Michael Hamence lifts the veil on covert SAAF operations during the Rhodesian Bush War.
‘VFR ONLY’ CERTIFICATION of the Aerospatiale SE 319B Alouette III helicopter rather restricted its operational use during the Rhodesian Bush War. The Rhodesian Air Force (RhAF) and South African Air Force (SAAF) crews who flew the Aylos (as it is affectionately known) were perfectly capable of handling any situation that might confront them — but within the manufacturer’s certified limitations. It goes without saying, that those limitations were frequently stretched — and on one occasion, SAAF crewmembers found themselves in a unique situation.
By 1975, the Bush War had developed from a series of skirmishes between the Rhodesian Defence Forces and African nationalist insurgents, into a bitter and bloody conflict that threatened to involve the greater part of Southern Africa. The Defence Forces now faced two externally-funded, well-equipped communist guerrilla armies.
SAAF Alouette II and III helicopters and Cessna 185 Skywagons had been operating in Rhodesia since 1967. The SAAF units were supporting the South African Police (SAP) as they defended the Rhodesian border along the Zambezi River. By the mid-1970s, American political pressures on South Africa (SA) and the SA Government’s own policies of ‘Detente in Southern Africa’ had resulted in the progressive withdrawal of the SAP from Rhodesia, but some SAAF aircraft were still operating clandestinely as part of Operation Polo. These aircraft were painted in the Rhodesian camouflage scheme — dark earth/dark green, no national markings — and the crews wore Rhodesian blue or camouflage uniforms.
In 1975, on Lake Kariba and other lakes and rivers throughout the country, a different kind of battle was being fought against an invasion of water hyacinth or ‘Kariba Weed’ as it was known locally. Vast patches of weed floated on the waters; beneath the surface, an impenetrable tangle of stems reached down for more than a metre. Along the shoreline, elephant grass and other bush plants had migrated from dry land onto the weed patches — from the air it looked just like solid ground. At nightfall on June 17 that year, the SAAF crew were pushed into such a tight corner that they unwittingly selected one of these patches of ‘terra non firma’ for an emergency landing.
Earlier that day, SAAF Alouette III (serial no 55) sat on the concrete apron ot a secret strategic airbase near the mining town of Wankie (now Whange) in Matabeleland — the whine of its idling Artouste engine barely audible in the vast silent emptiness of the bush. The dulled and scratched Perspex of its cabin windows and oil-streaked, faded paintwork, told a story of an overworked aircraft, long overdue for rest and maintenance. The pilot and his crewman/gunner waited impatiently for the SAAF C-130 to arrive and take them home — away from the heat, dust and flies of the Zambezi Valley, back to the cool of the Transvaal Highveldt and the bright lights of Pretoria.
Eventually, the Here appeared out of the haze and landed; it ran the length of the 16,400ft (5,000m) runway and taxied quickly onto the apron. The parachute door in the rear fuselage slid upwards, two figures in Rhodesian camouflage denims jumped out and humped their packs and weapons over to the helicopter. After a brief handover, the outgoing crew picked up their belongings and ran for the Here, which quickly roared off down the runway in the opposite direction.
The new crew did a quick ‘walk-around’ check of the helicopter, donned flak jackets and ‘bonedomes’, threw their packs and weapons into the back, then climbed into their seats. The whine of the Artouste rose to a scream, the rotor blades spun up and Aylo 55 trundled forward for a few metres then, seeming to teeter momentarily on its nosewheel, rose into the air and was quickly swallowed up in the dusty haze of Matabeleland.
Lt C and Sgt R of 17 Sqn SAAF (Swartkop AB) had barely settled in at the RhAF tactical landing strip on the outskirts of Wankie town itself, when they were tasked for a case vac mission — to uplift and fry three tribesmen from Binga fishing village on the southern shore of Lake Kariba to hospital in Wankie. The tribesmen had been injured earlier that day when their truck had detonated a Russian TM54 land mine laid by the guerrillas. It was the innocent tribes people who bore the brunt of the suffering in the Rhodesian Bush War.
