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Bolivian Boneyards revisited. Part 1, El Alto Airport , La Paz, Boliivia.

By 14/09/2017Blog

In August 2017, I returned to Bolivia for yet another fabulous trip to the Magic Land of the old Inca Culture where the High Andes and the Jungle are close neighbors. First time I arrived here in El Alto Airport was way back in 1994 with a PBY CATALINA from Duxford, UK. (See photo at end of this Blog). Ever since I was mesmerized by the weird array of vintage Propliners that you can see on this airport in all states, from totally stripped or near-decomposition to fully operational and busy with making money for the owner. The aircraft and airframes are scattered all over the old La Paz Airport premises, with a dozen of old ‘hangars’, nothing more than dilapidated small depots, and low buildings with corrugated roof plating. The absence of asphalt or concrete is striking but the soil is so soaked with oil that you will hardly notice this. Seventy years of oil-dripping big radial piston engines have left their mark with a hard upper layer of the Andes’ Alti Plano/ High Plains steppe ground that now houses the highest International Airport in the World at 13,500 feet/ 4,200 m altitude, just next to this Boneyard of Vintage Propliners.

Take a look at the photos that follow in this Dakota Hunter Blog. I recently took (August 2107) them and you can see what now is left of the once thriving ‘Meat Hauler’ aircraft fleet, that transported all the meat from the lowlands in the East and North of Bolivia, to the Capital La Paz, where over one million people live. At 3,700 m alt., they live in a huge mountain bowl at the tree line where only the Eucalyptus tree grows, no agriculture or cattle breeding can flourish here at this altitude. As a consequence, most food, fruits, and meat for the population had to be flown in with a fleet of 1940’s-1950’s era Propliners as the DC-3, C-46, DC-6, and Convairs. But in the late 1990’s, the infrastructure of roads improved and Refrigerated Trucks came on the scene. That was the Death Knell for the vintage fleet of Flying Dinosaurs. What is left now, is very ‘triste’ to see for an Aviation Buff. (Feature photo Hans Wiesman, copyright The Dakota Hunter. it shows the DC-3 and in the background, you’ll see the cannibalized Curtiss Commando C-46 CP-987)

Photo above shows us one of the very last Curtiss Commando C-46, CP-1655 that survived the slaughter so far, while her post-war career was based on flying to and from Slaughter houses. She seems to be for sale, looks pretty neat and the whole area is tidied up, scaffolds stored in the depots. The engines look as if they could be fired up anytime, allegedly, the last time they ran was over a year ago. There is no more market for this WWII aircraft in South America, so the only chance to survive is that a Museum will pick her up one day. As the C-46 is hardly known in Europe, the only realistic option is a US or Canadian based Museum. Flying her out might be still an option, but becomes more unlikely as time goes by. ( photo Hans Wiesman, copyright The Dakota Hunter)

Photo above shows a Douglas DC-3/ C-47 that has been there for many years in exactly the same position with main wings and stabilizers positioned aside in the field. I was here in 2008 and the owner told me he was about to build her up for flying timber from the Jungle in the Northern Beni province. He had the engines overhauled and all cockpit interior, new floor plating etc. stored in the shed at the right-hand side. But helas, his plan never materialized, the owner is gone, the plane is possibly confiscated by the airport authorities and she still stands there with her nose up in the air. I noticed that there is hardly any corrosion inside and outside but most skin panels in the lower front have disappeared and the cockpit is picked empty now. Therefore, the airport authority has completely revised the policy toward visitors, due to vandalism and parts stripping/ souvenir hunting. No more unaccompanied wandering over the Boneyard, it took us a lot of talking and begging to get a permit to get in and only with a Guard right next to us. And they said we were lucky as many requests were rejected. Luck came to me also with that mellow-yellow light in the sunset on that 4,200 m altitude. (Photo Hans Wiesman, copyright The Dakota Hunter.)

Photo above shows me with the Curtiss Commando C-46 CP-987 in its position where it stands now for maybe well over 25 years. I guess she must have been the main supplier of parts for most other C-46s that operated from El Alto over the past 50 or more years. Well cannibalized and weathered, she still has no signs of corrosion. The climate here on the High Andes is good for aluminum to survive for long. The shed in the background used to be the engine workshop and is the best ‘hangar’ they had in old-style El Alto. Maintenance works on airframes and mounted engines was done in the open air (photo copyrights The Dakota Hunter)

Photo above shows the Douglas DC-6 C, CP-1232, once a proud Intercontinental Propliner that maybe flew for Pan Am of TWA all over the World. Its career ended here in Bolivia, maybe she arrived here in the 1970´s, an era in which many big 4-engine propliners were’banned’ from the Western World, making room for the Jetliners being introduced in the early 1960´s. The DC-6s, DC-7s and some Lockheed Super Constellations could soldier on in the more remote places as the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Colombia, Central America and in Africa, where I saw them in 1976 in Kano, Nigeria. Here they were used for the cheap yearly Hadj flights to Mecca. But in Bolivia, they had a year-round job, in a big country with a poor infrastructure and a lot to transport with so many people to cater while living above the “Agro and Cattle Line”. And in the end, by the early 1990’s, they lost the competition against their smaller 2-engine brothers, the DC-3, the C-46 and the Convairs that struggled on for another decade (Photo Hans Wiesman, copyright The Dakota Hunter.)

