Flying into and out of Colares, Brazil can be harrowing in the best of times. It takes a pretty experienced jungle pilot to do it.
Not that Colares is in the jungle but the village has no genuine landing strip, or at least it didn't some twenty years ago. In 1977-78, Colares was the epicenter of an extraordinary UFO flap, and I’ve now been there four times looking into what happened during that flap.
Jungle pilots in Brazil risk their lives – and those of their passengers – flying Cessnas and other small planes into remote areas where few man-made landing strips exist.
Those men will land on any reasonably level stretch of ground, or try to. Many have been killed, along with the people they are transporting to such remote places as gold mines that are otherwise inaccessible.
I’ve flown with three of these guys and was told years later that one was killed and the other badly burned in crashes.
The first time I went to Colares was in February 1979 when I was working for the National Enquirer. I had been in Belém, where I first learned that people in the village had been burned by UFOs, and a day or two later I hired a Cessna to take me to Colares.
With me were Brazilian Air Force Sergeant Flávio Costa and José Ricardo Raimundo. During the flap, Sergeant Costa had been second in command of a half dozen Air Force intelligence agents who investigated the flap. José was a teenager who had lived in Arizona for two years when his father was teaching at a university. José spoke very good English and came along as my interpreter.
I never did learn our pilot’s name. All I knew was that he was in his thirties or forties and was a veteran of jungle flying.
By car, the village of Colares is one and a half to two hours north of Belém, depending on traffic and how long you have to wait for a ferry to cross the Guajará River, which separates the island of Colares from the mainland. However, by plane you can get there in fifteen to twenty minutes.
A light rain was falling when we flew there in 1979 and the pilot simply put us into a shallow dive and we passed low over what I assumed was the landing strip.
No problem, the pilot said. He just wanted to see how deep the mud was. And he promptly swung around and brought us in for a safe landing. We touched down in a churchyard and hurtled almost a hundred yards down a narrow lane before coming to a halt.
He spun the plane around at the end of the lane and taxied back to the churchyard. Even before we opened the doors to climb out, kids and adults came running from all over. Such visitors were not common and we attracted quite a crowd.
The pilot secured the plane and the four of us walked into the village, followed by most of the kids. I talked to half a dozen or so people about the 1977 sightings and encounters, and a couple of hours we got back in the plane.
We taxied to the end of the lane and turned around. The pilot stood on the brakes, gunned the engine for a few seconds and then released the brakes. We shot forward and became airborne seconds later over the churchyard. Nothing to it. I was told years later that that pilot died in a jungle crash.
A little over two years later I returned to Colares. This was in July 1981 during my first trip to Brazil on my own, just a week or two after I left the Enquirer.
This time I learned the truth about that landing strip: It didn’t exist. It was just a country lane. (In photo below, the boys are standing in the churchyard with the lane behind them.) With me this time were Major Uyrange Hollanda, the officer who had led the Brazilian Air Force investigation of the 1977-78 UFO flap, and Charles Tucker, a UFO investigator from Indiana. Our pilot was twenty-three-year-old Carlos Montenegro, who'd been flying for only three years.
In Hollanda's visits to Colares during the investigation, he had gone by car or helicopter. I was the only one of the four of us who'd flown there in a plane.
On this day the weather was sunny and dry. Carlos took one look down at that lane and quickly vetoed the idea of landing there. I assured him it could be done, but the wide dirt road leading into the village looked much safer and Carlos started to land on it.
However, he quickly changed his mind when he spotted a bus coming from the ferryboat toward Colares. Rather than have the bus driver and a bunch of passengers mad at him for blocking the road, he headed back to the churchyard.
As soon as we hit the hard, packed dirt in front of the church, things got very scary. In an instant our world was filled with almost unbearable noise.
Our wheels hit every bump and hardened rut, setting up a horrible racket. Each jolt was instantly transmitted to our backbones. The engine was screaming and overgrown bushes on both sides of the lane were madly smacking our wing tips as if they were trying to rip them off. The din was deafening and frightening, and the end of the lane was rushing toward us. This wasn't the way I remembered it at all. I glanced at Tucker sitting in the back seat beside me and learned the true meaning of the term “white as a ghost.” That’s when I got scared.
seconds, however, Carlos braked to a halt just before we ran out of space,
spun the plane around and taxied back to the churchyard. Even
before the propeller stopped turning over, a big crowd of kids and adults
surrounded us. More excitement had come to town. (In left photo, Hollanda
the black shirt at upper left, I'm in the white shirt in the middle and Carlos
the pilot is in a white T-shirt under the plane's wing. At photo at right,
Tucker and his newfound friends.)
(In left photo, Hollanda is in the black shirt at upper left, I'm in the white shirt in the middle and Carlos the pilot is in a white T-shirt under the plane's wing. At photo at right, Tucker and his newfound friends.)
Several interviews and a couple of hours later, we took off. This was scarier than landing because now I knew how risky it was. But nothing happened and the next day the four of us flew off into the Amazon region.
The Amazon trip was another adventure described elsewhere. In 1997, Hollanda told me Carlos had been seriously injured in a crash some time after we flew with him.
