All those Wonderful Stories

Adventure in Brazil

By Arue Szura, Folded Wings: A History of Transocean Air Lines

On at least two occasions Transocean aircraft and crews simply disappeared. What should have been a routine flight to South America in November 1949, for example, became a five day ordeal for Transocean's Captain Harvey Rogers, his crew, and forty-five Russian immigrants being transported to Asuncion, Paraguay.

 

Herman Humm flew as first officer; Roy Minson, third pilot; John Hoenninger, navigator; Charley Bradley, engineer; Tommy Sconce, radioman; Ed Hovlid, purser; and Vi Corrington, R.N., stewardess.

 

The first leg of the flight was from Oakland to Panama where they stayed overnight before heading for Lima, Peru, the next morning. Hoenninger brought from Oakland all the required flight maps and charts but had been unable to obtain additional information about Asuncion and the routes used by other airlines prior to departure time. The crew was therefore unaware that the Asuncion station required a service fee to be paid in advance.

 

The flight left for Lima on the morning of November 23 in clear weather, crossing the Andes and the Bolivian altiplano near La Paz and Cochabamba before turning south. Below, the vast jungles of Brazil appeared to be one great sea of green trees. No rivers or other landmarks were visible to the crew.

Ominous appearing storm clouds were brewing over the area by the time the aircraft neared Asuncion several hours later. So Rogers descended below the clouds to fly visual flight rules (VFR) over the flat and rolling terrain below. Locating the airport using radio aids would have been easy, but the radio beacons were not turned on.

 

Rogers circled in the clear, waiting while Hoenninger tried to get a sunline to plot a navigation fix on his chart. This proved impossible. One minute a patch of sunshine would appear, thenheavy, black clouds would roll in to block the sun. When the aircraft began to be lashed by torrential rains, Rogers had no choice but to climb above the weather and head for Rio de Janeiro, the first alternate airport.

Everybody in the cockpit was tense, wondering if they could make it to Rio de Janeiro through the storm before the gasoline ran out. In the meantime, Sconce kept busy changing radio frequencies in an effort to raise somebody. The static proved to be so fierce that it was impossible for him to get a response.

 

Then, just before sunset, the DC-4 passed over a large river they determined to be the Parana. Minutes later, Rogers spotted a small dirt and grass airstrip in the midst of the jungle that may have been used at one time by the mining companies or coffee plantations in the area. A windsock fluttered in the wind at one end of the field. There were no buildings in sight nor any lights-just a primitive jungle landing strip.

Rogers took a vote from the crew as to whether they should attempt to land or take a chance on reaching Rio. Because they were unsure of their exact location and as it would soon be dark and the fuel supply was now dangerously low, the vote was unanimous to land. Rogers reduced the power and dropped altitude quickly to survey the field to see if he would be able to land safely on the dirt strip. He decided there was enough room, though barely, and made what Roy Minson terms an excellent "drag in" approach at slow speed, and landed as close to the end of the field as the trees would allow.

"It was a beautiful landing," said Minson. "We hit the earth softly and used only half the length of the field, or about 1,500 feet. And all of us were amazed at how rapidly the plane slowed to a stop. "We later discovered that we'd landed on sand and that the wheels had dropped in about six inches making the drag terrific which was just what we needed. We were safe in Paranavai, Brazil, a little wooden-hut city at the edge of coffee country."

 

It was dusk when the crew put down the ladder and descended into a crowd of several hundred native Indians.

 

In an effort to get a fix on their location, Hoenninger showed a few of the men a chart, attempting sign language to try to make them understand what he wanted. Each Indian pointed to a different place on the chart, so Hoenninger decided to wait until dark, then board the aircraft and take star shots. He was then able to determine that they were at what apparently was "Lovatt."

 

The natives whooped in delight when he spoke the word to them, just as if they knew what he meant. But there was no "Lovatt" on the map.

 

Finally, as if to "show him a thing or two," the Indians led the navigator to a tiny radio shack set back amongst the trees and pulled out an old and very dusty chart.


The longitude shown on the chart didn't make any sense at all until Hoenninger recalled that longitude might depend on the country. The map proved to be perfect when Rio de Janeiro was considered zero meridian. "Lovatt" was, in fact, Mandaguari, a city some sixty miles from Paranavai.

