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The Legends of Jimmie Angel.


This is the second article about James Crawford Angel (1899-1956) to appear in Americas magazine. John Hall's "Angel on Silver Wings," published in 1980, was also about Jimmie Angel, the man for whom Angel Falls--the world's tallest waterfall--is named. Recently Mr. Hall reflected that, "in doing research for the article, I could find no full biography, authorized or unauthorized, of the man. Almost 30 years later, I am still interested in finding more about him."

The life of aviator Jimmie Angel is a tangled collection of true stories and legends. According to these various stories: he taught himself to fly at age fourteen; he was a Royal British Flying Corps Ace in World War I; he created an air force for a Chinese Warlord in the Gobi Desert; he worked as an aviation scout for Lawrence of Arabia; and he flew a mining engineer named McCracken to a secret river of gold on a Venezuelan plateau. All of these stories remain unverified. It has been difficult to sort truth from legend for several reasons. For one thing, various authors have repeatedly published these legends over the years. For another thing, actual records that may have helped to verify the World War I legends have been destroyed. And finally, Jimmie Angel himself, and those close to him, helped to perpetuate the legends.


As a young child, I was introduced to the adventures of Jimmie Angel by my father, Clyde Marshall Angel, who was Jimmie's youngest brother by eighteen years. My father was too young to be a member of the Angel Family Flying Circus in the 1920s and was the only one of five brothers who did not learn to fly. When my father died in 1997 and his obituary was published in a northern California newspaper, I was amazed to begin receiving calls and messages from people who knew Jimmie Angel in the 1920s through the 1940s. For the first time, I had a group of people to interview who had known Jimmie Angel and worked with him. I had pursued such interviews in the past but had run into many dead ends. These new informants provided me with fresh insights into Jimmie's character and gave me new avenues of research to pursue.

Jimmie Angel first saw the falls on a solo flight while he was working in Venezuela's southeastern Great Savanna for the Santa Ana Mining Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma. On November 18, 1933, he recorded in his pilot's log: "Found myself a waterfall." But how did the falls come to be named for my uncle? My interviews point to the following story.

In October 1937, following weeks of preparation, Angel landed his airplane El Rio Caroni on the Auyantepui plateau, the vast 348 square-mile plateau from which Angel Falls flows. At first, the landing was perfect, but as the airplane slowed, the landing gear broke through the sod and sank into mud. The plane came to an abrupt halt with a broken fuel line and its nose buried in the mud. It had to be abandoned. Accompanying Angel that day were his second wife Marie, Gustavo Heny, and Miguel Angel Delgado, who was an expert with rope and machete. Heny compiled a photographic record of their difficult escape from the plateau and later entrusted the photos to his good friend Enrique Lucca who published them. The landing party's survival captured the Venezuelan public's imagination. Three men and a woman had triumphed, surviving their eleven-day ordeal on Auyantepui after being given up for dead.



In my interview with Venezuelan Enrique Lucca, he told me the following: "The name Angel Falls came about during a 1937 Caracas reunion of Jimmie Angel, Shorty Martin, and Gustavo Heny. They were talking about the waterfall and while Martin and Angel didn't have a name for it, Heny suggested the name Angel, using Jimmie's last name because it was he who had made it known to the world."

Angel was to have been the pilot-guide for the 1937-1938 American Museum of Natural History's Phelps Venezuela Expedition but was not able to participate because he and Marie had to return to the United States for a new airplane. Although not a member of the expedition, Angel is forever linked with it because he and his geological discoveries were featured in two magazine articles authored by ornithologist G. Thomas Gilliard, a member of the museum expedition. To a large degree, Gilliard's writings made Jimmie Angel and Angel Falls known to the world.

Flying a Hamilton airplane, Jimmie and Marie Angel returned to Venezuela in February 1939. Soon after his arrival, his pilot-guide services were requested by the leaders of the Venezuelan Ministry of Projects' Exploration of the Great Savanna. The expedition was commissioned by Venezuelan President Jose Eleazar Lopez Contreras in December 1938 for the purpose of finding out about the minerals, soil conditions, geography, topography, climate, and water in the area. It was an investigation into the potential for colonizing the Great Savanna.

The waterfall was officially designated Angel Falls (Salto Angel) by the Venezuelan government with the December 1939 publication of Exploration of the Great Savanna. The report included the first two published photographs of Angel Falls taken by expedition co-leader Carlos A. Freeman from Angel's airplane.

Freeman praised Angel's aviation skills in an unpublished biography. "Without the services of Jimmie," he wrote, "the expedition could not have accomplished what it did on the five-month trip. He flew more than 300 hours supplying food, scouting from the air, moving camp, taking aerial photographs, and mapping, in addition to transporting members to remote spots."

During their years in Venezuela's Great Savanna, Jimmie and Marie Angel were friends with the indigenous people, the Pemon. Jimmie flew their revered Chief Alejo Calcano from village to village for meetings with elders. In 1937, the Angels adopted an eight year old Pemon boy named Jose Manuel Ugarte who I met in 1994 in the village of Kamarata where he lived until his death in 2001. His son "Santos" Manuel Ugarte Calcano is a well known Auyantepui guide.



A decade after the waterfall was officially named Angel Falls, US-born photojournalist Ruth Robertson, a resident of Caracas, led the first successful overland expedition to verify it as the tallest waterfall in the world at 3,212 feet. Her photographs and her account of the expedition she financed were published in National Geographic, November 1949.

Jimmie and Marie Angel left Venezuela during World War II with plans to return to the United States. Plans changed when they landed in the Canal Zone and Jimmie accepted aviation work related to the construction of the Pan-American Highway in Nicaragua. Between 1942 and 1955, the Angels lived in countries where Jimmie could find aviation work: Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, the Canal Zone, Costa Rica, British Guiana, and the United States. He also worked in Venezuela again for a brief time in 1949. Their sons James and Rolan were born during this period. Because the children suffered from poor health in the tropics, Jimmie settled Marie and their children near her family in Missouri and then finally in the Santa Barbara region of California in 1955.

Jimmie continued to work as a pilot. On his last journey, he and co-pilot Bill Bjorkland departed from Los Angeles in early April for their final destination, British Guiana. Injured in route when landing at David, Panama, Jimmie Angel died on December 8, 1956 in Gorgas Hospital, Canal Zone.

Four years later, Marie, sons Jimmy and Rolan, Gustavo Heny, fellow pilot Patricia Grant, and others returned to Auyantepul to scatter Jimmie Angel's ashes over Angel Falls. Grant's 1996 letter to me gracefully described the day, "What few patches of scud and mists that had clung to the crevasses suddenly cleared, revealing Angel Falls in all its magnificence. As we skimmed by the Falls the ashes floated downward whipped by the wind and the spray, and thus our beloved Jimmie returned to his waterfall. The ceremony in its simplicity was one of the greatest emotional thrills of my life. I feel he is truly happy at last. Now his spirit can roam the halls of this great canyon for all eternity. I felt awed at having had the privilege of knowing this great man and having been his friend."

Karen Angel, Jimmie Angel's niece, is curator of the Jimmie Angel Historical Project and lives in California.
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Title Annotation:HISTORY
Author:Angel, Karen
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3VENE
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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