- BARBARA SHERMAN / REGAL COURIER
ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME ADVENTURE — Roland Clark holds a model of the Piper Super Cub given to him after he made his astonishing 3,326 nautical-mile trip from Georgia to Brazil. He delivered the plane without a scratch on it. Behind him on the wall of his living room is a painting of the Amazon River in Brazil that he picked up.
Pilot’s Amazon Adventure is a Tale Worth Telling
Roland Clark flies a float plane solo through unchartered territory from Florida to Brazil
BY BARBARA SHERMAN
The Regal Courier, Apr 30, 2009,
BARBARA SHERMAN / REGAL COURIER
“PLANE IN FORCED LANDING – PILOT SAFE” screams the headline in the Nov. 13, 1972, issue of the Express newspaper in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
The story begins, “Police, Coast Guard and Fire Services were put on alert yesterday to stand by to carry out search and rescue operations for a plane and its pilot.
“The plane, an amphibian, made a forced landing off Cocorite – after running out of fuel.”
Roland Clark, a longtime Summerfield resident, was the pilot of that plane and keeps a copy of the newspaper, which gives him a good laugh because he landed the plane exactly where he intended.
The “forced landing” was part of a solo trip he made from Savannah, Ga., to Portel, Brazil, to deliver the float plane to a Georgia Pacific veneer mill, located about 160 miles from the mouth of the Amazon River. Clark kept a meticulous log, which his niece typed and bound for him for a birthday one year.
Clark’s adventures and close calls on that trip rival any action-adventure movie or piloting exploits that have been in the news recently.
Clark, who turned 90 on April 28, was born in the Midwest and moved to Salem when he was a sophomore in high school. He had his private pilot’s license when World War II broke out and served in the Navy and Air Force, flying in China, Burma and India.
Afater the war, Clark started flying for Flight Craft at the Portland airport and got the chance to fly two Georgia Pacific executives to San Francisco, which led to a job offer.
He worked for GP for 25 years until he retired at age 65, and he became their chief pilot and director of flight operations. Clark had extensive experience flying float planes and because the Piper Super Cub was needed in a hurry in Brazil, there wasn’t time to ship it by barge.
So Clark loaded up the plane with emergency gear and a portable 90-channel VHA transceiver and took off on Election Day, Nov. 7, 1972.
He made a couple stops in Florida before heading out.
“For a buck they gave me another plastic Jeri can, bringing my total ‘carry-on’ fuel to 15 gallons,” Clark wrote. “They explained that on the extreme eastern tip of the (Dominican Republic), there is a lake, that by landing there you can pour the cans of fuel into tanks, start up again and go – no customs, no nothing. Hope I don’t get shot at, as they are a little touchy in the Dominican Republic… “
Later, Clark found customs easy at Bimini and learned to be more careful with his charts “as one flew out through an open window.” He flew on to Nassau, noting, “It is mandatory as far as I am concerned that I have a flight plan. If something should go amiss, I want to be missed by somebody.”
Clark flew to Great Exhuma Island over many small islands. “They look like a jade necklace laid out in the sea,” he wrote, adding that he enjoyed a dinner of “very tasty” turtle steak with Bermuda locals.
The next destination was South Caicos Island, where “local lobster grow to a length of 5 feet,” he wrote. “Only the tail is eaten, as they have no claws like northeastern lobster. A large lobster here sells for 80 cents.”
• • •
Friday, Nov. 10, Clark departed South Caicos for his longest leg over water, noting in his log that although the course was 130 degrees, “I have chickened out and am flying at 140 degrees in order to hit the northern coast of Haiti and the Dominican Republic sooner…
“This is the most unstable airplane I have ever flown. It needs constant pressure on the controls. It cannot be released and maintain a wings-level altitude like most other airplanes… My lake of destination is getting closer. I feel like a grasshopper or gun-runner landing on a remote lake, dumping my three cans of fluel in the tanks, then taking off without checking in with customs authorities.”
He landed in the 2-foot-deep lake, refueled and took off toward San Juan, landing on the water by a small airport.
