Sunday, 13 October 2013

African Sunrise

By Mitch Stirling (Air Rhodesia)

Captain Roy Downes has been recording his memoirs in a book called "African Sunrise." It spans a wonderful career in aviation, from the grauncher's bench at Central African Airways to senior captain and training instructor on the Air Zimbabwe Boeing 707s. An excerpt follows:

African Sunrise

My most memorable flight was a charter flight to Perth, Australia. Apart from it being the longest flight I have ever made there were a number of other factors I recall which are perhaps worthy of note. The purpose of the charter flight was to collect the returning Zimbabwean Athletics team from the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. The nine hours forty minutes to Perth was uneventful and because of the prevailing westerly winds and a near empty aircraft, fuel required was not a problem. However, because of these strong westerly upper winds, fuel for the return flight was going to be quite critical.

707-330B engines.

Captain Roy Downes eastbound at FL 330 over the Indian Ocean.

With two Litton INS systems and the exceedingly powerful signals from the Perth NDB, which we received when 800 nautical miles out, navigation was not too difficult. After consulting the landing plate we found Perth had not moved and was where it has always been. We landed at about 2330 local, after a nine and half hour flight. But if the 110 knot tail winds persisted, it was going to take us a lot longer going home! Another one of our crews — Captain Bob Hill, F/O Mitch Stirling and F/E Jock Elphinstone, plus flight attendants — were our dead-heading passengers. They were positioning to Perth to fly the aircraft on to Brisbane, collect the team and return to Perth.

From the airport we all proceeded to a Westos Motor Inn at which our accommodation had been pre-booked, arriving at about one am. Six of our cabin attendants were black girls and, on presenting ourselves at the hotel reception desk, we had our first encounter with Australian hypocrisy. I say hypocrisy, as we had often heard Australians haranguing Rhodesians and South Africans regarding our respective racial policies. The receptionist took one look at our girls and called the manager. He in turn, appeared to be horrified and exclaimed,

"I’m afraid you can’t stay here!"

"Why ever not?" I queried.

"Well it’s these black women… we can’t have them here."

"This booking was made weeks ago," I reminded him, "what did you expect from Zimbabwe?"

The manager, who had probably never heard of Zimbabwe, looked suitably abashed and proceeded to his office; I assume he went to consult a higher authority. After about ten minutes he returned and reluctantly agreed to our staying in his Inn.

We were scheduled to spend two nights in Perth awaiting the return of our aircraft, but on the afternoon of day two there was a knock on my hotel room door and I was met by a very weepy deputation of black girls. When I asked what the problem was they tearfully exclaimed, 

"Captain we want to go home now… today. We do not want to spend another day here." 

They went on to say that they were used to shopping anywhere in apartheid Johannesburg and Durban, and had never had a problem or been treated the way they had been in Perth.

"Captain, they chase us out of every place we go to and we cannot even buy our meals."

I managed to calm them down, reminding them we did not have an aircraft to get us back to Harare. For the remainder of our stay they accompanied me and the other crew members to purchase food. At a fast food outlet, I witnessed them being refused admittance. My co-pilot, John Reid-Rowland and I had to purchase the food, which we all ate sitting on a low wall outside the establishment. This, apparently, was acceptable.

On the flight to Perth we had experienced 110 knot tail winds which did not bode well for the return trip. In order to have the maximum fuel for the Perth/Harare sector, the incoming crew tankered fuel from Brisbane, arriving at the maximum landing weight of 112 tonnes. The cold soaking of the fuel between Brisbane and Perth enabled us to uplift sufficient for the return flight, as the colder the fuel the higher the specific gravity and therefore the greater the number of British Thermal Units (BTU) per pound of fuel. Colder fuel takes up less volume than warmer fuel, so that allowed us to load a greater volume of fuel [very technical stuff this].

I had been briefed that we had to route over Mauritius, at which point we had to have a minimum of twenty-three tonnes of fuel remaining. If not, we were to land at Mauritius. "Incidentally," John Plowman, the briefing officer, added in passing, "there is no accommodation at Mauritius and, should you land there for fuel, you will exceed the flight and duty time limits and will be unable to continue." A more subtle piece of blackmail would be difficult to imagine.

