John Guzman shares his memories of
a C-46 named 'Lacandón'

John wrote me in Jan.2012:
Thought I'd share some meories of a 'love affair' between myself and a C-46 in Guatemala named 'Lacandón'. The story was to be an article in the the Latin American Aviation Historical Society but the LAAHS went down before the article was printed.
John "Gus" Guzman
Tallahassee,FL


 

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that we enjoy recalling our 'first time' experiences in anything to do with airplanes.
I am talking about something along the lines like my first model airplane kit (Republic Sea Bee), first solo flight (Cessna 172), first jet trip (Convair 990), first helicopter ride (Bell UH-1H), first time buzzed by an 'unfriendly' (MiG-21, Berlin air corridor), and so forth. If you love flying you don’t have to be at the controls; just being onboard for that memorable 'first' will do!

I have been an aviation enthusiast ever since my first flight on a Pan American World Airways DC-4, when I was three years old. That enthusiasm grew all the way through employment as a Pan American radio-electric service tech, U.S. Army aviation and civilian pilot. One of the benefits of working for Pan Am was its employee ticket discount, a benefit that was also honored by other airlines.
Along the way I developed a special interest in World War II aircraft. I confess to a little envy of my family elders who actually saw those airplanes in combat. Taking advantage of Pan Am’s employee discount allowed for one of my most memorable first-time experiences in such an aircraft.

It was April, 1968 and I was in Guatemala for the first time with my former wife in search of jungle adventure, the hunt, and amateur archeology. I had pre-planned a trip to the jungle archeological site at Tikal before leaving the States but still had to go by the AVIATECA (the Guatemalan national airline) ticket office in Guatemala City to confirm the upcoming flight where new tickets were issued that honored the original discount price ($6 round trip!!).
The ticket office was adorned with models of AVIATECA Caravelles and I naively asked if the Tikal flight would be in a Caravelle. The very pretty señorita behind the counter surprised me when she said it would be "…un Curtiss." "¿Un que?" I countered, to which she responded, "Un Comando, señor."

Oh, boy, I thought: my first flight in a C-46 Commando! I could hardly wait.
Rugged, bigger, faster and more capable than the C-47, the C-46 had earned its reputation 'flying the hump' in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II. After the war many were sold off as surplus at a cheap price where its ruggedness and dependability was well received. Unfortunately, some Commandos found their way to a few unscrupulous operators, where it gained a tarnished reputation. The US Air Force still had a few on its active roster in 1968 and the CIA, of course, was doing its thing with the C-46 in places most of us couldn’t find on a map.

I was told by the pretty AVIATECA señorita to be at la Aurora airport promptly by 0600 the next day. With visions of World War II and elsewhere I was looking forward to the flight.
The new modern terminal at la Aurora was still in its planning stages and all commercial aviation activity operated out of the old colonial style terminal. And that’s where the real adventure began.

La Aurora
La Aurora
La Aurora International Airport (IATA: GUA, ICAO: MGGT) serves Guatemala City, Guatemala. It is located 6.4 km (4.0 mi) south of Guatemala City's center and 25 km (16 mi) from Antigua [WIKIPEDIA]

The first thing that happened upon checking in for the flight the following morning was the weighing of our luggage along with the both of us. My wife wanted to know why the fuss over weight? I explained that we were not flying in the Pan Am Jet Clipper she was familiar with and that weight and balance were now a more important consideration. She too worked at Pan Am so she knew a little about airplanes.
Then came the first delay. We were told that they had to rearrange the cargo and that would take a little time.
I asked if my wife and I could sit together. After checking the passengers’ weight chart we were told this would be no problem.

I was thinking about a heavily loaded C-46 (and 'flying the hump' during another era) when the passengers were told there would be another delay to check something out on the aircraft. My wife was having second thoughts by now...
Although we both worked for Pan Am, she was not comfortable flying. I tried to calm her by telling her it was probably something simple like a tire change. An hour later we were informed that the tire change had been completed and the passengers could now begin boarding. My wife asked how did I know about the tire change and I confidently told her it was experience (really, just a lucky guess!).

A walk out to the tarmac revealed a covey of AVIATECA DC-3s and C-46s.
I looked at the first C-46 I was about to board and to me it was the most beautiful C-46 in the world! AVIATECA logo on the tail, crisp blue stripes on white and clean aluminum finish...
I could only imagine where it might have served during the war in a different paint scheme and setting. The cargo door was missing. I also noticed what appeared to be a huge rectangular patch right behind the cockpit where the propeller arc would normally be marked. Had this airplane thrown a propeller at one time? Then I noticed the painted name on the nose, 'LACANDÓN'.

