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In The Beginning.

In The Beginning   by Mitch Stirling.
The Mashonaland Flying Club, some would say, is the cradle of civil aviation in Central Africa.
mashonaland flying club

 Mashonaland Flying Club.

 The club, comparable in every respect to other flying clubs in the region, and even to those as far away as the famous Aero Club of East Africa in Nairobi, was officially established in 1958. One of the early members, former BOAC and BA Captain Michael Wenden said, “I doubt that the world’s airlines could function today without the pilots trained at Mashonaland Flying Club. It is a remarkable institution.”

But where did it all begin?

Guided by Frederick Courteney Selous, the Pioneer Column of Rhodesia set out in September 1890 in search of new lands in the area named by him as Mount Hampden. On arrival they outspanned near the present day Harare kopje in Zimbabwe and the commanding officer, Colonel Pennefather, hoisted the flag of the British Union on a makeshift pole. Three cheers were raised and the newcomers spread out across the untamed, fertile ground of the Lomagundi and Mount Hampden region to stake their land claims and search for gold. And so Rhodesia was born a few short years ago in historical times, a mere blink of an eye. Even today a careful observer might find relics of those early days lying around in the bush near Mount Hampden.

In years to come the young country of Southern Rhodesia became somewhat isolated at a time when great advancements in technology were taking place in Europe. The Great War − in which Selous was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for ‘conspicuous gallantry, resourcefulness and endurance’ − inspired much of this rapid development and new aircraft, with aerial combat capability, brought ‘death from the skies’ for the first time in history. Several born and bred Rhodesians answered the colours and mustered into the Royal Flying Corps.

There was Paget ‘Paddy’ Hook of pioneer stock who later became surgeon general of The South African Medical Corps.

Lieutenant Arthur Browne from Umvuma was attached to No 13 Squadron Royal Flying Corps. He was killed in a dog fight during 1915 in an aircraft donated by the people of Gatooma. It was one of five aircraft purchased by donations from the citizens of Southern Rhodesia.

Lieutenant Frank Thomas, from Plumtree, was a combat pilot in the Royal Flying Corp. who won the Military Cross and the French Croix de Guerre (with palms) before dying of wounds sustained on operational duty.

Balfour Johnston Carnegie, from an old missionary family in Figtree was there, and so was Duncan Campbell Dunlop.

Daniel Sievewright Judson from Kirton farm, Heany Junction, was an observer on No 3 Squadron Royal Flying Corps, along with fellow Rhodesian Captain Donald Wray Forshaw. ‘Pat’ Judson, as he was known, re-mustered as a pilot and was severely wounded before the war was over.

pat judson
Pat Judson

Second Lieutenant Hugh Clement Eyre of Salisbury was probably the first Rhodesian airman to be killed. He is buried in the Cologne cemetery in Germany.

Major George Lawrence ‘Zulu’ Lloyd flew Nieuport 17s in the famous 60 Squadron Royal Air Force and won the Military Cross and the Air Force Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ and for eight victories in the air. He was Rhodesia’s first official fighter ace.

Second Lieutenant David Greswolde ‘Tommy’ Lewis from Bulawayo had the dubious honour of being the 80th and last man shot down by ‘Le Petite Rouge’. He survived the ensuing crash-landing, after being thrown from the burning wreckage, and acknowledged a low fly-past and salute from his formidable opponent − the commander of Jagdstaffel 2, Manfred von Richthofen − the Red Baron. It was the age of chivalry.

tommy l




‘Tommy’ Lewis

Arthur Harris was a bugler with 1st Rhodesia Regiment in South West Africa before his spectacular rise to fame in the Second World War. As Marshal of the Royal Air Force ‘Bomber’ Harris, 1st Baronet GCB OBE AFC always wore the Rhodesia flash on his uniform.

But it was not until 11 June 1920 that a war-surplus machine paid a visit to Salisbury. It landed on the racecourse where the Magistrate’s Court stands today.

‘The hooter at the brewery sent its voice abroad in short spasms’, said the Rhodesia Herald. Late, but it was here, at last, to the delight of thousands of awaiting spectators. Imagine the excitement. It was a hugely significant moment when pilot Earl Rutherford of the South African Aerial Transport Company flew into the pages of history in a converted Avro 504K.



Avro 504 Rhodesia

The aircraft circled the town and landed in front of the crowded grandstand. When the pilot and his two passengers, Messrs Ulyett and Thornton disembarked, they were greeted with loud shouts and cheers of approval. George Elcombe, the mayor, formally welcomed Mr. Rutherford and congratulated him on behalf of the town for being the first pilot of the first aeroplane to come to Salisbury. He expressed the hope that the day was not far off when aeroplanes would be in daily use in Rhodesia.

