapers between the pilot and co-pilot seats and would open the pilot’s sliding window as he banked over some of the estates on the islands. With uncanny precision he would bomb the papers onto the lawns from a hundred feet AGL and wing off to the next drop, waving at the occasional early riser.
During my years of exploring the tropical reefs in that part of the world I discovered many of the Dakotas who gave up the fight and became permanent fixtures below the water. The "Gooney Birds" and Beech 18’s were favorites of the drug and contraband smugglers for more than three decades and many of both went off the ends of coastal runways or spent their last whiff of fuel out over the warm oceans of the Caribbean. Having investigated some of those wrecks first hand, I can assure you the majority were lost from no fault of the planes.
So here I was, just days after a devastating hurricane trying to beg a ride on a Dak who had been sitting so long that a crew of teenagers had been hired and were chasing iguanas from the fuselage. Within the hour we turned to watch an old Bell 47 come chopping in between the mountains, which surround Tegu’s airport. A tanned and interesting looking gringo flew the helicopter down within feet of the wingtip of the C-47. They told me his name was Jim Smith.
I had met maybe twenty different "Jim Smiths" in Central America and had come to recognize it as a cover for a lot of incognito ex-patriates. This Jim Smith obviously knew several of the officials there and conversed and joked with them in fluent Spanish. After a while he came around to me.
"So you’re needin to go to Sula?" he asked. He was really eyeing me over.
"Yes sir." I answered, "but I have to wait to see if my bags show up."
He laughed at my stupidity, "They’re probably being divided up by the flight crew down in Panama about now…you might as well write them off son."
"It would be a real crime for that many drugs to go to waste." I said
"Damn you’re sumthin! You bringin drugs into the jungle when most people are tryin to figure how to fly em out. You got the wrong man buddy, I quit that stuff several years ago."
"No sir, I’m talking about antibiotics. I’ve got a load to get to one of my buddies down in Sula. We’ll be taking them back into the jungle from there"
"Are you with the blood suckers here?" he said, pointing to the Red Cross workers in their little red and white vests.
"No sir, just me, myself and I." He looked me over again, trying to figure out my angle.
"You a Holy man?" He wasn’t giving in to easily.
"I used to hang out with them to do some medical work, but I couldn’t handle the guilt trip they were laying on the natives. I go by myself now. I learn more that way." I said with complete honesty.
"Then you’re on, ex Holy man!" he laughed shaking my hand. "You may be okay but I ain’t flyin with any more of those holier than thou bastards."
Jim Smith and his mechanic commenced to putting the big girl back to flying shape. Batteries and barrels of oil and fuel were dragged out of the hangars and the cowlings came off the big Pratt and Whitney engines. The teenaged iguana chasers brought buckets of water and rags and began climbing all over the plane, wiping away years of tropical crud. Jim gave me the name of an official with La Casa Airlines and I finally got an answer on my luggage. By the time they had the engines running another DC-3 flown on a regular route by La Casa landed with my bags in her hold.
By late afternoon we were off. The old plane was back in the air filled with water purification equipment, three color TV’s (For some politician) and me. I sat co-pilot and was having the time of my life until Jim’s question came over the headsets. "You want to see what that old ‘Jezebel’ storm did to the people?"
"Sure" I said without thinking.
He banked slightly and made a slow descent into a deep long valley.
"Look out your side. I’ll slow fly her so you can get a good look."
I wish he hadn’t. There are some things that you never forget and the really bad ones come and visit you late at night when you don’t invite them. This was one of them. Bodies of cows and pigs and horses and dozens and dozens of men, women and children caught in a hardening and cracking river of mud. I had seen a lot of death before but I guess it was the happenstance positions of the arms and legs that made it seem more haunting to me, like so many dolls left out to ruin by some errant child. All up and down the valley loved ones were digging the bodies of their people slowly from the grip of the earth.
"How many valleys have you seen that look like this?" I asked Jim over the phones, stunned that my voice would register over the mike.
"Most of them here in the mountains look about the same. The bad thing being, these poor folks don’t have anything to begin with. This really wrung em out." We flew in silence for the rest of the flight, images imprinting the permanent records of our mind.
To say the least, the C47 saved the day for me and hundreds of other people during the course of that tragedy. By the end of the ten days I was there, over 20 of the stalwart old planes were called into service from all over the district. They evacuated, hauled, sprayed for insects, provided emergency care and more than anything brought hope to a nation which had little. This is the rich reputation the DC3 and C-47 have made for themselves. Others can tell you all the technical details about how large the engines are and how many gallons of gas it burns per hour and all the sundry configurations it has been dressed with, but I think the most interesting fact of all is that this nearly seventy year old airplane has served man’s interest more than any other airplane in history. Whether it was as the first viable airliner in the thirties or as the troop carrier in WW2 or as a winged angel during the Berlin Airlift or flying the Hump in the Asian conflict, these are the stories men should tell about this plane. These are the stories that drive men like me and my crazy friends to go halfway around the world to try and save two of the only 500 which are left flying. It is the connection you feel when the engines come to life and you grab the grease stained control yoke and think about all the men before you who sat where you are sitting and nursed her into the skies and flew her into the seldom traveled corners of the world. There is literally no place on this earth from pole to pole which has not been changed by the influence of the Dak.
If I sound a little sappy… then there just needs to be some sappiness in a man’s life every now and then. And before he dies, he needs something to connect him to what noble thing has come before so that both he and that thing become better for having known one another.
This flight, this website and this overall effort is in
tribute to the Dakotas and of course to the men who have flown them. We
have encountered throngs of admirers on our trip around this part of the
world that can’t wait to have their pictures taken with them and to crawl
up inside and ooh and ahh. It has been my pleasure to have been a small
part in saving "Sophie" and "TuTu" from the Israeli
scrap yard. They are the last C47’s to have served in a military capacity
anywhere in the world, having been decommissioned in 2002. Between them,
they have served seven different countries since the early 1940’s and
yet with less than 20,000 hours are two of the lowest time C-47’s flying.
It is not yet sure what their future may be but it is now possible that
they could both make their 100th birthdays flying some crew
on another hair-brained adventure. I would be about ninety years old but
I would love to have a seat at the controls when that day comes. Maybe
with the advancements in modern medicine the doctors will be able to give
me three of four new cylinders, change my oil and air up my tires and
I’ll make that rendezvous. To the Douglas C-47/ DC3… Long May You Fly!
"I never was one much on marriage, you know? My favorite girls drink gas and spit oil!" - Mark Hathaway - Pilot and Owner of "TuTu" N472DK