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

Feature photo no.1

Feature photo no. 1  depicting the El Alto DC-3 in 2017 and in the background at left, the cannibalized Curtiss Commando C-46 CP-987.

In August 2017, I returned to Bolivia for yet another fabulous trip to the Magical Land of the old Inca Culture, where the High Andes and the Jungle are close neighbors.

The first time I arrived here in La Paz/El Alto Airport was way back in 1994 with a PBY CATALINA from Duxford, UK. (See photo n0. 13). Ever since, I was mesmerized by the weird array of vintage Propliner aircraft that you can see on this airport in all states, from totally stripped or near-decomposition to fully operational and busy, making money for the owner. The aircraft and airframes are scattered all over the old El Alto Airport premises, with a dozen 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-five years of oil-dripping big radial piston engines have left their mark with a hard upper layer of the Andes’ Alti Plano (High Plain’s 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.

In August 2107, I took those pictures, and you can see what now is left of the once-thriving ‘Meat Hauler’ (Carniceros) 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 altitude.

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.

Consequently, most foods as fruits, vegetables, and meat for catering to the city’s inhabitants 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 1990s, road-infrastructure improved, and Refrigerated Trucks came on the scene. That was the Death Knell for the vintage fleet of Flying Dinosaurs of Meat-transporting Aircraft. You’ll see the leftover of the ‘Carniceros’ fleet, very ‘triste’ to see for an Aviation Buff.

Photo no.2  shows us one of the very last Curtiss Commando C-46, CP-1655, that survived the Butcher’s cutter so far, while her post-war career was based on flying to and from Slaughterhouses.

The C-46 seems to be for sale, looks pretty neat, and the whole area has been tidied up, and scaffolds and spares that used to be scattered all over the field are now 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. Apart from the venerable DC-3, there is no more market for ex-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-based Museum. Flying her out is hardly an option, with no FAA rulings applied for half a century.

Photo no. 3  shows a Douglas DC-3/ C-47 that has been there for many years in the same position with main wings and stabilizers positioned aside in the field.

I was here before in the mid-1990s, in 2001 and  2008, and every time, the owner told me he was about to build her up for flying timber from the Jungle in the Northern Beni province.

He must have felt that the times of Meat-Hauling by Prop liners were coming to an end, so he drew up a new business-plan for his DC-3, timber hauling for the fast-growing home-construction market in La Paz.

He had the engines and the cockpit-interior overhauled, new floor plating, etc. stored in the shed at the right-hand side.

But the road-infrastructure improvement came faster than he could imagine. His plans, trágico, never materialized. He is gone in peace. The airport authorities possibly confiscated the plane, standing there with her nose up in the air.

A monument giving tribute to the vintage WWII Propliners, who could survive here with another 50 years of operations. Respect for those aircraft and the men who made that happen!

In 2017, I noticed that there is hardly any corrosion inside and outside the DC-3, 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 to issue permits for visitors, due to vandalism and parts stripping/souvenir hunting in the recent past.

No more unaccompanied wandering over the Boneyard. It took me a lot of talking and begging to get a permit and only with a Guard right next to me. He said we were lucky as many requests were rejected. Luck came to me also with that mellow-yellow light in the Andean sunset on that 4,200 m altitude.

Photo no. 4  shows me in front of the Curtiss Commando C-46 CP-987 in its position where it stands now for maybe well over 25 years.

I guess C-46 CP-987 must have been the main supplier of parts for most other C-46s that operated from El Alto over the past 25 years. Well cannibalized and weathered, she still has no signs of corrosion.

The climate here in 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-School El Alto-style. Maintenance works on airframes and engines were often done in the open air, with simple scaffolds and hoists to lift props and engines out of their mounts.

Photo no. 5 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 1970s, an era in which many big 4-engine propliners were ‘banned’ from the Western World, making room for the Jetliners introduced in the early 1960s.

