Air Rhodesia’s Boeing 720s…. continued

 

By Mitch Stirling (Air Rhodesia)

 
Headlines – Rhodesia Herald
 
Headlines – Rhodesia Herald

I have been advised that Flight Engineer Taffy Powell, the kindest of men, sadly passed away some years ago. He and Jock Elphinstone (RIP — old friends) were involved in the delivery of the first CAA Viscount from Weybridge, England in 1956. Seventeen years later here they are again … in the clandestine procurement of Boeing 720s for Air Rhodesia. Remarkable! Today the last surviving member of the Boeing team is Captain James Mackenzie “Horse” Sweeney. But the good news is … “Horse” celebrated his 90th birthday with a parachute jump in Cape Town recently, so we can expect to have him around for some years to come. He takes up the story from an aircrew perspective:

“In early January 1973, three aircrews consisting of two pilots and a flight engineer were selected for a special job and training on pure jet aircraft. The crews were required to have passports other than Rhodesian and valid non-Rhodesian aircrew licences. I was one of those chosen and I think the only one with jet experience. Tony Beck, Shorty Rosser and Chum Keyter were the three captains, with Bernie van Huyssteen, Bob Hill and I acting as first officers. Harry Smith, Jock Elphinstone and Taffy Powell were the engineers. We were not told what we were going to do or where we were going and we were not to discuss our departure with anybody. Should we be forced to tell any foreign authorities what we were up to and why we were travelling, we were to say that a new holiday and travel low cost airline was being formed in South Africa and it had to remain secret.
At the end of January 1973 we left Salisbury for Frankfurt where we spent the night and only next day were we told to connect to Denver, Colorado to commence training on Boeing Aircraft at United Airlines USA. On arrival Denver we were housed at the Ramada Inn near the Airport and immediately started a conversion on the Boeing 720-025 aircraft — a slightly smaller, high speed, medium range version of the Boeing 707. The course was the standard United Airlines conversion course and was made up of about three weeks of lectures and tests, followed by five days of flying during which time we did 19 hours 30 minutes day and 20 minutes night flying. The night sortie coincided with my 50th birthday so we dropped in to the ‘Peanut Bar’ at the airport on the way home for celebratory drinks. A second round was called, at my insistence, but as we were flying again early the next day, we had to behave. The bar was named after the bowls of free peanuts which were served at the counter. Traditionally you ate the nuts and threw the shells on the floor, so the whole place crackled underfoot when you moved around! To walk between the airport and our hotel was not recommended by our instructors as it was an old WW11 low-cost housing scheme occupied by black folks whose dogs bit white folks … a far cry from the good relations experienced by all racial groups in the American Air Force during the Korean War.”
 
Postcard
 
16 hours 12 minutes airborne training with United Air Lines, Denver, March 1973
 
Taffy Powell, Bob Hill, Shorty Rosser and Jock Elphinstone
“We departed Denver in early March 1973 for Liestal in the Basel region of Switzerland and were housed for the night in a dump called the Radakahof. I think this originally had been a large open shed, with thin partitions to make up individual rooms. In the early hours of next morning Bernie van Huyssteen, who was a number of rooms away from me,  heard me moving around and suggested we go for a walk. It was still winter and we were not adequately clothed for European cold weather. But after walking for some time we found a place that was open at 6 am and was prepared to serve us hot coffee. This turned out to be the Engel Hotel — a very nice, warm friendly spot where we eventually had breakfast, met the owner/manager and enquired about accommodation and costs for the nine members of our party. The Engel was owned by Hans-Rudy and Elizabeth Hartmann and had been in the Hartmann family for some generations. We reported back to Mervyn Eyett, our deputy GM, who was in charge of the whole operation and suggested that we all move to the very much better accommodation with bathrooms and toilets en-suite at very little extra cost.  Dear old ‘Mr Moneybags’ would not hear of it, so Bernie and I moved into the comfort and good food of the Engel and paid the difference in cost from our allowances.
But it appeared that some people were taking more than a casual interest in our activities, so we were told rather hurriedly to split up into small groups and leave Liestal for a couple of weeks, and to rendezvous in Lucerne at a later date. Bernie and I went to Grundelwart, then to a quiet ski resort nearby. We felt uneasy about skiing in case of injury, which might have jeopardized the whole operation, so decided against it, very reluctantly. The hotel itself was a pleasant kosher Jewish establishment whose proprietors treated two heathens like us very hospitably.
We all met up at Lucern as arranged and returned to Liestal. Our three aircraft were housed at Basel-Mulhouse Airport which lies 6 km north west of Basel on the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland. They had German registrations and were still painted in the colours of a firm [Calair] that had gone insolvent. We had to sit around while the aircraft were being made ready for public auction; by that I mean they were being made to look in poor shape with engines removed and cowlings open and generally looking in a state of disrepair. The auction was held and the aircraft were bought for $1 000 000. I suspect it was all pre-arranged. An application had been made to validate our licences in Germany so that we could fly the aircraft home, but the applications were turned down at the last minute and three German crews were hired to fly them to Lisbon.”
 