Once onboard we had to execute a steep climb to our assigned seats. The C-46 had a noticeably steeper grade than the DC-3/C-47. The flight attendant, a young man of strong Indian/Mayan descent and wearing smartly pressed uniform shirt and pants was busy insuring everyone sat in their assigned seat. He also doubled as the flight engineer.
My wife still wasn’t happy about the flight and particularly about this airplane. I was trying to assure her somewhat when a tall red-haired man with a thick mustache, AVIATECA pilot’s hat and four stripes on his epaulettes came up the aisle and tapped me on the shoulder asking in Spanish if I was the Pan Am employee. I confirmed that I was. With a grin he said I was going to find this flight interesting. He continued up the aisle to take the left seat in the cockpit. My wife was ready to leave the airplane!

I observed a discussion at the rear of the airplane. Two of the three Mermite food can containers had to be offloaded. Too much weight... The orange juice and snack filled Mermite cans were also sacrificed, leaving only coffee for the passengers.
Next I noticed the attendant and ground handlers putting up the netting across the cargo door opening. It would remain that way for the flight. No door - too much weight.
And I had already noticed there was no bulkhead between the cockpit and passenger compartment. Too much weight I figured but my wife’s worried look was now getting heavier. I tried putting her at ease by mentioning how door kickers did their thing during the war. She was not amused.

A problem that had risen earlier as we boarded was now corrected. The flight had been overbooked by two passengers. One was a young man or boy of small stature who was asked if he could sit on the lap of a German tourist lady for the take-off...
When boarding earlier and seeing all the people she had asked in heavily accented Spanish, "…y ¿adonde voy sentarme … en el baño?" The attendant kindly answered there was no head onboard.
The second overbooked passenger just simply stood in the aisle and held on to the overhead baggage rack. Looking sure of himself he probably was an AVIATECA employee who had flown this way before.
The next flight to Tikal and beyond was the following day and no one was ever left behind. My wife was now in complete disbelieve.

The engines finally kicked over and 'Lacandón' began to taxi. Thankfully, my wife was still onboard.
As we taxied, we passed a line of Fuerza Aérea Guatemalteca A-26s and T-33s. It was really neat to see those airplanes on operational status.
A-26 Invaders in Guatalama

The two 18-cylinder 2,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines were not as loud as one would expect, even with the missing cargo door. The engines ran very smooth; to me they sounded like music from another era as we taxied.

The crew continued with the checklist. Extend flaps. Hold short. Engine run-up. Enter the runway. Final engine and compass check. Full throttle. Release the brakes... I was on my way to my first C-46 flight in 'Lacandón'.

'Lacandón' quickly accelerated down the runway, dragging its tail. I started counting runway markers. No idea how fast we were going, but the tail was still on the runway. At what seemed like jet speed the tail lifted and the main tires came off the runway. A few seconds later the end of the runway sped by. The spinning wheels were braked to a stop and retracted into the wells. A turn north and 'Lacandón' continued its climb towards Tikal and other destinations in 'el Petén', as the Guatemalan jungle is known.

Climb? Well, we were flying, but not gaining much altitude.
'Lacandón' settled on an altitude over Guatemala City which I guessed to be less than 2,000-feet above ground level.
I looked at the engine instruments and controls and though unfamiliar with the C-46, I saw what I thought to be a high manifold pressure on both engines.
Finally we flew out of urban area and got over open country. Once past the high country we were over the flat terrain of the Petén. By now there was some apparent altitude under the airplane as the ground swept by.
C-46 over Guatamala jungle

I figured that 'Lacandón' hadn’t flown any higher due to the load. On the plus side was the length of the flight. The longer 'Lacandón' flew, the more fuel it consumed. The more fuel it consumed the lighter it got. And the lighter it got, the higher it flew.

Almost an hour into the flight the Mayan ruins of Tikal came into view, just above the #1 engine cowl.
Tikal in the distance
The flight attendant asked the German passenger if she would allow for the small stature man to sit on her lap again, for the landing. He had been sharing the aisle with the man I took for an AVIATECA employee and who was now bracing himself again on the overhead racks.
'Lacandón' descended over the airfield with partial flaps revealing a long dirt strip as we did a flyby.

The crew continued with the pre-landing checklist. Enter the landing pattern. More flaps. Set prop pitch. Gear down. Adjust engine cowl flaps. Turn into final and watch the jungle come up.
It was cool sitting two rows aft of the cockpit.
The Tikal airstrip was over a mile long and several hundred feet wide surrounded by endless jungle canopy. Not much of a bounce upon touchdown and 'Lacandón' coasted to the end of the strip, where it made a 180-turn using engine power and lined up for the take-off run. After engine shutdown, the dust settled around the open cargo door and the attendant started work on releasing the safety netting.

Landing at the airstrip

The attendant/flight engineer now assumed a new roll. He was the first off the airplane, donning a set of mechanic’s overalls along the way. I was in no rush, so I watched him supervise the jacking up of the left main landing gear followed by a tire change.
The rest of the passengers were led to a thatched area that served as the passenger waiting area. By now the two pilots were under the wing.
I had to ask. They explained that due to the heavy load coming out of Guatemala City they had put on their best tires. Now that the airplane would continue on lighter and normal operations, AVIATECA would not put unnecessary wear on almost new tires when other tires could fill the need just as well...
And I learned there were other similar 'spare' tires at Petén locations to where AVIATECA flew.