“Right next door is the largest brothel in San Juan,” Clark wrote. “All the girls are Spanish, and according to Bill, the pilot, are very reasonable – $15 plus $6 for the room. I guess I’m not the daring type, so I returned to the airport, fortunately between (rain) showers.
“I was really shook when the people here told me how lucky I was on that lake back in the Dominican Republic. They said that even flying over the island that P51s had intercepted one of them, fired shots across the bow and forced then to land, undergo a severe personal search, as well as have the plane searched, and were detained for two days. They just couldn’t understand why I escaped detection.”
• • •
On Saturday, Nov. 11, Clark filed a flight plan for St. Thomas, one hour away.
“Next setback was that the tide was out, and the airplane was on dry beach rocks. Finally got three guys to help and departed San Juan at 7:41… Could only get as far as St. Thomas (100 miles). Lucky because the weather went to hell.
“Departed for St. Martin at 2:20 p.m. Talked to the Antilles Airline pilots, picked their brains for good landing spots, filled up with gas (can routine, of course) and got soaked. I don’t think my clothes or shoes have been dry since leaving Miami.”
Thunderstorms had a bad effect on the ADF. “Invariably the damn thing will point to electrical disturbances instead of the station,” Clark wrote.
He flew over a string of islands and finally landed at St. Martin.
“This morning I had come 1,741 nautical miles from Savannah,” Clark wrote. “Before leaving St. Martin, there are 1,585 nautical miles to Portel…”
He flew all day, stopping at St. Lucia and then at Trinidad, where he found a seaplane base that was shown on the chart.
“As I was leaving the dock at about 5:45, the police arrived,” Clark wrote. “I had called and flown over the tower to say that I was a seaplane and could not land at or near the airport (no water anywhere except the harbor). They simply could not understand and kept clearing me to land on the runway. So I shut off the radio and landed on the water.
“There were four uniformed police and, I learned later, eight plainclothesmen. Everyone just refused to believe that the airplane could not land at the airport.”
• • •
On Monday, Nov. 13, Clark wrote, “After breakfast I walked into the lobby to get a roll of film. The newspapers are all English, and I saw where some dumb pilot had a forced landing near Cocorite Beach, so I bought a paper, and there I was. Huge headlines in a paper circulated in a city of a million people.
“My first reaction was to get my hands on some person’s throat. Then I began to think it was funny. The sad part is that if UPI or the Associated Press picked it up, my wife might see it and collect my insurance…
“Boy, oh boy! These clothes of mine are a mess. My ‘uniform’ was in the beginning a fairly nice pair of baby blue double knits and a yellow knit shirt. Both are full of snags, and the threads are hanging out everywhere. Oil is in evidence and lots of just plain old dirt. My shirt stinks, and what’s more, I can’t wash it out no matter how much I scrub it.”
Clark had to leave Trinidad by 12:30 p.m. or not fly that day, because he had to travel 4 ½ hours to get to the next point of civilization at Georgetown.
“It gets dark at 6, and in the tropics the sun doesn’t mess around,” he wrote. “It drops below the horizon like a lead balloon at 6, and it’s dark.”
Clark took off and flew along the east coast of Venezuela and was glad to see rivers in case he had to land to refuel or had engine problems.
“I must say that to this point, the airplane has performed perfectly,” he wrote. “It has done everything that has been asked of it. Airplanes have their own personalities. I think we understand one another. 2495 Papa just likes to have attention… (But) while flying, I am prisoner in a small area about 24 inches by 24 inches.”
Clarklanded outside Georgetown, which was considered extremely unsafe at that time, and went through customs and other procedures.
“Will be glad to get out of Guyana because of the nervous, unsafe feeling that is so prevalent,” Clark wrote. “The country is a powder keg.”
He headed for Zandery in Surinam, encountered more thunderstorms and couldn’t find a place to land – there was no beach, and the tide was going out. And then he saw an 8-foot-tall piling and a 3-foot piling close to shore.
