The Life and Times of Jimmy Angel
By Day Dobbert
Flying high over the steaming jungles of Venezuela's still largely inaccessible Gran Sabana, one may, if weather conditions are favorable, glimpse one of planet earth's most remarkable natural wonders, Salto Angel or Angel Falls. Shrouded in mist and cloud, the highest waterfall in the world appears to plummet from the sky. Actually it bursts forth from subterranean rivers two to three hundred feet below the rim of a massive tabletop butte some 250 miles in area. The Indians call the mesa Auyan-Tepui - Devil Mountain -- and consider it sacred. Myth has it that a terrible panther lies there in wait for any who may approach, and indeed the awesome thunderstorms that brew around the mountain seem proof that the devil himself lives within. In foamy descent, the torrent cascades 3,212 feet in just two leaps to its 500-foot-wide base. The falls are twenty times higher than Niagara, over twice the height of the Empire State Building; Yosemite Falls measure a little over 2,500 feet in three leaps; in South America the far better known Argentine/Brazilian Iguacu Falls drop a mere 269 feet.
The falls do not take their name from ethereal beings dwelling in the heavens but from a nuts and bolts airman who hailed from Missouri. When James Crawford Angel wasn't flying off to some far-flung outpost of civilization he could just as well be found in a banana republic cantina swapping yarns with his drinking buddies. A hell-raising daredevil, Jimmy Angel was an adventurer and a man obsessed, an all but forgotten character out of the drama of early aviation history. He was a World War One ace, mercenary soldier, barnstormer, test pilot, and Hollywood stunt flyer, who regularly attempted to break long distance flying records when he could find backers to provide him with the plane and the fuel to fly it. But it was as a bush pilot, and above all a gold prospector and explorer that he became known as a pioneer of aviation in Latin America. For years Angel traversed the South American jungle by air in search of El Dorado, but found, instead of gold, the world's highest waterfall which bears his name.
The setting of the tale lies southeast of the Orinoco in the weirdly beautiful, trackless Guiana Highlands. Out of dense near-impenetrable jungle rear monolithic sandstone buttes, some as much as two miles high, rock faces and flat tops eroded into bizarre shapes resembling giants' castles or Inca fortresses. This otherworldly chaos of stone and jungle is the landscape immortalized in William Hudson's "Green Mansions" and Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World." On this vast tableland evolution stood still millions of years ago, capturing the imagination of geologists and naturalists, as well as that of writers of science fiction. The broken tabletops are remnants of a single immense, high altitude plateau composed of one of the oldest rock formations in the New World, thrust from the seas during the pre-pleistocene episode of uplift more than two and a half million years ago. Ancient forms of life found nowhere else in the world have survived here on these isolated outcroppings. The flat-topped 'tepuis,' as the mesas are called, are inhabited by plant and animal life unique to each; cut off from neighboring environments, the mix that makes of natural selection has passed them by.
Jimmy Angel was born in 1899, four years before Orville and Wilbur Wright would make their first successful airplane flight at Kitty Hawke, N.C. At fourteen he ran away from home, a tough kid born with an incurable case of wanderlust. A year later he hired on as a handyman for an air show in Birmingham, Alabama. Steering a plane a mechanic was pushing down a runway, Jimmy 'accidentally' flipped a switch; the plane accelerated and took off, then drifted down when it ran out gas. Jimmy's first solo. "Sure," Jimmy told his boss, "I know how to fly," then and always, a fellow of few words.
At a seasoned sixteen, lying about his age, Jimmy joined the U.S. army. Some said he fought briefly against Pancho Villa, others that he joined Villa's forces -- sorting out fact from fiction when it comes to Jimmy's life is no easy task. Presumably a case of pneumonia brought about his discharge. He promptly headed north and was accepted into Canada's Royal Flying Corp. By the time he was mustered out in Capetown in 1918 he'd flown missions for the French and the Italian, been shot out of the air, brought down three German aircraft, and five observation balloons, once ramming his flimsy plane into the belly of a blimp.
At the end of the war, after carousing around London and Paris for a while, the out-of-work but intrepid teen-age fighter pilot turned mercenary, engaging in Arabian and Chinese wars. Over the years he would become an instructor in Sun Yat-sens's air force, an advisor to General Chiang Kai-shek at the time of the Japanese invasion of China, and would wing his way around Burma with Brigadier General Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers. Then, as early as 1920, the lure of gold beckoned, finding Jimmy prospecting in the foothills of the Himalayas - only to be robbed of what little he had accumulated. A series of catastrophes followed, culminating in the decapitation of his Russian-Jewish partner in a massacre at the Wei Wei airfield. Debilitated with malaria which would plague him for the rest of life and reduced to skin and bones, Jimmy returned to the U.S.
