"Crossing the Andes in luxury Curtiss Commando"
Back in the late autumn of 2009 we decided to make another trip to Cochabamba in order to see the newly restored Lineas Aereas Canedo C-46 Curtiss in her new red colours. She already made her first test flight so we where very exited to photograph it. Initially I booked my tickets with KLM and American Airlines flying out from Paris Airport to Miami, and then onwards with Aerosur Boeing B757 direct service to Santa Cruz. Then onwards with the early morning Aerosur flight to Cochabamba. Our departure date was planned on the 19th of April 2010. But then the violent eruption of Iceland Eyjafjallajökull volcano happened, which closed the European airspace for the whole week.
After the confusion and chaos we decided to postpone of travel plans by a month. I managed to reschedule my flight with no extra cost, now flying to Philadelphia and Miami with US Airways. Staying in Miami for a couple of days and then onwards with the Aerosur B757 flight to Santa Cruz.
It was Monday morning the 7th of June, 2010, when we woke up at the Gran Hotel Ambassador in Cochabamba, still feeling tired from our long overnight flight from Miami onboard an Astreous Boeing 757, operating for Aerosur. I opened up the window blinds and was overwhelmed by the crisp blue skies overhead. It was winter in Cochabamba, it hadn't rain for weeks and temperatures would rise to a comfortable 22-26 °C. I was in the company of my intrepid aviation friend Andre van Loon and this was our third visit to Bolivia. We had come to visit our friends at Lineas Aereas Canedo (LAC) and celebrate the Curtiss C-46 Commando's 70th Anniversary, which first flew back in March 1940. LAC Curtiss C-46D Commando CP-973 had been under restoration for a number of years. It was not until July 18th of last year that the long awaited first test flight occurred from the LAC base at Cochabamba airport.
Unfortunately the economic climate in Bolivia is not great at the moment and the aviation industry reflects this. Since the first test flight, the C-46 has only made a couple of flights. In October 2009 the Dutch clothing brand PME chartered the aircraft to star in its' "bush-pilot" themed clothing range advertising. This year only a local flight, carrying a group of skydivers from Cochabamba took place. The C-46 is fast becoming a very rare aircraft. Currently, Out of the more than 3000 airframes built, CP-973 is one of only 7 airworthy C-46 aircraft in the world. Needless to say that it is the only one that is configured for passenger flights!
Prior to our visit, several phone calls were placed with the legendary LAC founder, owner and still general manager, Captain Rolando Canedo, about visiting LAC again and its availability for charter flying. Off course this was no problem…Rolando said the CP-973 will be waiting for you!
The city of Cochabamba is located in the central part of Bolivia and lies in a fertile green bowl, surrounded by high mountains like the Cerro Tunari (5035 m) to the Northwest. Its elevation is at 2558 meters, which created a slight headache during the first few days of our visit. Cochabamba is known as the "City of Eternal Spring" and "The Garden City" due to its spring-like temperatures year round. Currently, Cochabamba is among Bolivia's most economically and socially progressive cities and is a city of varied contrasts.
The downtown area, bounded by Plaza Colón and Plaza 14 de Septiembre, is generally equipped with modern urban amenities, and is where the majority of the city's business and commercial industries are based. An active nightlife is centred around Calle España and also along the broad, tree-lined boulevard, El Prado. In contrast, the outer areas further away from the city's centre are visibly impoverished, with poor homes and dusty unpaved roads. Cochabamba is served by the modern Jórge Wilstermann International Airport (IATA code: CBB), which handles domestic and international flights. Currently only four airlines serve CBB, Aerosur, BOA (Boliviana de Aviacion, TAM Bolivia and TAM Brazil. Lloyd Aereo Boliviano, the former national airlines is practically out of business, with all the fleet (B727-200s) parked silently at LAB maintenance hangar.
