MAYDAY! We're Crashing
in the Amazon Jungle!
We desperately searched for a town, a road or even a clearing, anywhere that we could land the twin engine Cessna Golden Eagle that was now completely out of fuel. We were hopelessly lost over a remote stretch of thick green Amazon forest that spread endlessly in all directions. The Brazilian navigator, Gilberto, we had employed in Boa Vista who had assured us of his experience and ability to get us safely over this section of jungle, now sat with a map on his lap and a look of horror on his face.
Obviously, we had gotten off course and flown right past the small town of Itaituba where we had scheduled a refueling stop. Now there was not enough fuel left to go back and search for the town. The flatness of the unchanging dense green blanket below left us totally disoriented.
There were no landmarks anywhere and no GPS back in the 80’s. Our “MAYDAY” transmissions on the radio failed to bring any response at all. Attempting to land in the treetops meant almost certain death. It would be better to try for a river with a sandy beach which would bring our chances of survival up to thirty or forty percent. No river was in sight and with the fuel gauge needles bouncing on empty, time was growing very short.
For several years I had been flying over the Amazon jungle as a geologist investigating and working in various areas on behalf of two North American mining companies. I realized that flying over remote jungle terrain hour upon hour was accumulating risk points and that someday my accumulation may become too great and lead to my demise. I wondered if this was the day that the points would tip the scale.
The flight from North America to Brazil had been so pleasant. Our mission was to deliver some equipment and install a ham radio in a remote jungle camp in the state of Mato Grosso. Just two days prior, we had waved farewell to the coast of Florida, cruising thousands of feet over the crystal turquoise waters of the Caribbean. We spent a delightful night in St. Croix, snorkeling in the darkness with underwater flashlights, coming face to face with some of the biggest fish I had ever seen.
The fuel stop in Trinidad was a real cultural experience. I remember straining to understand the broken English of a local who, when asked what his native language was, replied, English, man" .That very morning we had arisen from a sound sleep in the northern frontier city of Boa Vista, Brazil ready for an exhilarating flight over the emerald green rain forest to our destination in the heart of Mato Grosso.
These pleasant memories were now pushed to the back of my mind by the issue at hand - survival. Our pilot, Chuck, thought he had spotted a river in the distance which soon we were all able to see. We scanned the river in both directions for signs of civilization, or a clearing; no luck. We banked right to follow the river upstream hoping to find a sandbar upon which to belly-land with the landing gear up.
As the right motor began to sputter, we spotted another river entering the course of the one we were following. At the confluence of the two rivers was a clearing or a flood plain. It was a miracle, an area devoid of trees. It wasn't much but it did increase our chances of survival.
There was no time to check out the clearing with a fly-by so we went straight in. We were about twelve hundred pounds over gross weight which meant we had to come in faster than normal in order to avoid a fatal stall.
Lined up on the clearing, Chuck brought us down quickly. Trees rushed past on both sides. Just beyond the riverbank now, Chuck slammed the plane down to the ground with no time to spare.
Final Resting Place of the Golden Eagle
The plane skidded left, then right in response to the pumping of the brakes on the slippery vegetation. Bodies and equipment bounced around the cabin like balls off the rubber bumpers in a pin ball machine.
We had to stop before hitting the trees dead ahead. As we plowed through the clearing, we entered rougher terrain which snapped and folded the landing gear, leaving us sliding on our belly out of control. At least we knew that we wouldn't die in a fiery crash as the fuel tanks were bone dry.
Unloading Gear From the Wreck
Coming to rest at last with propellers bent and jammed into the ground, landing gear crumpled and pierced through the wings, there was enough airframe damage to the plane to insure this beautiful bird had found its final resting place. We took a quick human inventory: cuts, scrapes and bloody noses. Nobody was injured critically. This was a most incredible miracle to be sure. This must have been the only clearing for hundreds of miles, a virtual needle in a haystack.
We Stopped Just Before Entering the Lake
Now we faced a new challenge, how to survive until being rescued. How long would we have to wait? Scott, the electronics technician, suggested that we remove the plane's batteries, string the antenna in the trees and power up the ham radio that we were carrying with us. We got busy.
One hour later, we flipped on the switch, adjusted the frequency and immediately overheard a conversation in heavily accented English. We broke in with a mayday call and proceeded to explain that we had crashed in the Amazon jungle and did not know our position. The gentleman, transmitting from Europe, responded, "Yeah right buddy, sure you did. Now get off this frequency and stop screwing around". Obviously, our story must have sounded too fantastic.
The Group, Happy to be Alive
Undaunted, Scott found a new conversation in progress. We broke in again. This time the two gentlemen, broadcasting from the United States, believed our story and recommended a phone patch so we could speak with someone we knew. We gave them the home phone number of one of the company's partners and within minutes we were connected with Doug.
Doug was at home watching television with his family on this Sunday evening and was slow to believe that we were actually in trouble, calling from some unknown location in the Amazon jungle. It finally sank in and plans were made to notify the officials and the company representative in Brazil. We thanked the ham radio operators and made arrangements to call back the next day.
Meanwhile, it was getting dark and mosquitoes the size of jet bombers were beginning to attack. The jungle was coming alive with chatter and movement all around us. We returned to the wreckage of the plane and covered all of the holes with mosquito netting, settling in for a very uncomfortable night's rest.
