‘We have the worst record in the world’: the deadly business of Brazil’s bush pilots

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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. Without doubt this is the most dangerous place to fly,” Valé says.

Yet he and all six of his siblings became pilots. “In Itaituba, it was either that or become a garimpeiro,” he recalls. Given the high murder rate among miners and the low prospects of striking it rich, “It wasn’t much of a choice,” he says.

His eldest brother Claudiso was the first of the family to die, when his plane crashed into the jungle about 40 years ago. A decade later, another brother, Willemis, was killed – along with five of his passengers – when his plane’s engine failed soon after takeoff from Itaituba and ploughed into a castanha tree.

The most recent fatality was last December, when a younger brother, Wilton, came down into the forest three hours away. “Nobody knows what happened,” Valé says.

The crash barely made the news. Itaituba does not have a newspaper. Bigger media organisations rarely make it out to this Amazonian community. The government has – at least in theory – been trying to crack down on the garimpeiros for years. And besides, plane accidents are anything but a rare occurrence in this part of the world.

Itaituba is rarely mentioned in top 10 lists of the planet’s most perilous airports, but passengers and pilots flying to and from here in recent decades have been many times more likely to die than at better-known destinations.

Clinger Borges do Valé: ‘We had parties with tables full of drugs. But it’s not like that any more. The good days are over.’ Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian

Elsewhere, this might be a source of concern. In Itaituba, it is more like a badge of honour. The walls of the airport cafeteria are decorated with a painting of a plane landing on top of another back in the 1980s, when this claimed to be the busiest airport in Brazil. Locals matter-of-factly recall watching Cessnas and Beechcrafts plunge into the nearby Tapajós river or plough into trees.

There are numerous online compilations of garimpo pilots’ planes plans skidding and lurching across dirt runways. At the town museum, the guide Regina Macedo D’Oliveira assiduously recounts tales of engine failures, fuel shortages and navigation problems. “We have the worst record in the world,” she confirms.

For some, the pilots and miners are heroic adventurers. For others they are environmental criminals driven by greed.

The mix of awe and anger they generate are similar to that for mobsters or drug traffickers. The most powerful garimpeiros used helicopters and machine guns to wipe out rivals or indigenous groups that resisted encroachment on territory.

But they are probably best thought of as products of a global system that values gold above forests.

In his heyday, Valé lived like a character out of Miami Vice, buying a house with a pool and a yacht that he would fill with women. He would be paid in gold – sometimes up to a kilogram at a time. It was a wild era.

“We had parties with tables full of drugs,” he recalls wistfully. “I would buy three new cars per year and take bags full of cash when we went on holiday. But it’s not like that any more. The good days are over.”

The garimpo business continues, but it has fluctuated with the price of gold, the rumours of new seams and government crackdowns. The traffic at Itaituba airport – now modernised and upgraded but still about 80% dependent on garimpo business – is an indicator.

“We have 30 flights a day. Back in the 80s, we had 300 or 400. There were so many back then that planes had to circle in the sky to wait to land while others were parked up on every spare spot on the apron,” said Antonio Anderson, an airport employee. “It is much calmer now. We only had two small accidents last year.”

Valé quit due to health problems. But the next generation of his family are now at the controls. His son Diogo and nephew Cleverson say they are undaunted by the horrific mortality rate..

Safety standards have improved a little, but there are still accidents. A few years ago, Cleverson was about to land when his engine suddenly stopped. The plane ploughed into trees at the end of the runway and flipped over. “It was incredibly noisy,” he said. “And then it was quiet and I shouted out ‘I’m still not dead.”