By Paul Ash THE DAKOTA HUNTER Sunday Times · 10 Jan 2016 ·
IT is a winter afternoon in 1970. I know it’s winter because the grass is brown and the Joburg sky is that wide, pale, cloudless blue and I can smell the dust in the air. am playing on the swing in the garden, wondering if I could get enough velocity to launch myself into prolonged flight when an aircraft drones slowly past overhead — a short, fat fuselage held aloft by long wings tapering gracefully to their tips — and the grumble of a pair of big piston engines splits the cool air. You never forget your first DC3, says a man who has made tracking the Gooney Bird his life’s work.
I am four years old and I have just seen my first Dakota. You always remember your first Dakota. It is 1951 in the garden of a Dutch oilman’s house in southern Borneo and a fouryearold named Hans Wiesman and his sister are playing on the swing in the garden. They are standing on the swing seat, face to face, gripping the ropes in their little hands, swinging higher and higher, when Hans — at the apex of the arc — lets go with one hand to scratch his nose. During the subsequent plunge to earth, he smacks his head on the swing’s steel pole and tears a chunk of flesh off his head. Our garden swing also taught my sister, my brother and me all about physics, specifically gravity and what happened when we let go of the ropes in our illconsidered attempts to “fly”.
But while these follies caused a few broken bones and teeth, we never had to be evacuated out of the steaming Borneo rainforest by Dakota. After being rushed to the local clinic, Where a doctor sewed up the gash in his head without anaesthetic, the next day Hans drove with his parents down a jungle road to the nearest airstrip, where they were picked up by “a shiny DC3 Dakota that flew us over the jungle up north to the big hospital in Balikpapan”.
It was Hans’s second time in a Dakota and it left an indelible impression which, in the convoluted way of life, would, decades later, lead him to the forgotten, miserable, heatstruck or frozen corners of the earth — the kinds of places where the Dakota thrives — as he hunted for pieces of wrecked and abandoned DC 3s. Hans, you see, has what by most accounts would be considered an odd profession — he acquires Dakota cockpits for collectors and museums, and he makes office desks from Dakota wing tips. Jolly fine desks they are too, all gleaming, polished aluminium and rivet heads that reflect light like water droplets, making them look, as he writes in his offbeat autobiography The Dakota Hunter, “like a pearl necklace stretched out on a mirror”.
It is work that dovetails neatly with his obsession with an aeroplane that not only changed the face of commercial aviation but, 80 years after the prototype first flew, is still earning its keep in some of the world’s lessgenteel places. THE Douglas Commercial 3 was the child of Donald Douglas, owner of the Douglas Aircraft Company, who was under pressure from airlines to build a fast, tough aeroplane that would let them make money carrying passengers without having to rely on government mail subsidies to make ends meet. That aeroplane was the DC3
. On December 17 1935, the company test pilot fired up the two big radial engines on the shiny new bird and rumbled off into the blue. The plane could sleep 16 passengers in liedown berths, but the eighth aircraft off the production line had 21 seats instead of bunks and was given the designation DC3, and history was made. By the end of the 1930s, the DC3 had pioneered air routes all over the world. It was fast and tough, had a useful range and could take off from short, rough airstrips. Douglas sold hundreds of them. Somewhere along the way, the “DC3” was dubbed the “Dakota”, perhaps by an overeager journalist struggling for a more colourful name. It stuck. When the war came, Douglas built a strengthened floor and double cargo doors for the DC3 and called it the C47 — a skytruck that could haul 28 paratroopers in battle kit, or a Jeep and a towed artillery piece, or three tons of ammunition, and it could do this while towing a glider carrying another 14 troops or a Jeep.
By 1946, 10 680 DC3s and C47s had been built, plus another 5 500 built under licence in Russia and Japan. Hans reckons 900 Dakotas have survived into 2016. Some are wrecks, many are in museums, and a good few — 150 or so — are still flying. The Dakota has done everything. It has carried passengers in their cosy bunks on night flights across America. It has ferried royalty and film stars, rockers and generals. It has been a freighter, an air ambulance and a pretty lethal gunship. It has scoured Africa from 10 000 feet, looking for minerals, and rumbled along at 50 feet over the bush on tsetse flyspraying missions. It has smuggled cigarettes, marijuana and cocaine. It flew pigs across Borneo. It has carried scientists over Antarctica and racehorses across the Caribbean. It has flown food to war zones in Berlin, Mozambique and Congo, and taken rich tourists on sightseeing expeditions over Africa and the Angel Falls, and roughnecks to the Yukon. That brutally tough wing and those thirsty but preternaturally reliable Pratt &; Whitney radial engines have ensured that, 80 years later, hundreds of Dakotas are still flying, although most will be “only” 70 years old, or thereabouts. Every day, somewhere in the world, a Dakota is doing what it does best — flying low and slow with a cargo of passengers and their stuff — diesel, timber, plastic barrels, cheap clothes, hammocks, cooking oil, dried fish, anything, in fact, that can fit through those double doors — heading to places few other aircraft can go. When its day is done, it might find salvation in a museum where it can rest on its tired wheels. Or it will sit in the jungle, or rot away, forgotten at the edge of some bustling airport, until one day someone comes along with aluminium cutters and chops it to pieces.
