Never Again

Endangered in the Andes

September 1, 2010

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1960s living in the Peruvian Andes, where a small group was working hard to establish a wildlife refuge for the endangered vicuña—a wild cousin of the llama and alpaca—which live in the high plains of the towering mountain chain.

Poachers were taking a toll on the vicuña, and it was critical to find a remote and expansive habitat to sustain the animals, prized for their soft wool, long recognized as the world’s best. Our headquarters was at 13,000 feet msl, a high elevation, but well below the tops of the surrounding 16,000-foot peaks. I was 25 years old, field coordinator for the project, and I believed an aerial survey was needed for an accurate wildlife count and a better understanding of the area.

I was a student pilot with a few dozen hours of flying time. The airplane I found for the survey was a Cessna 150 owned by a flying club and used to lift tourists high above the Nazca Lines, ancient drawings in the desert that can only be fully appreciated from the air. We would be pushing the 100-horsepower airplane’s limits by taking it to such a high altitude.

I asked a pilot at the flying club, Juan, if he had ever flown over the high plains of the Andes, and when he said that he had, I offered to hire him to make another trip for the survey. He agreed.

It was a beautiful October day, springtime in the Southern Hemisphere, when we took off from Nazca and climbed before heading into the mountains. Juan was a flight instructor and allowed me to fly from the left seat. As we approached the foothills of the Andes, I turned the controls over to Juan and he began to maneuver the Cessna 150 toward our destination.

It took a couple of hours to make it up to 14,000 feet, the Cessna 150’s service ceiling, but looking at the ground we didn’t seem that high since we were only 1,000 feet above my headquarters. I was scanning the area below, and Juan soon let me know all was not well. He said our airplane’s flight controls weren’t responding in a normal manner and he shouted over the laboring engine noise, “Estamos en peril!” (“We’re in peril!”). I said we could make an emergency landing on the road in front of my headquarters. But it was too rough and bumpy to safely land, so we tried instead to return to Nazca.

We flew to the end of the valley and made a 180-degree turn. Juan tried his best to get the laboring airplane to climb above the rising terrain in our path. By this time, we were perpendicular to the road and a large erosion ditch that ran parallel to it.

The stall warning alarm blared out imminent danger as our Cessna 150 neared impact with the rough ground. It was a terrifying and sickening sound.

The landscape on the high plains is strewn with rocks and boulders—definitely not the kind of area anyone would choose for an off-field landing. Upon impact, we hit the ground with the yoke full aft and the nose high, but the airplane immediately flipped upside down and began skidding on its back. The screeching sound of metal scraping the rocky ground made a horrible noise as we careened along. Suddenly, the empennage hit the ditch wall. The tail section absorbed much of the impact and crumpled, while the body of the airplane collapsed into the bottom of the ditch. All movement and noise stopped, and I expected to wake up dead.

Dust filled the cockpit, and then cleared. All was quiet. Realizing I was still alive, I jerked my seat belt off and promptly fell onto the bottom of the wing. I turned to check on Juan and saw blood. During our flight, Juan had loosened his seat belt, and on impact he hit his face on the instrument panel, which put a large gash over his eye. He regained consciousness and began to move, ever so slowly. I helped lower him down and pulled him from the wreckage.

In a state of shock, Juan crawled back into the cockpit, grabbed the mic and began yelling, “Mayday! Mayday!” He didn’t realize that the radio’s antenna was imbedded in the moist ground. I turned off the electrical master switch. Our wing tanks had not ruptured and we lost no fuel during the crash.

Juan and I stumbled, arm in arm, to my headquarters where we met a surprised group of game wardens who had seen the crash and couldn’t believe we were alive. We couldn’t, either. I administered first aid to Juan’s head wound and we rested until some surveyors came by to see why the airplane they had seen enter the valley hadn’t departed. They offered us a ride down the mountain in the back of their pickup, and it was a long, uncomfortable, dusty two-hour trip.

I had a new appreciation for density altitude.

Despite the fact that Juan was the pilot in command, I was a student pilot with enough knowledge that I should have known better than to take an aircraft into high terrain that exceeded its capabilities. I’m fortunate to have lived another day. My only physical injury was a bruised ear.

The Peace Corps doctor checked me over and found me “sound of body, but weak of mind.” He threatened to send me home if I allowed anything else like this to happen. Fortunately, I was able to fulfill my contract, complete my work, and return home safely.

Stan Taft logged about 80 hours as a student pilot in the 1960s and flew many more hours as a wildlife biologist, but never got an FAA rating. The Peruvian wildlife preserve he helped establish is still in operation with a thriving vicuña population.