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.
But, like any great love story, there was heartache as well. Central African Airways, forerunner of Air Rhodesia, lost its first Viscount in a part of the world that is making history today — Libya. But that was a long time ago and only the older Rhodesians, the madalas, would remember the shocking news on that fateful night of August 1958 when Viscount VP-YNE Mpika crashed on a scheduled Zambezi service to London. During a night approach in good weather at Benina airport, near Benghazi, the aircraft hit high ground approximately five miles short of the runway and broke up. Miraculously 15 passengers and three crew members survived the crash; tragically 32 were killed. Captain CL Sindall, First Officer IJ Gow and Radio Officer EC Hoar were highly experienced airmen. With them was a dedicated cabin crew who had flown the route Entebbe-Khartoum-Wadi Halfa-Benina many times before.
Something went terribly wrong that night, after they were cleared for a standard instrument approach onto runway 33 Right. There were no indications of engine or airframe malfunction, so the accident investigation concluded, coldly, that it was a “controlled flight into terrain”. A contributory factor could have been an incorrect altimeter setting on the part of the pilots. But the unknown “human factor” in aviation tragedies can never be fully explained and we will never know what really happened on that dark, desert night.
One of the survivors, Bill Mann, was sitting in the back as a passenger to London. Bill was later to become a well known Air Rhodesia/Air Zimbabwe captain. And a wrist watch, on its way to London for repair, belonging to my old friend Ralph Ward (radio operator CAA) was recovered from the wreck. Ralph was still wearing it when he died in Harare a few years ago. Sadly Clifford du Pont lost his children in the crash.
Air Rhodesia experienced two more Viscount disasters which involved total hull loss and heartbreaking fatalities. But they were certainly not caused by pilot error. The “inhuman factor” was at work here. In the late 1970′s, communist inspired terrorists fired Russian manufactured Grail missiles (SAM 7s) at Viscounts VP-WAS Hunyani and VP-YND Umniati as they departed the holiday resort of Kariba in the Zambezi Valley.
All but a few survivors were killed in the ensuing crash of Hunyani. In an act of unspeakable barbarity, some of them were brutally murdered at the crash site.
Viscount Umniati plummeted straight into the ground, with no chance of survivors.
The perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, and their supporters, will burn in purgatory forever.
Much has been written about “our” Vickers Viscounts; they have been eulogized by others far more qualified than me. But here are a few interesting facts about them that some of us may not know and others may have forgotten. The Viscount was the first successful airliner powered by turbine engines in the world and it heralded a new era in quiet, comfortable air travel. VP-YNA was the first of our Viscounts. It arrived in Southern Rhodesia, brand new off the production line at Hurn, England. Named Malvern it was our flag ship and arrived at Salisbury’s new International Airport in April 1956, decked out in silver, dark blue and white and crewed by Rob Orbell, Gar Nash, Bob Hodgson and Jock Elphinstone. In her long and distinguished life she carried hundreds of thousands of passengers, her engines were changed 139 times and she made more than 25 000 landings.
|Delivery flight at Benghazi.|
|RMA Malvern arrives Salisbury.|
Over the years our Viscounts were modified, upgraded, panel beaten, re-sprayed, hired out, re-sold and even belly-landed on occasions. VP-YNB Shangani had over 50 000 hours in her log book and over 25 000 landings when she was scrapped. Her engines were changed over 130 times. CAA and Air Rhodesia operated a total of 14 Viscounts, some of which came from other air carriers before their arrival in Central Africa — Middle East Airlines (MEA), Trans Australian, the Union of Burma, Jordanian Airways and Jersey Airline. All the Viscounts in the fleet were much-loved by pilots and passengers alike.
|VP-WAS Hunyani type 782D constructor’s No 298.
Built at Weybridge. Operated by the government of Iran before delivery.
Destroyed 3 September 1978. Total hours 30 074.
|Decimalization of currency 1970|
|VP-YND Umniati type 748D constructor’s No 101.
Built at Hurn. Visited Russia before delivery.
The first Viscount, and the first prop jet aircraft, to enter the Soviet Union.
Destroyed 12 February 1979. Total hours 42 050.
|VP-YNB Shangani with anti-strela paint. Type 748D constructor’s No 99.
Built at Hurn. Total hours when scrapped 50 054.
|Memorial in Pretoria
|Wreath from Air Rhodesia employees
“… they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31
Photo credits: Nicky (Elphinstone) Pearce, Phil Evans, Al Fraser, Tony Rose, Larry Ridler, Neil Burton and the book “They Served Africa with Wings”. Special thanks to Rogan Taylor for his gift that arrived in my post box recently from the USA — his lovely water colour print of the Viscount.End