September 21, 2022
Karen Angel is the niece of Jimmie Angel and President of the Jimmie Angel Historical Project (JAHP). The JAHP’s mission is to provide accurate information about Jimmie Angel. She published a photo biography titled “Angel’s Flight – The Life of Jimmie Angel – American Aviator-Explorer – Discoverer of Angel Falls” in 2019.
Angel Falls in Venezuela’s vast Canaima National Park may have been known to the indigenous Pemón people of the southeastern Gran Sabana region, at least the canyon that the falls cascade into – according to the Kamarakoto elders. The author L.R. Dennison, published a book called Devil’s Mountain and named the canyon that leads to Angel Falls – “Devil’s Canyon” (Churún Canyon) and called the tepuy the “House of the Devil”. So it is probably a mythical name none the less, but due to the waterfall’s location deep inside the canyon of the mythical House of the Devil, perhaps even the Pemón did not know of the waterfall’s existence – Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, which cascades 3,212 feet (979 metres).
Born in Missouri near St. Louis in 1899, Angel was obsessed with Auyán-tepui; a 435 square mile heart shaped tabletop mountain in the southeastern Gran Sabana region of Venezuela. Angel believed that it was the home of a lost river of gold that he claimed to have been taken to years before by a mining geologist he called McCracken.
Angel was working as an aviator-guide in the Gran Sabana for the Santa Ana Mining Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the fall of 1933 with his Mexican co-pilot and mechanic Jose Cardona and mining official D. H. Curry. While on a solo flight November 16, 1933, Angel flew a Travel Air S-6000B, powered by a three hundred-horsepower Wright J-6-9 engine, registration number NC-431W into Devil’s Canyon and saw for the first time what was to become known to the world as Angel Falls. Due to ceaseless heavy rains, Curry and Cardona quit the area without seeing what Angel referred to as his “mile high waterfall.”
The name Angel Falls first came about during a Caracas reunion in 1937 with Angel and his friends, American petroleum geologist I. F. “Shorty” Martin and Venezuelan civil engineer and expert outdoorsman and mountaineer Gustavo (Cabuya: “String”) Heny. They were talking about the waterfall and when they did not have a name for it, Heny suggested the name Angel Falls; using Jimmie’s last name because he had made it known to the world.
Jimmie Angel and Angel Falls became better known to the world as the result of his October 9, 1937, landing of his Flamingo airplane El Rio Caroní, on Auyántepui in search of McCracken’s lost river of gold.
Jimmie’s expeditions companions were his wife Marie, Gustavo Heny, Heny’s gardener and jungle companion Miguel Angel Delgado, and Spanish botanist Captain Felix Cardona Puig.
Angel had scouted a landing spot on Auyán-tepui from the air.
Heny and Cardona, who was born in Barcelona, Spain, had explored for a foot route from their camp at Guayaraca on Auyán-tepui’s south flank, to the proposed landing site which was on the northern side of the plateau. Their search was only partially successful. A disgruntled Cardona returned to camp after a few days while Heny continued to pursue a northern route. He was able to establish a route across much of the plateau but was turned back from reaching the planned landing site because of the tepui’s great interior wall. During his fifteen days of reconnaissance, Angel dropped supplies attached to small parachutes that had been fashioned by Heny’s sister Carmen.
Marie Angel and Gustavo Heny preparing for the October 9, 1937, landing on Auyán-tepui.
On the morning of the flight, Cardona stayed in camp to maintain radio contact with the landing party that included Jimmie and Marie Angel, Heny, and Delgado who was known for his ability with rope and machete. Marie Angel wrote in her unpublished manuscript that they were well prepared for potential problems; supplies included tents, blankets, flashlights, cameras, rope, machetes, and enough food to last a month.
El Rio Caroní came to rest with its nose and landing fear buried in mud. Marie sits with Jimmie standing nearby as Delgado attempts to free the airplane from mud.
At first, Angel’s Auyán-tepui landing seemed to be perfect, but the wheels broke through the sod and sank into the mud bringing the airplane to an abrupt halt with a broken fuel line and the airplane’s nose buried in the mud.
Angel had expected pilots to come to their assistance, but the search was delayed due to their loss of radio contact with Cardona. Cardona was able to send a message to Heny’s friend William H. Phelps Sr. in Caracas. Phelps sent an airplane to look for them, but the pilot could not see through the dense clouds covering the mountain.
After a few days, the Angel party was presumed hopelessly lost … or dead.
On October 11th, when it became clear that there was no gold to be found and that El Rio Caroní was hopelessly mired in her muddy landing spot the landing party started the long march from the mountain to the village of Kamarata in the valley below.
As planned, should the aerial part of the expedition for gold encounter trouble, the capable Heny and Delgado led the Angels down from Auyán-tepui to their camp at Guayaraca and on to Kamarata in an arduous march for survival that took eleven days. According to Heny’s sister Carmen, “Jimmie was a great pilot, but he wasn’t very good on the ground. He didn’t like to walk.”
The Venezuelan government officially designated the waterfall Salto Angel in a December 1939 document entitled “Exploración del la Gran Sabana,” Revista de Fomento, No. 19. The work contained the Gran Sabana Expedition’s findings with photographs and maps of their explorations and surveys. Reportedly, the first official photographs of the waterfall in its entirety were taken from Angel’s airplane May 1, 1939 by mining engineer Carlos A. Freeman, who was one of the co-leaders of the expedition, although it may well have been Shorty Martin who took the first.
Ten years later, American photojournalist Ruth Robertson led the first successful expedition to the base of Angel Falls, she and her team measured it and made it officially the world’s tallest waterfall. Her article, “Jungle Journey to the World’s Highest Waterfall,” published in the November 1949 edition of National Geographic is a splendid account of an extraordinary journey.
Jimmie Angel’s airplane El Rio Caroní remained on Auyán-tepui for 33 years. Its future was changed in 1964 when the government of Venezuela declared it a national monument. In 1970, it was removed in sections by Venezuelan Air Force helicopters and taken to the Aviation Museum in Maracay for restoration. It was later moved to the airport at Ciudad Bolívar where it remains displayed on the green in front of the passenger terminal.
The federal government represented by the Venezuelan Air Force would like to return El Rio Caroní to the Museum of Aviation in Maracay so that it can be properly conserved under controlled museum conditions. Although the airplane has suffered severe damage several times from automobiles and a falling tree, the State of Bolívar refuses to return the airplane to Maracay.
The airplane currently on display is constructed of components that are not original to El Rio Caroní. For example, the wings and the tail are not the airplane’s original components which both displayed the airplane’s registration number NC 9487 and the airplane’s engine housing originally had El Rio Caroní painted on it.
Angel, who died in Gorgas Hospital in the Canal Zone in 1956, never dreamed that his airplane would become a national monument or that its care and location would be contentious issue. Many years before, when asked by his friend American pilot Patricia Grant if he wanted his plane taken off Auyán-tepui Jimmie replied, “No, as long as it stays up there, it will be a memory of me.”
All photos displayed with the permission of Karen Angel, © JAHP Archive Copyright © 2002. All rights reserved.
Except by Karen Angel, no part of this article may be revised, reproduced, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior consent in writing.
Jimmie Angel Historical Project, 931 Hill Street, Suite 1, Eureka, California 95501, United States of America. www.jimmieangel.org, Archive@jimmieangel.org.