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February 2018

A lifeline over the Amazon

by Santiago Rivas

A trip with the Venezuelan Air Force along the course of the Amazon. Our mission: to provide a vital link between civilization and the indigenous communities of the Amazon.

Our mission: the vital link

We started our day leaving Puerto Ayacucho and made our way to the community of San Juan de Manapiare, a 35-minute flight over beautiful and dense rainforest, mountains and the odd river. “Air transportation has changed our life,” said Tirso Chirino, the head of the local indigenous community. “Before, it would take us a whole day to get to Puerto Ayacucho by motorboat or three if the boat didn’t have a motor.” For many of these indigenous people, available air transportation means the difference between life and death, as it did on one flight for an indigenous woman who had been bitten by a snake and had to be urgently airlifted out of the area. The Amazon river basin and rainforest are home to such dangerous snakes as the green anaconda, the Guyana blind snake, the toadheaded pit viper, the green racer and the yararanata pit viper.

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The Dornier 228 has changed the quality of life for indigenous communities.

Air transportation also spells the difference in local education for young people who want to study in the city. In 1979, bilingual education became compulsory. The Pemon Indians can attend bilingual American Indian primary schools for free; however, they face the challenge of getting there. In the past, the Pemon Indians educated their children using an oral storytelling tradition. They are a peaceful people who teach by example and have no word for working because that is just part of daily life. Their stories are told by the elders to teach and hand down their community’s idea of morality and world order to the younger generation. The storyteller often ends the story with “A-pantoní-pe nichii” which means “may you take advantage of this story.”

Amazingly to help meet these challenges, the pilots of the Ninth Transport Group of the Venezuelan Air Force offer a taxi service for free, with top priority being given to medical evacuations, followed by students, doctors, teachers and other civil servants, cargo, and finally, people who need to travel for personal reasons. They are located at the gateway to the Venezuelan Amazon, Puerto Ayacucho. Since 2014, the Venezuelan air force has added two Dornier 228s, which have significantly increased the unit’s capabilities. Founded in 2006, the unit previously operated with four Cessna 208 Grand Caravans and 13 Cessna 206s. This particular unit’s mission, one of the many performed by the Venezuelan Air Force pilots, is extremely challenging yet most rewarding. They provide a vital link between civilization and the small indigenous communities of the Pemon Indians and the Yanomami.

The Pemon Indians live in Bolívar, which is a large state in eastern Venezuela, bordering Brazil and Guyana. The Yanomami are a group of approximately 35,000 indigenous people who live in some 200–250 villages in the Amazon rainforest on the border between Venezuela and Brazil. The villages where they live are barely visible from the air. These indigenous groups have inhabited the region for centuries and Venezuela wants to preserve their cultures. In the past and even today, the people often rely on local shamans to provide medical treatments. Getting doctors, school supplies and providing air transportation to the people can be very tricky due to the environment. The people also often have to walk and boat long distances to reach a grass or dirt strip where a plane can land. The arrival of the new Dornier 228s has changed the pilot’s ability to land closer to the villages.

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The Dornier 228 at Puerto Ayacucho after a typical Amazon storm, which happens almost every afternoon.

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Medical evacuation mission at Puerto Ayacucho. In these small communities, there are no hospitals. The people have to be airlifted in emergencies.

Captain Adrián Escalona, one of the unit’s pilots, loves the Dornier 228’s ability to do short take-offs and landings because it means safer travel for the pilots and their passengers. Describing a landing strip situated on a farm in the Platamar community, Group Commander Colonel César Padrón says, “It’s a grass strip, only 800 meters long. I took off in a downpour, on a wet strip that slowed the aircraft down, but I still managed to get airborne with 900 kilograms on board. Later I landed in more torrential rain with higher than normal outdoor temperatures, but I managed to bring the plane to a stop in 500 meters.”

Later, following a 500-kilometer flight over the rainforest, we arrive at Parima B, on the border of Brazil. Here we meet the Yanomami who have beautifully preserved all their ancient customs. They told us it used to take them almost a week to reach the village of La Esmeralda on foot and by river to catch a plane out of the rainforest. Now that the Air Force has planes that can make short take-offs and landings on dirt strips, it can pick them up closer to home, making the journey less dangerous and faster. The air strip to pick up the Yanomami is extremely short in length and situated in the middle of a valley. The challenging landing strip can be an unnerving experience for passengers, but these fears are put to rest as the pilots are able to take off without incident.

According to pilot Major Elio Hernández, commander of the unit’s flight squadron 91: “Speed is important when it comes to airlifting someone to safety, where the difference between life and death can be a matter of minutes. Thanks to having a fast and versatile plane, we can medevac them very quickly and also carry medical personnel. On one occasion, we took seven people as well as incubators and stretchers plus oxygen, all in a very short space of time.” The pilots not only fly but also help with the loading and unloading of people and cargo. The curious and excited people of the Amazon flock around the pilots as they prepare the planes for take-off – their faces lit up with smiles, amazement and perhaps a little uncertainty of what is to come. These pilots of the Ninth Transport Group of the Venezuelan Air Force have a challenging job of providing a lifeline over the Amazon and they do it with passion and pride. Their flights and their skills make a vital difference in the lives of the indigenous communities of the Amazon whose culture and way of life they also help preserve.

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For the people of the communities, the plane is the only way to reach civilization quickly. Travel by land or river requires many days by foot and/or by boat.

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The people of Parima B congregate around the Dornier 228 to receive precious cargo. In this particular case, one ton of food and medicine has been delivered. The people now carry the supplies to town on foot.

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