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THE ITAÚNA MASS TRANSIT SYSTEM
One morning while I was investigating the first Crab Island case, my interpreter Ana Teresa Britto, a friend of hers named Cosme Junior and I flew in another Cessna from São Luis to an old town called Alcântara. It’s on the northwest side of São Marcos Bay.
It was the original capital of the state of Maranhão, but at that time it was a quiet little town with a few old, decaying colonial buildings. A few years later, though, Alcântara became the busy site of the nation’s space center, where rockets are launched and satellites are put into orbit.
The day we flew there, in December 1978, it was little more than a sleepy village. We were looking for Firmino Souza, who was badly burned in the Crab Island incident. I had already interviewed the other two survivors, but not him. We had been told Firmino lived in Alcântara but when we got there we learned he lived much farther south, near Itaúna. Itaúna is the western end of a ferry that runs back and forth across São Marcos Bay. The eastern terminus is the Port of Itaqui, near São Luís, the present state capital.
(I’ve ridden that ferry both ways three times, and it can be a wet, rough ride. It takes about two hours each way, with departure times never the same. They depend entirely on the tides, which run very high. The trip covers about thirty-five kilometers and much of it is like being in the open ocean. High waves sometimes crash over the bow, spraying all the cars and trucks and everyone inside.)
It was still early in the day in Alcântara when we learned Firmino lived elsewhere, and we started to look for someone to drive us to Itaúna. But our pilot piped up and said he could fly us there. He knew a small airstrip close to Itaúna.
That was good news. So we climbed back into the plane, took off and flew south. Fifteen or twenty minutes later the pilot spotted the airstrip and pointed toward it. All I could see was a mountaintop. As he started going down toward it, I began to get anxious because I couldn’t see any airstrip, just green vegetation everywhere.
Seconds later, just before we touched down and I was thinking the pilot was crazy, I realized there was a narrow strip of vegetation that was just a shade lighter green than the rest. Once we landed, I could see it was a very solid airstrip made of gravel. But weeds had grown through the gravel a foot high and virtually hid it.
The pilot never shut the engine off as Ana, Cosme and I got out. He said he’d come back about four o'clock in the afternoon to pick us up. We said OK and realized as he took off again that we didn’t know where we were, except on top of a mountain. There was no one around and no buildings or anything else, just the overgrown airstrip with tropical forest all around us.
We started walking and discovered a path that led down the hillside to a paved two-lane highway. There was no traffic, no one walking, no houses, nothing but forest in every direction. All we could see were trees and the sky. All we could hear was the occasional breeze in the trees. The highway went up and down hills and around curves and disappeared, toward Itaúna to the east and Pinheiro to the west.
We had no idea how far Itaúna was but we started walking toward it. It was only ten-thirty in the morning but the sun was blazing and all three of us were oozing sweat. Twenty minutes later we came to a small country store and were delighted to step into the shade of its porch.
The owner told us Firmino lived seven or eight kilometers to the west, back toward Pinheiro. It was too far to walk but he said a bus would be along soon.
That sounded great. We guzzled soft drinks and I leaned my back against a foot-thick support column on the porch, cooling off. Curious about the forest, I asked the man if there were any big snakes in the area. Yes, he said casually, about the size of that column. Trying to look just as casual myself, I took a quick look around but spotted no snakes.
Some twenty to thirty minutes later the “bus” arrived (right, with Ana Teresa at far left). It was a pickup truck that the owner drove back and forth along that highway all day long every day, providing service to anyone willing to pay. At least twenty men and women were jammed into the back of the truck, most of them standing. Some were carrying bags of feed and other stuff.
The driver knew where Firmino lived and was willing to take us to his house, but first he had to take his passengers to their destinations. True to his word, he was back half an hour later.
At that time, the highway had potholes every fifteen to twenty meters and he flew like hell. It seemed like he hit every pothole that didn’t get out of his way.
Firmino didn’t know we were coming. There’s no phone service, no mail, no way to let him know we wanted to talk to him. But, lucky for us, he was home.
He was still recovering from the burns he suffered on Crab Island twenty months earlier, and he spoke quietly. It was a good interview and about an hour later we were bouncing back over the potholes to the country store.
Since we were too early for the plane, we hung out in the shade of the store’s porch, keeping an eye out for snakes and snacking on cookies until time to walk back to the airstrip.
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TAKE MASTER CARD OR VISA?
trip I went to the city of Pelotas in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the
far southern part of Brazil. A jetliner had taken me into the city of Porto
Alegre, and from there I went to Pelotas in a small twin-engine propeller-driven
The Bandeirante, named after the early pioneers who explored the interior of the country, is a Brazilian-made airliner that seats about twenty passengers. At one time it was widely used by commuter airlines in the United States.
The airfield at Pelotas when I went there in February 1980 was just a grassy strip, with maybe fifty feet of concrete near the terminal. After spending several days in Pelotas running down a couple of UFO stories, I climbing aboard another Bandeirante to return to Porto Alegre.
Before we took off, the pilot had the gas tanks filled up. I was fascinated to see him reach into his wallet, take out a credit card and hand it to the service man to pay for the gas.
(For a guide to pronouncing unfamiliar Brazilian names, click here.)