Rainmaker: Part 2 of 2
By Mitch Stirling (Air Rhod.)
Aircraft of Rhodesia United Air Carriers were not the only ndege in the skies of Rhodesia that tried to modify the weather. The Rhodesian Air Force had tried as early as 1961 (beg pardon... the Royal Rhodesian Air Force) using cardboard boxes filled with salt and sand as seeding agents. These were under-slung in the bomb racks of their old Percival Provosts (the Yellow Devils). Then in 1968 Operation 'Tarpaulin' was introduced using a specially adapted Dakota C47 named 'Chaminuka'. George Walker-Smith, a VR pilot, and Ivan Holshausen were two of the most experienced rainmakers involved in this experiment and, although some satisfactory results were recorded between 1968 and 1972, they were always very wary of approaching big 'bombs in the sky' which could rip off a wing or damage the engines.
|Flight Lieutenant Ivan Holshausen and 'Chaminuka'|
Later destroyed at Rushinga (1975) after a brake failure with Ed Paintin, Frank Wingrove and Joe Mitchell.
|Showing operator and burners used to disperse silver iodide/acetone|
Phil Nobes of RUAC was equally experienced and cautious. On one occasion he was 'zapped' by lightning which blew-out all the electrics and radio-navigation equipment in the ancient, underpowered Apache he was flying. VP- WCE had the manual screw-in "Rajay superchargers", with the vernier knobs situated on the floor between the two front seats. It was somewhat challenging... trying to finger-twist 'all of 2 inches of boost' on the climb-out (with the one hand) and fly the aeroplane (with the other) whilst keeping a beady eye on the weather. And all of this with the memory of the nagging voice of old Col Myers (the Boss) echoing in his ears "not too quickly now, Phil, "you will over-boost those engines... and that's very expensive!" (Col was a stickler of note; great man!) With Chris Werger from the Met Department sitting in the back, Phil made a hasty, non-radio return to FRSB and landed. No green light from the control tower, nothing, just landed. It was discovered that the old tub had a hole in the plastic nose cone and the two-piece tail light was now welded together as one! The Tower never complained about his non-standard arrival. Perhaps they didn't even spot him 'snukking' in? Phil also used the 210 VP-YLT with the Robertson STOL conversion on cloud seeding duties, as well as Queen Air VP-WDX. But the normally-aspirated Beechcraft Barons out-performed them all.
George Mawson's story continues when he was busy seeding suitable clouds down towards Beit Bridge in December 1987. 'The weather was quite bad with lots of turbulence and icing and, as we began gradually heading back in the direction of Bulawayo in Baron VP-WCX, a transmission call from a light aircraft flying from Messina (RSA) to Bulawayo came over the radio to say he was off-course and below his flight level due to the bad weather. Bulawayo control could not hear him, so I relayed his message and told him to call again in 20 minutes. We were still seeding suitable clouds when he called again to say he more off-course because of storms in front of him. Having again relayed this message to Bulawayo control I told him to call again in 15 minutes. A short while later he called me saying he was in the clear, but now completely lost and approaching an airfield with a tarred runway, what should he do? I told him twice to land immediately and establish where he was. After passing this message to Bulawayo control I requested descent clearance from 21 000 feet. Whilst descending through thick cloud I wracked my brain trying to figure out where the lost pilot was... it certainly wasn't Bulawayo, could not be Salisbury, Wankie or Vic Falls... and then gave up trying. We slowly descended through clouds, rain and clear patches, and passing through 14 000 feet the heavy ice we had picked up started to loosen and at about 12 000 feet was sliding off in chunks. These thudded against the fuselage and tail plane, but around 10 000 feet it was all gone, with Bulawayo airfield coming into sight and our clearance was to call 'on final' for runway 13. Making a long descending approach we arrived on finals at 120 miles an hour, when the starboard engine stopped instantly with no warning whatsoever!
After landing safely on one engine, I taxied to our hangar where the engineer was waiting. He hurried across to us, ducked under the starboard wing for a few seconds and then gave me the thumbs up sign to start the failed engine. To my surprise it fired immediately and I was rather puzzled by this. The engineer mentioned that as I taxied towards the hangar he could see fuel pouring from under the wing and on close inspection found it to be coming from the fuel drain. The drain selector was found to be in the 'up and locked-open' position, and all the engineer had to do was to move it into the closed position. Drain taps are used to check if there is any water in the fuel, and if present it will show as globules in the bottom of a collection bottle used for inspection. These taps have an extrusion each side, rather like a wing nut, and are supposed to be facing forwards in the direction the aircraft is flying. Mine had been at right angles to the direction of flight, which is quite incorrect. (I must say I didn't know that). Why was the drain tap open? The simple answer is... because it had been facing at right angles to the airflow and by sheer bad luck it had been hit by a lump of ice which had turned it to the 'up and locked-open' position. The Rhodesian DCA quickly issued an instruction to engineers to check the position of all drain taps and reposition them if necessary. Since that occasion I have made a point of just checking any aircraft I see that has the same type of fuel drain as the Baron, Bonanza etc. Guess what, most of them are incorrect! I have also mentioned it to several owners who unfortunately showed little interest, I suppose they know it all! The moral of this story is... you are never too old to learn, it may save your life one day. Oh! by the way, the pilot who was lost had landed in Francistown, Botswana, 115 nautical miles off course!