The DC-6s, DC-7s, and a couple of Lockheed Super Constellations could soldier on in the more remote places: the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Colombia, Central America, and Africa, where I saw Connies in 1976 in Kano, Nigeria.

They were used for the cheap yearly Hadj flights from Mali, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria to Mecca. The low depreciation costs of the out-phased aircraft allowed the Nigerian owners to fly the fleet only a couple of weeks per year to transport the massive Muslim pilgrimage. Later, DC-8s and Caravelles were used for the Mecca flights.

But in Bolivia, the old Propliners had a year-round job, in a big country with poor infrastructure and a lot to transport with so many people to cater while living above the “Agro- and Cattle-Line.”

In the end, by the late 1980s, the big 4-engine piston aircraft 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 no. 6 shows the DC-6 C CP-1232 again, 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 rainfall and the cold temperature at night. We could not enter this aircraft, but I figure that this one is a potential salvaging subject.

Photo no. 7 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 the right that has been standing there for decades. All engines taken off, once owned by the same legendary Bolivian Operator, “El Cumbre.”

Photo n0. 8. An 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 minimal chance to survive as a Museum piece, unless the Bolivian Authorities would take her up in a future Museum at El Alto Airport.

Bolivian post-war Aviation History stands here on the old ground of the original El Alto Airport. At the same time, we see the tails of modern Jets (at right) at the new premises, shining in the Alti Plano sunset.

Photo no. 9. While making this photo of the C-46 Commando with a view on the snow-capped Cordillera in the backdrop, I noticed at the far end at the right side of the photo, a Convair (Model CV-440 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 this photo, you can see, somewhat hidden, the DC-3 from photos no. 1 / 3,  with the nose-up and its sun-reflecting engine firewalls.

(All photos nrs. 1-9 by Hans Wiesman, copyright The Dakota Hunter)

The photo nr. 10 was taken in July 1994 at El Alto Airport, Bolivia. The Convair CV-440 with reg.nr. CP-2142 makes an early morning engine start, watched by myself (in the center), and my film crew (at right) while we came there for filming the landing of our PBY Catalina on the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. (Photo Frans Lemmens)

Photo no. 11 was also taken in 1994 in El Alto by photographer Pascal Baudry. This is the legendary Bolivian Colonel Juan (Johnny) Griffith. He was one of the Convair pilots when El Alto was the real Capital of Vintage Propliners. That would last for another 5-10 years, but by the start of the New Age, the multi-engine big piston props’ scene slowly faded away.

Photo no. 12 was made by Ron Mak, depicting two war-weary Boeings B-17s converted to Meat Haulers (Carniceros). Those aircraft with their Wright R-1820 9- cylinder piston engines were the first to disappear from the El Alto scene in the 1980s. 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 below the link to my dramatic Youtube film about the Curtiss Commando’s last flight in Bolivia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHLuyYFdwOw

Photo no. 13  El Alto Airport is seen in the photo above in 1994. It was during our Catalina Odyssey Transatlantic Tour; I hired for that TV-covered flight the PBY CATALINA VR-BPS from Plane Sailing, Duxford, UK. After an eventful flight over the Atlantic, the Catalina stranded in Rio de Janeiro with an engine-failure. A new engine was flown in, and after the repair, she could continue her epic voyage to La Paz, Bolivia.

Just after arriving from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Catalina is seen here in El Alto, Bolivia, for the filming of the unique first-ever water landing on Lake Titicaca. Note the operational DC-6 and other types on the Airport in the background. Our PBY Captain Paul Warren Wilson remarked so sharply: ” it is more a Hospital than a Boneyard.”

Every derelict aircraft, we noticed, ‘donated’ vital parts to another flying sister ship. The cannibalizing kept the fleet airborne for decades. Since all types were long out of production, this was a self-supplying system that worked so well, be it very remote from any CAA/FAA-ruling system.

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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 1950s 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 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 in getting the order form. See my Blog and link here to fill in for registration:

 My new book for 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 take a closer look at 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

hans

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