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C/N 10397


Registrations carried

42-72292 USAAF
Bua50849 US Navy
N88756 Alaska Airlines
XA-GUP Guest Aerovias Mexico
N88756 Alaska Airlines
N88756 Transocean Airlines
VP-YTY Rhodesian Air Sercices
VQ-ZEC Bechuanaland National Airways
VQ-ZEC Botswana National Airways
A2-ZEC Botswana National Airways
ZS-FLO Botswana National Airways (Jack Malloch)
VP-YTY Air Trans Africa

Destroyed 28 June 1969 at Uli in Biafra, Nigeria, during the Biafran Airlift.

Mercenaries to the core!
By Robin Hilton Anderson Capt. ret.

In the early 1960s I had been taken on by Jack Malloch from Wenela – Francistown, as captain in Air Trans Africa on his Douglas DC-4 Skymaster in Salisbury, mostly flying inclusive tour groups from there to Mauritius.

We once flew military supplies from Lisbon to Sao Tome Island also, but that is another story! In December of the year of appointment I was taken aback when all his pilots were given their marching orders and no Xmas bonus! This I later learnt was his way of saving money, but I was already back home and did not go back after the holidays, as others regularly did.

Having returned to South Africa and begun another earth-moving business, I was again surprised to get a call from them later, asking if I would like to fly DC-4, VP-YTY, construction number 10397, out of Libreville in Gabon to Biafra in North Western Nigeria, and get paid in U.S. Dollars. Being under-capitalised, I jumped at the offer and left my elder brother, Neville, in charge of the Caterpillar machines, and soon flew into Libreville in Gabon, by then UTA, DC-8.

The pilot in charge, whose nickname was 'The Beard', checked me out with a few circuits and landings and acknowledged that I would 'do'. - I had at that time nearly 3,000 hrs. on DC-4s with Trek Airways between Johannesburg and Europe.

That evening at the resort type hotel we stayed at, a tropical downpour arose just on dinner time and in running along the pathways back to the main building I found myself being bombarded by green coconuts dislodged from tall palm trees by the deluge! One crew member at table indicated that one should wait out the storm as these 'missiles' weighed all of fifteen pounds and could do you serious harm on contact – this was the sum total of any advice about local conditions offered, both about weather or flying into Uli airport in Biafra! I was soon to learn why!

On being appraised of who my crew would be on the next flight I naturally spoke to them about their experience on the DC-4 and was pleased to learn that both my co-pilot and flight engineer had SAAF experience and had done quite a few trips to Uli. We arrived at around four in the afternoon for the pre-flight check on this first flight to find that the batteries were as flat as a pancake and all the electrical switches that could be on, were on! I asked Jan the co-pilot and the flight engineer Piet, who could have done this and they told me they thought it was the young Polish pilot who had said he was coming out to the airport to familiarise himself with the cockpit, that day. “Do we have ground power units at all the fields besides Libreville?,” I then asked of them and they answered in the affirmative. Knowing the batteries would not accept a charge when so flat I also checked that the unit at Uli was a good one and in working order. Accordingly we hitched up to the Power Cart and fired up the motors. On checking the fuel gauges I saw we had full tanks as I had been told they gave the vehicles at Uli fuel, whilst being offloaded.

So we got airborne for the Island of Sao Tome West of Gabon, to load up our cargo. It was dark by the time we landed and the operations staff said we would have to move the aircraft to facilitate loading. Jan wanted to do this himself so I agreed, but said I would come along to look over the cargo. All went well until I found that there were no weight stamps on the 160 steel ammunition boxes to be loaded and no scales to weigh them! Lifting a crate myself I was sceptical that they could only weigh 100lbs. each and asked if this was the regular type and number of boxes carried on previous flights? “Yes”, I was told by my crew and accepted what they said, but determined that I would see that we had some heavy-duty-hand-held-pendular-type scales for the next flight. Eight tons and nearly full fuel was a heavy load for such a short field as it was then, so I took full power against the brakes as close as I could get the 'four' to the end of the concrete and with twenty flaps extended we commenced our take-off. We got airborne on a gentle rotation with the far end of the runway in close proximity and I kept her just above the concrete to pick up speed in ground effect, not knowing that the land fell away steeply to the sea, just after the runway end!

