Wednesday, 15 May 2013

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."   
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
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!"

Above: 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.

Above: VP-YNN removed from service in 1985 as Z-YNN, broken up in 1988 and purchased for spares by Air Charter Services, Zaire.

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.


Thank you to Mitch for sharing this article with ORAFs.

Special thanks to all those that contributed to make this story a reality

Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at 

Suggested reading.
Sanction Slipping (Air Rhodesia's Boeings are worth a lot.)

Air Rhodesia's B720s — "a riddle wrapped in a mystery"

Those Embargo-busting Jets

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At 15 May 2013 at 20:28 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Jennifer Upton:-

Brings back such memories...of Jock. We used to live next-door-ish and we always thought him
as man of some really 'Lough our Loud' humour. In fact his daughters were always delighted to play 'Dollies'
with my wee baby son.

At 19 May 2013 at 09:47 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Reg Mullen (Air Rhodesia) Writes:-
Thank you for this wonderful article Mitch, which has brought back wonderful memories of a great period of my life, of a great aircraft and everyone who flew in her. I will treasure this always.

I did post a comment at the end - but not sure where it went to?

Thank you so much for making all this possible..

My very best regards

At 20 May 2013 at 16:53 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...


Thanks very much for sending me the information about the anniversary of the story of Air Rhodesia Boeing 720s acquisition. I have many fond memories of Air Rhodesia from the 7 years I worked first as a “ground hostess” and then once I turned twenty an “air hostess”. I was in Gordon Hall’s terrific team on the ground and what a great job it was for a teenager who had only been a year out of school.

One of the great things I liked about being part of the airline is that we never seemed to lose our sense of humour no matter what happened. One of my favourite stories whilst not about the 720s was when we did a charter flight to Blantyre for the Goshawks Rugby team on a Dakota in Feb 1971. Being the only hostess on board I allowed them to trundle down to the back of the aircraft to collect their beers and snacks and completely forgot about “the trim” when they decided to congregate in the galley. That was until I got a call, from the flight deck, on the intercom from a very concern sounding captain saying “can you get those lock forwards forward now!” Wops! So I said “hey guys can you pick up your beers and walk” which they did in haste when I explained that we were a bit heavy at the rear end.

Another good laugh was when a few crews were sitting in the VFA crew room about a year before we got the triplets (as Captain Heap later called them) and we were reading papers/ talking quietly in small groups and then someone said looking up at the unstable looking fan on the ceiling “one of these days that is going to fall on us”. Capt. Tom Tarr did not miss a beat he just added “oh but it will all be different when we get jets”. We just broke into laugher mainly because we all felt that we were never going to “get jets” and there was probably more chance of the fan falling on us.

So when the jets did arrive I felt it had been the best kept secret. The first I knew of it was when I was staying overnight with my sister and her husband in Johannesburg and they woke me, far too early in the morning I thought, saying – “you are going to be flying on jets when you get home”. They went on to explain it was “all over the news in South Africa”. What fun it was to have something new! We certainly seemed to all get on so well. Of course the big down side was the viscounts going down – will we ever get over that?

Thanks to you and Eddy for bringing back such fond memories.

Grannia “Sandy” O’Donnell

At 23 May 2013 at 21:16 , Blogger Cacho Cabral said...

Hi Mitch
Horse Sweeney's parachute jump a couple of months ago was in Australia. (But maybe for his 95th birthday he is planning one in Cape Town !!) What a great guy! Rgds Cacho

At 16 June 2013 at 09:00 , Blogger Roy Rosser said...

Thank you for the excellent account of how the Boeings were flown to Rhodesia.

It brought back many fond memories of my Dad, “Shorty” Rosser, and his flying buddies, especially “Chum” Keyter, who was also our next door neighbor in Salisbury.

I played a very small part in the events.

At the time I was a student at Imperial College in London, and my Dad had told me in a very general way what was planned in case I might be of any help. It was the final day of term when, returning to a bed-sit in Earls Court, I found a note informing me that he was in the local pub. Dad and Bob Hill had come to London to get maps to fly the planes to Salisbury.

They were pretty tight lipped. I never even found out what type of planes were involved – though I had figured out that the flight training had been in the US. They sent postcards home by first couriering them to a contact in Germany, where they were stamped and posted. Nothing substantive was said on the cards – just “Love you, missing you” type moral boosters - but a letter from Mother mentioned Dad complaining of a terrible snowstorm. Being in London, I realized there hadn’t been any snow in Europe for a while - so the flight school must be in the US. A lesson in how seemingly unimportant trivia can sometimes be very informative.