Having uplifted the tribesmen and a Rhodesian policeman, they were flying west at 3,280ft (1,000m) along the southern shore of the lake. The sun had set and at ground level it was already dark. There was no moon. They had been airborne for about 20 minutes when suddenly there was a bud bang, the helicopter yawed violently and Lt C saw from his instruments that the main rotor speed was decreasing. He immediately dumped collective and lowered the nose of the helicopter to maintain airspeed and the crucial autorotations like he had practised many, many times. This time was for real and the emergency descent down into the darkness and the thick African bush, together with the added responsibility of his injured passengers, would test his flying skills to the limit.
As the helicopter neared the ground, Sgt R turned on the hand-held ‘NiteSun’ spotlight. Together they saw what appeared to be a clear area among the petrified trees lining the lake shore. Lt C selected his landing point, set up his final approach and allowing speed and altitude to decrease, he pulled the nose of the helicopter high above the vague horizon and applied full collective pitch. The helicopter settled into a remarkably soft touch-down but as soon as he applied the rotor broke, a violent pitching and rolling motion began.
«I thought it was ground resonance,» the pilot said later, «but as the main rotor slowed right down, it was obvious we weren’t on solid ground.»
The helicopter became completely unstable and as the main rotor lost lift, all control was lost and he could do nothing but wait helplessly until the blades hod come to rest.
The floating carpet of vegetation was so thick that the helicopter’s wheels did not break through on touchdown. But the carpet could not support the mass of the helicopter for long and the whole patch on which they had landea began to sink. It was standard practice for the Aylos to be flown with all the cabin doors removed, so the crew and the policeman were able to extricate the injured passengers — collecting their survival packs and personal weapons almost at leisure.
Fearful of crocodiles, they half swam, half floundered onto solid ground where Lt C quickly assessed their situation. During the final approach he had transmitted a ‘Mayday’ call and a rough position report which hod been received by Victoria Foils ATC. Now his main concern was to escape from the crash site and evade any guerrillas. Taking turns to carry two of the tribesmen, they struck out westwards. They covered nearly 4 miles (6km) and as they moved up the Zambezi escarpment away from the lake shore, the going became easier. They passed close to a guerrilla cadre — but they were drunk anyway and could be heard singing from a long way off.
At sunrise they rested and although they had no personal locator beacons, they were soon found by the pilot of a Cessna 185 who had taken off before dawn and flown along their estimated track. The Cessna circled until a rescue helicopter arrived on the scene.
When the controller at Victoria Falls airport received Lt C’s distress call, he immediately contacted the RhAF HQ Operations Room 310 miles (500km) away in the Rhodesian capital of Salisbury (now Harare).
There followed a long frustrating night for the airstaff officers who were colled in by the Duty Officer. The continuing SAAF operations in Rhodesia were ‘Most Secret’; communication between the two Air Force HQs was only allowed at the highest level.
Now that a SAAF aircraft had been lost in an accident and the fate of its crew was unknown, the RhAF Commander had to inform his SAAF counterpart. They were obviously anxious about the safety of the crew and passengers; but were particularly fearful for the SA airmen and what might become of them if they were captured by guerrillas.
As mentioned earlier, the helicopter crew had no personal locator beacons (PLB); the beacon fitted in the tail boom of the downed helicopter was now at the bottom of Lake Kariba. All that could be done at RhAF HQ was to plot the approximate position of the crash from information received from the tactical base at Wankie, sit bock and wait out the night. Since the Rhodesian Bush War encompassed the whole country, there were just not enough light aircraft, helicopters or crews, available to mount a large-scale search and rescue operation. In his distress call Lt C had reported that he intended to land on the lake shore. When the news come that the crew and passengers were safe but the helicopter had sunk, there was relief mixed with consternation. The aircraft had to be salvaged to find out what had caused the forced landing and also to forestall the very remote possibility that the Zambians would send forces across the lake, to recover parts of the helicopter for propaganda purposes.
The salvage operation in a hostile and almost inaccessible area of crocodile-infested Lake Kariba presented an unusual challenge for the RhAF Air and Technical Staffs!
