Air Rhodesia’s B720s — “a riddle wrapped in a mystery”

By Mitch Stirling (Air Rhodesia)Rhodesians, dispersed throughout the world, have watched in utter dismay as their once-proud national carrier has stalled and nosedived into obscurity, its demise unprecedented in the annals of aviation history. International aviation watchers and plane spotters have been greatly saddened by this unhappy turn of events — inspired by politics and fuelled by ignorance and incompetence.Built from the remains of Central African Airways, Air Rhodesia Corporation was formalized on 1 September 1967. Once described as “a small airline with a big heart” it faced many challenges during its short years of existence but emerged with a reputation second to none as one of the better smaller airlines in the world. But a report in Time Magazine signalled the beginning of the end for the airline.

          “For the first time in 21 years the United Nations Security Council resorted to mandatory sanctions to bring down a government. The council declared an international embargo on 90% of Rhodesia’s exports and forbade the UN’s 122 member-nations to sell oil, arms, motor vehicles and aeroplanes to the Smith regime following a Unilateral Declaration of  Independence on 11 November 1965.”
During those troubled times Air Rhodesia’s operation depended on its ageing fleet of Vickers Viscounts and Douglas Dakotas but, faced with the growing burden of international sanctions and worrisome passenger loads, management realized that more competitive aircraft types were needed on their Africa routes if they were to survive. The solution to the problem appeared on the evening of the 14th April 1973 as Captain Roy Downes was taxiing out in a Viscount at Salisbury (FRSB) for the scheduled departure to Bulawayo (FRBU). He clearly recalls seeing three large, blacked-out “shadows” landing in quick succession. This was followed by a cryptic message in the Rhodesia Herald on that Easter weekend:
      “To Pat and Ray, congratulations on the arrival of the triplets.” Pat Travers, then general manager of Air Rhodesia, was delighted.
 
Boeing 720-4.
 
Boeing 720 -1.
Prime Minister Ian Smith said,
      “For a long time we have been trying to get something like this to give a boost to Air Rhodesia and we never knew whether it was going to succeed or not; I am thrilled.”
Pilots’ Association of Rhodesia chairman Captain Robin Hood announced,
  “It’s a wonderful feeling knowing at last the day has arrived.”
 
The Triplets
But the questions in the minds of all Rhodesians was:  who was flying them, how did they get here, from where had they come?
Over the years these unanswered questions have remained shrouded in mystery. The “facts” about their purchase and delivery have been muddled and contradictory and the identities of the air crews involved and their friends around the world have remained secret — as under international law they were all liable for prosecution. So the jet trails were deliberately erased and smoke screens were released in the news media to deceive British government and CIA investigators.
Speculation grew. The BBC suggested that they had come from Bern in Switzerland via Lisbon and Lourenco Marques. A strange South American millionaire was involved. A front organization in Paraguay bought them third hand. Secret flight plans had been filed from Lisbon to Paraguay. Jet Aviation in Switzerland was involved and Eastern Airlines in Miami. As political negotiations with the British government were in progress at the time, some thought it might have been a settlement deal in anticipation of a political break-through. Perhaps there was South African involvement? The aircraft had changed hands through a shady middle man and an unregistered company in Liechtenstein with PK van der Byl connections. Henry Kissinger was behind it all. Others thought it was an expensive propaganda ploy. A load of second-hand rubbish, said some critics. It was reported that some Air Rhodesia crews had been in training at SAA and TAP. Vague phrases began to appear in the tabloids:
   “Sources close to government said…”
   “It was reported that…”
   “The alleged aircraft were cast-offs from an aviation world, changing to wide-body jets.”
The “facts” were… nobody was really sure and those who knew were not saying a word. It remained one of the best-kept secrets in aviation, although Mr Elie Zelouf of Jet Aviation, Basel said the operation had taken 10 years off his life with M15 or M16 pitching up in Basel demanding explanations. Air Rhodesia management refused to comment, except to say it was a package deal. Minister of Transport Roger Hawkins broke official silence on 17 April ’73 with the brief announcement that VP-YNL Matabeleland, VP-YNM Mashonaland and VP-YNNManicaland had been added to the Air Rhodesia fleet in defiance of United Nations sanctions. Shortly after a member of the British parliament was heard to say, “The aircraft will sit on the ground as Rhodesia will not be able to get spare parts.”  Wrong;  the aircraft were maintained in beautiful condition by the engineers at Air Rhodesia’s workshops at Salisbury, whose ingenuity had been long-since tested by futile United Nations sanctions.
 
