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The Old Dakota (# 190)


They also say that the plane was so balanced that it seemed to anticipate the pilot's mistakes, and the aircraft itself ended up correcting them.

I had never flown by plane. In 1972, regarding my older brother's wedding, he married a girl from another island, Terceira island, being us natives of S. Miguel, in the Azores.


We had already been to the airport numerous times. It was always an adventure to go to the airport, which was in the middle of a pasture, dotted with cows and sheep. Yes, because the planes landed on the grass, trimmed to the right height. There were a tiny control tower and a huge hangar where either plane could stay overnight.


I flew with my godmother, an affable, delicious and very funny aunt: Aunt Natália. I entered, dressed in a brown cardigan with light squares. The moment was recorded in one of the hundreds of photographs that my godmother was taking throughout her life, in an old bellows machine, which closed and was reduced to 1 cm thick.


But the hero of this story is not me, but the magnificent plane that was waiting for me. For me, an aeroplane was a metallic bird, imposing and serene. The eyes were the two windows, where the pilots looked out.


Beneath its imposing wings, 29 meters wide, were two wheels of respectable size. The plane, when stopped on the ground, was tilted, with the muzzle pointed to the sky and with a tiny wheel under the tail. Inside, it was the houses and the landscape that seemed to be tilted and not us who were inside.


It was a model built in the USA in the mid-1930s. A fatal accident with an aeroplane with a wooden structure led the authorities to decree that all aeroplanes must have a metallic structure. The Douglas Aircraft Company accepted the challenge of building a plane, solid, robust and that could safely carry about 20 passengers. What I didn't know is that the plane where I was going to fly for the first time in my life had been a pioneer in a number of technologies that would stay forever in aircraft engineering. It was the 3rd model that was approved to be produced in series, hence the name DC-3. During World War II thousands of these planes were produced, which were used to transport troops and military material. The 30 planes that the Portuguese Air Force bought went, probably in the 2nd World War. SATA, the Azorean airline, will have received one or more of these planes. If I knew, maybe I, on my way to my brother's wedding, I would still feel the presence of the soldiers sitting inside the plane, fearing not to return from the trip over the English Channel.


They were built in such a way as to be highly resistant, perhaps playing it safe, since at that time the true limits of mechanical strength of the materials would not be known. Yes, no, first of all, less than.


In England, they became known as “Dakotas” and that's how I met them in the Azores. My older brother got married on Terceira Island, because it was there that he fulfilled the Mandatory Military Service, at Lajes Air Base. And there he met my sister-in-law, with whom she fell in love. It seems that my brother learned to be an aircraft mechanic, in the 5 years he was in the troop. The Dakota would be a nice plane that he might look at in awe.


During the Berlin Blockade in 1948/49, the Dakotas transported thousands of tons on the airlift that was established between the besieged city and Great Britain.


After the Dakotas, a new, modern aircraft of almost 50 passengers came to the Azores islands: the English-made AVRO. Often the two friendly planes met side by side: the imposing old Dakota and the young AVRO. Each had a different sound in their engines. Years later, a new airport appeared, 3 km from my home, on the outskirts of Ponta Delgada. Sitting in my room, when the wind was in favour, I heard the sound of the planes that landed, but above all, I distinguished the noise of the engines, when they made the guts of the heart, accelerating to the maximum to rise later, as if from a ballerina in “Pas de deux” if it was. And I, proud of my aeronautical wisdom, was able to distinguish and said to me: "It's a Dakota ..."


It was said that, during the Second World War, there were planes that returned from crossing the English Channel, with a hole in the wing and only with an engine running and, even so, they kept flying as if it were nothing. The old pilots say that the wings oscillated vertically so long as if the plane wanted to flap its wings to fly faster. I didn't have to. I was able to fly at almost 300 km/hour and for more than 2,500 km if necessary.


They also say that the plane was so balanced that it seemed to anticipate the pilot's mistakes, and the plane itself ended up correcting them.


These planes entered SATA's service in the 1960s, and this company bought two devices. After many years of flying between the islands, at least one of them was sold to Honduras and then to Venezuela. Perhaps the plane I flew (or the other ...) in 2007 was still flying regularly between Caracas and Los Roques. It is known that today it will still be able to fly.


But the most fascinating story of a DC-3 took place in the summer of 1957 in the middle of the Missouri State. An American Air Force plane saw its fuel run out. All crew members parachuted, convinced that the aircraft would crash. Surprisingly, or not, the plane ran out of fuel, and gradually, meter by meter, it lost altitude, with the engines off, and gently landed in a cornfield. It was actually a plane that landed alone. Is it a case of saying: autopilot for what? It can still break down ...

© Eduardo Rui Alves

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