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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • Dog Days in Paris (Katherine Guckenberger, France, March 4, 1998).

  • The View from Awolowo Street (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, February 19, 1998).

  • The Courts of Pondicherry (Akash Kapur, India, February 4, 1998).

  • A Convent with a View (Katherine Guckenberger, France, January 22, 1998).

  • The Moscow Rave (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, December 24, 1997).

  • Waste Not, Want Not (Ryan Nally, Poland, December 10, 1997).

  • Sikkim and Ye Shall Find (Akash Kapur, India, November 26, 1997).

  • The Magistrates of Creektown (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, November 5, 1997).

  • Brando's Birds (Marshall Jon Fisher, France, October 22, 1997).

  • Dinner at the Gostilna Novljan (Chris Berdik, Slovenia, October 8, 1997).

  • The Dacha Regime (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, September 25, 1997).

  • Blazing Telefonini (Tom Mueller, Italy, September 11, 1997).

  • French Games (John Robinson, Madagascar, August 27, 1997).

  • Heaven in a Ballotin (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, August 13, 1997).

    For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

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  • On the Ground in Patagonia
    March 18, 1998

    Recently, in a town called Chaitén, I watched an airplane crash. Chaitén is a provincial capital, a ten-minute walk of dirt streets carved into the cold and mountainous rainforest of Chile's southern coast, home to about two thousand people. It can be reached only by sea or by air. I am currently spending most of my time even deeper in the forest, on assignment for The Atlantic, in a place with unreliable electricity and no phones. From my forest base I had set up an appointment by radio to see the provincial governor, waited fruitlessly for a truck that was supposed to go to Chaitén, then borrowed a four-wheel-drive Toyota and slithered recklessly for forty miles down a dirt road in order to get to my meeting on time.

    The governor was running late. This took special ability, since he was a political appointee with few responsibilities and (as I happened to see) an empty appointment book. But there was a ritual to be observed, an affirmation of power, and after years of practice I knew my place. When the airplane flew by I was waiting in the threadbare outer office, under the gaze of a heavily jowled man who served as the governor's secretary. I watched it idly, as a pilot. It was a twin-engine Cessna, an eight-passenger machine similar to one I sometimes fly in the United States. Clouds lay low over the town and spread across the sea. The airplane was flying fast underneath them, at no more than three hundred feet. I assumed it had just taken off from the Chaitén airport.

    The plane roared by and crossed the coastline -- and then to my surprise banked steeply to the left and turned back toward the airport. The maneuver confused me: if the pilot was arriving rather than departing, he was treating his passengers roughly, and was flying too fast, and had unreasonably delayed extending his landing gear and flaps, and was planning to land downwind. The airplane leveled its wings and descended out of view, below the treeline about a quarter of a mile from the governor's office. That was confusing, too: the airport had to be farther inland. Within seconds a thin line of black smoke rose into the sky.

    I stood up and went to the window. The governor's secretary eyed me. "Is it usual to see smoke over there?" I asked.

    "No, it is not usual."

    "Well, I don't want to overreact, but I think an airplane just crashed."

    The secretary didn't want to overreact, either, but he called the airport and asked, "Did you just have an airplane land?"

    He looked up at me. "They say Aero Chaitén took off a couple of minutes ago. They say no one has landed."

    He was reaching for the phone again when a siren outside began to wail.

    The governor rushed out of the inner office, his eyes flashing with excitement. He was a fat, bearded man in a suit. I rushed outside with him and jumped into the back of the pickup truck he had commandeered. In two minutes we were at the edge of town, and in another three we were out along a sandy shore.

    The airplane lay burning and crumpled in shallow water, about a hundred feet off the beach. Hundreds of people were streaming toward it, running beside us, galloping their horses. Already a mixed group of firemen, carabineros, and ordinary citizens had waded out to the wreckage and were extinguishing the last of the flames. The airplane's cabin had burned through, exposing charred corpses still strapped to their seats. Someone suggested that the children on the beach be spared the sight. They were ushered away.

    One passenger had emerged in flames from the wreckage and had come running to the beach. He lay unconscious on the sand now, looking gray and as good as dead. The governor had him lifted into the back of the pickup and driven to the hospital. There was hope for a while that others might have survived as well. The rescuers worked quickly, tying a rope around the fractured nose of the aircraft, and the crowd on the beach was able finally to haul the scorched hulk onto dry ground. Family members of the passengers had arrived on the scene by then and were variously crying and collapsing in horror and shock. One young woman -- a mother? a wife? -- was screaming, catching her breath, and screaming again.

    I thought about the pilot, who was said to have been competent, but whose blood was now spattered through the broken windshield. Almost certainly one of his engines had failed just after takeoff. Had he reacted correctly, by quickly securing the bad engine and "feathering" the propeller (stopping the blades, by turning them into the wind), he could have kept the airplane in the air and flown it for hours on one engine alone. Instead he had turned toward the airport, and, with the bad engine windmilling, had been unable to hold altitude.

    The lone survivor died of his burns a few days after the crash. Up in Santiago the Chilean newspaper of record, El Mercurio, summarized the accident and got it mostly wrong. I find it ironic that I myself am trying to get it right. Two months ago I swore that I would never write again about airplanes. I had finished the last of several Atlantic pieces on flight (the March issue is carrying my long study of the Valujet crash), and had put the final touches on a book about the sky. I looked forward to getting back to my preferred subject, which has always been people. I have come to the Patagonian forest to write about a person, and for a month my mind has been entirely on him. Still, I cannot escape the old pilot's habit of looking up whenever an airplane flies by.

    William Langewiesche is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of Sahara Unveiled (1996). His new book, Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight, will be published this spring by Pantheon Books.

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    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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