At breakfast we were joined by another Dutch aviation globetrotter by the name of Servaas Verbrugge. We took a taxi to LAC new headquarters which has been relocated more to the south along Chimore road. LAC used to occupy the YPFB hangar, but unfortunately had to move out as YPFB needed the hangar for them-selves. The LAC fleet now parks on a grassy field adjacent to the runway. Due the dusty and dry conditions this creates a constant demand to keep the planes clean and generally makes maintenance more difficult. We were kindly greeting by Marcello Canedo and his father, Commandant Rolando Canedo and sat down in his office. After the pleasantries we discussed the option of chartering the C-46. The a/c is ready and waiting for you….where do you want to go Rolando asked me!
LAC operates with fixed rates: for the Aero Commander, the Super DC-3 and the C-46. Our long time wish was to fly over the South American Andes with a C-46 and we discussed the option of flying to La Paz for an afternoon lunch with the crew and park the a/c at El Alto airport. In the end we decided to go for La Paz which amounted in a total of two hours flying.
The next morning we returned to the LAC ramp and were joined by the two Bolivian C-46 captains. Our co-pilot was Captain Percy Guillermo Arauco Perez, who lives in La Paz and has been a pilot since 1982. He has 7.200 hours flying on the DC-3, Convair 340/440, M404, DC-6 and C-46. Currently he is one of the few instructor pilots for the Convair 340/440 and flies the C-46 in co-pilot position. Our Captain was Luis Ortiz Fernandez a veteran pilot since 1967 with a total of 12.000 hours to his belt. He has flown many types, including the Aero Commander, MU-2K, DC-3, DC-6, Convair 440, Martin 404, for a variety of meat haulers and other local operators. He is the last C-46 check pilot in Bolivia. So we felt in goods hands today. Both pilots did not speak a single word of English, good thing we had Marcello Canedo on board. Marcello Canedo is also a veteran pilot. He started his career back in 1971 and flew for 15 years with LAB, flying the Aero Commander, F-27 Friendship, B727 and A310, but his all time favourite is still the Boeing 707, which he flew for a year in both passenger and cargo services. Marcello now flies the AC-680 and the C-117D.
Our flight engineer Carlos Galindo was already taking care of the CP-973, topping up the engine oil, and assisting with the refuelling. (Our fuel total was 600 gallons for T/O at CBB) Nothing much can be said about our vintage C-46. With construction number 32941, she was built as a C-46D-10-CU model and was delivered with tail number 44-77545 to the US Air Force back in December 1944. She has spent some time at Davis-Monthan Airforce base in storage, sharing the desert floor with scorpions and rattle snakes. Her first civilian registration came when C-46 Parts Inc, from Miami Springs (FL), purchased her in April 1969. Four years later she appeared on the Bolivian register as CP-973 operated by Aerovias Las Minas. Based at La Paz and Cochabamba and mainly used to supply meat to the many mines throughout the country. After Aerovias Las Minas, she did more of the same, for other companies such as Transportes Aereos Bolivar and Frigorificio Santa Rita. During 2000 she was seen stored at La Paz El Alto airport as the meat hauling business has dried up.
The following year Lineas Aereas Canedo purchased her and ferried it to its home-base at Cochabamba with the rather surprising intention of restoring it to a passenger model C-46! Currently CP-973 is looking extremely smart, with her red – white colour striping and polished wings and cowlings. Inside she is fitted with a full leather interior including 32 leather VIP seats; open overhead luggage racks, aft galley station and broad toilet and a TV for in-flight entertainment. Up front in the C-46 office, the cockpit has been fully restored with original instruments mounted on a vintage wood trimmed instrument panel. The cockpit of this Commando is strictly 1940s vintage, with large size control wheel, throttle, mixture and prop control switches on the centre console.