The C-46 had the biggest tires of any commercial airplane of its day. With only two main landing gear tires, you had a major operational situation if you lost a tire. It was because of this safety consideration that airplane designers went to multiple smaller tires on main landing gears of later aircraft.

My inquiry into the flyby, just before landing, was equally revealing. This was the aircrew’s way of checking the entire length of the field for obstacles and alerting the local inhabitants that a landing was imminent and to clear any pets or livestock that may have wandered onto the landing strip.
I began thinking about coming out of this jungle paradise the same way I flew in. And I was beginning to understand my former wife’s concerns!

My stay at Tikal and guided jungle treks were over in a week and then it was back to the airstrip.
I went over to flight operations, manned by one man. His radio setup was as Spartan as the small hut, he was operating out of. The comms consisted of one HF and one VHF vacuum tube radio transceivers that still bore the U.S. Navy nomenclature placards riveted on their sides, the sets, of course, painted battleship gray.

Just then the radio speaker came alive with "Tikal, Tikal, Aviateca aquí", followed by a request for a weather report, "¿Como se mira por allá?". The radioman leaned out the hut and looked up. Picking up the microphone, he reported clear air and good visibility. Thinking the airplane was already inbound, I asked him how far out was it. He said it was still on the ground at Flores, near the edge of the Petén rain forest. The plane wouldn’t leave until there was a good weather report from Tikal.
The radioman expected the plane in fifteen minutes.

Since I wanted a picture of a C-46 landing with its gear and flaps down, I checked the windsock and proceeded down the strip to snap the photo.
One of the locals asked me where I was going, but when I told him, he said the plane was landing from the other end. I pointed out the windsock and was informed the wind was a consideration when it was blowing stronger than usual. Normally the plane would just land and coast to the end of the strip before turning around and coming to a stop. It was then ready for a normal take-off against the wind. This saved unnecessary wear and tear on the brakes and tires...

The customary 'field clearing' flyby was done by the C-46 before turning into the landing pattern. To my pleasant surprise it was 'Lacandón' that would be flying us back to Guatemala City!
And this time 'Lacandón' came with a complete cargo door.
We boarded a half empty aircraft, much to the relief of my wife. Much lighter this time in take-off weight 'Lacandón' sped down the strip. Once airborne I watched the Petén slip away. The smooth sound of the two engines was most comforting.
The return trip wasn’t anything like the first one and we were back in the capital just as the sun was setting.
My former wife swore never to fly like that again; a promise she kept.
I didn’t know it the,n but my connection with 'Lacandón' was just beginning.

I returned to Guatemala several times after that, mostly in search of jungle adventure and the hunt. Some of those flights coursed between Miami and Guatemala City on AVIATECA BAC 1-11 jets; for sure, uneventful. But the trips into the Petén usually started out and ended with an AVIATECA C-46. Sometimes I would board a light airplane in the Petén and continue on to another camp deeper in the forest. But no matter what, whenever I flew AVIATECA in the Petén, it was always in a C-46 named 'Lacandón'!
My last adventure as a civilian to Guatemala and the Petén was in the spring of 1971. There was always something out of the ordinary with a flight on 'Lacandón', but nothing like that first experience; even a cargo door on every flight.

Years later, I returned to Guatemala as a U.S. Army advisor. I went looking for good old dependable 'Lacandón' but gave up quickly when I saw no C-46s on the flight line. AVIATECA personnel informed me that 'los Curtiss' were all gone.
At least I had a few photos.

Since then I have been on many other 'first' flights and have had other memorable events. But that first C-46 flight on 'Lacandón' and the ones that followed are some of my favorite memories.!

By way of the no longer active Latin American Aviation Historical Society (LAAHS) forum I learned of the formal registration of 'Lacandón': TG-ACA.
Up to then I had been on a less formal name-only basis with 'Lacandón'. I was saddened to learn of the fate of 'Lacandón' in May of 1971, but relieved that most of the passengers had survived. (3 crew and 2 pax fatally injured, link below - Webmaster)

I don’t know why people develop an attraction with such machines, nor do I try to explain or rationalize it.
'Lacandón' may be gone but every time I see its photo on my wall, I recall sitting in 'Lacandón', accelerating down the runway and listening to the musical drone of those two 'Pratts' over 'el Petén'!
And it is still the most beautiful C-46 in the world!

C-46 Lacandón TG-ACA



Note from the Webmaster, tailnumber TG-ACA was also assigned to an AVIATECA Convair - both crashed!
C-46 TG-ACA crashdetails on Aviation Safety Network (ASN) - 11may1971
Convair TG-ACA crashdetails on Aviation Safety Network (ASN) - 27apr1977, 0 fatalities

Created 05-Jan-2012,