The Chicken Plane

2 03 2009

suriname-airways-mw

            “Wait, which way is it to Duty Free?!”         (Somewhere in the Amazon)

 

In many parts of the world there are what are affectionately called ‘chicken buses’. Affectionately, that is, to anyone who has never had to use one. These rickety old school buses have no suspension, air conditioning or leg room, are filled to bursting with people and packages, travel on unpaved roads…and often also carry produce, like live chickens. Travellers who use chicken buses rave about the experience, then silently mutter that next time they’ll walk.

 

I once had the pleasure of using the aeronautical equivalent – the chicken plane.

 

There are few options when it comes to reaching the interior of a country almost entirely covered with thick jungle. Roads rarely stretch beyond the coast or major cities and waterways are often not big enough to allow large vessels. Unless you fancy dodging anacondas on foot, that leaves only flying.

 

The domestic airport was nestled in a residential neighbourhood and buzzed with the sound of propellers. We carried our own bags from the small terminal building and clambered up the three steps into the rear of the unbearably hot Twin Otter.

 

Half the seats had been removed and in their place were strapped boxes of food, supplies and engine parts, an outboard motor…and yes, a crate of live chickens. The pilot – his white epauletted shirt as transparent from perspiration as a wet t-shirt contestant at an aviation convention – told us where to stow our small packs and where to sit to properly distribute the weight evenly around the compact cabin. Mopping his brow with a towel, he pulled shut the door and headed for the cockpit. The engines roared into life and we bounced down the runway and into the hot sky.

 

Despite the loud throb of the engines, the chickens could be heard squawking their protest at their extraordinary rendition to an unknown dinner table deep in the Amazonian jungle.

 

For over an hour we watched an impenetrable carpet of jungle slip by through the windows…and through a rather large hole at the base of door! We flew over a few winding rivers and were thrown around by violent thermals. Finally, with ears popping, we descended towards the green canopy. Unable to see directly ahead, we had no idea of our destination. We dropped lower and lower until our wheels licked the tree tops. A loud claxon screamed the stall-warning as we cleared the edge of the tree line and suddenly thumped onto a rough grass strip of burned stalks.

 

The engines were thrown into reverse as we raced over the rough ground before performing a U-turn at the end of the runway and stopping. The pilot walked quickly down the aisle and opened the back door. Shouting over the roar of the engines, he asked us to help unload as he couldn’t turn the engines off in case they didn’t start again.

 

Obediently, we hurriedly unloaded. Backpacks, boxes, engines, spare parts…and yes, the chickens. We carried them off the strip and over to the edge of the trees, all the while being showered by bits of burned grass in the prop-wash. The pilot pulled the door closed with a bang, revved the engines and in the blink of an eye was gone.

 

We looked around. There was nothing but a small shack and a handful of locals returning to their unseen villages with the cargo we’d unloaded. The hum of the plane quickly disappeared replaced by the rush of a river and the sound of the jungle which pressed in on all sides. We looked at each other wondering if it was too late to light a signal fire and have the aircraft return.  

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

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