Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Jimmy Angel: Member in Good Standing in Steve's "Bush Pilot" Hall of Fame ( and a short geography lesson)

The exploits of the barnstormers and bush pilots of the post-Word War I era and later have always intrigued the hell out of me. These men were the adventurous type, full of "piss and vinegar", pioneers in a new age of aviation, trying to make a living any way they could. Who can forget the story of Wilfred Reid (Wop) May, that great Canadian bush pilot, delivering the diptheria serum in a snowstorm to save the villages of Little Red River and Fort Vermilion? He also helped track Albert Johnson, the "Mad Trapper from Rat River". Or how about Clennell Haggerston (Punch) Dickens, that great Canadian northern pilot, flying the Barren Lands to "map" the previously "unmapped" area with no weather observing stations, and obviously, no maps? These men are just two of the great aviation pioneers that opened up previously inaccessible territory. They shared similar traits with their peers elsewhere, the traits being perseverance, courage, gallantry, and (sometimes) good fortune.

My story today shifts to a latitude a long way south of the 49th Parallel. I have known of this pilot and his story for close to 20 years, and tremendously enjoy refreshing myself with his exploits from time to time. It is a story that has everything. Romance, intrigue, suspense, exotic locales, airplanes, gold, and an unfinished ending. It is an absolutely true story, and how Hollywood ever missed this one, I'll never know. This story should have been made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart in the lead role, but it never was. A dream of mine is to produce this movie, and I would cast Ralph Fiennes or Harrison Ford in the lead role, though I would prefer to play the lead and do the flying myself. Like I said, a dream.

Angel Falls! The world's highest waterfall! It looms up over 3200 feet, with an uninterrupted vertical drop of over 2600 feet! It is 16 times higher than Niagara Falls. Angel Falls is located in Venezuela, northern South America. The "Falls" are named after a famous "bush aviator", Jimmie Angel.

The tale begins in 1924, in a bar (of course) in Panama City. An old, transplanted Alaskan prospector named McCracken, approached a young, 25 year old pilot by the name of James Crawford Angel, and asked him if he was the type of flier that could "land an airplane on a dime". Angel answered that he was, the two men negotiated, and Angel was paid $5000, and he purchased a used airplane, an open-cockpit, two-seat, war-surplus, Bristol Fighter. This event began the legend of Jimmie Angel, and the unfinished quest that would consume him for years until his death.

Jimmie Angel was born in Springfield, Missouri, in 1899. In 1916 he enlisted in Britain's Royal Flying Corps. He flew in the war and was shot down once. He ended up in Egypt, and flew for T.E. "Lawrence of Arabia" against the Turks. He then was for awhile attached to the Italian Air Force, then flew in China. Later on he flew for Charles Lindbergh's Flying Circus, flew a Gotha bomber in Howard Hughes' film "Hells Angels", but at this point in his career he was in Panama.

After purchasing the used Bristol Fighter, Jimmie and the old prospector flew up the Orinoco River to Ciudad Bolivar. Then they flew over the jungle, with the prospector asking Jimmie to fly erratically. Then the old prospector became excited as they saw a peak that towered above the other jungle-covered peaks. It was Auyantepui, or "Devil's Mountain". The old man wanted to land, and Jimmie found a short spot between a stream and a cliff, and made the landing. For 3 days they panned for gold and filled a gunny sack, and on the third day with a tropical storm approaching, Jimmie launched the aircraft off of a cliff with a 3000' vertical drop, and returned to civilization. The old man would return to Denver, Colorado, and stated he would contact Jimmie in the future.

For the next few years Jimmie's fortunes waxed and waned, but he never returned to "Devil's Mountain" for more gold out of respect for the old prospector's claim to it.

In 1931 Jimmie received a telegraph that the old prospector, McCracken, was dying, and he requested Jimmie's presence. Jimmie went to see him in Denver, and McCracken gave Jimmie the rights to the mountain, but had a hard time describing the landmarks along the route to the mountain. It had been 7 years since they were there, and the jungle is a difficult place to navigate, but nevertheless Jimmie told him he would try to make it back to "Auyantepui".

In 1935 Jimmie began flying for a company that operated off a strip on the Orinoco River. He had chosen this position to be close to the mountain. He was doing aerial photography, and this allowed him to conduct his own search for "Auyantepui" as he worked. He searched and searched, but couldn't find the mountain. He began to wonder if the old prospector had told him they had landed on "Devil's Mountain", when actually they had landed elsewhere, just to throw Jimmie off. It was during this period when Jimmie made a great discovery that would assure his lasting fame. Flying around the shoulder of a mountain, he came across a mountain-face and water cascading out of it over 3000' into the jungle below! Initially, Jimmie was silent about his discovery, as he was already being ridiculed about his gold stories. Finally, he took 2 engineers on a ride to see his discovery. Later, a team from the American Museum of Natural History would enter the jungle to measure the waterfall, which was named Angel Falls in Jimmie's honour.

Jimmie took a wife, but continued his search for the gold. He acquired a larger airplane, a 7-passenger Ryan Flamingo. He continued his search, and in 1937 not far from Angel Falls, he spotted a clearing on a butte beside a stream. Was this the spot? Jimmie had to know.

Jimmie, 2 explorer friends, and his wife returned to the butte a couple of days later in the Flamingo. Jimmie made an approach to the clearing, and landed. As he was coming to a stop, the wheels broke through the surface, and the aircraft flipped over. No one was hurt, but the airplane would not be flying back from the clearing. For a period of time, the group searched for gold, all to no avail. Dejected, they hiked off the mountain, the trip taking 11 days!

Frustrated, and without an airplane, Jimmie Angel left Venezuela and returned to the States. They settled in California, and raised a family consisting of two sons.

Old dreams die hard, and adventurers never lose their urge. 19 years after leaving Venezuela, at the age of 57, Jimmie decided to head south and try to find the gold-laden stream amongst the peaks one last time. During this last attempt, while taxiing a Cessna 180 on an airstrip in Panama, a gust of wind flipped the plane, and Jimmie Angel died of a brain hemorrhage. His quest was over.

Jimmie Angel was cremated and his ashes spread over Angel Falls. Years later when asked about Jimmie's quest, his wife insisted it was all true as "Jimmie wouldn't have risked our lives for nothing".

As you can see, an amazing story and an amazing fellow. You can see why I am so intrigued. Jimmie's Ryan Flamingo was salvaged from the crash-site 33 years later, and today sits restored at the Ciudad Bolivar airport, after being declared a National Monument by the Venezuelan government. The gold to this day has never been found, so the object of Jimmie Angel's lifelong quest remains shrouded in mystery like the mist encircling Auyantepui!!! (Don't you think there is a movie here? Let me know!)

Angel Falls!! Named after the great flier Jimmie Angel, the "Falls" are fed by a great subterranean river draining an area that gets "300 inches" of rainfall a year!! Posted by Hello

The life-worn face of great Bush Pilot "Jimmie Angel". The lines on his face detailed the miles he had flown, and some of the scarring was from a fire that broke out in a Ford Tri-Motor he was flying over the Andes...  Posted by Hello

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