Immediately on crossing the runway threshold Tango Yankee sank sickeningly towards the water and I smoothly rotated further to arrest the rate of sink, calling for “Gear Up!”. This left the landing lights shining upwards and of no use. Switching them off I could luckily discern the water by moonlight just below, and as the airspeed agonizingly slowly inched upwards, I finally could start to climb away and only then called for a reduction to Metopower. (Maximum, Except Take-Off.)

Obviously we were overweight to a great degree and the need for those scales and reworking the fuel load became a priority upon our return to Libreville. Later on in the climb-out at high climb power I asked if the cargo had ever been weight tested, and the answer was “No!”. Checking with Jan if he was happy with our routing to Uli I enquired of our ETA the Nigerian coast and destination. We were not communicating with any ground stations, only listening out on their frequencies. We also flew without navigation lights and very low instrument illumination in proximity to the coast and overland!

There was a NDB (Non-Directional radio Beacon) at Uli and I was pleased to see the needles stiffen up straight ahead as our arrival time approached. Ten minutes out and on the descent we called runway control and were given a QNH (altimeter setting for landing) and with the wind calm, asked for a straight in approach and landing, which was approved. A few miles out on long final we got the runway lights which appeared in extended straight parallel lines and remained so on short final. We were landing on a widened section of hardened earth road running through a coconut tree plantation and the straight lines with apparently equal spacing of the lights, confirmed that it would be relatively flat.

With all the landing checks having been done and full flaps extended we became aware of the extreme height of the palm trees lit up by the landing lights. I progressively called for a reduction in power settings keeping in mind our overweight condition and aiming to just clear the trees and lose height rapidly thereafter, so as not to waste runway, but have a smooth flare onto the ground. From 20 inches boost I rotated just above the ground calling for fifteen inches, from which point we usually asked for “Power slowly off,” as one settled into the nose-up touchdown attitude. The runway lights remained stretched out ahead.

Suddenly, they all disappeared and we were once again staring into pitch blackness, with the landing lights once more probing the sky at an even more acute angle than before! A ground power failure, I thought, and being but ten feet or so above the runway I called for “POWER OFF!”, before we could possibly drift off the estimated centreline; so the touchdown was firm but not hard by any means! – I had the control column hard back against my stomach. The runway lights had come back on soon after grounding the nose wheel and a loud 'bang' from the starboard side indicated a burst tyre, followed by another bang and a lurch to the right meant we had lost both tyres on that side! “Shutdown number three” I called, “and 'dress the prop'!” (This meant having one blade facing vertically above the engine to give the other two clearance from the ground in case of any irregularities in the surface.)

The speed fell off rapidly with the right oleo's wheels running on their rims and I asked for a turnoff point, telling runway control our predicament, but to no avail! I kept being told to continue to the end, which slowly we did, and it took all of twenty minutes! During this time we heard that the lights had not gone off, and deduced that in landing short we had probably encountered a section of rising ground not used before, as I had been told on enquiring, that the surface was flat! Finally vacating the runway onto a tarmac hard standing we shutdown and I told Piet not to engage the control lock, as the red warning strap from the floor-mounted lock running up in front of the captain's seat to the reel in the roof, was missing!

Discussing what best to be done Piet said they would remove the outer port wheel and block off the hydraulic brake line, then mount it on the inner starboard position and bend the outer brake line flat to close it off also. This should allow of a short take-off, and with a smooth touchdown at Libreville, we should be alright. He went to work jacking up the port oleo whilst the cargo was being unloaded. It soon became apparent that the jack was inadequate so, having refuelled a jeep from our tanks I went looking for a more robust jack from every aircraft that landed, and found that they were using different turnoff points from the runway! Telling Piet and Jan to wait until the DC-4 was unloaded and try again, I continued searching. In my absence they scrounged a truck jack and got the port wheel off, but could not lift the starboard side high enough to mount it there. Making do, they dug a hole through the tarmac and with the aid of a new twenty ton bottle jack I had just got from a Red Cross Transall; they were able to fit the good wheel.

