Tales from the era when the Air Age met the Stone Age.
- By Tony Reichardt
- Air & Space magazine, November 2004
National Anthropological Archives Smithsonian Institution
(Page 2 of 7)
Meanwhile, every day Hinton and Stevens would hop in the floatplane-typically in the cool of morning, when photography was best and they could pick out small streams by the wisps of rising vapor-and head upriver. As Hinton flew at about 6,000 feet above the jungle, Stevens would photograph the scenery below and sketch maps. While the canoes below needed two weeks to navigate a 40-mile stretch of rapids, the Eleanor III crew could cover the same ground in a half-hour flight.
But it wasn't all easy. Early on, to save weight and air resistance, the fliers removed the windshield; flying at 70 mph, impacts with raindrops could be painful. And flying over dense, unbroken jungle in an aircraft fitted only for water landings was a potentially scary prospect; it was vital to keep a sharp eye on the thin ribbon of river below.
One day Hinton made a rare flight without Stevens, treating another member of the party to a bit of sightseeing. When the Curtiss started to lose fuel pressure, the guest was instructed to break out a hand pump carried for such occasions; he ended up having to work it furiously for an hour and a half while nervously eyeing the treetops below.
Another time Hinton and Stevens were mapping the upper reaches of the Parima River, a place no outside explorer had ever reported visiting. Often when they spied native settlements in clearings, they would descend to take pictures and drop parachutes with peace offerings-beads and trinkets meant to brighten the natives' attitude toward other members of the party who would soon arrive on the ground. When they started to drop in this time, the rapid descent into the hot air of the valley caused the water in their radiator to start boiling over. Unable to climb, Hinton was forced to execute a series of nerve-racking banks within the steep walls of the river canyon before finding water smooth enough for a landing.
In the corrosive environment of the rainforest, the ability to do on-the-spot repairs was critical. The fabric wings and control surfaces of the Seagull had been coated with aluminum dope, which protected against the fierce equatorial sun. But the mahogany hull fared worse. The Eleanor III was in the water so much that its tail section started to soften; a month into the journey, it came loose during takeoff. Replacing the section took Hinton and Stevens two days, working on a muddy bank, in the rain, surrounded by clouds of gnats and mosquitoes.
As soon as the floatplane touched land, hundreds of ants were likely to stream aboard (they ate shoes and one of Hinton's shirts). Insects weren't the only pests. Sometimes Hinton had to throttle back and dive to avoid hitting large buzzards. Brightly colored macaws posed a similar threat, and they were easily spooked by engine noise. And each morning, "there was almost sure to be a spider" lodged within the airspeed meter, Rice later wrote.
Despite using mosquito nets and taking daily doses of quinine, Hinton and several other members of the expedition contracted yellow fever. Yet the pilot pressed on for nine months. Rice never did find the source of the Orinoco River-that would remain for another aerial expedition to discover in 1944. But he did find the source of the Parima River, and he and Stevens produced the best maps to date of that region of the Amazon.
Among anthropologists who would have watched news accounts of Rice's travels with keen interest, even a touch of envy, was Matthew Stirling. In 1924 he was 28 years old and had just quit his job as assistant curator for the Smithsonian's division of ethnology in Washington, D.C. He moved to Florida, which was then an incubator for the nation's first commercial airlines. Perhaps the change in location was responsible for Stirling becoming interested in aviation-to the point of trying what he later called "some abortive piloting." Together with two friends, Richard Peck, an aviation enthusiast and pilot, and Stanley Hedberg, a newspaper editor who could handle publicity, he began hatching a plan for the three of them to take an airplane to one of the most exotic places on Earth.