Venezuela

A Lifeline over the Amazon

We flew with the Dornier 228 of the Venezuelan Military Aviation one year and a half after their arrival, across the Amazon, to know how they fulfil their mission in support of the aborigine communities.

By: Santiago Rivas

Puerto Ayacucho is the entrance to the Venezuelan Amazon and is also the base of the Grupo de Transporte Nº9 of the Venezuelan Military Aviation. There operate the Dornier 228s that from 2014 had considerably reinforced the capabilities of the unit, which has, since its creation, four Cessna 208 Grand Caravans and thirteen Cessna 206s.

heir mission is one of the most difficult and, also, more gratifying from those accomplished by the force. In the inhospitable Amazon jungle that covers the entire south of Venezuela, the planes are the vital nexus between civilization and the small aborigine communities of the Pemon Indians (on Bolivar State) and Yanomami (on the Amazonas State), which, slightly visible from the air, occupy the region since many centuries.

The first two Do228-212, delivered by RUAG by the beginning of 2014, were an enormous jump on the capabilities, but the arrival of the first new Dornier 228 (previously called Do228NG), on 26 November of that year, also brought the pilots an improvement of their work, making the operation easier, thanks to its modern avionics and full glass cockpit.

From Puerto Ayacucho we went to the town of San Juan de Manapiare, at 35 minutes of flight on which only jungle, mountains and some rivers are seen. “The Dornier changed our life” explains Tirso Chirino, head of the local aborigine community. Before, we had one day of trip to reach Puerto Ayacucho on a motor boat or three on a boat without engine”.

For many, the plane means the difference between life and death, like on this flight was for an aborigine woman bitten by a snake and who needed urgent evacuation. Also, it’s a big difference for the children on those communities who travel to the city to study.

The service brought by the Group is free, prioritizing the medical evacuations, then the transport of students, doctors, teachers and other civil servants, cargo and finally the transport of people that need to travel for personal matters.

The Dornier 228 not only brought the possibility to more than duplicate the cargo and passenger capacity to be carried on a single flight, but also, thanks to its more than 200 knots of cruise speed, reduces considerably the time spent by the other planes. It’s STOL capability also has to be added, which, according to CaptainAdrián Escalona, one of the pilots of the unit, permit them to operate on runways were only the Cessna 206s of the Group could operate and they believe they didn’t exploit its capabilities to the maximum.

 

Colonel César Padrón, commander of the Group, describes that on the community of Platamar there’s a runway on a farm, “it’s a grass one, of 800 metres, I took off with a shower, with the runway wet, the plane slowed and I took off with 900 kilos of cargo. I landed with the shower and the plan stopped after 500 metres”.

After flying over 500 metres of jungle, we arrived to Parima B, on the border with Brazil, where the Yanomami still preserve their ancient manners. Until the arrival of the planes, the people of the community had to travel for almost a week to the town of La Esmeralda, walking and then sailing on a river, and from there take a plane to go out of the jungle. The runway of Parima B, extremely short and in the middle of a valley, was a big challenge, but they managed to take off at maximum weight without trouble.

Almost all runways in which they operate are unpaved, short and during most of the year they operate with high temperatures, but they were not limiting.

Versatility

Major Elio Hernández, commander of the Escuadrón de Vuelo Nº91 of the unit and one of the most experienced pilots of the Dornier 228 remarks, regarding the speed, that “it’s a plane that changed our reaction time to the different communities and places where we have to operate”, adding that, thanks to having two engines, “changed the flight safety”.

“Speed is important when it comes to evacuate a person, when his life depends on minutes and this plane makes possible to move him on a very short time, while you can also carry other people, like doctors. We had one opportunity in which we had to evacuate seven people on a single flight, including incubators and stretchers with oxygen, on a very short time” adds Hernández.

He also highlights that, despite being a bigger plane than the others in use by the unit, operates on the same runways and it’s very stable to manoeuvre at low speeds, even at maximum weight. “Makes the operation on the jungle very easy. But if it’s another mission, I had the opportunity to travel abroad and it’s like any other plane designed to operate on paved runways, it’s versatile. Operates on unprepared runways, but it’s much better on paved ones” he adds.

According to the improvements the new Dornier 228 has with its new glass cockpit, he remarks that “the main change are the avionics, as the new plane makes easier the checks, the work for the pilot, all the information is visible, it’s very simple, it’s pleasant for the pilot because everything is in front of you, you don’t have to search for data”.

According to the maintenance, 1st Lt. Ángel Márquez explains that “the plane has a lot of electronics, many sensors, it’s very complete. The engines are very simple and they are very good. The avionics are also very complete”.

As a conclusion, Colonel Padrón declares that “in almost two years of operations the planes made awesome things”.

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