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Mangrove Swamp Adventure

August 1966          (2008 update by reader that was part of the search team)

High over the Panama jungle one August afternoon flew a twin engine plane with seven people aboard. The six passengers had been surveying for a possible sea-level canal across the Darien Province of Panama. They were tired and very anxious to get back to Panama City. Then one engine sputtered and quit. They became alarmed but relaxed when they noticed the plane was holding altitude. A small jungle airfield was not far away. The passengers saw the airstrip and they felt sure there would be a safe landing. Soon the plane was past it and the passengers wanted to know what was going on. The pilot said, "I am going to fly to Panama City."

The passengers begged him to land and he refused. The pilot noticing the concern of the passengers and wanting to get the plane back to Panama City for repairs, tried to start the dead engine. With all hopeful eyes fixed on the prop, it turned over a few times. Suddenly the other engine stopped. Down they went into the mangrove swamp.

Later in the afternoon a report went out that a twin engine plane was missing. There were two radios on board with direct connection to the home office and an air traffic control tower. The weather was clear. No one heard any distress call. Pilots in other planes flew over jungle airfields in the area and did not see the missing plane.

The search went on for five days when one pilot saw something shinning for a moment in the mangrove swamp. He circled around again, hoping to get another glimpse of whatever it was he saw. When he was over the spot, the pilot saw the missing plane hidden under the jungle trees.

Within minutes, the U.S. Air Force flew a rescue party in by helicopter. The passengers were badly broken up and hungry, but still alive. After crashing, the pilot stepped out of the plane and sank in the muddy swamp. He stuck in the mud for three days until he died. The passengers were unable to help because of their broken bones and they feared the same fate.

The pilot was trying to save the company money by flying the plane back to Panama City. If he landed at a jungle airfield, the cost of repairs would skyrocket. Men, tools, and parts would have to be flown to the plane.

Investigators later cut a trail from the Pacific Ocean to the plane. They found the company did minimum maintenance on their planes.

The above account was printed in Panama newspapers.

   

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Two years later

George Stone was a pilot and wanted the starters, generators and interments off the crashed plane. I offered to help with the project. I said, "we need a detailed chart and none are available."

In George’s two passenger plane, we flew over the crash and I took pictures of the jungle from the Pacific Ocean to where the plane was, about a quarter of a mile inland, then took pictures along the coast. Back home I used the pictures to make a map of the coastline.

George and I loaded his jeep with tools, an outboard engine and drove to the end of the Pan American Highway. At the town of Chepo, on the Bayano River, we inquired about renting a dugout canoe. We were shown a heavy 30-foot canoe that was high and dry. I asked, "how do you get it to deep water?"

The lady replied with a smile, "it will be afloat in about two hours, when the tide comes in." The tide is 17 feet.

Not wanting to show our stupidity, we hoped she was right because we were fifteen miles from the ocean. We put the outboard motor on the stern and loaded the supplies. By this time the water was lapping around the canoe.

As we motored down the Bayano River, the jungle hugged the river banks. Thousands of birds in the tall trees paid no attention to us. The most common bird was the duck bird. It swims under water for its food and then sits on a branch drying its wings. Now and then we saw an Indian house.

The canoe, being hand carved from a single tree, is very narrow. We soon came to the mouth of the river and the Pacific Ocean. The weather was perfect and we made good time motoring along the coast. We took a wave over the side now and then, a little bailing took care of that.

The day was coming to an end and we wanted to go ashore before dark and before the tide went out. With a 17-foot tide, the mud flats are exposed for a mile or more from shore at low tide. Mangrove trees, mud flats, and drastic tides make movement almost impossible. From out boat, we picked a location on shore that looked like a good place to camp and started motoring toward in, when, suddenly we fell forward with a jolt. We hit bottom and we were still a quarter of a mile out. I got out with the idea of pushing the boat to shore. That idea ended when I sank up to my knees in mud. Getting back in, I asked George what he would like to do. Then the 3-inches of the water suddenly disappeared, which ended the choices. We could not move from our location until the next tide. It was now dark, we ate something, slept in the bottom of the canoe to wait for the incoming tide. Time was 7 PM.

At 11:30 PM a breaker came rolling in and we were suddenly afloat. The water does not slowly rise, it comes and goes in waves. We hurriedly put our sleeping gear back in plastic bags. Under a full moon and glass smooth water, we motored out to deeper water, then along the coast.  At night everything looks alike. For landmarks we used mountain tops that were clearly visible under the moonlit sky. When we were opposite the mountain where we think the plane is located, we headed toward shore. In a short time we hit bottom again and the mangrove trees were a long ways off. We decided we went too far down the coast. Back to deep water and back up the coast a little and turned in again. This time the tide was higher and we could motor all the way to the jungle. When we neared shore, I recognized a clump of trees from my photos that made a small island. From there we motored to another clump of island trees that would put us opposite the crashed plane. George said, "lets tie-up to this tree for the night."

I held the flashlight on the tree and noticed red paint. An earlier ground party marked a trail from this tree to the plane. It was 2:30 in the morning and we found the painted tree, we couldn’t believe it. We did not expect to find it in the daylight and were planning on making our own trail.

We decided to sleep in the bottom of the canoe till daylight. Right now there is nothing but water and mangrove trees. At low tide there will be nothing but mud and mangrove trees. Soon the mosquitoes found us, then the sand flies which bite and leave one bleeding. After fighting with them for a long time, I gave up and could feel them crawling over my face. I may have had some sleep that night, I don’t know. When the sun cam up I saw all kinds of bugs crawling over the blanket, some I have never seen before.

We cooked breakfast over our portable stove, hung blankets up to dry and loaded knapsacks with tools. George asked, "how deep is the water hers?"

I didn’t know but said, "up to your knees."

George put the knapsack on and jumped in and the water came up to his chest. He said, "I thought you said it was up to my knees?"

I said, "I was wrong."

We headed inland with water up to chest, climbing over mangrove roots and crawling under roots that were too high to climb over. The trees grow very close together. The roots grow from the side of the tree and cross the roots of other trees creating a tangled mess. The water became shallow and the mangrove roots became more open the further inland we went. In time, we were at the plane on dry ground. The trees near the plane were cut down by the Air Force rescue party. Looking at the jungle with its high overhanging trees, it was amazing that anyone lived in the crash or they were found. We spent the day removing parts, making several trips to the dugout canoe.

Before dark and before low tide, we motored out to deep water and anchored for the night. About 3 AM we headed back home, arriving at the mouth of the Bayano River at daylight.

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