 

Sconce fired up one of the engines every day to generate enough electricity to send radio transmissions to get help and to attempt to notify TAL's headquarters at Oakland Municipal of their whereabouts. Hordes of Indians would run from behind the airplane into the slipstream, throwing themselves flat, laughing and hollering, trying to see who could come closest to the propeller until the crew put a stop to the dangerous game.

 

The mayor's wife provided platters of fruit, chicken, partridge and other meats, and graciously offered their hut for lodging. However, the passengers and most of the crew stayed nearby in a small hotel.

 

In the meantime, officials of the government of Brazil had heard Sconce's radio transmissions and directed several busses to Paranavai to move the passengers and most of the crew to the airport at Mandaguari. This was necessary because the DC-4 could not have taken off from the small landing strip with so much weight on board. To lighten the load even more, four of the seats were also removed. The passengers and baggage would later be picked up by Rogers at Mandaguari.

 

Rogers taxied the plane into position at the grassy end of the strip where the surface was solid. No one knew what to expect when the wheels hit the sand. He then set the brakes and revved the engines to full power before releasing the brakes.

 

"I had never seen a DC-4 accelerate so fast," said Minson. "With flaps partially down, it slowed only momentarily on the sand before popping into the air with nothing to spare. I'm sure there were tree branches in the wheels, but of Harv really pulled one off that time. "Looking back, it actually was impossible to fly a DC-4 out of that short field at Paranavai," he
said. "But at Transocean we always believed we could accomplish the impossible, and usually did, so it never even occurred to us that we couldn't. We just went ahead and did it."

 

The trip had already proved highly adventurous, but there were still some surprises in store for the crew members. For starters, they had been told only that the airport at Mandaguari was large and had two runways. No mention had been made that the runways were perched on top of a hill. This required Rogers to first fly down into the valley, then up to the airfield to land uphill. Under the conditions, this was the only approach possible.

 

When they arrived, Rogers circled the field and chose the runway most into the wind. The end of the runway on Roger's approach was seventy-five feet below the middle of the strip, while the other end was only slightly downhill from the middle. It was like landing on an arch,and Rogers made a perfect touchdown.

 

The last 250 gallons of fuel remaining in the tanks of the DC-4 had been used en route from Paranavai. So upon their arrival in Mandaguari, the Brazilian Air Force allowed the crew to borrow 1,000 gallons of gas, which was just enough to fly half the passengers to Curitiba, about 250 miles away. This was done to ensure that the plane would return to pick up the rest of the passengers. Later, at Curitiba, the auxiliary tanks were filled with replacement fuel. Shortly after their arrival at Mandaguari, something extraordinary happened that the Trans ocean crew members would never forget.

 

Rumors that Hitler was still alive and possibly in South America were prevalent in 1949. And shortly after the arrival of the Transocean plane at Mandaguari, questions were raised in the minds of the crew as to the truth behind these rumors. Out of the jungle came a calvacade of shiny, automobiles and limousines, rolling along single file and manned by impeccably dressed, obviously wealthy Germans who spoke English fluently. They invited the American crew members to join them for dinner and ushered them into the waiting cars. Twenty minutes later they came to a beautiful clearing in the middle of the jungle where an impressive lodge stood near a meandering brook. The tables in the dining room of the lodge were set with fine china and held a lavish display of food. There was also a bar where every conceivable type of drink was available.

 

Hoenninger said that there were at least twenty-five Germans at the banquet and that they asked many questions of the crew: How did you know where we were? Are you surprised to find us here? Did you come to bomb us?

 

He and the others thought it highly unusual for the colony to be hidden in the middle of a nearly impenetrable rain forest, living in homes set back among the trees surrounding the lodge. After all, they could have chosen to live in Rio de Janeiro or some other large South American city.

 

Just what kind of refugees were these people, they asked each other later. Were they loyal to Hitler? If so, how did they escape from Germany? Was Hitler really dead? Or was he there? Who were these Germans? The crew was never able to find out who the mysterious people were, or why they chose to live in the Brazilian jungle, although John Hoenninger reportedly tried for some time to find answers to these provocative questions.

 

At least two more incidents around that time seemed to indicate a conspiracy against Transocean in South America. One of these occurred when Panagra advised all the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) travel agents in Latin America that Panagra would cancel their agency agreements and put them out of business if they sold any Transocean Air Lines' tickets. The other was when Braniff refused to lend or provide for a ramp-even with pay-to discharge one of TAL's planeloads of passengers at Tocuman (Panama) Airport. "Find a rope and shinny down," reportedly was Branffs reply.