Standing outside in the blazing sun we observed the ground operations. As the fuel truck left it was time to start the Pratt & Whitney R-2800-51 radials. With no external power source available the right engine was started first, on the a/c battery. Slowly the big prop began moving and started the flow of engine oil within the engine core and cylinders. Nothing happened at first. Then again all was quiet. Once more the props turned and after counting 16 blades the massive engine finally burst into live blowing out white smoke. I was very happy to hear that sound. We watched as the other engine was fired up and then ran towards the aft cargo door and climbed onboard via the small ladder, amidst the flying dust, grass and oil, bracing a gale force wind from the left prop. In the cockpit Captains Ortiz and Arauco performed their engine run-up checks. Both engines were running smoothly at 1100 rpm and 13 inch manifold pressure. Oil was slowly coming to its operating temperature of 40 °C and the cylinder overhead temperature at 120°C. Then each engine was run-up for its prop-pitch and magneto checks. At around 11.20 LT we were ready to taxi from the grass (parking east) and taxi to the terminal for filing our flight plan for La Paz and the mandatory narcotics inspection. The brakes were released and with a little extra push from the engines we taxied across the gravel and scrubs towards the main runway.
After a 10 minute taxi were arrived at the empty terminal and both engines were silenced again. Captain Arauco headed for the flight operations and weather office. It was 20 °C, with clear blue skies overhead from Cochabamba all the way to La Paz…so our flight was pretty much in VFR conditions. We were under NSC (no significant clouds) and SKC (sky clear) conditions. Commandant Rolando Canedo came to visit us on the ramp. This gave me a good reason to make crew pictures in front of the C-46.
After the formalities it was time to go to La Paz. Both engines were fired up again and we received permission from the tower to backtrack runway 14-32 for a northerly take-off from runway 32.
It was around 12.30 LT when the C-46 lined up and both captains scanned their instruments one last time before take-off. Then Captain Ortiz slowly pushed the throttles forward to max power (2700 rpm's/ 45 inch manifold pressure) and the C-46 lumbered down the runway. Inside the noise was incredible….music to our ears. With only 7 persons onboard, the C-46 was eager to fly after only 500m and smoothly lifted off and we settled into a slow climb (runway heading) towards the high peaks. Then we made a gradual left turn heading 250 degrees climbing to 16.500 ft. With the gear up and in clean configuration, it was time to make our first power reduction to 2600 rpm's. A second reduction to 2300 rmp's and engine at 40 inch manifold pressure got the engine set for climb power.
Clearing the mountain tops we made a second turn heading 290 towards Tepar (waypoint) we settled into our cruising mode of 16.500 ft with an indicated air speed of 130 knots. (Engines at 2000 rpm's/28 inch manifold pressure). Below the green valley of Cochabamba made way for barren peaks of the Cordillera De Tres Cruces not far below! This C-46 is not pressurized and without supplemental oxygen the crew cannot operate the a/c above 16.500 ft.
After about 30 minutes we routed along the snow capped Mount Illimani, with it peaks at 6.438 m (21,122 ft). Illimani: meaning golden eagle is the highest mountain in the Cordillera Real (part of the Cordillera Oriental, a sub-range of the Andes) of western Bolivia. It lies just south of La Paz at the eastern edge of the Altiplano. Approaching the La Paz TMA, further peaks came into our RH view, Mount Mururata and Centinela and rising to the northwest of La Paz/El Alto, mount Wayna Potosí with its jagged glacial peak at 6,088 m (19,974 ft). As we approached the Altiplano from the south I could see the massive urban built up around the airfield.
The Altiplano (Spanish for high plain), is a vast high plain, where the Andes is at its widest, Lake Titicaca is its best known geographical feature to the north. Its height averages about 3,750 meters (12,300 feet). Its climate is cool and semi-arid to arid, which means annual temperatures that vary from 3°C near the western mountain range to 12°C near Lake Titicaca. We approached the La Paz airport from the South; ATC cleared us for a landing on runway 10, temperature 12°C, wind at 120 °C at 10 knots.