Our rest was interrupted by nightmares of plane crashes and fiery deaths. The experience had taken more of a psychological toll on us than we had probably imagined. In the morning, several natives stopped by in their boats with food to sell us. They had seen our plane coming in for a landing from downstream and had become very curious why a plane that large would attempt a landing in such a restrictive area. These natives really helped to raise our spirits because now there was no more question of our survival. It was just a matter of when we would get out.
On the third day, we heard a search plane flying overhead. The small Cessna landed in a fraction of the distance that our Golden Eagle had required. The pilot informed us that for two days search parties had been looking for us in all directions and with no success were already considering giving up the search.
It was now 6:00 p.m. and three of us had to leave immediately. Darkness was setting in, making it very dangerous to land without lights on the airstrip in Itaituba, not to mention the extreme loss of orientation over the jungle at night. The others were to be picked up the next morning by the same pilot and plane.
I was one of the three chosen to go, and in haste, left my passport and other belongings behind. In an instant, we were up and out. What a feeling of freedom! It was almost completely dark now and I could see thunderheads rolling in ahead of us. Powerful bolts of lightning threatened. Our pilot was concerned because the only possible landing strip to use was in Itaituba which was still twenty minutes directly ahead.
Before long, sheets of rain pelted our aircraft, buffeting and bouncing us around like a feather in a windstorm. We banked left and right, searching for the lights of the small town somewhere in the distance. It seemed like we were lost again and once more, we were low on fuel. We had only thirty minutes of fuel remaining.
As the minutes ticked by, I hastily decided that if I lived through this one, I would never fly again. Just as this thought passed through my mind, we spotted the lights of Itaituba off to the left. We radioed ahead requesting vehicles to be parked along the runway with their lights on as the runway was not equipped for night landings. Circling the field, we watched the cars and pickup trucks arrive to help us. Minutes later we were safely on the ground.
The story of the “gringo rescue" had obviously circulated in the area as there were at least fifty people milling about to catch a glimpse of us. In addition, our welcoming party included no less than ten heavily armed members of the National Police. Climbing out of the plane, I noticed several machine guns pointed at my chest. The officer in charge demanded to see my passport. I stated that due to a lack of time, I had been unable to retrieve my belongings from the wreckage site. The officer smiled in disbelief and ordered us to follow him.
We were placed in the back of a pickup truck and driven for two hours into the jungle. I had thoughts of facing a firing squad and considered jumping out of the truck in an escape attempt. We rounded a comer and passed through a heavily armed gate. It was apparent that we would be spending the night (at least) in a military prison.
Newspaper Article About Our Second Incarceration
The three of us were ushered into a dilapidated cinder block building and placed together in a small cell. Visions of “Midnight Express" flashed before me. The window was a small opening in the wall with heavy steel bars cemented in place. Three thin pads that lay on the cement floor served as sleeping quarters. Upon closer inspection, it was obvious these pads had received large doses of vomit and urine over the years.
In the corner of the cell was an eight inch diameter hole piled one foot high with human feces. Apparently, this was the toilet. We shared the cell with centipedes and various large insects that covered the walls. With no insect repellent, we were soon covered in bites that rose up in red bumps and itched horribly.
It seemed so unfair here that one was guilty until proven innocent here. But, guilty of what? The three of us lay side by side trying to get a grip on the situation. The navigator spoke no English and the pilot no Portuguese, so I lay in the middle translating back and forth.
The guard walked by our cell about every half hour and pointed his machine gun at us, pretending he was going to pull the trigger. This apparently amused him to no end. He laughed until he almost cried. I was thankful for the many hours I had spent meditating in the past and I played many rounds of golf in my mind as a diversion to this psychological torture.
I was interrogated several times over the next week. My interrogators tried to get me to admit that we had been trafficking drugs or illegal gold. I repeatedly stated the true nature of our business. At the end of the week, the investigator broke. After repeating my story once again in perfect detail, he slammed his hand down on the table in front of me in exasperation. "I don't get it", he raged to his peers, "All their stories match perfectly. How can this be?"
Soon after this last interrogation, we were transferred to a much nicer local, City Police jail. We were treated like royalty in the new jail. We slept on the carpeted floor of the chief of police and were brought good food from restaurants to eat three times per day. The police smuggled us out of jail each night in their official armored vehicle to show us the sights around town. We were even answering the phones during the day. We spent nearly two weeks in the nice jail. What a contrast!
After the entire three weeks, the decision was finally made to release us. Even though we received no apology, I was more than willing to leave the entire ordeal behind. The word 'freedom' took on a whole new meaning in my life. My Brazilian cell mate, Gilberto, had sworn to me in the military prison that when and if he ever got out of that hell hole, he would return home and release all of his pet birds from their cages. This whole series of nightmarish experiences deeply affected my appreciation of life and liberty.
Our Day of Release From Jail in Santarem
Sometime after our release, we learned that the National Police official who had been responsible for our prison ordeal was simply trying to get a promotion. He thought that by capturing a group of 'guilty gringos' he would make a name for himself. At first the Brazilian press had made this man appear to be a national hero, but later when the truth came out of our innocence and cruel treatment, the whole affair worked to the official's detriment. In the end he was demoted.
An Interview About My Incredible Experience
Since this experience, I have returned many times to the beautiful country of Brazil without incident. I find the people to always be warm and friendly. I am currently planning an expedition into the remote province of Acre in search of the lost city of Akakor. I don't expect this expedition to be any more dangerous than a Sunday afternoon flight over the jungle in a twin engine Cessna Golden Eagle.