Vic MacKenzie cartoon.
Aircraft manufacturer Boeing and engine manufacturer Pratt and Whitney announced that they would cut off spares to any airline indirectly supplying spares to Air Rhodesia. “We have had extreme difficulties”, said chief engineer, Henry Radnitz, “but we have overcome the lot.” Those difficulties involved refurbishing and re-equipping some fairly weather-beaten machines. Some spares were actually designed and built in the Air Rhodesia workshops… often better than the original parts. Engine overhauls were carried out and a new engine test bed was constructed. Air crews, ground crews and all aircraft handlers had to be brought up to speed in a new “jet age” in Rhodesia. Marking their new identity were dark and light blue cheat lines on the fuselage with a stylized red Zimbabwe bird and Rhodesian flag on the upper tail fins.
 
720 on Apron
 
Jameson Hotel, Salisbury Menu With Signatures – 25th April 1973.
 
IDS (Rhodesian Prime Minister) on the jump-seat.

During the early days the threesome could be seen behind a tall security fence around the maintenance area at Air Rhodesia’s headquarters at Salisbury main, away from the public gaze. But the circuit at Salisbury airport was alive with the crackling sound of JT3C turbojet engines as they laid down dark exhaust trails. More air crews, their careers stunted by sanctions, were eventually converting to jets.

I remember gazing at the Triplets through the diamond mesh of the security fence when I was a young flight instructor. Perhaps even dreaming a little as I admired those BIG birds… so near, yet so far away. They looked like 707s but were shorter by about 4 metres. They were structurally lighter, said the technical manuals, with ventral fins and wing “gloves” between the fuselage and inner engine pylons to increase the Mach number in the cruise and improve the takeoff and landing performance. Said Flight Engineer Bob Fletcher in years to come,
   “Their stove pipe engines, with 12 000 lbs of thrust at ISA sea level turned fuel into noise and only provided thrust as a bi-product, but we loved ‘em.”
 
Take off (only 65 of original B720s were built)
 
On Camera

Air scoops above the inner engines were notable features too. Fresh air from these intakes was routed to turbo compressors which, combined with 12th/ 9th stage bleed air from the engines, was the primary source of cabin pressurization. This created a problem at top of descent when thrust was reduced to idle, as the engine bleed was now insufficient to supply enough air. The flight engineer and pilots had to work closely to control the pressurization with throttle and coordinate the descent profile. Freon was used as a coolant for air conditioning. Big leading edge Krueger flaps were a notable feature too, used to enhance take-off performance. In short, the B720 was an aircraft well-suited for Air Rhodesia’s Africa route requirements. They were high-speed, designed for short haul and intermediate stage lengths and with a passenger configuration of 126, a cruise speed of 930km/h and a range of 3 700 km they compared favourably with South African Airways B727 trijets.
 
