To lose one brother in an air crash may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two is a tragedy; but to have three siblings die in separate aviation accidents shows just how insanely dangerous the job of a bush pilot can be in Brazil’s Amazonian wild west.
Clinger Borges do Valé is a survivor in what could well be the world’s most ill-fated flying family – though only just, having himself crashed 11 times and lost two of his passengers to a cabin fire.
“I’m the luckiest pilot in the world. Anyone else would be dead,” Valé says with a grim smile over an evening beer with his wife, son and nephew in the town of Itaituba, which serves as a hub for illegal gold mining communities deep in the forest.
Supplying them by plane is a lucrative, risky business. Unregulated gold mining in Latin America reportedly earns more export dollars than drug smuggling, but comes with a heavy toll on the environment and human life.
In Brazil’s Amazon basin, illegal miners – known as garimpeiros – have been responsible for deforestation, attacks on indigenous villages and mercury contamination of rivers.
Now retired, Valé – like thousands of other bush pilots – flew for over 40 years to remote, bumpy, half-hidden airstrips in small turbo-prob planes, ferrying garimpeiros and prostitutes, shipping out equipment and returning with gold.
Maintenance was poor, fuel often in short supply. Some runways were barely over 300 metres. Navigation – initially without GPS – was a challenge, particularly in the burning season, and the tropical rains were sometimes heavy enough to bring down planes.
The casualty rate was high. “I have lost count of how many of my friends were killed in accidents….
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