Central & South American Tours

Above Volcanoes Dead and Alive (Sucked into a live crater)

By Alfred George Buckham

First appeared within The Morning Post of Friday, Jan 12 1934

In the following article Captain Buckham concludes the fascinating story of his 19,000 miles aerial photographic tour of Central and South America.

From deserts and dust storms on the way back to Lima, and thence to steaming Ecuador and Colombia and unbelievable deluges of rain, was but an aeroplane hop.

Along level coasts stretched mangrove swamps where alligators lay piled up, and so indolent in the oven-like heat that only the most drastic measures brought to bear upon them made the brutes scuttle. A very considerable proportion of the yearly quota of 370 inches of rain which comes to the vicinity of Beneventura descended upon us. The shortest possible visit was plainly indicated.

During a very temporary respite from the water cataracting down from the skies, a start for Panama was attempted from the surface of the river. But the air was dead, the water was dead, not a tiny ripple disturbed its calm, until the seaplane broke it. Ten times we raised pandemonium in that dead place, but nothing happened except discomfort. The water rushed past the cabin windows, over the roof; the pontoons dug deeper and deeper into the river, and streams poured in upon the pilot’s head. Seventy gallons of petrol were jettisoned and a fresh effort made. The twelfth nearly proving the last, when a half-submerged tree trunk was missed by mere inches.

Rolling wildly to and fro to induce a rocking motion on the craft, and yearning for a wave or two to bump her off, we gradually took the air at the thirteenth attempt. Once clear of the water we headed out to sea at over one hundred miles an hour bound for Panama, four hundred miles away, evading en route some awe-inspiring storms, and seeing at one time four rainbows in the sky and a water-spout as near as one could wish it to be.

The elements were not kind through the greater part of Central America. Thunderstorms raged in the distance, we saw nothing of their majesty, and flew blind for many miles in rolling clouds high above the mountain ranges and jungle until Lake Nicaragua was reached. Here the atmospheric conditions were wholly sublime in their grandeur. Broken clouds floating above and. below, great cumuli towering three miles from base to shining crowns; three distinct electric storms raising an uproar that quieted our engine, and fierce rain squalls continually sweeping across and enveloping the aeroplane in a sheet of water that blotted every thing out.

Nearby, the majestic volcano Momotombo, the pride of Nicaragua, poured out a dense column of smoke; while down its side a black stream of ashes descended to the plain. As if resentful of being photographed, the volcano suddenly cast a cloud of choking, sulphurous gas upon us, an unpleasant experience which engendered greater caution in the next approach.

Over Guatemala very little was seen of its dense jungles and wild mountains owing to the presence of thick cloud; but luckily her most famous volcanoes, excepting San Salvador, stood clear. Among others, Santa Maria presented an awe-inspiring subject for the camera, a recent eruption having torn away a great part of the mountain, thus forming a new crater and destroying with an avalanche of rock and lava a native village near its base. Flying low over that mysterious and almost unexplored borderland between Guatemala and South Mexico, where the remains of splendid Maya cities lie buried in dense forests, we headed for Vera Cruz, on the Mexican Gulf. The following day brought the oil-port of Tampico into view. The airport was situated well to the rear of the city, and here we landed, hiring a car to take us into the town.

A high ridge of mountains separates Tampico from Mexico City, but they were invisible when we crossed them, flying blind for three and a half miles up through dense clouds which extended still higher. Both the city and the surrounding country provide countless pictures for an aerial photographer. I had arrived there by the aeroplane carrying air mail, and now the difficulty presented itself of finding another machine and pilot for flights into the interior. More than twenty aeroplanes and pilots had helped me thus far, but my good fortune seemed to have petered out. At last an American amateur pilot came to the rescue, and we were soon flying over the many active and dead volcanoes mostly the latter, which surround the elevated plain on which stands Mexico City. In hidden recesses among the mountains photographs were taken of the tiny villages occupied by Zapotec Indians, descendants of the ancient Aztecs, living there as in the days of Montezuma.

Repeated attempts were made to reach the crater of Pococatepetl (sometimes spelt Popocatepetl), the magnificent, snow-crowned volcano which lifts its head more than three and a half miles above sea level. Day after day storms and clouds guarded the approach. Every morning an opportunity was anxiously looked for, and at last it came the splendid mountain stood out clear and distinct with a trail of vapour issuing from its shapely cone.

Flying in the teeth of a strong wind, and avoiding the stream of smoke and sulphurous gases blowing out, we approached from the leeward side and passed right across the crater at 18,500 feet. When we started the temperature on the ground was 83 degrees F. in the shade; above the top of Pococatepetl it had fallen to 20 degrees below zero. The pilot indicated his willingness to fly inside the crater, and with this idea in view we came up against the wind again and passed over the lip with about twenty feet to spare.

Almost at once the aeroplane dropped about two hundred feet, being carried down apparently by a current of cold air which, blowing across the vast amphitheatre three-quarters of a mile wide, struck the steep inner wall of the crater and streamed downward beneath the heated and lighter currents uprising. The passage across abounded in air pockets (so-called) and cross currents, which caused the aeroplane to proceed in a most uncertain manner. Beneath us the circular lake of boiling lava emitted numerous spouts of smoke and steam, whilst round its edge played occasional fires which, suddenly springing up and flickering awhile, as suddenly disappeared.

In that thin air height was regained very slowly, and seeing before us the rapidly approaching crater wall on the farther side, it seemed somewhat doubtful if we should surmount it. But like most troubles ahead its appearance was unduly forbidding, for we scrambled out with several feet of clearance, receiving a final blast of wind sweeping up the mountain side. She lifted and wavered for long seconds and then went forward. A few weeks later the volcano was alarmingly active, causing considerable damage in its vicinity.

The sky trail was now practically finished; nothing more remained to do than to cross the mountains back to Tampico, and continue round the Gulf of Mexico into Texas and so to New York, where anxious inquiries elicited the glad news that the various parcels of ex­posed plates, dispatched by steamer from several ports along the journey, were safely arrived.

Those heavy and fragile glass plates were a constant source of anxiety and a weighty burden all the way. They were chosen in­stead of the much lighter film because of their greater dependability under certain conditions of atmosphere and temperature. Film is apt to be spoilt by electrical markings when used in hot, dry climates. Every exposure was made through a filter, increasing the normal period of exposure about four times. The cameras employed were an old wooden 4 in. by 5 in., which had seen service since the early days of the War, and a 6½ in. by 4¾ in. focal plane folding camera such as is regularly used by Press photographers. The leather bellows were protected on each side by stout sheets of aluminum plate, which prevented them from being torn away by the wind. These also served to provide additional rigidity.

Although it is possible, under favourable conditions, both to photograph and pilot at the same time.  Indeed the aeroplane may often be left to follow its own devices my own inadequate skill as a pilot would have stood me in poor stead under some of the conditions encountered. There was one occasion, for in­stance, when, owing to the jerking of the aero­plane, my face was bruised and cut by camera blows whilst trying to capture a wildly elusive subject. Standing in the cockpit, with camera pressed closely against my face, the pilot followed directions and manoeuvred for position.

Including the journey out from New York and back again, the quest for camera pictures had carried me some 30,000 miles.

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