Boeing 720 Flight Patterns
 
Limitations
Relevant text reads;-
LIMITATIONS
MAX. TAXY WEIGHT – 230 000 lbs
MAX. T/O GROSS WEIGHT – 229 000 lbs
MAX. ZERO FUEL WEIGHT -149 000 lbs
MAX. LANDING WEIGHT – 175 000 lbs
VMO:- SEA LEVEL – 378
5 000′ – 380
10 000′ – 383
23 500′ – 398
MM0:- 23 500′ AND ABOVE – MO.906
AUTO-PILOT ENGAGED – VMO AND MMO
LANDING LIGHTS – VMO
GEAR LOWERING: TO 30 000 – VLO 270
30 000 & ABOVE – VLO 280 OR MO. 83
GEAR EXTENDED – VLE 285 OR MO.83
GEAR EMERGENCY DESCENT – VLO 320 OR MO.90
VLE 340 OR MO. 90
FLAPS 20° – VFE 220
30° – VFE 210
50° – VFE 185
LEADING EDGE FLAPS DO NOT RETRACT – VNE 230 KTS
PURL DUMP CHUTE – VDCO 240 OR MO.83
VDCE 275 OR MO.83
CARGO FAIRING DOOR – VNE 250
MINIMUM CONTROL SPEED (T/O THRUST)VMCG 100
VMCA 100
MIN. CONTROL SPEED 2 ENG – IN0P
SAME SIDE VMCA 135
MIN.CONTROL SPEED OUTBOARD ENG-.
INOP AND RUDDER BOOST INOP – VMCA135
MIN.CONTROL SPEED 2 ENG.IN0P SAME
SIDE AND RUDDER BOOST IN0P. – VMCA 165
RUDDER BOOST 1 000 PSI. – VMCA 110
M TRIM INOP: NORMAL – VNE 0,81
EMERGENCY DESCENT 0,86
TURBULENCE SPEED – 280 OR MO.80
(WHICH EVER IS LOWER)
MAX .IN-FLIGHT WEIGHT AT WHICH RESERVES MAY BE EMPTY – 180 000
RESERVE TANKS MUST BE FULL WHEN IN-FLIGHT GROSS WEIGHT EXCEED – 185 000
T/O AND LANDING LIMITS: TEMP – -54°c TO ISA +34°C
ALTITUDE (AIRFIELD) -1000 TO 8300′
(PRESS ALT)
RUNWAY SLOPE – ± 2%
MAX. TAILWIND – 10 KTS
ALTITUDE – 0 TO 42000′ (PRESS ALT)
CABIN PRESSURIZATION:
MAX. DIFFERENTIAL – 8,6psi ± 0,15psi
RELIEF VALVE SETTING – 9,42psi ± 0,15psi
CROSSWIND LIMITATION: T/O – 29 KTS
LANDING 25 KTS
STARTING – 29
NORMAL STARTER LIMITS – 30 secs ON/60 secs OFF
SLOW STARTING ENGINE – 1 ON/1 OFF/1 0N/5 MNS OFF
MOTORING WITH FUEL AND IGNITION OFF: 2 MNS ON/5 MNS OFF
START LEVER TO START LIGHT UP WITHIN: 20 SECS
START EGT MAX. – MOM 610°C 450°
OIL PRESSURE. 5 PSI WITHIN 10 SECS
ACCEL. TO 50% N2 SHOULD OCCUR WITHIN: 2 MNS
T/O 620
 
Normal Take Off 20 ° or 30 °
Relevant text reads:-
Index
L4 – V2+10
L5 – 500′ (min) Flaps 20/30° V2+10 Min Max 15° Bank Turn into Heading OR V2+30 Max 30° Bank Turn Into Heading
L6 – On Heading Accelrate to V2+30 Flaps° Climb Thrust After T/O CHecks
L7 – 250KTS After T/O Checklist
L8 – Fl 100 290 KTS
L9 – M-77
R1 – 1000′ AGL Accelrate V2+10 – Flaps 20°, V2+30 – Flaps )°
R2 – V2+50 Climb Thrust After T/O Checks
R3 – 250KTS After T/O Checklist
R4 FL 100 290 KTS
R5 FL300 M.TT
B1 – V1
B2 – VR Rotate Smoothly to 8° Nose Up
B3 Postive RoC Alt and VSI Gear up
 
Approach to Stall and Recovery
 
ILS 2 Engine Inoperative
 
First Scheduled Salisbury to Durban (South Africa)
The new additions were placed on the Salisbury-Johannesburg route on 31 August 1973 and on the Salisbury-Durban route the following day. In November they supplemented the Viscounts on the tourist class service to Johannesburg as well as providing a service to Beira, Lourenco Marques and Durban. Blantyre remained a Viscount destination. Flying time on the Johannesburg run was now reduced from 155 minutes to 85 minutes in the jet. The first international jet commercial flight was a Dods Brooks rugby charter from Salisbury to Durban on 6 July 1973, the 27th anniversary of Captain Tony Beck’s time with the airline. It began with a flight to Bulawayo where embarking passengers were inconvenienced by the late arrival of some Plumtree school boys who delayed the flight — its first departure from Bulawayo. This in turn resulted in a delayed Salisbury to Durban departure for the VIP passengers, the Rhodesian rubgy team, plus B team, Under 20s and all their supporters destined for the Currie Cup game against Natal. They were not amused! No comment came from the Headmaster of Plumtree school, as his boys were on a Rhodes and Founders break. It was a slippery “side step” by old JB Clarke, as good as any rugby international’s.
 
Captain Tony Beck with Ron Maskell, Henry Radnitz (Head of Engineering) and Jack Cocking.
But to return to the mystery of who/how/where… what better person to ask than Captain James “Horse” Sweeney who was a member of the original delivery crews? Only he and Flight Engineer Taffy Powell are alive today to tell the tale. “Horse” tells the story in his own words in Part 2 of this article, along with some very interesting photographs and documents from Flight Engineer Jock Elphinstone’s old photo albums……..


End

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