“I HEAR YOU CAN LAND ON A DIME,” the grizzled old prospector said as he approached Jimmy Angel in a Panama bar in 1921. Angel, a 22 year-old Missourian bush pilot, who had flown with Charles Lindbergh’s Flying Circus, answered, “I’m your man.”
J.R. McCracken, an Alaskan geologist and prospector, proceeded to tell
Angel an amazing story about a “mountain of gold” near the
border of Venezuela and Brazil. He wanted to hire the talented pilot
to fly him there. Angel immediately agreed and, with the $5000 he charged
McCracken, bought a used airplane. Arrangements were made and the odd
pair took off on their southbound flight, refueling in Ciudad Bolivar
on the Orinoco River. McCracken guided his pilot over the tepuys (table
top mountains), relying only on his miner’s compass.
“Land here,” McCracken ordered. They touched down on a flat
sandstone area and were greeted by a fantastic sight—streambeds
filled with gold ore!
They could spend only a short time on the tepuy, because flying by sight,
without the aid of instruments, they had to return to Ciudad Bolivar
in daylight. Gathering 75 pounds of gold ore, they promised to return
later for the rest.
Shortly after, McCracken became sick, and died. Jimmy Angel spent the
rest of his life searching for the mountain of gold.
Eventually, he gained fame and made some notable discoveries. Twice in
1930, he flew to Auyantepui, the largest of the tepuys, but he was not
able to land on its top because he lacked the proper instruments. In
1935, the Case Pomeroy Company agreed to finance an expedition there,
hoping it would turn out to be Angel’s sought-after mountain of
gold. It didn’t, but Angel and his companions did report the most
amazing waterfall dropping “directly from the sky.” That
waterfall is known today as Angel Falls—the highest waterfall in
In 1937, Angel married and, accompanied by his wife and a friend, returned
to the falls and attempted to land on top of Auyantepui. His plane, the “Rio
Caroni,” nose-dived into the marshes and stuck there. It took the
three of them 11 days of bushwhacking to make their way back to civilization.
The plane was hauled off the tepuy in 1970, by helicopter, and is now
on display in front of the airport at Ciudad Bolivar.
In 1942, still searching for gold, Angel got lost in a Venezuelan jungle.
Military planes sent to rescue him also got lost. When he appeared a
few days later the Venezuelan government held him liable for the rescue
costs. He didn’t pay, and became persona non-grata in Venezuela.
Jimmy Angel died in 1956 of massive head injuries, suffered when his
small Cessna flipped over as it taxied down a runway in Panama on yet
another mission to find gold. His body was cremated, and his ashes were
scattered over the falls that bear his name.
Today, from Ciudad Bolivar, you can fly to Canaima, a beautiful lagoon
filled with waterfalls, and from there visit Angel Falls, either by flying
over the falls, traveling upriver by boat, or hiking to the base of the