The modern-day archive at Lusaka records the unfortunate demise of this aircraft at Mazabuka on a later flight to Northern Rhodesia.







crash at mazCrash at Mazabuka

And the next Avro 504 to visit Rhodesia, ‘Matabele’, also came to grief. Piloted by Major Allister Miller of the Rhodesian Aerial Tours Company, it swerved off the runway at Rusape in 1922 and hit a tree. Gusty, changeable winds were to blame.


crash rusape

Crash of ‘Matabele’ at Rusape

Alan Cobham, that adventurous airman, passed through Rhodesia in 1924 in ‘Youth of Britain’, a DH.50J with an air-cooled 385 hp Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar engine. He was heading south on a route survey undertaken on behalf of Imperial Airways to establish the feasibility of a scheduled service.

alan col




Alan Cobham

In all, the 1920s saw a marked increase in visits to Africa by a new generation of more affordable flying machines. Popularized by sport-aviation in Europe, they began to appear from ‘beyond the blue horizon’. And there were records to be broken too when intrepid airmen like Lieutenant R.R. Bentley MC MFC (ex-Rhodesia Railways) Lieutenant Pat Murdock, Walter Kay, Tommy Rose, Glen Kidson, Casper Caspareuthus, South Africans Stan Halse and Victor Smith joined the race to the Cape.

dick b
Dick Bentley – (unknown prang.)

Flight Lieutenant Chevallier Preston and Major Charles Sandford (‘Sandy’) Wynne-Eyton (‘Moth’ Eyton) of Bromley pioneered the Kenya to Salisbury route in a DH.60 Cirrus Moth in 1929. ‘Sandy’ Wynne-Eyton was the first flying instructor in Salisbury and was a founder member of the Salisbury Light Plane Club in 1929, before he left to join Wilson Airways in Nairobi.

Not to be outdone by their men folk, women like Lady Mary Bailey, Lady Sophie Mary Heath, the Duchess of Bedford and the prima aviatrix Amy Mollison (nee Johnson) and others, began to appear as well − crowding the pages of aviation history with their remarkable feats.

amy j
Amy Johnson

London secretary Amy Johnson broke the London to Cape Town record in 1932 with her solo seven days seven hours and five minutes in the famous DH.80 Puss Moth ‘Desert Cloud’. Poor Amy was to die in the freezing waters of the Thames estuary during the war when she was delivering an Airspeed Oxford. Apparently she bailed out, but her parachute failed to open. Her body was never found.

amy desrt cloud






Amy Johnson’s ‘Desert Cloud’

Lady Mary Heath had an unexpected encounter with Dick Bentley on her Africa travels in 1928. Bentley’s earlier record-breaking flight the year before had earned him the Britannia Challenge Trophy for the first solo from London to Cape Town (28 days) in a DH.60G Gipsy Moth. But on this occasion he was on a more leisurely trip with his wife Doris when he met the redoubtable Mary Heath at Ndola, Northern Rhodesia. She was on the first ever solo flight from Cape to Croydon at the time. A remarkable ‘Lady’ indeed, she held the first British commercial pilot’s license to be awarded to a female. And, to crown it all, she was the first woman in the world to parachute from an aircraft. Fortunately it was only a practice jump.

Bentley and Heath

Lady Bailey (later DBE) is remembered for flying solo from Croydon to the Cape and back in an open-cockpit DH.60.

The ‘Flying Duchess’ of Bedford took up flying at the ripe old age of 60 and spent many exciting hours in the skies over Africa in a Fokker Monoplane named ‘Spider’. Her navigator was Captain CA Barnard of Rhodesian and Nyasaland Airways (RANA). But this gallant grandmother came to a tragic end. She disappeared a few years later off the English coast on a solo flight. Only a few pieces of the Moth she had been flying washed up on the shore.

In Southern Rhodesia at the time there were only four privately owned aircraft. VP-YAA, named ‘Newton’, was a DH.60 with a Cirrus 11 engine and was the first to be registered in Salisbury. It came from the Durban Light Aeroplane Club as G-UAAP and was owned initially by Mr. Freeland Fiander who had lost his left arm, but could still fly by means of a special shoulder attachment. His wife Audrey was the first Rhodesian female pilot. Both were trained by flying instructor Pat Judson.

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VP-YAA. ‘Newton’ with Chris Perrem and Lady Codrington

The Salisbury Municipal Aerodrome (later Belvedere) was the centre of civil aviation in those early days. And on 15th August 1936 over 20 000 spectators gathered there to watch a thrilling display of precision flying and aerobatics. There was crazy stunt flying and pylon racing as well. The first ‘Southern Rhodesian Air Rally and Aerial Display’ was a huge success, with the de Havilland Aircraft Company (Rhodesia) Ltd demonstrating its Tiger Moth (Military Trainer) and Moth Major. Both machines were used for flying instruction to satisfy a growing demand in a population eager to learn the principles of flight and how to fly. By 1937 there were five privately owned aircraft in Rhodesia. There was even an active gliding club, with an airstrip alongside Second Street Extension in 1938.


First Air Rally

air rally poster








hornet moth








De Havilland Advert

vp vbg

VP-VBG 82A. Tiger Moth of de Havilland, Salisbury.





VP-YAW DH 60G-111 Moth Major.


vp  ybx

VP-YBXHornet Moth.

vp  ybx

But the idea of a flying club in the Mount Hampden area lay somewhere in the future. One man in particular was to help shape its destiny. He was Charles Hilton Prince, chief flying instructor of de Havilland, Salisbury. Over the coming years he encouraged many young Rhodesians ‘bitten by the flying bug’ to take to the air in civilian and military roles.