“I got my lasso ready and made several passes at it but couldn’t get a line on it… ” he wrote. “Right next to this pile on the shore of the river was a large city park. This park must have had 200 to 300 people watching with more coming all the time. Traffic was jammed. Every time I would make a toss at the pile, I would miss, then everyone would laugh and clap. I guess they must be hard up for entertainment. Then I felt a moral obligation to all those people to snag the post, by damn, and show them I could do it.
“I would have too if it hadn’t been for a couple of black boys getting into the act. Here they came in a rowboat and right into the spotlight. One picked my line out of the water while the other held on to the pile for dear life because of the swift water, and they secured the airplane with much cheering and applause from the gallery.”
Clark went through his usual “battle of fuel, customs and immigration” before getting to his hotel, where a local newspaper reporter wanted to interview him about his landing.
“Would like to see that they write tomorrow, however, it would be all Dutch to me (pun)… ” Clark wrote. “The whole hotel thinks I’m a celebrity.”
• • •
On Wednesday, Nov. 15, Clark planned to pull “another sneaky” and land somewhere in French Guyana, refuel the airplane and head on to Amapa, Brazil.
“It’s the only way I can do it,” he wrote. “My money is about gone, and I can’t afford another six hours of monkey business hiring cabs, paying customs and going through all the rigamarole again.”
The tide had come in, so Clark put on swimming trunks and swam back and forth to the airplane with the fuel and baggage. Once in the air, he needed to be at least at 5,000 feet for the extra range, but navigating was hard because the terrain features were partially obscured. He flew over the Awa River, which is the border between Surinan and French Guyana.
After that “there are no rivers or water in sight ahead,” Clark wrote. “Just changed heading to get back toward the coast. There is no place to go right here if the engine should quit. Makes me nervous.
“3:20. Stopped in a small side river just before leaving French Guyana to pour in my gas. Tied the airplane to a big lily pad, poured the fuel, took a picture and departed. Deathly quiet out there in the middle of that jungle. Hate to think what would have happened if the airplane refused to start. The name of the river for the record was the Approuague.”
Clark arrived over Amapa at 5:26 p.m. with a 45-minute reserve of fuel.
“The airport is dirt, the town very small, and there is no lake by the airport as shown on the chart,” he wrote.
The closest lake was about 10 miles away through the jungle so Clark landed in a small river with a swift current and steep banks covered with slime. As he taxied, all the people of the village watched him.
“No smiles and do not return what I consider to be a friendly wave,” Clark wrote.
About 25 to 30 natives helped secure the plane, but “nobody in the whole bloomin’ mob could speak English.”
The town mayor drove Clark a few blocks to the home of a schoolteacher, “who, glory be, spoke right passable English.”
“It seems I have a problem,” Clark wrote. “First, I goofed in that when I copied the port of entry for Brazil (aircraft are required to stop at the first available), instead of writing Macapa, it came out Amapa, so – no customs, no nuthin! No fuel at the airport, and before long, no water in the river.
“I had always been under the assumption that there was no tide at the Equator. Not so. The fluctuation here at Amapa is tremendous.”
Clark learned from the school teacher that high tide would be at 2 a.m. and not again until 2 p.m. the next day.
A young fellow stayed with the plane all night, laying out the line as the river receded and hauling it back in when the river started to rise.
“Within a span of 20 minutes, the river rose from nothing to 12 feet,” Clark wrote “He did a fine job.”
• • •
On Thursday, Nov. 16, Clark broke the seal on his gallon of water. “By damn, it was for emergencies, and I figured this was one,” he wrote. “I most certainly would not drink the local water, what with the wells and raw sewage all in the same areas.
“Pouring all the fuel into the airplane from the six cans was torture. One foot is carrying all the weight on a 1-inch pipe, and I am barefooted because of the slime and goo. It even hurts when I am wearing my tennies.”
At 1:30 p.m., he walked to the plane, which was still sitting at the bottom of the slimy ditch.