To conclude the cloud seeding stories... only once did we find the tables turned on us and that was at the end of March 1988. We had been on a flight within a radius of 100 miles from Bulawayo and, on our descent back to the airfield, we were prevented from landing by a huge storm dropping torrential rain situated right bang over the airfield. The only option open to us was to circle a few miles away and wait for the storm to move on. But this only happened an hour later, just as our fuel was getting on the low side. The control tower called and gave us clearance to runway 13 and shortly afterwards we landed safely. I must say I have never seen so much water on a runway before or since in all my flying years. It shows how conditions can change so quickly. Shortly thereafter the seeding program for 1988 came to an end as the dry season slowly set in and the aircraft had to go back to Salisbury (Harare) for a major service. Subsequently on a charter there I visited the hangar where the Baron was parked to see how things were going and was rather surprised to see it stripped down with nobody working on it. On enquiry I learned that it was grounded permanently as a crack had been found in the main spar and it needed a new one from the United States, but there was no foreign currency available. I have often thought how easily a wing might have come off while seeding at 21 000 feet! Someone was watching over us, or were we just very, very lucky?
Shortly thereafter the Bulawayo branch was closed-down by Head Office in Harare and to top it all... Mugabe’s government, in all its wisdom, decided cloud seeding was no longer required. The mind simply boggles at such misguided and incompetent actions.
Drastically reduced water levels during much of the following years, and serious drought in 1992 (the worst in living memory) was soon to take its toll. El Nino (the Boy Child) was active and perhaps old Chaminuka, the rain god, was announcing his extreme displeasure?
Photo credits: Robin DW Norton
Robin Norton worked for Field Aircraft Services as an engineer in the early 1970's and he was also the local correspondents for the South African magazine 'Wings over Africa'. He had first-hand experienced of cloud seeding sorties out of Salisbury... some with Remarque du Toit (RIP old friend and mentor) and Robin Cartwright of RUAC. Robin Norton's opinion matches George Mawson's (and my own) that the disaster of the seemingly never-ending Mugabe regime and his cancellation of all cloud-seeding programmes was horrendous for Zimbabwe; particularly in light of an impending drought this year (2012). FREEDOM for the black people of Zimbabwe has come at a terrible price.
RUAC pilot, Peter Barnett (left), who is in charge of the flying side of rainmaking, talks over the day's programme with meteorological officer John Ward.before sunrise. Actual rainfall is also recorded at 80 points in Rhodesia and reported every 24 hours.
The cloud-seeding season runs from the beginning of November to the end of March and every day during this period (Christmas Day excepted) the aircraft fly if their services are needed and conditions are right. John Ward (or his deputy, Steve Medcalf) arrives at the airport about 7.30 a.m., forecasts the areas, which will be suitable for cloud seeding and, knowing the Conex reports, then decides on the districts to be seeded. By 8.30 a.m. John is at the offices of RUAC, the firm from which the aircraft are chartered, talking to Peter Barnett, the man in charge of the flying side of the operation.
Peter Barnett has been cloud-seeding for four years now, first for the Rhodesia Sugar Association over the Kyle catchment area, later in the emergency drought relief operation and now on a regular national basis.
Today, three aircraft are involved full-time in rain- making — a turbocharged Cessna 210 in Bulawayo and a Beech Baron and turbocharged Piper Apache in Salisbury. Roger Paterson flies in Matabeleland while Peter and Phil Nobes are stationed in Salisbury with charter pilots Charles Pacton (think this should read Paxton) and Stan Murray available as a back-up.
Research flying was originally done by the Department of Meteorology in co-operation' with the Rhodesian Air Force. Two Very pistols for the seeding cartridges are fitted into the side of the aeroplanes and oxygen is used by the pilots and meteorologists who form the two-man teams as their normal operational height is between 19 000 ft. and 22 000 ft. above sea level (about 14 000 to 17 000 ft. above ground level in this country.)
It is estimated that there is an additional yield of 100 000 tonnes of water from one cloud at a gross cost borne by Government of 65c per acre foot —money well spent to safeguard essential agricultural production.
Read Part 1 of this article at http://rhodesianheritage.blogspot.com/2012/12/rainmaker-part-1.html
Thanks to Mitch for sharing this information with ORAFs.
Thanks to Robin for his photographs.
To view the Blog Home Page - Please Click Here or on the link below http://rhodesianheritage.blogspot.com/
(Please visit our previous posts and archives)
Ref. Rhodesian aviation