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De Havilland Salisbury 1939. Charles Prince with pipe

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Charles Prince ‘Mr. Aviation’







MK Airlines was operated by a hard working bunch of crew. They worked long hours and gave an unprecedented level of dedication to their company. Here is a montage of photos Thanks to ex MK pilot Kevin Creane. Cheers Kevin.

Looking forward to more contributions and stories. There are plenty out there…

Mike T

Captain Mike  Thornycroft R.I.P.

9G-MKC -55 9G-MKF 9G-MKH model 9G-MKK Lusaka 9G-MKK model G-MKBA 2 G-MKEA G-MKBA MK Baghad MK Lusaka 2 Title pageMK Red Arrows9G-MKA model

Anywhere, anytime

Anywhere, anytime


By Mitch Stirling (Air Rhodesia)
RUAC Salisbury.

“Anywhere, anytime”
The pleasure of flying a Beechcraft Baron around Rhodesia and being paid for it by Captain Colman Myers — managing director and founder of Rhodesia United Air Carriers — was something a budding young pilot would never forget.
Log Book.

A glance at my own log book of the 1970s brings back many happy memories of faces and places from my days at RUAC, Salisbury. In those days the pilot complement was: Ken Murrell, Charlie Bewes, Dave Rider, Phil Nobes, Ken Maurice, Dave [Boo] Addison, Vic Miles, Robin Cartwright, Roger Paterson, Martyn Taylor, Rob Jordan, John Grimes and, later, Rob Gaunt, Charles Paxton and Ken Edwards.
RUAC Barons at Salisbury airport.

Of the above, Col Myers was particularly impressed with Vic Miles who, he said, was one of the few “natural” pilots he had ever met. Stan Murray was, most certainly, another. He was in charge of the Lonrho contract and operated a temperamental, super-charged Queen Air VP-WHH on their behalf. A most skilful pilot, with years of experience, Stan spoiled his passengers outrageously by providing them with the early morning paper and warm, hand-wrapped pies, whilst regaling them with his stories of “fine fishing”. He tied his own trout flies on stopovers. The passengers loved him.

Above: Police Reserve Air Wing pilots Stan Murray and Dan Eardley [director of RUAC] and an observer. A number of RUAC pilots flew with PRAW and No 3 Squadron of the Rhodesian Air Force.

On the engineering, stores and administration side of the company were Chummy Page, Chuck Drake, Bob Richardson, Steve Rutherfoord, Carole Brooks, Sandy Paterson, Debbie Page and Tanny Palmer. “Washer”, one of the African assistants, seemed to be in all departments, simultaneously. He was everywhere. Unfortunately, many more names escape my fading memory, but perhaps readers will add their own memories in the comments section at the end of the article?
Pilots Rob Dalton [SAA retired] and Chris Marchant [Royal Brunei] were there at the time, as I recall, but they flew off to greener pastures at an early stage, as did many young pilots in those days. Promotion to a big jet, or the national carrier, was an ever-present temptation when the opportunity arose. Shortly after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Tudor Thomas and Mark McClean joined the company when their contracts to fly Hunters in Oman fell through. John Barnes from the Air Force arrived as well. Thomas the cat, Tudor’s namesake, was a special member of the office staff for many years to come!
With 1 000 hours of flying experience and an instrument rating, a successful young RUAC applicant joined a professional team of pilots whose network  covered domestic hubs, generally not serviced by Air Rhodesia, and regional destinations as far away as Zaire. And there were commuter and freight services to agricultural and mining projects around Rhodesia as well, so there was never any shortage of interesting places to visit. Safe, disciplined airmanship was learned behind the controls of a light twin or single engined aircraft, as bush flying experience was gained. That’s where “real” pilots learned their trade, in a “seat of the pants, stick and rudder” flying environment. As an introduction to a career in commercial aviation, it was second to none.
Inevitably there were mishaps and some accidents, as many of the bush strips were short and rough and a little “hairy” too, to say the least, especially as they were often situated right in the middle of Rhodesia’s hot war zones. Flights into Ratelshoek in the eastern border tea plantations, or into Middle Sabi, Chisumbanje and Hippo Valley in the lowveld sugar estates, were very challenging for new pilots, as were remote airfields at tourist destinations on the Zambezi River and at various mines around the country — the emerald mine at Sovelele, gold at Umvuma and Cam and Motor, coal at Wankie, nickel at the Empress, iron ore at Buchwa, tin at Kamativi, phosphates at Dorowa. Flying was often carried out at tree-top level and seldom above 5 000 ft agl, unless cloud seeding.
The absence of on-board weather radar made things very interesting when flying in the rainy season. But, as far as I know, there was only one fatal crash due to weather. Beech Baron VP-YXM crashed near Tete in Mozambique in bad weather during the 1960s, killing all on board. The passengers were top management from the unfortunately named “Wright Rain” company.
Cessna 210s and 206s were used when flying into some of the rougher airfields like Skelton, Chiwira, Makugwe, Chiurgwe, Nyajena, Mazarabani and Tonje.  VP-YLT was one of the C 210s and the other was ZS-EWD, with the Robertson STOL conversion, fondly known as “Edward”. VP-WIR and VP-WCK were the C 206s.
VP-WDX was a Beech Queen Air which, in addition to its usual charter duties, was used for cloud seeding. It was sold to Brian Patten and a new, personalized registration was added, VP-YBP.