If he has been lucky or persistent enough, Hans Wiesman will be on hand to get the wing tips. “I have a network of people who follow my blog,” says Hans. “They call me and say ‘Hey Hans, I know of this wrecked Dakota . . . ’ I check it out on Google Earth, then I make a short list of the five or six planes I want to see. Then I go.” HANS’S foray into wing tip desks was the result of a happy accident when a friend brought a wing tip he had found at a fair in Miami back to the Netherlands. They put the gleaming airfoil on a set of legs and realised they had . . . something. And Hans, whose Borneo childhood had sparked a lifelong passion for Dakotas, knew where he could get more — many more — wing tips. For the past 15 years, Hans has scoured the planet for old, wrecked and unwanted Dakotas, trawling the boondocks of South America, Asia, Africa and North America for forgotten planes. He has run the gauntlet of thieves, drug smugglers, con men and corrupt officials out to make a fast buck from an unwary Westerner, like the time in Thailand when he stumbled across a couple of exRoyal Thai Air Force machines that were about to be dropped into the sea off Phuket to make an artificial reef. “These aircraft had flown in Vietnam as ‘Spooky’ gunships during the war,” he says. “I knew that if I could get my hands on one then, heyhey, every museum in the US wanted a ‘Spooky’.” But the army was involved and lots of people wanted to make a few bucks on the side. “You get completely lost in a web of people who see you as the milliondollar baby,” says Hans. “Everybody jumps on you like flies.” In the end, Hans could not save any of the Spookys, or even get the wing tips. The aircraft took one last flight, gliding into the depths. The reef didn’t work either — someone forgot to anchor the Dakotas to the sea bed, and they flew away with the currents, off on their own adventure. It was a similar story in Madagascar, where he heard about five Dakotas rotting in an air base boneyard. “They were interesting planes,” he says. “One had flown with KLM, another had come from Indochina. It had flown to Dien Bien Phu during the French war in Vietnam.” Dien Bien Phu, the sixmonth siege in a remote valley in north Vietnam that cost the French their Indochine empire, is one of the Dakota’s great battle honours. For six months from November 1953, Dakotas dropped paratroopers and supplies to the valley, braving curtains of antiaircraft fire to land on the strip to fetch the wounded. On the last day that they flew in to the embattled fortress, two Dakotas were shot down and their crews killed. One, flown by Captain Dartigues, was on its second run of the day — he had landed just after dawn and managed to sneak off under a rain of Viet Minh shells with a full load of wounded. On his second run, just after 10am, his luck ran out. “Later that evening,” writes Bernard Fall in Hell in a Very Small Place, his horrifying account of the battle, “one last transport aircraft, piloted by Captain Bourgereau, managed to land at Dien Bien Phu and to pick up 19 wounded who had been waiting anxiously in the drainage ditch near the airfield’s taxi stand. The plane took off in a rain of mortar shells. Its crew (which, like all the ambulance aircraft in Indochina, included a French Women’s Air Force nurse) did not know it but theirs was the last flight to take off safely from the fortress.” There was every chance that Captain Bourgereau’s Dakota was lying in the boneyard in Madagascar. “If I could find the last Dakota out of Dien Bien Phu, that would be a smash hit for any French museum,” says Hans. He started negotiating with the commander of the air base. “He said I could have these planes but he wanted a $250 000 Piper Navajo [a twinengined light aircraft]. I went to see his boss, the minister of defence, who told me this guy was not allowed to deal with me at all.” Hans left the island emptyhanded. He fared better in Colombia — the last place in the world, he says, “where Dakotas still come in flocks” — and where once drugdealers and FARC rebels ruled. The UStrained military is welldisciplined, the big drug cartels have been smashed and the FARC rebel movement has lost its muscle. The jungle provinces are now open for business and there is lots of work for Dakotas, the world’s best bush plane. Still, it takes time to do business in Colombia, what with the DEA watching over everything like a hawk. Hans laughs. “It took me two years to get a container out of the country because everybody thinks ‘this guy is coming to Colombia for old aircraft parts? You must be kidding!’ ” In 2016, Hans will continue hunting for old Dakotas, “not so much for furniture anymore”, he says, “because that is becoming awkward”.
Some time he would like to get back to the wreck he once visited in the Yukon, a crash site from which nothing has been taken. “What I saw in the Ruby Mountains is untouchable,” he says. “It was like the Titanic of crashed aircraft. You leave it intact because it’s a monument.”
The Dakota Hunter by Hans Wiesman is available on amazon.com for $28.22 (about R440). Kindle edition $15.38. See sundaytimes.co.za for a podcast about the legendary DC3 and the people who flew her. HANS RECKONS 900 DAKOTAS HAVE SURVIVED INTO 2016 SOMEWHERE IN THE WORLD, A DAKOTA IS FLYING, LOW AND SLOW
By Paul Ash THE DAKOTA HUNTER Sunday Times · 10 Jan 2016 ·