At Basel airport 
“Our three crews flew deadhead from Basel to Lisbon, where we took control of the aircraft. Not having flown for six weeks and in aircraft with a cockpit layout slightly different from the ones on which we had trained required max concentration, not helped by some anxious moments due to delays in departure. And while we were completing customs and immigration formalities and pre-flighting, a couple of strangers were noticed walking around and examining the aircraft in detail. This resulted in a sudden panic to get airborne as it was thought it might be an attempt to stop the departure. We were instructed to get airborne ASAP! A start up problem on one of the aircraft raised the pulse rate further and then there was even more drama to come. The departure pattern consisted of climbing straight ahead to the NDB and then a starboard turn. Once the turn was complete, the next in line was cleared to go in tandem. Shorty Rosser was in the lead with Chum Keyter to follow. Tony and I were bringing up the rear with all the spares on board. After some nail-biting moments Shorty was cleared to go, followed by Chum, but on reaching the beacon he continued straight ahead. We had to hold position for what seemed like a very long time, waiting for take-off clearance. Chum eventually cleared starboard and we were able to get airborne. Apparently his cockpit had suddenly filled with smoke, causing much unhappiness in the front office with no time to concentrate on the departure procedure. It was found that an oily rag that been left in the heating system!
Once airborne we maintained radio silence until about half-way to Sal [Cape Verde Islands] when I broke silence to talk to Bob Hill and ask if he had been able to get any idea of the wind strength and direction. The forecast winds had been light at cruising altitude but I had worked out, with our limited VOR/NDB equipment, that we had a cross-wind component of +/- 100 kts. With my previous jet experience I knew this was probably an un-forecast jet stream. Bob confirmed this and we made the necessary heading adjustments to get us to Sal without any further problems … arriving there in the evening. Surrounded by a sea of hostile black African countries, Sal and Luanda in Portuguese West Africa were two of the very few airports in Africa that offered landing rights to white Southern African airlines, so fuel to destination (plus alternate) was a critical factor in route planning.” [Jock Elphinstone's log book entries with Rosser and Hill supports Horse Sweeney's entries, within a few minutes of each other]
 
Jock Elphinstone’s log book
“We flew Sal/Luanda/Salisbury the next day arriving in darkness on 14 Feb. After post-flight shut down checks, I got out of the aircraft and noticed that all the temporary German registrations had been obliterated. However, the colour scheme on the aircraft was almost identical to the Air Rhodesia paint work so, apart from the later addition of a twiggy bird and a Rhodesian flag on the tail, the aircraft livery remained the same.
The whole operation was very secret and even our own families had no idea where we were or when we were coming home. Apart from an exchange of a few personal letters  between Mervyn Eyett and the Air Rhodesia office, we had been completely out of contact. An interesting and successful operation.”
 