One evening some years earlier, an RhAF Alouette III had been flying low over a lake near Salisbury, the pilot had misjudged the height and the helicopter ditched. To salvage it, specially modified 44-gal fuel drums were submerged, attached to the airframe, then inflated with air to lift it to the surface. The report on this salvage operation was dusted off and when inquiries were mode at the RhAF Maintenance Unit, it was discovered that someone had shown the good sense to retain the modified fuel drums ‘in case they were needed again’.
At this point, the reader should note that the RhAF operated mainly from two fixed bases: New Sarum outside Salisbury and the former RAF training base at Thornhill near Gwelo (now Gweru). The technical expertise for helicopters was concentrated at New Sarum, so the salvage operation would be mounted from there. The underwater work on the helicopter could only be carried out by divers. The British South Africa Police (BSAP) operated a sub aqua team on a part-time basis and the BSAP Commissioner immediately agreed to the loan of the team to the Air Force. A Board of Inquiry was immediately convened, consisting of an RhAF senior officer, the SAAF Air Liaison officer and an RhAF engineering officer.
The pilot who found Lt C had flown back to the area of the forced landing and soon spotted the oil slick and the hole in the carpet of weed where the helicopter had sunk. He called up a BSAP lake patrol boat and circled the area until the boat’s crew could put down a marker buoy.
Meanwhile, at the Joint Operations Centre at Wankie, officers of the army, police and air force, were preparing operations to secure the immediate area around the downed helicopter and suppress any guerrilla threat to the impending salvage operation. Shortly afterwards, a RhAF Dakota flew along the lake shore and an army platoon parachuted down. The area was now safe for the salvage operation — or so it was thought…
At first light on June 19, the recovery team in a convoy of Mercedes 10-ton trucks set off from Salisbury on the 560 miles (900km) journey via Bulawayo and Wankie to Mlibizi. The reader, when looking at the map of Zimbabwe, might wonder why a direct route across country was not taken. The answer is auite simple — a direct route would have entailed travelling along unprepared bush tracks through tribal lands. Since these areas were largely under the control of the guerrillas, there was a high risk of ambush and land mines. Nevertheless, the convoy averaged 50mph (80km/h) over the long stretches of excellent but nearly deserted main roads.
After a night stop in Bulawayo, the recovery team made a late-afternoon rendezvous on June 20 with a company of army engineers at the BSAP Base at Mlibizi. The next part of the plan was to use, as far as possible, the track between Mlibizi and Binga then bulldoze a path through the bush down to the lake shore.
The Inquiry Team and BSAP divers with some basic tools and equipment had already been choppered into the crash site by midday on the 19th. The divers’ first job was to examine the sunken Alouette III. They made a preliminary dive into the weed-choked waters and came up almost immediately with the news that it was «like swimming in a great big bowl of green cabbage soup!»
They had found the helicopter which was about 33ft (10m) down, lying on its side, two of the three main rotor blades enmeshed with the sunken carpet of weed. Even the strong tropical sunlight hardly penetrated the weed and the algae on the surface, so underwater work would have to be carried out virtually blind. Immediate preparations were made for raising the aircraft in the hope that no valuable evidence would be lost. Using their Alouette III ‘taxi’ as a demonstration model, the RhAF engineer showed the divers how to remove the pins attaching the main rotor blades to the rotor head then, down they went into the ‘green cabbage soup’. Their magnificent efforts delivered the first results late in the afternoon when a main rotor blade popped to the surface.
Once the other blades were off, not much else could be done, apart from recovering the helicopter’s armament (twin .50 calibre Brownings), until the recovery team arrived. With guerrilla cadres lurking in the vicinity it was deemed prudent not to offer them the ‘taxi’ helicopter for night-time RPG7 or mortar target practice. The crash site was therefore left in the capable hands of the army for the time being.
The rustic calm of the African bush was disturbed early on the morning of the 21 st, by a roaring, clanking bulldozer ripping its relentless way through mopani trees and undergrowth, down the escarpment to the lake shore. Behind it, transmissions whining in low gear, came the recovery trucks. Then the Inquiry Team’s helicopter returned and kicked up a great cloud of dust. Peace and quiet had only returned for a few minutes, when it was utterly shattered again by a brace of Hunter FGA.9s who came to pay their respects and generally worn off the guerrillas!