Anyway, after a weekend of theater and meals beyond a student’s budget, on the Monday, I helped Dad and Bob navigate the underground to a bookshop near Heathrow. Posing as pilots with a South West African mining company, they bought maps covering the route from Germany to Windhoek – figuring that once close to Rhodesia, they knew the airways well enough to fly by memory.

As I had 3 weeks holiday ahead of me, there was talk of me joining them on the flight back, but dad vetoed it as too dangerous for all. So I said good bye in London and went on a walking tour of the Scottish Highlands with college friends.

The first I knew of the success of the operation was seeing a headline in the Glencoe Herald at a youth hostel. Of course, none of the other students believed that my father was involved – but once more details were released, I did get to stop many dinner party conversations with the line “well my father helped steal three Boeing 720s”.

I tried several times to persuade Dad to write up a full account of events. He always claimed Chum was going to do it - but as far as I know, he never did put anything together. A pity, because Chum was good at storytelling. He did publish one book "From Wings to Jackboots" Barry Keyter, 1995 ISBN 1 85756 144 9. A very readable account of his wartime experiences, including being in a prisoner of war camp.

Thanks again for the memories.

Roy J Rosser
(609) 474-0053
56 Maidenhead Road, Princeton, NJ 08540

At 5 July 2013 at 17:52 , Blogger derek stocker said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 7 August 2013 at 18:35 , Blogger ete said...

Thanks for a great article, it brings back so many memories.

I joined Air Rhodesia just after the arrival of the 720's and worked in Operations. One project that I was involved in was the production of the operating manuals for the aircraft as the original American manuals were not suitable for the operating conditions in Rhodesia. I worked with the Chief Engineer (Jim Dees) and the SFTO to create the master sets for the production of manuals for each of the aircraft.

One of the major aspects was to recalculate the weight/temperature/altitude figures for the safe operating 'window' for takeoff as they American manuals had only hand drawn graphs for operating at sea level. When these figures were calculated there had to be a hurried change to the flight schedules!

Again thanks for bringing it all back.

Elizabeth Essex (MacLean)

At 17 February 2014 at 08:13 , Blogger Steve Bailey said...

Thanks Mitch, really enjoyed re reading your blog post - I remember driving out to the airport the day after they arrived - Great excitement

At 11 March 2014 at 09:12 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Hans Eggenberger Writes

Somehow I found the web page "Rhodesia Heritage" and started to read the incredible story of the 3 B720 of Air Rhodesia.
since I was stationed in JNB as the Marketing Mgr.Southern Africa for Swissair from 1968 to 1976 I had a lot of contact with the Air Rhodesia Manamement. We had a little bit of an idea of the B720 deal - I knew Pat Travers, Merwin Eyett, Ray Weedon and of course Dave Vermaak . We also knew of the involvement of Hirschmann's Jet Aviation but had no idea of how majestic that whole deal was orchestrated !!
after all these years and now reading this report I got really homesick to my favorite place in Africa ( still have that yellow/black sticker "Rhodesia is Super".

but the real reason for writing : is my dear old friend Dave Vermaak still with us and would you have an email contact ??

I am presently in San Diego for the winter, but our primery residence is in Flims Switzerland.

At 14 March 2014 at 18:46 , Blogger Dan Remenyi said...

What a lovely story.
I work for Jack Malloch in the 1960s.
I bet he was green with envy.

Dan Remenyi

At 6 April 2014 at 19:30 , Blogger Ndixman Point said...

Great history I am a big airlines fans. The acquisition of these Rhodesia plane I always believe it's would make an amazing Hollywood script

At 30 October 2014 at 20:37 , Blogger whealan said...

I was a passenger on the first flight to JHB on 1st November 1973 (and still have the First Day Cover) and was fascinated to try to see where the plane had come from. I looked for any information near the door hinges on entry but all traces had been removed. However the embossed lettering on the cream plastic cowling above the passengers' heads with instructions for the individual lights and switches had also been carefully filed off but you could still just see at a certain angle what they had been. There was no doubt that they had been in Hebrew! That didn't surprise me at the time and I was quite pleased with my detective work but I don't know how that fits in with the history related above.

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