This had taken the rest of the night I might add and dawn was glimmering in the East when at last we were ready to go. Filling in the hole and delivering the borrowed jack to the jeep driver with strict injunctions to make sure the Transall crew got it back on their next flight, we boarded and fired up with the help of their also-now-refuelled power cart. Being empty we were able to move on idle power whilst the cylinder head temperatures built up, and reaching the runway end we immediately took 30 inches power and then 48” against the brakes and with 20 degrees flap extended began our take-off roll, lifting off after a very short run, only to find the DC-4 turning to the right! Realising then that in the rush to get airborne I had not checked the controls fully and the lock was still in! - There is a lot of 'play' in this locking system - Pulling back the number one throttle to idle I was able to get the power from the starboard engines to bring us back onto the centreline and re-opened that engine to 40”. “S... !, get that F...... control lock out and don't touch anything! ,”I shouted. The building speed and offset rudder fin were now countering the clockwise rotation of the four propellers, so I pushed the outside port engine power lever back up even with the other three whilst lightly jiggling the controls in all directions to assist Piet in freeing the lock.

Now the hundred foot high palm trees and bamboo were showing up in the landing lights at the far end of the strip and I began winding the trim forward, using the small trim surface as an elevator and telling Jan to be ready to assist on the control column if need be, when the lock eventually came out! VP-YTY lifted it’s nose and cleared the wall of vegetation ahead and I reached up and switched off the landing lights as we did so. Settling down to instrument flying the lock finally came out and we were able to clean up the aircraft and go to climb power without further incident.

“Why was the lock still in?,” I asked of Piet and he said that the prop-blast from other aircraft had obliged him to lock the controls to keep ours from getting damaged when they turned in close proximity to our ship.

Luckily it was still pretty dark when we crossed the coastline and we were not intercepted by the Nigerian L29 jet fighters coming out of Port Harcourt and Kano, some of which were flown by fellow South Africans, one of whom was an old buddy from Trek Airways; Bill Fortuin. It was said that these guys would whistle “Daar KOM die Ali Baba, die Ali Baba die KOM oor die see,” when approaching Uli on their dawn attacks, on our frequency, as a subtle warning to us freighters to clear the area fast!

Arriving in bright equatorial sunlight back at base I repeatedly asked the tower to have the fire trucks adjacent the runway on landing as I might have to use the emergency air brakes to stop and this could cause a fire if a wheel locked up. They did not understand and we proceeded on the approach for a short landing, except that as initial flap was extended I noticed the hydraulic quantity gauge drop to almost zero and told Jan to leave the flaps there as I wanted to still have fluid left for the brakes. (After bleeding the brakes at Uli, there was no more reserve hydraulic fluid left.) Dragging the Skymaster in on power I had Piet progressively reduce the boost so that we touched smoothly with a trickle of power on at a slow speed and held the nose up high until it wanted to drop, then quickly lowered the nose wheel towards the surface and whipped the column back into my stomach to cushion the actual runway contact of the tyre. Calling for numbers 1 and 4 engines to be shut down we were able to clear the runway and taxi up to the hangar without using the brakes, but now our French engineers wanted us to taxi up a slope into the narrow hangar itself! Although the brakes had shown serviceable I was not going to push my luck any further and we parked just short at 90 degrees to the doors.

Thanking my crew for their stout efforts I shook hands all round and we left 'Tango Yankee' to get some 'TLC' from the ground staff.

It turned out that, that young Polish moron was clamouring to be made a captain to get the $700 a trip! He was the only crew member who could communicate in French with the paymaster, who was in control of the operation, and he did all he could to get rid of anyone in his way! He later came to the RSA and wiped himself out flying into power lines!

VP-YTY came to a similar ignominious end when Jack Wight landed at Uli and did get to turn off before the end of the runway, but turned the wrong way on re-entering for a mid-field take-off and ended up in amongst the bamboo and palm trees!

Makes one wonder if that missing red warning control lock strap, had ultimately got its final victim?!

Robin Anderson
August 2012.