VP-WCK at a Middle Sabi farm strip.
VP-YLT at Tilbury. Bought specifically for cloud seeding.

A scheduled service from the old Perrem’s airfield, Umtali, was introduced in 1978 using the C 206 VP-WCK. There were some interesting moments in the early days, particularly when Umtali was mortared by a group of “terrs” [for the second time]. Mortars were launched at the town from the ridge above the Aloe Park motel, where the resident pilot was staying at the time, and the Rhodesian Artillery boys, stationed at Impala Arms in the Vumba, traversed their guns and opened up on them with volleys of 25 pounders. Cordite and big bangs were in the Umtali air!
On another occasion the pilot of VP-WCK was briefed by the Grand Reef Air Force commander that there were confirmed reports of Strela [SAM-7] missiles in the Chipinga and Umtali area and to therefore fly below the lock-on height. Consequently, just north of Middle Sabi, he took small arms [AK47] hits — three rounds through the baggage compartment, one just aft of the wing spar and a round through the pilot’s door, just missing his head. The bullet exited through the top of the instrument panel and windshield. When he saw tracer coming up, our pilot dived hard for the ground and very nearly collided with a high tree! His log book entry dated 19th March 1979 states: “Terrs hit aircraft abeam Cashel. Five bullet holes, Chisumbanje to Umtali, no injuries.”
Windscreen bullet holes.

VP-WCK at Chiwira, Honde Valley, showing the later matt grey, anti-strela paint job
VP-WCK at Perrem’s.

Beechcraft Barons formed the backbone of the RUAC fleet, with type BE 58s VP-YKM and VP-WHV. They proved to be popular with passengers, offering easy access with their rear-entry doors. The BE 55s were: VP-WBX, VP-WHG, VP-WCX and ZS-FJP. One of them skidded off the end of Kamativi, damaging the propellers, but the author [conveniently] can’t remember which one! Baron ZS-IJK was previously owned by the Malawi government, used by Kamuzu Banda as his personal aircraft and flown by Captain Richard Cook.
Another BE 55 at the time was VP-WAX. It went swimming in Lake Kariba at one stage. “Glassy water” effect was a very real danger on a hazy morning at Bumi Hills, when the waters of Kariba dam were mirror-smooth. Blue sky, perfectly reflected in the lake, could blur the horizon and cause momentary visual disorientation. Fortunately, in this instance, there were no injuries. The pilot stepped off the wing onto a rescue boat and the Selous Scouts retrieved the soggy aircraft in due course.
The gear-warning system on the Baron was a source of endless problems. The circuit breaker, to silence a very irritating audio warning whenever the throttles were retarded, was often manually “popped” OUT in flight by the pilots. But remembering to push the breaker back IN on landing, was a critical part of the landing checks that could easily be forgotten. An unhappy incident is recorded when one of the earlier pilots managed to land with the wheels UP at Risco [twice!]. The adage that there are those who have, those who will, and  those who will do again is a warning that should never be forgotten by pilots of any age and experience.
Above: VP-YWT Beech BE 55 was registered to RUAC in 1964, until at least 1976, then to Val and David Barbour in 1980.
VP-WAX with Colman Myers in control.

The company’s “winged workhorses” were two BN 2-A Britten-Norman Islanders — VP-WHX and VP-WEX. They were known as the “constant noise, variable speed machines”, although the speed varied little from the target 65 knots for take-off and landing. There was a modest increase in speed during cruise to all of 120 kts TAS.
Z-WHX was shot-up at Quelimane in Mozambique at a later date, while contracted to the International Committee of the Red Cross. This resulted in some serious injuries.
In Bulawayo, George Mawson, Richard Darlow, Roger Fenner, Chris Brittlebank, Barney Reichman, Garth Lee and Andy Searle were the pilots at the time, with Reg Reynolds and Chuck Osborne looking after maintenance. Judy Paxton was in the front office. But no story of RUAC would be complete without mention of engineer Laurie Hippman, who carried out the maintenance on the resident Islanders and “Dungbeetle” Apache VP-YDP. He was also the receptionist, telephonist and bookings clerk. Any “spare time” he had in his busy day was spent working on George Mawson’s dreaded VW Beetle! Simon, Bernard and Lyshus, the African staff, always provided faithful, all-round service.
Bulawayo-Mashaba-Shabani proved to be a successful Islander route and a scheduled service was introduced. The Bulawayo Baron operated through Fort Victoria to Buffalo Range. It is interesting to note that RUAC engineers were experimenting with anti-Strela devices at the time. They re-routed the shrouded engine exhausts on the Baron to the inside of the cowling. This mod was not approved by Lycoming and caused quite a few raised eyebrows from passengers when they saw warm glows coming from “inside” the engines at night!
Chris Brittlebank and Islander in anti-strela paint.