In theory, the recovery plan was simple; the BSAP boat would position the 44-gal drums over the sunken aircraft, the divers would submerge the drums and attach them to the landing gear struts and main rotor head, close the drums and attach the compressed air supply hoses, then quit the scene whilst the drums were inflated.
What was it the man said about «the best-laid plans of mice and men»? The sunken Aylo seemed to prefer its watery grave to the war-torn countryside up above, because it just would not budge. The water blown out of the drums displaced great gouts of mud and algae which exploded on the surface, creating ‘pea soup’ conditions for the divers when they next went down. Masses of Kariba Weed and petrified tree branches came up, but no Aylo..
The subsequent ‘Council of War’ came up with a number of options, one of the more noteworthy being a request to SAAF HQ in Pretoria to send a Super Frelon to lift the Aylo out (after all, it was their helicopter). With guerrillas around, what needed to be done, had to be done quickly, so another idea — to send for more modified fuel drums — was vetoed as being too time-consuming. The simplest solution was adopted — the risk involved was outweighed by the urgent need to discover what had failed. This entailed connecting one end of a hawser to the helicopter’s nose, the other end to the bulldozer and apply brute force to drag the poor Aylo up through the weed, rocks and tree stumps on the lake bed. Such drastic action would most probably result in irreparable damage. It was the engineer (on ex-Halton Apprentice), who finally came up with a plan to get the helicopter out in a repairable state. All that was required initially was to get the top of the helicopter above water to see if the failure was in the engine or transmission.
Why not take every piece of unwanted loose equipment out of the ‘taxi’ Alouette, drain it down to minimal required fuel and use it as a ‘skyhook’ to supplement the flotation drums and the brute force of the bulldozer? It worked and up popped the reluctant Aylo. The problem — a broken driveshaft between the engine and main gearbox — was quickly located and ‘that to all intents and purposes was that’.
The story of course doesn’t end there — they never do! By now it was late afternoon and colonials do not (or rather, did not) normally ‘go home for tea’! Not at Sundowner Time. The barbecue fires were lit, the steaks were soon sizzling and the beers quenching well-earned thirsts. The recovery of Ayfo 55 was going to be celebrated in traditional style, guerrillas or no guerrillas. They could literally ‘go jump in the lake!’ Unfortunately they didn’t. The barbecue fires should have made excellent aiming points but perhaps the cadres had no RPG7s or mortars after all. The cheeky blighters did have boosted TM54 land mines however, which they proceeded to lay in the new road during the night! Sod’s law singled out the recovery truck carrying Ayfo 55 to be the one which detonated a mine the next morning when the convoy was pulling out! After its dunking and further damage from the land mine explosion, Alouette 55 eventually went bock to Swartkop AFB in an SAAF C-160. It was repaired at Atlas Aircraft Corporation and returned to Rhodesia about a year later, resuming service for Operation Polo.
When this Op was finally wound up, Aylo 55 was one of a large number of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft which the SAAF left behind. In 1980, these were inherited by the Air Force of Zimbabwe and to the best of the Author’s knowledge, Aylo 55 is still being flown by the AFZ.
Lt C received a Green Endorsement for his remarkable piece of flying; Sgt R a Commendation.
What of the three hapless tribesmen at the beginning of this narrative? While recovering in Wankie Hospital from their injuries and subsequent terrifying ordeals, they made statements on oath to the Board of Inquiry, which were not without a touch of tragi-comedy.
First, there was the Big Bang which hurt them so badly and broke their precious truck. Then they were put into a screaming Bird Machine with wings that went round and round, and taken high in the skies. The machine fell down in the lake where there are many crocodiles but even worse, there lies a Most Fearsome Tribal Spirit! The white men, who spoke in the tongue of the Boers, rescued them, and carried them a long way through the forest. Then, into another screaming Bird Machine. After all this, they were asked to swear on the Bible that these happenings, tales of which would enthrall their children and their children’s children around the cooking fires for generations to come, were «the truth, the whole truth…» Ha! Truly, the ways of the white man were beyond understanding!