Tales from the Bundu – Aerial Odyssey

  • This article is part of an anthology of stories (Tales from the Bundu) written by Brian Parnaby and two former colleagues and members of the British South Africa Police, about their memories from their respective Police days:
  • Aerial Odyssey

    It finally happened in late 1974.

    I was already flying extensively around the whole of Rhodesia as a Corporate Pilot, and although there had been a number flights to and from the Republic of South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi, I had never had the opportunity to fly into what had been called Portuguese West Africa, but was more recently becoming better known as Angola. So, when David Ashton, a work colleague, suggested that we get together a deep-sea fishing team and travel to Luanda to take part in an International Fishing Competition, I was as keen as mustard.

    In the event, I took leave, and we made the trip in a large, single-engined and turbo-charged Cessna Station wagon of 300-odd horsepower with reasonably long-range tanks and good cargo capacity. This machine had the advantage of being rugged and reliable and, apart from anything else, was an ideal `Bush’ aeroplane. I had already flown the particular aircraft on a considerable number of occasions doing Cloud-Seeding work for Hunting Air-Surveys, so I knew its quirks and capabilities. Keen to make the trip in addition to David and myself, Rod was both a respected `buddy’ from the Police Air Wing and a prominent Lowveld rancher, and Skip was David’s `mate’ from the Meikles Long Bar days in Salisbury. Our `team’ of four was duly registered for the Competition.

    From Salisbury to Luanda is about twelve hundred nautical miles as the crow flies. The trouble was, there were already any number of `bush-wars’, insurgencies and uncontrolled `bandit’ groups operating in the vast and often featureless areas in between, and the relationships between neighbouring states was often less than cordial. As a result, and particularly in Angola where the Portuguese Overseas Administration was already under serious internal terrorist pressure from insurgents of the NPLA and UNITA, getting clearances for non-scheduled flights into the Country took time – and often money. In the assumption that we’d get `clearance’ we would, in any event, be required to fly around – rather than across – Zambia, because of the Commonwealth Sanctions which had been in force against rebel Rhodesia since the mid-‘Sixties. The net result would mean flying some eighteen hundred nautical miles with little or no `control’ or normal civil aviation support, and we would certainly have to arrange suitable `alternates’ – in case of emergencies – and refuelling `stops’ en route.

    Flight planning was necessarily constrained by the dates of the fishing Competition, and there were certainly `moments’ when I, for one, felt we wouldn’t make it. In the end, I was able to pull in a few favours amongst the Regional Air-Traffic Control staff, and we were given permission to make the trip from Salisbury to the Victoria Falls, then out, due West, along the Caprivi Strip and up the eastern Boundary of Zambia to land at a place then called Vila Luso – a junction on the Benguela Railway Line – for fuel. Thereafter, we’d turn and track directly to Luanda on the Coast. The return route was to be exactly the reverse.

    Lima Alpha was a big and rugged aeroplane, and was reasonably well equipped with radios and avionics. Once we left Victoria Falls, however, the number of ground navigational aids en route to Vila Luso were low-powered and few and far between, and we’d have to rely on dead-reckoning and careful `tracking’, at least to begin with. The main point however, was that we had reasonable space for all the baggage and fishing gear, and I have to admit to being astonished – not to say dismayed – at the size, shape and weight of the equipment we were being asked to carry! I had to be careful, however; I was a complete novice in the deep-sea fishing game, and I was never left in any doubt that my buddies were serious experts. ( But, hey, it would be my `neck’ as well as theirs in the event that any `irresponsible’ loading took place! )

    Eventually, the great day arrived. All the clutter of ordinary living was put aside, and, when I went to the Airport that morning to pre-flight the aircraft, it was for a journey which had some of the `into-the-great-unknown’ feel about it. A mild flutter in the bootstraps, you might say. I checked the actual and predicted weather along the route for the two days it would take, with particular reference to upper-air winds around twelve thousand feet, at which height I hoped to fly for a large part of the journey between Victoria Falls and Vila Luso. My buddies in `Met” were optimistic, There was little sign of anything adverse in the prognosis. I had the aircraft towed out and went over it with the proverbial fine-tooth comb. No bugs there, either. Rod and the other fishermen arrived, and we spent a careful hour stowing luggage and equipment.

    As far as I was concerned, the first `leg’ of the trip to Victoria Falls was a mere `walk in the park’. I flew this route many times a year and knew all the landmarks like the back of my hand. So, after a light lunch at the Mashonaland Flying Club, we departed at about 2.pm, and arrived at Victoria Falls Airport shortly after 4.15. The aircraft had performed faultlessly. We refuelled, parked it in a secured zone, and took a taxi into the Town.