Hangar 2 Bulawayo.
VP-WHX in Bulawayo hangar with Reg Reynolds.
The RUAC team at Victoria Falls for the “Flight of Angels” and aerial game spotting consisted of Xavier van den Berg, John Wilson, Pat Weir and John Honman, with pilots from home bases in Salisbury and Bulawayo helping out in rotation. “Van” and his wife Sue, who ran the office, were the stalwarts at RUAC, Victoria Falls, for many years. He had over 14 000 hours when he retired, mostly spent over the cataract or up the river and adjacent game park, giving enormous pleasure to countless thousands of passengers. Dicky Bradshaw was the resident engineer, literally — he lived in the hangar — an unforgettable character with a wicked sense of humour and unquenchable thirst! His animated characterization of wild animals was hilarious.
Three Apaches were in use. VP-WCE  was a turbo-charged PA 23-160H, also used for cloud seeding in Matabeleland. PA 23-150 VP-YPP was previously owned by AG Burton of Salisbury. Apache VP-YOM PA 23-150 was sold to Monty Maughan. The Aztec in use, VP-WGD PA 23-250B, was a Northern Rhodesia machine in earlier times.
Two other RUAC pilots, Mike Grant and Eddie Marucchi, were involved in an unfortunate collision at Sprayview which became known as the “Fly United” incident. Blades from the propeller of Aztec VP-WGD inflicted some serious damage to the body of VP-YUR when they united on landing. WGD was repaired and flew again, but Aztec YUR’s wreck helped to increase the size of the rubbish dump behind the hangar which, over the years, became a treasure trove of aircraft parts. Engineer John Martin even found an undercarriage leg from an old Avro Anson buried in the junk. It was a veritable aviation museum, dating back to the days of Spencer’s Air Service in the 1930s/1940s.

“Fly United.”

Dicky Bradshaw on recovery.

Z-WGD flies again.
Sprayview has been swallowed up by urban encroachment in recent years.

On 2 November 1977 pilot Eddie Marucchi had another narrow escape. A heat-seeking SAM missile, launched from the north bank of the Zambezi, was fired at the Apache he was flying. But it homed instead on the heat emanating from a local hotel. The up-market Elephant Hills Casino Hotel was burnt to the ground.
Above: Apache VP-YPP, of missile fame, is now beyond mechanical repair and rotting away in Harare. Richard Muir in picture.
After independence in 1980, Rhodesia United Air Carriers changed its name to RUAC (Pvt) Ltd and later to United Air Carriers (Pvt) Ltd, then to the abbreviated United Air (Pvt) Ltd. The “VP” prefix was erased from all aircraft registered in Zimbabwe, RUAC’s included, and replaced by the letter “Z”.
And the rest, as they say, is history. But the enduring legacy of Colman Myers continued into the early years of the new Zimbabwe. The occasional accident endured as well, unfortunately, but “anywhere, anytime” remained the reassuring motto, as did “our aircraft will never leave without you”.
George Mawson’s memento.
UAC Aztec Z-WGD at the Falls.
Obituary. It is with great sadness that I report the recent passing of Carole Brooks and Captain Xavier van den Berg — now “Flying with the Angels”.
Photo credits, with thanks to: Sue and Calvyn van den Berg, George Mawson, John Hayler, Richard Darlow, Rod Bater, Ed Fleming, Deb and Allan Addison, Paul Maher, David Jessop, Richard Muir and the collection of Kjell O. Granlund in Oslo. [RUAC photos have wandered far and wide!] Research by David Newnham and Roger Paterson and John Reid-Rowland for his editing skills.







Captain Scotty Fraser remembers the DC-6 conversion.

Captain Scotty Fraser remembers the DC-6 conversion.

DC-6 on apron at Salisbury airport

DC-6 on apron at Salisbury airport

After a great deal of arguing and wrangling and heated words amongst the various heads of department, including the general manager, our operations division managed to achieve success.

We had won our point ─ which was to hire a DC-6 aircraft to use on our London route.

Egypt and England were not on speaking terms at this time, therefore no aircraft, even slightly connected with the hated British, were permitted to over-fly Egyptian territory ─ be it ever so remote and sand infested! To comply with the Egyptian warning that they would shoot down any aircraft violating their territory, all airlines operating in the overseas routes between Benghazi and Khartoum had to fly a dog’s leg to some mythical sand dune in the middle of the Sahara desert to avoid Egyptian territory. This extended leg, coupled with built- in head winds at 12 000 ft (which reached 100 mph and more), caused grave concern for the crews of the relatively short-range Vickers Vikings and Viscounts then in use on this profitable route.  A Douglas DC-6 could easily carry greater loads over a greater distance, so we in operations could not understand what all the fuss and bother was about.

The general manager finally conceded defeat but said to me, ‘Seeing that you have championed this American aircraft throughout our discussions, you and the selected crews who are to fly this aircraft had better get your south ends off to Rome, as I have hired a DC-6B from Alitalia and have arranged conversion courses to begin ASAP’.

~ We had some formidable technical knowledge to absorb before we so much as set eyes on the aircraft… ~

The lucky ones selected looked forward to a three month’s stint in the Eternal City. However, it was not all dolce vita. We had some formidable technical knowledge to absorb before we so much as set eyes on the aircraft. Furthermore, apart from bon giorno, come sta, and quanta costa, none of us knew much Italian. And the Italian instructors suffered the same disadvantage, as far as English was concerned. We had to acquire a precise knowledge of hydraulics, pressurisation, fuel system, water methanol injection and a complex electrical circuitry, as well as BMEP (Brake Mean Effective Pressure – a measure of engine performance which was something heretofore unknown to us!)

All this, through the medium of the Italian language, was too much for us and we revolted. So, some American- accented English translators were engaged who had learned their English by watching Hollywood movies: some remarkable translations occurred!