El Alto International Airport (Spanish: Aeropuerto Internacional El Alto) is the international airport located in El Alto, near the city of La Paz. It serves national and international air traffic. At an elevation of 13,325 feet (4,061.5 m) above mean sea level, El Alto is one of the highest international airports in the world. It has two runways: 10/28 with a concrete surface measuring 13,123 by 151 feet (4,000 × 46 m) and 10L/28R with a grass surface measuring 6,725 by 300 feet. Currently also served by BOA, TAM Bolivia, Aerosur, Aerocondor and American Air amongst others.
El Alto has served as La Paz's airport since the first half of the 20th century, but was modernized in the late 1960s, when its runway was lengthened and a new passenger terminal with modern facilities was built. The new airport, called "John F. Kennedy" but still referred to as El Alto (as it has been known for several decades), was inaugurated in 1969. It has since been overtaken by Santa Cruz de la Sierra's more modern Viru Viru International Airport as Bolivia's most important.
Coming in on a downwind track overhead the terminal and TAM Airforce facilities the flaps were extended to one quarter and the gears were lowered. Captain Ortiz eased on the throttles and we then turned to our base leg, flying over the vast brown urban settlements. Turning to finals, flaps were lowered to full down position. The empty Commando assumed a nose down approach and the props were set to full forward, changing the sound of the engines.
Once over the threshold Captain Ortiz was working the controls to counter act some cross wind gusts. With a distinctly firm bump we hit the runway and rolled out until the tail wheel contacted the surface. We slowly taxied the full length of the runway and exited at the far end and taxied on a gravel taxiway towards the deserted meat haulers ramp called El Alto. Blowing up dust and scrubs we taxied near a sister C-46 and swung around and engines where shut down. We climbed out onto the grassy Altiplano and captured the moment. Our C-46 CP-973 was parked amongst 4 other sister Curtiss Commandos, what a breathtaking view set amongst the snow-capped mountains which surrounded us. This might well be the last ever flight of a C-46 over the Andes. So our Bolivian Odyssey had come to an end – well almost, as we would return to Cochabamba the next day, in our private C-46.
To walk around the deserted meat haulers ramps is to step back in time…into a totally different era of Bolivian aviation. It reminded me of a ghost town. Back in the meat hauling days this was a bustling airport with DC-3s, C-46s, Convairs, Martin 404s, DC-4s and DC-6s in daily operation. Now it's all very quiet and all I saw was overgrown weeds and derelict buildings. There are a few survivors who still linger on, hoping for cool wind under their wings and fire in there engines.
Next to us stood proudly C-46 CP-1319, also know as 100% Camba. She last flew with CAMBA Ltda and is now privately owned. This was one of the last C-46s to fly commercially in Bolivia. Across the ramp we found another airworthy C-46D survivor CP-1655. This a/c has seen many operators and is currently under the care of Eco Express Charter Services, which is trying to get it airworthy again. Out in the back, parked amongst the scrubs and old building we found two stored C-46s, CP-1080 and CP-987. They have not moved for a long time and will probably never fly again. Next to the CP-1655 we found the smart looking Convair C-131B CP-2026, an ex US Airforce example, also belonging to Eco Express. She is kept in an airworthy state and we heard some rumors that the a/c will leave Bolivia soon for a new career in Panama. Walking towards the terminal building, for some much needed food and coffee, we were greeted by the familiar shapes of the La Cumbre Douglas DC-6s. I think they serve as gate guards to the holy grounds of El Alto.
After our walk around El Alto holy grounds we decided to go to our hotel downtown La Paz. We said good buy to Marcello and the crew; they preferred to stay at a place in El Alto. We would see them the next day again. We drove through the crowded and noisy streets of El Alto, which is not entirely safe for tourist and made our way down into the bustling city of La Paz. It was already starting to get dark. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the Hotel Copacabana on the Avenue 16 de Julio (1802) El Prado. We checked into our rooms and looked for a nice place across the street for some food and cold beers…..ending a perfect & very exciting day!
Source: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
With special thanks to: Jonathan Olguin (www.aviacionboliviana.net), Marcello & Rolando Canedo.