“I’m wondering if the water will ever show up here again,” Clark wrote. “Suddenly here it comes. It is beyond description. Like a tidal wave pouring furiously through that ditch, hurling mud in the air, accompanied by a roaring sound that is awesome… (see video – Pororoca)
“As the ditch now becomes a small river, little old 95 Papa comes right up to the bank at our feet. About 20 kids hold it while I strap in Paulo (the school teacher, who wanted a ride). My guard looses the lines, beats them in the muddy water to clean them (does a good job, too) and I gave him $3 U.S.… The kid was elated.”
Clark decided to ride with the current for a ways before turning around to take off.
“The airplane was a little more sluggish on takeoff with another passenger, which I expected,” he wrote. “Just as the airplane broke water, coming around the bend there, looming around in front of us is a huge ocean-going ship coming down current like a bat out of hell. What a thrill.
“Could not stop in time so kept going. Being careful to monitor indicated air speed, I was able to keep little 95 Papa at 45 mph, climb enough to bank around that ship’s mast on one side and palm trees on the other. I about shit but made it OK. Paulo enjoyed the whole thing – thought it was great. That (oil-exploration ship, as he learned later) ship consumed the whole river.”
The flight took one hour and 45 minutes to Macapa, “a pretty little town located right on the Equator.” It was located on the left arm of the Amazon with a seawall 12 feet in height with a shallow beach in front of the seawall.
“The problem is the very large waves and the breakers and surf,” Clark wrote. “Checked the waves on a pass at a likely spot and decided that I had, in my seaplane operation many years ago, landed on waves that large…
“Have a steady 20-knot wind with white caps. The first wave was kind of a jolt but nothing too serious. This little airplane, with flaps, can touch down at 35 mph. About 100 yards from the beach, we ran aground, so turned into the wind and shut down in a foot of water.”
A crowd of 100 people came immediately, and Paulo stood guard while Clark walked to customs. He had planned to fly directly to Portel, where the mill was located but was told he might have to go to Belem first, which was 100 miles farther.
“I have had no contact with my company or my wife since San Juan,” Clark wrote. “Today I will call the company at Belem and have them tell all that I am safe, alive and kicking. I know my wife is frantic with worry.”
Later, Clark wrote, “The wind had not reached its full velocity when I departed Macapa at 9:52. I dumped my one remaining can of fuel into the tanks, giving me a total of five hours fuel for a 3 ½ hour flight. According to the Air Force, 95 Papa was the first float plane ever to land in the Amazon waters of Macapa.
“Little 95 Papa performed like a champ. Engine ran smooth at all times and never missed a beat. It started easily every time (important for getting up and away quickly). As a result, I did not put a scratch on the airplane … Sure wish it were my very own, because I have grown to love the little jewel. We certainly understand each other…”
After 2 ¼ hours of flying, Clark saw the right arm of the Amazon ight over the plane’s nose.
“It is home for 95 Papa,” he wrote. “Seems like I have been away from home for months. The first scheduled flight to Portland is Sunday… Should be home for Thanksgiving and possibly snow.”
On Saturday, Nov. 18, Clark wrote that he enjoyed meeting old friends and walking through the “camp” where eight to 10 families lived, recalling those who were no longer there and their “pets” – boa constrictors, anacondas, a mischievous koda munda, oceleots, tapers, an anteater, a pony and Charlie Brown the little dog.
On Sunday he went up the Amazon with two friends in boats.
“We went into some of the most exotic and vivid channels I have ever seen, narrow ones in which the matted jungle growth came together overhead like tunnels,” Clark wrote. “Beautiful flowers, including wild orchids, large lily pads. Beautiful butterflies of iridescent hues, with a wing span of 6 inches. Colorful parrots and the sound of distant howler monkeys.
“All this seemed unreal. I have never experienced anything like it before. I am completely drained and relaxed. The sense of relief that the flight was over, the problems that were never the same, the challenge of such an undertaking, even the excitement that the whole thing presented, made me realize that I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity for anything. I’m glad I was lucky enough to have been the one to do it.”
Clark’s wife Helen, who was the love of his life, died six years ago after “only” 64 years of marriage, and ironically, she was afraid of flying.
“My Helen didn’t like to fly,” Clark said. “She was a little chicken.”