Jimmie Angel was an aviator, adventurer and stuff of legend, most of which he perpetuated himself. What is certainly true though is that Angel Falls in Venezuela, the highest in the world, is named after him.
Angel was born in Cedar Valley, Missouri, in 1899, but would spend most of his 57 years outside of America. He claimed to be mostly American Indian which at least had some basis in truth as his mother was part North Carolina Cherokee.
According to the many stories that surround him, Angel claimed that he learned to fly at the age of fourteen, was a flying ace during World War One, was then an airborne scout for Lawrence of Arabia and that he created an air force for a Chinese warlord in the Gobi Desert.
The truth is impossible to verify as many of the records have been lost, although he did serve during the war and afterwards became a contract pilot for the rest of his life. But even though the airline industry was still in its infancy, Angel avoided the life of a commercial pilot saying: ‘It would be like driving a bus’. Instead, he became a flying explorer.
According to Angel, he first ventured to Venezuela in 1921 where he teamed up with an American mining geologist who paid him $5,000 to fly him to the south east of the country. They landed on a mysterious table mountain where they discovered great quantities of gold in a river.
Again this is a story that cannot be verified, but what is true is that he spent the 1930s exploring the Gran Sabana, working for the Venezuelan Ministry of Development, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Venezuelan-Brazil Boundary Commission.
Angel was obsessed with the Auyantepui, the 435 square mile heart shaped table mountain in the southeastern Gran Sabana region. Its name translates as Devil’s House in the language of the indigenous Pemon people and it was where Angel believed to be the place he had previously found his river of gold. On a solo flight in 1933, he saw for the first time what would become known as Angel Falls.
But no-one believed his claim to have seen a ‘mile-high waterfall’ so in 1937, with his second wife, Marie, Venezuelan explorer, Gustavo Heny, and jungle expert Miguel Delgado, he prepared to fly to and land on the Auyantepui plateau.
The landing in the small monoplane seemed perfect until it began to slow when its landing gear sank through the ground, flipping the plane on its nose. No-one was hurt, but the group was effectively stranded in an inhospitable jungle.
Even so, they began to search for the river of gold, but gave up after two days and began to plan how they would get off the mountain. But first, Angel insisted that they prize the plane’s nose out of the mud and taped a cloth to its wing with the words ‘ALL OKAY’ written on it and an arrow indicating the direction they were headed.
Given up for dead, it took the four of them eleven days to trek their way back to civilisation and their story captured the public’s imagination. It also made Angel Falls known to the wider world and people travel there still to marvel at it, although the journey is still as arduous as it ever was.
As for Angel himself, he continued his contract pilot career with Marie as his co-pilot and navigator until 1943 when their first child was born in Nicaragua. They returned to America in 1951, although Angel spent the next five years working in Central and South America.
His health was failing and in 1956 he suffered a head injury when landing his plane in Panama. Angel then had a heart attack and other ailments until he died eight months later. The doctor who certified his death simply gave his occupation as ‘explorer’.