Derek Warner's memo.

The pre-flight meteorological briefing officer at Perth assured us that although the ninety knot westerly winds were still present, there was unlikely to be any adverse weather en route. When the aircraft arrived, the incoming crew advised that we had a very happy bunch of passengers on-board. The team had done rather better than expected at the games and had also purchased many luxury items no longer available in Zimbabwe. I had the aircraft fuelled to the maximum figure, turning a blind eye to the probable five tonne overweight take-off.

The flight as far as Mauritius was uneventful, although the upper winds, which were right on the nose, were never less than 110 knots. Over MRU, in the dark, we had only twenty-one tonnes remaining and here the blackmail came into its own. The thought of one hundred and sixty odd bodies stuck at Mauritius for twenty four hours, without accommodation, had little appeal. According to the forecast there was no weather to worry about and, as we approached the coast of Africa, the winds were supposed to back to a southerly direction, resulting in a better ground speed. I thought I would chance it. Some time after leaving the Mauritian funk-hole far behind, distant flashes appeared on the horizon over the African coast. "What do think that is, captain?" This query was from the rather incredulous co-pilot. "Perth said there’d be no weather." He had yet to learn that long range forecasts, based on suspect data from Africa, are often somewhat erroneous. "Perhaps the Mozambique war has restarted and maybe that’s only gunfire?" I suggested. 

As we approached the coast, the wind did back and the groundspeed improved considerably. But the radar quickly disabused us of the gunfire idea. We were heading toward a solid line of cunims. At our cruising level they were not a problem, although it meant dodging around the cloud tops, adding to our fuel burn. Our fuel endurance at take-off was twelve hours and twenty minutes and, after six long hours with a 110 knot headwind right on the nose, our flight time was going to be at least eleven hours and forty minutes. At the pre-flight briefing in Harare, I had been told that at the top of descent (TOD) point, I would probably have to decide whether to go to Bulawayo or Harare, depending on the weather. There would be no alternate fuel. At TOD, our radar indicated that the Perth forecast could not have been less accurate and there was little to choose between the routes to either destination. There were lines of storms ahead of us, no matter which way we went.

I chose Harare, only to find a final cumulonimbus sitting on the right-hand base leg for runway 06, eagerly awaiting our arrival! However, with the ILS functioning for a change, we landed safely. The B707 was comparatively easy to land, but no matter how smooth the touch down, one was always aware of when the wheels touched the runway. Not so that night. I was unsure as to whether we were on the     runway or not and had no idea of what to do next. As it happened, we were rolling on tarmac; it was a "greaser", right out of the top drawer, but probably no more than an absolute stroke of luck. The passengers ignored the "Fasten Seatbelt" sign and gave the arrival a standing ovation. It was a flight of which I am inordinately proud, although the applause was probably only at the relief of being back on terra-firma. Or, as my long departed mother who detested flying used to say, "The more firmer the less terror."

We had been airborne for eleven hours and forty minutes and had thirty five minutes fuel remaining. It was the one and only time I had neither alternate nor contingency fuel reserves.

Plane spotters:

VP-WKU at Dublin.

VP-WKU at Frankfurt.

The VP-WKU c/n 18930 of Air Zimbabwe first appeared in the old Air Rhodesia livery in April 1982. But it was re-registered as Z-WKU in 1983 in the "flying deck chair" colours of Air Zimbabwe.

Ominous clouds at Gatwick.

At Newburgh airport USA.

"Bird Strike" Jean Dodd and Elly van Duren. 

With thanks to John Reid-Rowland, Phil Evans, Norman Groenewald and Steve Carter for some wonderful photographic memories. We wish Captain Roy Downes the very best of fortune with his book-in-progress. His "African Sunrise" will be a very welcome addition to any Rhodesian bookshelf. 


Thanks to Mitch for sharing this article with ORAFs.

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

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