The voluble Italian instructor would, with much expressive gesticulation and arm waving, explain in great detail the inner workings of this complex ship only to have the translator lose all the vital bits in his ‘cotton pickin’ American accent. It was an impossibly LONG course! 

~ Now you have a hazard, with dozens of irate Italian drivers all sounding their horns simultaneously and swearing vengeance on the stupid gringo… ~

Meanwhile, our lads got to know Rome, mainly the popular watering holes like the Quirinale, the Da Meo Patacca and the Hole in the Wall. The younger chaps lived it up at Pipistrello. Two of the lads, Tony and Frank, somehow obtained a Lambretta scooter which they put to good use on days off. One was the owner/driver and the other, being the senior, was the navigator who mounted himself on the pillion seat and gave a running commentary on traffic density and on which way to go. Many were their hair-raising exploits. Being used to driving on the left back home, they often fell foul of the law when they came to an interchange. Tony would endeavour to turn left whilst Frank would scream it was a senso unico (ie a one way). Thereupon Tony would do the very thing one must never do in thick Italian traffic, and that is change your mind, because Antonio in his Cinquecento Fiat had to swerve to miss them by a fraction of an inch as he too had been forced to change his mind, and nearly his sex!  Now you have a hazard, with dozens of irate Italian drivers all sounding their horns simultaneously and swearing vengeance on the stupid gringo.

We were all finally presented with large ornate certificates which stated, in superb Italian, that the under-mentioned individual had successfully completed Alitalia’s training syllabus and was now proficient to fly the DC-6B. At last we would get to grips with this mighty monster. Don’t forget that, at this time, the DC-6 represented as modern and efficient a means of transport that could be found anywhere in the world. Jets were still in their infancy and not available to little bush airlines out in the sticks. To us, she was beautiful, specially painted in our livery.

We soon all got the hang of the DC-6 as the flying instructors were far more fluent in English than the classroom lecturers. They had been used to getting all their air traffic instructions in English, as it had been declared the universal language of aviation. The only exception to the bilingual instructors was the chief pilot. He was Italiano solomento and he insisted on flight testing each one of us personally.

DC-6 cockpit

DC-6 cockpit

The day arrived when we were called upon to demonstrate our skill and dexterity at the controls of Mike Tango (I-DIMT was the registration, India-Delta India Mike Tango). As time was running out, old Solo Mio, as we called him, filled Mike Tango with 100 octane fuel, took on catering in the galley and away we all went. One took one’s turn in the driver’s seat alphabetically.

Tony, being high up on the alphabet kicked off in the left seat, or captain’s seat, with a learner first officer in the right and a learner flight engineer in a kind of folding jump seat between them. Old Solo Mio leaned over the engineer’s shoulders and monitored Tony’s starting, taxiing and handling abilities. After a thorough engine test, we got take-off clearance and away we went, out over the Mediterranean to Alitalia’s training area, high above the normal airways system.

Here each of us in turn was required to do steep turns, stalls, incipient spins and recovery, engine cuts and prop feathering and fire drills. Old Solo Mio had to be satisfied that, if disaster struck, the pilot would manfully stay put and deal with the emergency … and not jump out the adjacent window!

We had been airborne for a few hours and, as it was warm and stuffy in the back of the ship, and what with stalls and steep turns going on, it was easy to become nauseous. I did, anyway, and asked for a glass of water. I was handed a bottle of aqua minerale, only as a second choice to wine. A good Italian never drinks water. Well, I took a good swig of this bubbly juice and then looked for somewhere to put an open bottle of soda water down. There was just nowhere, so I drank the lot, just before being called to the sharp end to demonstrate my proficiency at handling Mike Tango.

~ The drill is to get the ship down to below 12 000 ft as rapidly as possible.  So I went into action…~

All went well through the normal training syllabus and I managed to sort out all the problems that old Solo Mio threw at me and he seemed quite satisfied. Then he suddenly shouted out ‘Decompression Explosif!’ over and over again. This means that the aircraft, which is pressurised and normally flies at about 20 000 ft, has sustained a rupture of sorts and was losing its 4∙5 pounds per square inch. This situation is very dangerous to all on board because, in exceptional cases, one’s blood could boil, with fatal results. The drill is to get the ship down to below 12 000 ft as rapidly as possible.  So I went into action: throttles back, oxygen mask on, stick hard forward, mixture control to rich, pitch to fine … and hope for the best. We were going down in grand style, but unbeknown to me old Solo Mio had instructed the first officer to open the discharge valve a fraction, after he had shouted ‘Decompression Explosif’. He had told Mickey in his best English, which was inevitably misunderstood, and Mickey opened the valve to its full extent! So we really were decompressing, RAPIDLY. This caused complete confusion, because everybody’s ears popped and the cockpit filled with mist.

Above all the noise, I distinctly heard old Solo shout ‘Down, down, down’!

OK sport, I thought, if you want more down, you shall have it. So I gave the stick another good shove forward. Everybody lifted out of their seats, while trying to grab something solid to hang onto. But still I heard him shouting ‘Down, down, down’. So I gave the stick another hefty shove and we were now well past the vertical going down in real earnest, with the altimeter unwinding … like a runaway clock. But still I heard ‘Down Down Down!’ in a frantic scream from old Solo Mio.