Back home he wing-walked and barnstormed the country with the Angel Brothers Flying Circus, once landing his Curtis Jenny biplane on a parking lot atop Pikes Peak. In the 1920ies some considered him the world's number one test pilot. On one occasion, hands manacled Houdini-style, he flew from San Francisco to Glendale, guiding a newly developed high-winged monoplane using only his legs and knees to demonstrate the ease with which the craft could be flown. In Hollywood he stunted in William Wellman's classic 1928 "Wings," the first film to win an Academy Award, and piloted a Gotha bomber in Howard Hughes epic 1930 "Hells Angels.'
But it was Latin America that would claim Jimmy. He ran missions for oil and mining companies and sometimes governments, making photographic surveys, delivering supplies to jungle camps, and dropping engineers and other experts into remote locations. One job flying payrolls to oil camps in Mexico came to an end when a guard in the employ of a U.S. swindler attempted to hold him up. Jimmy, forced to shoot, killed the man. Another hapless hijacker met his maker when Jimmy flipped his open cockpit plane upside down. The miscreant plunged 5,000 feet to perdition. Adios, bandido.
There have been as many versions of Jimmy's exploits as there have been those who knew him -- or claimed to. One of them, however, would literally put him on the map. The Yankee pilot and soldier of fortune was all but unknown in his own country, a close-mouthed guy who kept a low profile. Jimmy's wife Marie, a fellow pilot who shared her husband's peripatetic life, once commented in her own typical understatement, "Jimmy never gave interviews, he didn't like publicity." Marie connected with Jimmy in 1934 while he was shuttling between South America and the States. Marie said, "I knew I wanted to marry him ten minutes after I met him," and marry they did in Barranquilla, Colombia ten months hence. Only four years later would they get around to unpacking their bags. Marie remarked, "With Jimmy you never knew what country you might be in next."
Notwithstanding the supposed lack of publicity, Jimmy had been a legendary figure around Latin America for a decade, and the news of his remarkable discovery deep in the Venezuelan interior began to leak out little by little. The year was 1937. The news was dominated by reports of Red planes attacking Japanese outposts in Manchukuo; Charles Lindbergh was surveying an air route from England to India, as well as advising the world of the growing air power of Nazi Germany; and the search was on for American's Sweetheart, Amelia Earhart, lost in the south Pacific. But in another part of the world Jimmy Angel was making his own kind of history. The first sketchy newspaper article to appear on Angel's discovery was buried in the back pages of the L.A. Times; the New York Times ignored the Associated Press story:
"New York, Jan 17 (AP) -- An American aviator's discovery of a mile high waterfall in Venezuela was reported today....The flyer, Jimmy Angel, said that he had discovered the falls 250 miles east of Ciudad Bolivar...The stream, pouring from a high plateau in the clouds into dense jungle far below, probably is a tributary of the Caroni River [the Rio Churun], a confluent of the Orinoco."
The drama in which Angel would play the lead began to unfold in the late twenties. Returning from a trip to Chile and Peru to sell fighter planes for the British government and flat broke, he stopped in Panama. There, 'in a dimly lit bar,' he met John McCacken, a grizzled old prospector who offered him five grand U.S. to fly him to a secret destination, pledging him not to reveal its location, nor to return there without his consent.
Jimmy went for it. Fying by the seat of his pants, he navigated by McCracken's jerks of the thumb, McCracken's intent to confuse Jimmy enough to make it next to impossible for him to return on his own. Weaving a zigzag course through a mad land of mesas, they eventually landed beside a stream on an enormous island tabletop, dwarfing the neighboring mountains. By Angel's reckoning it lay somewhere between Mt. Duida and Mt. Roraima in Venezuela's Gran Sabana. Jimmy told a friend later: "In three days we took seventy-five pounds of gold out of the gravel. We could have taken more, but I was afraid to put too much extra weight in the plane." The two returned to Panama with their bags full of nuggets scooped from this 'river of gold' and sold the haul for a bundle. And so commenced Jimmy's obsession with Devil Mountain.
Jimmy kept his own council and waited, but he didn't forget that clandestine flight. He remembered the heft of the gold and the distinctive configuration of the massive butte. When McCracken died in 1930, Jimmy, released from his vow, began his search for the gold in earnest, flying out from the oil camps of Cidudad Bolivar on the Orinoco, scouting from mesa to mesa for the elusive mother lode. But fuel wasn't cheap and time was precious so he moved his base 250 miles nearer his goal. The superstitious Indians refused to approach the Ayun-Tepuis, but Jimmy, undaunted, cleared an airstrip, built a palm-thatched hut and stocked it with canned provisions and an extra supply of gasoline, even carrying in a rubber boat so he might navigate the river, the Rio Churun, to the base of the mountain. He befriended the natives, giving them bolts of calico, metal tools, and dime-store gimcracks. And though they wouldn't tell Jimmy where they got them, the Indians gave him -what else? - nuggets of gold.