    We stayed at the Sprayview Motel. After a few drinks and a pleasant meal, we walked around the tables in the Casino, and then I went to bed. We had an early start – I’d planned to be airborne by no later than 0730.

    The weather was fine, the taxi arrived on time and, after a pot of coffee and croissants at the Airport, we took off at 0723 at climbed steadily into the morning haze, with the Zambezi River – and hundreds of wild animals – all around below us. The Caprivi Strip (named after the Graf von Kaprivi), stretched ahead of us into the distance, and the rising sun directly behind. We sat entranced as the River flood plain above the Falls gave way to the broken country around Shesheke and then Katima Mulilo. We ran out of radio contact with Victoria Falls Control at about that time, and droned on over the never-ending African bush. Then, picking up the impressive Cuando River, we turned northwest, following the Angola Border with Zambia towards Vila Luso, still a good three and a half hours ahead. We were at our planned Flight-Level, now, and the land below us had faded into a brown haze with occasional flashes of water in the river systems. No sign of humanity or of civilisation; no villages, no roads. Game, still, certainly, but no sign of Mankind. And, then after a while, just as we were beginning to feel totally divorced from reality, the needle on our ADF began to show some signs of active interest in the direction ahead in which the Vila Luso radio-beacon should hopefully be. We were above cloud, now – a layer of stratus about two-thousand feet below us – and, although there was no voice communication or contact whatsoever, I was certain we were more-or-less on track. Great stuff. Relax, chaps, we’ll get there. I tuned the VHF frequency for Luso and gave them a call. Nothing. A little later, I tried again. We were now about fifteen minutes out by my reckoning, and there should be some contact. Suddenly I got a response in broken English – a very Portuguese voice – and I understood him to say that they were in the middle of an “Attack by the enemy!’” and there could be no question of any civilian landing at Luso, because they were under heavy mortar fire.

    Almost as we heard these words we broke clear of the cloud-cover, and Luso lay just ahead of and a long way below us. I started a long, slow orbiting descent to save our now dwindling fuel supply as we tried to assess the situation. I had an alternative Field at Henrique de Carvalho some 25 minutes away to the northeast, but, apart from the fuel requirement, I was uncertain of the facilities there. It was vital that we uplift fuel, of course, but there had been no response whatever from the ADF Beacon at H de C, and I had been warned that facilities there were doubtful. As we slowly lost altitude, I could see the white puffs of mortar-bombs landing in and around the cluster of housing at the end of the airstrip. But, they were sporadic, and I could also see that the whole length of the Strip itself appeared to be screened by a sand embankment and blast wall. Great! That was where we were going chaps!

    There was a brief argument in English/Portuguese with the man on the end of the radio at Luso: – To land was impossible! – No, we were running out of fuel – We would fall out of the air, just now! – We must land!. . And we did. Fast, and on the run, to the building at the far end. We were aware of a brief crackle of small-arms fire, but no apparent hits, and then, we were there. We switched off, got out, and ran for the shelter of the buildings.

    The rest was anti-climax. The `enemy’ apparently decided to have lunch at that point in the battle, and so did we. We drank coffee and ate the sandwiches we had with us as we refuelled the aircraft from a mobile fuel cart. The majority of the men in the Army Post were Portuguese Conscripts, many of them appeared to be students from Coimbra University, and they were decidedly disinterested in showing any serious opposition to the MPLA men who were enfilading the Town. They were sullen and uncooperative when I refused, as diplomatically as I knew how, to pay the equivalent of 800 US Dollars for a `Landing and Servicing Fee’. In the end, and after only 35 minutes on the ground, we escaped with the payment of a mere 3000 Escudos, which was then the equivalent of about Five Pounds, Sterling. The receipt given to me indicated the money was for ‘ Meteorological Services’ rendered. Or something.

    We anticipated trouble on Take-Off, but none was apparent. We fled westward, climbing only after about twenty minutes at low-level in case any of the opposition groups were equipped with surface-to-air missiles. It felt marvellous to be airborne again, and once more en route to our destination. We were now more-or-less following the impressive course of the lengthy and substantial River Cuanza on its journey to the Atlantic Ocean. The Land below had become lush and fertile, and the riverine forests were impressive. Our next landmark was the little town of Dondo, where there was a medium-powered ADF Beacon to guide us, and just before we arrived there, we passed the apparently world-famous Duc de Braganza Falls, situated on a parallel tributary of the Cuanza. Very impressive, and appearing similar in size and spread if not height to the Victoria Falls now a long way behind us, they poured over a wide rock-fault and several cascades, curtained in mist. It looked for all the world like a fan-shaped cauldron from where we sat high overhead.

    Our flight time from Luso to Dondo was about three-and-a-half hours, and with just one hour remaining before we arrived in Luanda, I began to hear plenty of radio traffic on the VHF frequencies allocated to the Capital City. Still no real signs of any civilisation below us, though, nor roads or villages of any great size.

