At the age of 65 most men would prefer to take it easy. Not Hans Wiesman. He likes to hunt for World War II warplanes. It’s a passion that’s taken him from the jungles of Colombia and the wilds of Alaska to the mosquito-soaked swamps of Puerto Rico and the army scrap yards of Madagascar.
Hans likes to travel. He likes to get into adventures. And like a 21st Century Indiana Jones he’s a man with a mission. This dedicated father of five with a Harley- Davidson obsession, a shock of curly hair and windsurfer physique that defies his 65 years, hunts down ancient Dakota DC-3 aircraft for a living and converts the parts into designer furniture.
It means he gets to see the world. This self-styled “Dakota Hunter” has been threatened with kidnap by FARC in the jungles of Colombia, negotiated with the wrong end of warlords’ guns in Madagascar, watched blood drain from Bolivian Dakotas, dodged grizzly bears in the wilds of Alaska and pulled wrecks out of mosquito-infested swamps. “It’s better than staying at home,” he laughs. At a time when most pensioners might be considering a cruise for their holidays, Wiesman is planning a trip to Zimbabwe. He’s heard about a bunch of Dakotas due to appear at auction. “Once they were used in anger against Mugabe, now they are being sold by him,” he chuckles over coffee.
The walls of Wiesman’s apartment speak of a colourful life: the knife collection, the shark’s jaws, the aircraft memorabilia and the clutter of photos – Hans as a boy on a Borneo airstrip; Hans partying with Patrick Swayze; Hans on motorbikes; Hans posing next to a Dakota wreck…
After a stint as a nightclub owner in his native Netherlands and 24 years flying around the world seven months out of 12 as an international promotions executive for Rothmans (“before tobacco advertising restrictions meant everyone in marketing lost their jobs”), Wiesman settled on a unique business plan.
“I had been sourcing old aircraft parts to use as props to dress shop corners that were selling Rothman’s Pall Mall clothing range,” he remembers. “Then, one day my neighbour Dolph brought a shiny wing tip from Miami, and we stumbled upon the idea of converting the wing tips of Dakotas into unique tables by stripping off the paint, polishing the aluminium and adding legs.” With Dolph as a partner, Avionart.com was created and since 1999 the company has sold 162 tables for prices over 20,000 Euros. The only problem, of course, is that supply is running out. Occasionally Wiesman will come across an abandoned Dakota on a remote airstrip – “something that is becoming increasingly rare” – or race to an aircraft bone-yard to try and beat the scrap merchants who want to squeeze the last dollar out of the old warbird by smelting it into ingots. The Dakota is a real 75-year-old workhors e. It transported American paratroopers during World War II, liberated countries across Europe, took part in the Korean and Vietnamese wars and played a key role in the Berlin airlift. Then, after being decommissioned, its qualities of being reliable, light weight, easy to maintain and with big balloon tires that made it effortless to land anywhere, the Dakota was found to be perfect for transporting drugs, tourists, weapons, cattle, pesticides, holidaymakers or troops for new civil war militias. “The number of usable wrecks is dwindling all the time, but there are plenty of Dakotas still flying,” Wiesman says. “They connect communities. In Alaska, for example, they bring fuel, food, people and supplies to remote areas that would be lost without them. I’ve flown on a Dakota to a goldmine town deep in the Colombian jungle. Everything that was used to start the community was brought there by Dakota.”
The Dakota as a reliable lifeline is something that Wiesman knows only too well. His father worked for Shell and when the family was relocated to remote 1950s Borneo, the young aircraft enthusiast would rush to the airfield whenever a Dakota was scheduled to arrive. Fuelled with the promise of packages from home and perhaps a coveted Dinky toy or two from his grandparents, the Dakota came to represent a connection to the outside world, a romantic but vital link to modernity. It’s a romance that has inspired Wiesman to visit some of the most inhospitable places in the world using a complicated network of informers, enthusiasts and corrupt military men to help him in his quest. “In Madagascar I soon realised that the collection of five former World War II Dakotas donated to the air force from the French was effectively owned by a militia warlord,” laughs Wiesman.
“After two years of negotiations, I tried to buy them off the ‘colonel’ and he said he would give them to me in exchange for a US$250,000 Piper Navajo. He was serious, so I then went to the Defence Ministry that actually owned the aircraft. The warlord was not happy when we met again… we left pretty quickly.” Then came revolts, violence, civil war, the warlord disappeared and the Dakotas were chopped into pieces for scrap and smelted down for a few dollars. “It’s a sad end for such historic aircraft.” Wiesman has enjoyed better luck in South America. His adventures have taken him across the continent, but it was in Colombia that he struck Dakota gold. The first time he arrived in 2006, he attempted to go south from Bogota to the wild jungle frontier city of Villavicencio. “I was given a pass for two days because the military said I was simply too easy a FARC kidnap target and it would take around 48 hours for someone to report me, for a taxi to pick me up and for me to disappear into the jungle until a ransom was paid.”
Three years later the violent drug wars that had fuelled so much national anguish were starting to recede and more importantly, the Dakotas that had been used for trafficking had been seized by the military. Wiesman was on the next plane out. “I found 12 wing tips there and a lot of US-trained Colombian pilots wearing night goggles, flying helicopters at midnight using heavy guns to flush out armed drug gangs and guerrillas.”
The huge balloon tires of the Dakota and an engine maintenance that even a car mechanic can pull off make it ideal for landing on non-existent airstrips and for use by remote communities struggling to find a cheap and easy way to transport essentials. “I remember jumping aboard Dakotas flying meat up to the capital of Bolivia, La Paz, in the High Andes before the roads were built,” says Wiesman. “They would slaughter the cattle at the cargo door, load the meat and the blood would flow out of the aircraft gutter or they would drug animals, tie them up and they would be flown up. It was unnerving if the drugs wore off and hooves started kicking mid flight.”
In Florida, Wiesman hired a crane to pull a decrepit 1944 war veteran Dakota from the mosquito-infested Tampa swamp and sold the cockpit to a Dutch museum; in Puerto Rico another swamp-dwelling Dakota was found to contain a cargo of dangerous killer wasps and had to be abandoned. In Thailand, five Dakotas were sunk to create an artificial reef for divers. Wiesman was able to salvage two tips but was stopped from taking more by the air force. It was a bitter disappointment made worse by the news that violent currents tore the aircraft from their submerged mooring and they drifted out to open sea.
By the time Wiesman set out for Alaska in 2007 he feared that his worldwide wing tip supply was drying up. He visited crash sites, scrap yards and followed stories of mythical Dakotas lost in the mists of legend. At one stage he even scoured the grizzly bear-populated Ruby Mountains by helicopter where he came across a Dakota that had lost engine power in 1950 and been forced to glide into a crash landing on the snow. All 10 people on board escaped alive after the pilot walked through eight miles of snow to the Alaska Highway. It was in remarkable condition and as bright silver as the day it was manufactured.
“But still no wing tips. With so many grizzlies around and with the mist starting to fall we got in the helicopter and left. I’d thought Alaska would be a great source of wing tips, but no luck, so I decided to go to Canada where I had spent weeks meeting the operators of Dakotas still in operation. Then on the last day in an old barn that contained vintage cars and old wrecks there were 12 wing tips hidden by dust. It was an incredible moment.”
Wiesman grins. “You win some you lose some. ”
by Andy Round
Published in PLAYBOY South Africa March 2012