However, by 1935 Angel still hadn't found McCracken's golden creek. The land up there was forbidding and the countless small streams too similar in appearance to serve as landmarks. But Jimmy had a full-blown case of gold fever, and he kept on searching. Then one day, with Marie as his copilot, Angel flew their Flamingo "El Rio Caroni" low up the turbulent Churun into the immense Auyan-Tepui canyon, "El Canon del Diablo," and came upon an unbelievable sight - a vertical river pouring from the clouds above them. Plunging to the valley far below, it disappeared in a mass of foam, its thunderous roar drowning out the sound of their engine.
Jimmy flew perilously close to the jungle floor, then climbed again, trying to estimate the height of the torrent by taking readings on his altimeter. Angel's friends, the oil men, hadn't believed his story about friendly locals trading trinkets for gold, or now this one about some fabulous cascade. Some of them had been to Africa: a waterfall eight times higher than Victoria? They called it Angel's "fairy tale." Jimmy just smiled and bought the boys a drink at the bar.
All the same, there were several individuals whose interest was sparked by Angel's sighting: Gustavo Heny, a gentleman sportsman; "Shorty" Martin, an American oil geologist; and Felix Cardona, an explorer and geographer, once captain in the Navy of Alfonso, King of Spain. They joined the gold and diamond prospectors looking to strike it rich in the region, and pitching camp in the Camarata Valley, set out to scale the cliff side of the Auya-Tepui out of which poured the falls, and where, at its summit, gold might be found. For days they struggled up the face of the mountain while Jimmy, flying low above them, dropped food by parachute. They reached 4,000 feet, but horizontal progress on the vast wooded tableland was impossible. Ages of erosion had cut away the soft surface rock, leaving fissures, some hundreds of feet deep, between jagged ridges of Cambrian sandstone. Finally, provisions exhausted, they were forced to return to camp. However, through their binoculars they thought they saw a level stretch in the far distance. If a plane could land there, they might reach the falls -- and the gold.
Cardona was to remain at the camp to maintain radio contact, Angel and Heny would try for the landing. But when Marie got wind of the preparations, she insisted on going with them. She'd seen the savage, boulder-strewn terrain and she wasn't going to be a flyer's widow. In an attempt to land, they angled over the cataract towards the summit, side-slipping and fishtailing, but a violent air current upended them into an immense marsh thick with roots, burying the monoplane's wheels and part of its tail in mud. Unable to extricate their craft from the bog in which it was mired they abandoned ship and struggled to firm ground. Behind them rushed the falls, but looking for its headwaters, much less gold, was not an option; saving their necks was the priority.
The camp was just fourteen miles away, but thousands of feet below them and cut off by treacherous canyons and cliffs. Their survival would depend on the mountaineering expertise of Heny. They outlined their projected escape route by radio to Cardona, and he in turn radioed an appeal. William Phelps, an American businessman and a naturalist in Caracas, chartered a plane and started out the next day. The Venezuelan army sent another craft, with rescue expeditions mounted as well in the Guianas and Colombia.
But shifting cloud masses and their shadows made a kaleidoscope of the labyrinthine patchwork of ravines and saw-toothed ridges; spotting three minuscule human figures would prove impossible. Then Cardona lost the radio's signal. The group knew they had to get down on their own or perish. Just fourteen miles -- but their ordeal lasted fourteen days, hacking and climbing their way out, leaping from one wall to another in their hazardous descent to the valley. They had been given up for lost when they staggered into their base camp, clothing torn away, boots in shreds, feet bloody and swollen. Their bodies were covered with bruises and lacerations, their skin oozing with infections from garrapatas, tiny but vicious burrowing worms. And no, they had found no gold.
Some years later, Jimmy talked about making an aerial expedition to the ruins of an ancient city he believed he had once sighted far to the east of Devil Mountain. Would he venture even further into the beyond, perhaps turning up evidence of some lost civilization and treasure even more precious than gold? Or would he be warned off by the Venezuelan maxim: "Quien se va al Orinoco, si no se muere, se vuelve loco."
In the early days plane accidents were commonplace; more than once headlines had proclaimed Jimmy missing or given up for dead. His last flight, a routine one into Panama, was uneventful, except for a bumpy landing which dislodged a metal toolbox behind him, striking the back of his head. A few days later he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, lapsed into coma and lingered seven months longer in Gorga Hospital in the Canal Zone. He died December 8, 1956 at age 57, never regaining consciousness.
In 1960 Angel's ashes were scattered over the falls from a plane carrying his wife and two boys. Then, five years later, son Rolan, at the time seventeen, followed his father's route to Angel Falls. He found the plane that had carried his parents to the top of Devil Mountain, bleached by the sun but in surprisingly good condition. The wreckage of their craft had sat atop the mountain for over thirty years, the focus of one the great survival stories in modern times. The plane has since been removed by helicopter to a museum in Maracay and declared a national monument.
Rolan told his mother afterwards: "I'm going back...maybe next year. I had an awfully strange feeling up there, as though I'd been there before. Funny the way it felt familiar." Marie would later say, "I hope that mountain doesn't do to Rolan what it did to his father. It grew on Jimmy till it possessed him. He could never leave it alone."