    Eventually, with beautiful deep red dolerite soils now below us, we emerged above the Coastal Plain in a hazy late afternoon, and got a positive response from Luanda Control. To my embarrassed surprise, we were greeted with totally abnormal courtesy and effusion, and by name! . .The explanation for this, apparently, was that David’s wife, Gay, was the daughter of a recently-retired Portuguese Governor General of the Province, and `strings’ had been pulled. Whatever the circumstances, my discomfort got worse; we were given clearance to Land on the Main Runway, with a `First-Proving-Flight-to-Africa’ British Concorde Aircraft `held’, snorting from four huge jet-engines, on the Taxi-way until we had `cleared’ back to the Terminal. We were escorted by a yellow `Follow-me’ car – an honour usually reserved for Visiting Heads of State. Unheard of! I could only imagine the language on the flight deck of the Concorde as our small Cessna took the honours.

    Anyway, we had arrived safely. Total flight time for the out-bound leg had been ten hours-fifteen minutes. And, suddenly, we were back in bustling civilisation; huge Airport, crowds of people – most of whom had come to see the Concorde – and a welcoming party of David’s Portuguese relatives, who were very kind and hospitable. I was constantly accorded every courtesy, the aircraft was locked in its own hangar, and we were escorted everywhere like VIP’s.

    Discomfiting, really. Particularly, when I discovered that the real reason for the Concorde being given the `Pariah’ treatment was because the Captain had made the mistake of flying the pennant of the MPLA terrorists, instead of Portuguese West Africa, when he had earlier landed to refuel, prior to completing a `Timed-flight’ to Johannesburg for `Hot-and-high” trials of his still experimental aeroplane.

    The fishing competition was great fun. And, as it happened, we were successful. Rod Styles and I teamed up to become the Rhodesian No.2 Team, I caught the only Sailfish of any size that weekend, and we won the Trophy and the Individual Cup. As it happened, the Portuguese tend to do things like that in some style, and the Trophy was too big to bring back in the aircraft we sent it back to Salisbury on the Portuguese Airline TAP.

    The Competition was based at the Luanda Yacht Club, and we used a boat skippered by Louis Dailacourt, (From Fort Victoria – he ran the Dairy there – but a native of Angola) and we were housed on Massullo Island, which is adjacent to the beach opposite the Yacht Club. The name of the Island derived from the Massullo Trees which provided shade for the Cabins there, and we Rhodesians were kept awake at night by the fruits clanging onto the corrugated roofs; they sounded for all the world like grenades exploding around us. I guess we were pretty sensitive to that kind of sudden noise at the time, thanks to the terrorist situation in our own Country.

    The rest, as they say, is history; we made the return trip without incident, and the fishermen amongst us were well pleased with their experience. As far as I was concerned, I had not expected to take part in the Competition, but had thoroughly enjoyed it. I would have to say that the thrill of having had an 87kg Sailfish on the end of my line for the forty-five-odd minutes it took to land it was something I’ll never forget. . . Or how quickly the glorious iridescent colours on its eight-foot length `died’ into dull grey after it had been brought aboard. In truth, I would have to be pretty hungry to repeat the experience.

    But, the flying was marvellous!


    Note: Ricky Flint gave me a copy of Brian Trubshaw”s “Concorde – The Inside Story” to read in early 2004. Trubshaw refers to the incident at Luanda when the Concorde incurred the wrath of the Portuguese West African controllers at Luanda Airport as I have described above – what a coincidence! He relates how – “..I took 002 to Johannesburg for hot and high performance trials routing Las Palmas, Robertsfield and Luanda. It had become normal practice to fly the country’s national flag on arrival but unfortunately our sales organisation had made a gross misjudgement because we flew the rebel flag at Luanda. The authorities were not pleased and threatened jail for the crew. They eventually understood that the mistake was genuine but were even more put out when the correct flag was not displayed for take-off. Well, of course no flags on departure was our normal practice because the flag required the direct vision window to be opened. We were held initially, and then soldiers with `pop-guns’ surrounded us at the take-off point and we were obliged to return to the terminal where further and lengthy explanations were necessary before our departure was permitted. Heaven knows what a small landing aircraft must have thought to be given priority! “

    Brian Trubshaw”s “Concorde – The Inside Story” as well as many other books by the same author can be found on Amazon in the UK and USA:

    Brian Trubshaw on Amazon.co.uk

    Brian Trubshaw books on Amazon.com

    Tales From The Bundu

    Other Related Books

    For Readers in the USA
    On Amazon.com: Britain’s Rebel Air Force: War from the Air in Rhodesia, 1965-80