Dame Margaret Anstee has travelled widely around Bolivia ever since she first went there in 1960, as UN head of mission, and fell in love with the country. She was prompted to write this piece after reading a feature in the FT Weekend Magazine documenting the decline of Bolivia’s former national carrier LAB – a once-proud airline in whose planes she had criss-crossed the land.
In the 1960s, when I headed the UN’s programmes of assistance in Bolivia, I crossed and recrossed that vast, and then mainly roadless, country in Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano’s fleet of DC3s. That doughty little aircraft was the equivalent of the village bus, landing on grassy airstrips, often scattering cattle before it. Its intrepid and highly experienced pilots possessed an incomparable knowledge of the treacherous peaks and passes of the high Andes and every flight was an adventure.
The scenes of LAB staff turning up for non-existent work (“We regret to announce”, August 10/11) while the airline’s planes rot in the hangars are especially distressing for those of us who knew LAB in its glory days. Reputed to have been the first Latin American airline when it was created in 1924, for four decades it also held the best safety record on the continent until, on a stormy night in March 1963, tragedy struck.
LAB’s DC6, flying from Santiago to La Paz, disappeared. One of my experts was on board. Next day, LAB invited me to join the search for the missing plane and its passengers and we boarded a C47, the cargo version of the DC3. Someone had thoughtfully fitted it with seats but, less thoughtfully, had omitted to fix them to the floor. There was also a defective lock on the back door of the plane. Thus, as the plane took off we all began to slide inexorably back towards the widening gulf between us and the Altiplano. One crew member, with another one to hang on to him, managed to drag the door shut and secure it with a rope. During the many take-offs during the next two days this became standard procedure as we scoured the mountains between Bolivia and Peru, until, in Tacna, where we spent the night, I persuaded the pilot that it might be a good idea to secure the door before we took off. By then we were fast friends and I was sitting in the cockpit behind him.
Next morning we finally spied the wreckage of the DC6, scattered over the slopes of Mount Tacora at an altitude of 16,000ft. We landed at the desolate Altiplano village of Charaña, where the bodies were brought, placed in rough wooden coffins and flown to La Paz. Near the end of that exhausting day I identified my unfortunate colleague but could not accompany his body to La Paz as all the planes were full of corpses. Instead I spent a bitterly cold night clanking down the cordillera in a dilapidated autocarril, an ancient car fitted with grooved wheels and given a new lease of life on the railway. My companions were the consuls of the United States and Ireland, in search of their own missing nationals. Most providentially, the Irishman was well-padded and so, squeezed tightly together, we survived temperatures well below zero through sheer body heat and frequent swigs of Irish whiskey, courtesy of the same gentleman.
Next day I was at the airport with a hearse and the whole UN mission to collect the coffin. To my horror it contained a different person: an overzealous American consul in Chile had decided that, as one of the few Europeans on board, my colleague must be the US citizen he had been instructed to recover and had had his coffin taken to Arica for shipment to the US.
Once again I boarded a C47, this time without seats, and flew to Arica, sweltering in late summer heat. I came back with the right corpse, in one of three coffins lashed to the floor beside me. A week had gone by since the accident, the stench was overwhelming and a violent storm tossed our plane mercilessly across the cordillera. As night fell, a strange yellowish light flickered over the Altiplano. It was an apocalyptic experience.
There were many other adventures with LAB during the half century I have known Bolivia. In sifting these recollections, the overwhelming impression that remains with me is of the daring, the determination and the sheer undaunted courage of LAB’s pilots. These are the same qualities shown by the men who doggedly turn up every day in a desperate attempt to resuscitate a pioneer airline that should never have been allowed to suffer its present ignominious fate.