L to R …  Harry Smith, Jock Elphinstone, Tony Beck, Mervyn Eyett,
Chum Keyter, Taffy Powell and Shorty Rosser
 
Memo from Mervyn Eyett
The history of the Air Rhodesia Triplets goes back to September/October 1961 when they were rolled out of the famous Boeing production plant at Renton, Washington State. Five of the original machines were owned by Prudential Insurance and leased to Eastern Airlines, who eventually purchased them in 1966. They changed hands in a trade-in with Boeing Commercial Airplane in 1969, and were refurbished at Jet Aviation in Switzerland for the European charter market. German registrations were adopted and they were then purchased by Fluganlage AG who transferred ownership to Calair — a “bucket and spade” operator awaiting an air service permit. After a month parked at Frankfurt, the aircraft were moved to Basel in Switzerland for maintenance and a new paint job by Jet Aviation. By February D-ACIP was ready for service in two-tone blue and a big “C” for Calair on the tail. However, there was conflict with another German operator, Air Commerz, so the “C” had to be removed. This was the first of many problems that resulted in the whole Calair operation going “wheels up” and their aircraft being impounded. In 1972 they were purchased by Jet Aviation who sold three of the original five to Air Rhodesia … complete with cabin signs, seat numbers and toilet logos, all in German.

The others were: Serial number 18242, originally N8713E, then D-ACIS. Serial number 18244 was originally N8715E, then D-ACIT.

Should anyone want a full copy then please email Eddy Norris at orafs11@gmail.com
On their arrival at Air Rhodesia, the new jets were introduced to the travelling public with a series of demo flights and “round Rhodesia” trips. At $18 a ride, it was the best value in town. A door was not properly closed on one of these excursions, resulting in a bonus take-off and landing for the happy passengers! And on another trip, a Hawker Hunter of the Rhodesian Air Force appeared alongside, with wheels extended as if to say, “You can’t catch me!” Over the next few months more aircrews came on-line and the technical support teams went into action. Ted Methven’s old engine shop was upgraded with machines that could tip a Boeing engine vertically on its nose and lower it into a pit where the guys could work on it. The reason for Ted’s leave of absence in the previous few months suddenly became clear — he had been to school “overseas” and on the hunt for Boeings!
Cargo, Traffic, Cabin Staff, Catercraft, Ground Handling, Customer Relations … all were involved in the enormous task of introducing the “jet age” to Rhodesians. The first scheduled jet flight to South Africa occurred on 1 November 1973. But the stranglehold of UN sanctions should never be underestimated throughout the whole operation. Even United Airlines were heavily fined when it was discovered that they had trained Air Rhodesia crews.
 
First Day Cover
 
Memo from Mike O’Donovan 
 
Miss Elphinstone’s ticket
 
Air Rhodesia ticket
 
Sunday Times, 4 November 1973
 
“Can’t catch me!”
The dream of a young flight instructor who had peered through the security fence at Salisbury airport back in 1973, became a reality on 11 November 1982 when Captain Bernie van Huyssteen carried out my airborne Group 1 conversion on the B720, VP-YNL. An immediate and lasting impression was a very alarming Dutch roll if you touched the rudder with the yaw damper engaged. “Yaw damper disconnect” on approach was a check list item. But I think most pilots will agree … it was easier to land than our later Boeing 707s.
Thereafter it was always a pleasure to fly with some of the “greats” at Air Zimbabwe on the Boeing fleet. My old log book shows men like … in order of seniority, Shorty Rosser, John Heap, Ted Kruger, Bob Hill, Ray Sherwood, Bill Mann, Dave Harvey, Rodney van Rooyen, Robin Hood, Roy Downes, Chris Faber, Tony Thomas, Tom Tarr, Chris Spalding and Lionel Smith. Unfortunately my Boeing roster never coincided with those of John Day, Don Newton, Hew Travers and Bill Wragg who were type-rated captains at the time. Some of the “good old engineering hands” were still at work in the “engine room”…  like flight engineers Jock Elphinstone, Reg Mullen (chief FE after Jock), Jack Davidson, Cliff Hawthorne, and new boys Bob Fletcher, Alec Radnitz, Rob Cocking, Malcolm “Stud” Lane, Billy Eckert and Mike Hulley. Captain Chum Keyter ran the B720 simulator in Harare in those days along with the inimitable Dennis “Poopy” Clur. “It was a very basic ‘A’ model from SAA that handled like a 1946 Bedford truck”, said Roy Downes, “and bore no resemblance whatever to the real thing!”
VP-YNM removed from service in 1983 as Z-YNM. Parked outside the old Air Trans Africa hangar where the first class section was used by senior staff as a lunch-time canteen, giving rise to the rumour that it was a cabin staff training facility! Finally scrapped in 1986 HRE, thus ending its role as a spare parts donor.
VP-YNN removed from service in 1985 as Z-YNN, broken up in 1988 and purchased for spares by Air Charter Services, Zaire.
VP-YNL
 