I looked round at him in utter disbelief. He was puce in the face. His eyes were bulging and he was pointing towards the roof shouting ‘DOWN DOWN!’

He had mixed up his English and had meant to say ‘Up, up up’ all the time! I rolled the aircraft till we were in a more normal descent path and pulled out of the most spectacular dive a DC-6 has ever been in. We had exceeded the Vne (Velocity Never Exceed) limits by a wide margin. It says a lot for the DC-6 that she suffered no ill effects.

Old Solo Mio, on being told of his faux pas, called it a day and it was then up to me to take the ship back to Rome.

But meanwhile, all those little bubbles in the aqua minerale, which had been quite happy to remain in manageable, if minute, size whilst under 4∙5 psi in my tummy, had now joyously expanded to many times their normal size when we lost pressure. So I became the first pregnant male pilot in history and, I may add, it was most uncomfortable to say the least. However, I managed to land without divulging my delicate state.

We all learned to love that grand old lady and flew happily around Africa and Europe for many years.

On board the DC6

On board the DC6


Boarding a DC6

Boarding a DC6


Compiled and edited from the original by Mitch Stirling and John Reid-Rowland. They suggest that the names of the other crew members in the story were: Tony Beck, Frank Flote and Mickey Delport. The redoubtable Captain Conti, Alitalia’s chief pilot, must have been Old Solo Mio.


Mount Hampden 28 Elementary Flying Training School and Post-War

By Mitch Stirling.
John Wynne Hopkins’ painting of a DH.82A Tiger Moth of the 28 EFTS Mount Hampden.
Under the command of Squadron Leader N E Hendrikz, 28 Elementary Flying Training School of the Royal Air Force was opened in April 1941 “near a small kopje called Mount Hampden.” Their “Trainers of the Empire” or “Tigerschmidts”, as they were sometimes called, had a red and white checkerboard pattern painted on the aft fuselage to distinguish them from their counterparts at Belvedere and Cranborne — a design borrowed from an aerobatic team of 56 Squadron Royal Air Force in pre-war England. As the war progressed, Tigers were shipped in large numbers from England and Australia, until a grand total of 412 machines were in use throughout the colony. They were basically redesigned Gipsy Moths with bigger engines, wings staggered backwards and increased dihedral on the lower mains. Most importantly, the upper wing cabane was moved forward to allow the front seat pilot wearing a chute to get out in a hurry. They were heavier than the Gipsy and, on the good authority of some old pilots who flew both types, they were “not as nice to fly.” Continue reading

Vickers Viscounts

In Memoriam.

By Mitch Stirling (Air Rhodesia)
Memories of Vickers Viscounts are deeply etched in the Rhodesian psyche. They played a vital role in the history of “our land of lost content”.
If you lived in Salisbury, and listened carefully, you could even set your clock to the distinctive high-pitched whine of 4 Rolls Royce Dart engines, as RH 828 turned left off runway 06 and headed out across the city to Kariba, Wankie and Victoria Falls. Black or white, big or small, young or old, you loved the Viscounts — those elegant, graceful old ndege. “You could balance a coin on edge during flight”. Millions of people travelled on the Viscounts; many of them were famous celebrities, prime ministers, presidents and monarchs. The Queen Mum was a favourite. Continue reading

Lucky Break With Exploding Fuel Tank.

Thanks to Marion Wightman

Cessna 402  Z-WRB had just come out of a C of A check.


Chief engineer, Mr Eric Churcher asked me to take the aircraft into D4 and do a test on it. On my pre-flight I could not drain the fuel from the right aux tank.  An engineer came and attended to that and I went off into D4.   All seemed fine and I transferred the plane to Harare main as it was an early take off the next day.  I was due to take the Canadian Ambassador and his son to Matputo.

Continue reading

Chileka Final Approach


A snippet from Roy Downes‘ memoirs… brilliant!