Photo above shows again the DC-6 C  CP-1232, with engines nr 1, 2  and 4 still mounted while the aluminum skin is in a fair state. Corrosion is rare here due to the low rain fall and the cold temperature at night. We could not enter this aircraft but I figure that this one is a potential subject for salvaging. (Photo Hans Wiesman, copyright The Dakota Hunter)

Photo above shows the torn fabric of the tail of DC-6C CP-1232,  plus a typical El Alto shed with engine nacelles and scaffolds and that other DC-6  at right that has been standing there for decades. All engines taken off, once owned by the same legendary Bolivian Operator, “El Cumbre”. (photo Hans Wiesman, copyright The Dakota Hunter)

Photo above, awesome eclipse created by the wing of this doomed DC-6. With its sister ship standing next to her with 3 of 4 engines still on, this one makes a very small chance to ever survive as a Museum piece, unless the Bolivian Authorities would take her up in a future Museum at the El Alto Airport. Bolivian post-war Aviation History stands in front on this photo while we see the tails of modern Jets at right, shining in the Alti Plano sunset. (Photo Hans Wiesman, copyright The Dakota Hunter)

Photo above has a surprise in it. While making this photo of the C-46 Commando with a view on the snow-capped mountain in the back drop, I noticed at the far end at the right side of the photo, a Convair (Model 580 /Metropolitan?) with that high blue tail fin. According to my local contact, it was the only operational vintage propliner still present in El Alto, but we were not allowed to go out there for filming! In the center of the photo, you can see the DC-3 with the nose up and its sun-reflecting engine firewalls. (Photo Hans Wiesman, copyright The Dakota Hunter.)

The photo above was taken in 1994 at El Alto. The Convair CV-440 with reg.nr. CP-2142 makes an early morning engine start, watched by me (center) and my film crew (at right) while we came there for the filming of the landing of our PBY Catalina on the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. (Photo Frans Lemmens, Copyright The Dakota Hunter.)

Photo above was also taken in 1994 in El Alto by Pascal Baudry. This is the legendary Bolivian Colonel Juan (Johnny) Griffith, he was one of the Convair pilots, in a time that El Alto was the real Capital of Vintage Propliners. That would last for another 10 years but by the start of the New Age, the scene of the multi-engine big piston props slowly faded away. (Copyright The Dakota Hunter.) See below also the link to my dramatic Youtube film about the last flight of the Curtiss Commando in Bolivia.

Photo above was made by Ron Mak, depicting two war weary Boeings B-17s that were converted to Meat Haulers. Those aircraft with their Wright R-1820 9- cylinder piston engines were the first to disappear from the El Alto scene in the 1980’s. With no spares/ surplus/donor airframes left, the maintenance of those aircraft must have been a nightmare. More details and photos of them are to be found in my book ‘The Dakota Hunter’, see for ordering info the Amazon Order page with all 5- star reviews https://www.amazon.com/Dakota-Hunter-Search-Legendary-Frontiers/dp/1612002587 

El Alto Airport is seen in the photo above in 1994. Our PBY CATALINA VR-BPS from Plane Sailing, Duxford, UK had landed here for the filming of a unique first ever water landing on Lake Titicaca. Note the operational DC-6 and other types on the Airport behind us. As our PBY Captain Paul Warren Wilson remarked so nicely, it was more a Hospital than a Boneyard. Every derelict aircraft we noticed ‘donated’ vital parts to another flying sister ship. The cannibalizing kept part of the fleet airborne for decades. As all types were since long out of production, this was a self-supplying system that worked well. (photo Pascal Baudry, copyright The Dakota Hunter)

The PBY CATALINA made an awesome Transatlantic Tour on behalf of a TV documentary series, a format that I wrote, based on my experiences as a kid over the Borneo Jungle, where I flew with my Dad in the Catalina (and Dakota) in the 1950’s for the Shell Oil Company. That made an indelible impression on this (then) 6 years-old kid and 40 years later, the creation of the Catalina Odyssey concept was the result. I recently found back a thousand wonderful photos of the two Catalina tours in 1993 and 1994 and decided with that unique photo stock as a starter, to make a book/photo album titled: “80 Years, a Tribute to the PBY CATALINA“.

(By the way, that intended water landing with the PBY on Lake Titicaca almost ended in a total disaster, due to a sudden violent downdraft that smashed the aircraft on the eerie waters of that haunted Lake. Read all details of that harrowing story in this new book about the PBY Catalina, soon for sale.)

The book “80 Years, a Tribute to the PBY Catalina” covers the full 80 years career of the best flying boat ever made. Starting in 1937, the book covers its legendary WWII history and continues with its most remarkable post-war career over 5o years including the Catalina Odysseys. Finally, the last chapter is about the Survivors. Over 400 photos in a Luxury Lounge Table book of 8,5 x 11 inches in Landscape format. Many photos were never published before and many come in a large format in full-page spreads. This photo book sets a new standard in quality, quantity, and diversity of Catalina photos, a true Collector’s Item, for which you can register free of any obligation, just send me your email address if interested to get the order form. See my Blog and link here to fill in for registration:

 My new book 80 years. a Tribute to the PBY Catalina

Above, the covers of my books. If you like my stories and blogs about Vintage Aviation, may I suggest you to take a closer look to my books? At left , the cover of “The Dakota Hunter” my first book, published by Casemate USA/ UK and for sale at Amazon (click on this link Amazon page The Dakota Hunter and scroll down on their page, so you can read the 10+ amazing 5-star reviews. From there, decide if this book is a fit for you or a gift for your family or friend for Christmas?) At right, my new photo album about the Catalina, soon for sale via Amazon and fine bookshop, major Museum Gift Shops and my own web shop. For more news, follow me on my  Facebook page The Dakota Hunter

See here a video of my adventures in Bolivia, where I flew a few times with that Curtiss Commando C-46 over the High Andes. Watch the dramatic footage in this Youtube film, titled ‘ The Fatal flight of the last Bolivian C-46″. Click for starting the Dakota Hunter Film here C-46 Fatal last flight

For more info about my Book and Blogs, come to my web site dc3dakotahunter.com


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