VP-YNM Air Zimbabwe Rhodesia
 
Z-YNL  Zimbabwe registrations were issued in 1983

A serviceable Z-YNL was sold to Air Charter Services, Zaire, by public auction and departed Harare in November 1988 as 9Q-CTD. Loaded with spare parts from Z-YNN and accompanied by a B707 of Katale Aero Transport, it flew to its new home at Kinshasa’s N’Dijili International (FIH). New ACS was the new corporate identity allocated in 1992 and its last flight was in late 1993 or early 1994 … which was probably the last passenger scheduled flight of a B 720 anywhere in the world. It was withdrawn from service later that year and moved to a hangar, in very dusty conditions at Kinshasa. Thereafter it was cannibalized for spares for the B 707 of New ACS.

In1997 it found its last resting place when it was moved to “Corrosion corner” at Kinshasa airport. Last heard of in February 1998 with a total airframe time of a relatively low TT 32 713 hours.
 
Nov 1994, 9Q-CTD with New ACS colours in maintenance hangar (FIH).
First release of pic by Michel Huart. 
 
Corrosion corner.
 
Control wheel relic from the scrap heap
 It was a rather ignominious end to the flagship of the “Rebel Rhodesian” airline. VP-YNL and her two companions had been loved by many, criticized by some — particularly Jack Malloch’s DC8 boys, who were occasionally scornful of Air Rhodesia and their fleet of Boeings — but it has to be said that they provided a much needed boost to the Rhodesian morale at exactly the right time. It was a magnificent accomplishment and great credit is owed to all the airline personnel involved (from the pilots, to the men and women behind  the advertising campaigns). Underpowered and noisy they may have been — with loud bangs reported from compressor stalls during take-offs from Salisbury’s 4750 m (16 000 ft) runway — but they slotted into an operational niche and filled a need more than adequately. 40 years have slipped by since their arrival … but the legacy of Air Rhodesia’s B720s will not be forgotten for many more years to come.
To end a wonderful slice of history on a lighter, humorous note … Captain John Heap, Chief Pilot Air Rhodesia, was heard to say on one occasion …  “On take-off you just sat there until the thing decided to fly!”  Hahaha…..
 
John Heap, “Horse” Sweeney and Jock Elphinstone
With thanks to: Captain “Horse” Sweeney, Nicky (Elphinstone) Pearce, John Reid-Rowland, Michel Huart, Roy Downes, Rob Rickards, Tony Ward, Steve Carter, Vic MacKenzie, Mike Daly, Derek Hill, Walter Downes, Robin Norton, Sandy O’Donnell, Victor Sherwood, Clive Law-Brown, Mike Hamence, Dave Vermaak and Gordon Hall. The photographs come from the book, “They Served Africa with Wings” and the Facebook page of that name. Some previously unseen shots of the B720 in the colours of New Air Charter Services are attached, courtesy of Michel Huart, Henri Marchal and Michel Anciaux.
Addendum: The engine types on the Air Rhodesia B720 were probably (unconfirmed) type JT3C – 12s, as opposed to – 7s. Eastern Airlines was the only one of 17 original operators to install the heavier JT3C – 12 engines to gain additional thrust at 13 000 lbs.


End

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