I learned about flying from that
Most flying magazines devote a page or two to this subject. So perhaps now is as good a time as any to include an account of one of the many lessons I learned, during the twenty-eight years I spent in the air.
It was a beautiful, Central African, late afternoon with eight/eighths of blue sky. Our Viscount was cruising at FL150 en-route from Harare to Blantyre in Malawi. Some sixty miles out of Blantyre, we intercepted the required 242° Radial from the Blantyre VOR and contacted Chileka ATC, who cleared us for a straight-in approach to runway 10, giving the weather conditions as: surface wind 240/10kt, visibility 10+km, weather nil, QNH 1023, QFE 928, Temperature +21°C. The quartering tailwind would give us a tailwind component of 6kt, well within the capabilities of the aircraft.
At +21°C, the heat of the day had passed and we were looking forward to a beer in the Chileka Flying Club, as we were ‘night-stopping’ in Blantyre. Runway 10/28 at Chileka Airport, Blantyre, is 7628ft long at an elevation of 2555ft AMSL. There was no ILS at the time but runway 10 was equipped with a VASI system (Visual approach slope indicator), for glide-slope guidance. At 49 miles DME, I reduced the power from the cruise RPM of 14200 to 10500, set a torque pressure of 40psi and commenced the descent. On crossing the Shire River (the only river that drains Lake Malawi and the fastest flowing in Africa), we were passing 5000 feet on the QFE and 15 nautical miles from Chileka. We were ideally placed for the planned straight-in approach. At five miles DME, I allowed the speed to decay to the flap limiting speed and selected the flaps to 20°, called for the undercarriage extension and increased the torque to 80psi. The co-pilot then completed the final items on the landing checklist. At 800 feet we were correctly positioned on the glide-slope with the speed stabilised at 120kt. The tower controller again passed the surface wind information and cleared us to land – no change, steady at 240/10kt. To think they even paid us to do this!
As I have indicated, I was certainly no stranger to the African Cumulonimbus. Repeatedly, I had successfully wrestled with these gigantic energy fields and their indescribable turbulence. I knew all there was to know about extreme turbulence – or so I imagined. At about 600 feet, I noticed we were going slightly above the glide slope – starting to experience the result of the reducing tailwind – so I reduce the torque pressure to 60psi. With the conditions as smooth as one could possibly wish for, I selected 32° flap. Then it happened. The worst turbulence encounter I had ever experienced. Without warning, the nose pitched down dramatically and the aircraft rolled violently to the left. For the next fifteen to twenty seconds, there followed the most exciting roller-coaster ride ever. Disney’s ‘Space Mountain’ was tame by comparison. I cannot describe the control inputs I made while endeavouring to prevent a semi inverted collision with the ground. A full power application had no immediate effect but as we crossed the runway threshold, we were at least the right way up. The aircraft was not responding to the power application and it appeared that we were going to contact the ground with far too high a sink rate. Then, as quickly as it had started, we flew out of this isolated ‘bubble’ of turbulence into smooth air, about 50 feet above the runway.
I regained control, landed and stopped comfortably in the remaining distance. Had the phenomenon lasted another second or two, I am in no doubt we would have crashed. With no Flight data recorders installed, the investigators could not possibly have determined the accident cause, and ‘Pilot Error’ would have been the inevitable conclusion. What then was the cause? It certainly was not the aircraft. Could it have been wake turbulence? Hardly so. The preceding aircraft, an Air Malawi DC3, had landed an hour and twenty minutes before – Chileka is no threat to Heathrow. Was it a dust devil? It seemed unlikely. African dust devils generate vast columns of dust, visible for miles and the tower controller was adamant that he had seen no such evidence. In any case, with the late afternoon temperature and the steady surface wind, the conditions were not conducive to dust devil formation. I naturally discussed the event with my fellow pilots but all I ever got from them was that ‘glazed’ look of total disbelief. Conversely, meteorologists were extremely interested and obtained detailed weather data from the area, to try to determine the reason. However, no one has yet offered a logical explanation for that ‘bubble’ of extreme turbulence. What then did I learn from this? I learned that above all, pilots should always ‘EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED.’

Lions at Tiger Bay


By Debbie Carter


I have noticed that our darling Mitch has relayed a few of his experiences on this site.. I learned from flying from that. I thought I might tell a story. Not so much that I learned from flying from it … more so that I learned from flying in Africa from it…

It was a horribly “guttie” (sp) day and was wet and low level overcast. My duty that day was to fly 7 fishermen to Tiger Bay for what they hoped would be an amazing weeks worth of fishing. I knew the Tiger Bay strip well, and I also knew the Piper Navajo which I was flying that day.
We landed with no event. I noticed the strip was soggy and very wet. We stopped incredibly quickly, but props, undercarriage, pilot etc were all OK. My wonderful bunch of fishermen alighted with all their kit and were transferred into at least 6 landrovers. They waved goodbye to me with great bravado and I wished them the best of luck.

Here in lies the first mistake. It is always normal at a bush strip for the land vehicle to ensure that the said aircraft gets safely airborne before they leave the area. Well not one of them did that, they all drove away into the distance.

I was concerned about the condition of the strip. I decided that as the aircraft was now very light, I would try and take off from the 3/4 to mid section of the strip, which had more gravel. I taxied to my turning point applied left throttle and right rudder and simply sunk like a boat in water into about a metre of mud. The props started flicking up mud onto the windscreen, so I quickly shut the engines down, as the aircraft sunk deep into the mud. It was over, I wasn’t going anywhere and neither was there anyone to assist me.

The temperature (OAT) was 40c and I didn’t have any water – only the left over water from my fishermen most of which had whisky in. I tried endlessly to relay but there were not many aircraft in the sky that day due to the weather.

Then the worst happened – nature called and I just had to go and had actually considered walking the long and lonely trek through the bush back to the camp on my own. The door on the Navajo is a beast to handle. I lowered the stairs and left the upper door down and stooped out. I walked a couple of metres… and then lo and behold, not far ahead of me in the bush was a lioness and her crouchy  husband and cousins and kids and everything. There must have been a dozen of them. The lioness sat up when she saw me … I cannot describe how I felt in that instant but I think it is obvious. I walked slowly back the few metres I had covered and tried to go up the stairs backwards – banging my head very badly on the lowered top door.

How I closed that door I will never know. The lions continued to walk around the aircraft for a further hour, until I eventually managed to get a relay through Speedbird (BA) about my predicament. Its a long story, I know, but I got to spend 3 glorious days fishing and sunbathing at Tiger Bay. I am not too fond of those who drove the landrovers xxx