Monday 10 December 2012

The First and Last Zambezi Service

By Rob Orbell (Chief Pilot)

It was with quite a heavy heart that I set out to fly the Salisbury—Entebbe—Salisbury sectors of the last Zambezi  Service on September 30th. I remember quite well the very first Zambezi Service. This was the first "Coach Class"  Service ever to be operated from this part of the world to England, and little did we realize the potential and the  popularity which was to follow so rapidly.

On our departure from Salisbury I was handed letters from the Mayor of Salisbury to the Mayor of Valetta (Malta)  and to the Lord Mayor of London. Our Chairman (now Lord Robins) also handed me a letter from the Board, wishing  us luck.

Despite the fact that we had operated a proving/cum/training flight about six months previously, there were a  number of problems encountered en route, but we managed to sort them out as we went along. On the third day we  left Wadi Haifa early and landed in Malta well ahead of schedule. By this time the passengers were getting to know  each other and there prevailed a "holiday spirit" which was to be a regular feature of the old Viking Zambezi flights.

The last night-stop at the luxurious Phoenecia Hotel at Valetta was quite a night ... for the passengers. I can say with a clear conscience that, despite all their attempts to inveigle the crew into joining the party, we were so anxious that  the following day should go according to plan that we all retired at a most respectable hour!

The last day was quite a memorable one. There was considerable weather to be negotiated over the Massif in France, and London itself was far from clear. We  were limited in radio equipment, having barely sufficient VHF frequencies to cope on "Airways" over Europe and England. Our de-icing on the Vikings was at best only "anti-icing" equipment, and as such was inadequate for the extremely rapid build-up of ice which we encountered whilst negotiating frontal weather conditions. I recall anxious  moments peering out of the frosted cockpit windows and watching the leading edges of the wings as the ice accreted steadily whilst the de-icing fluid contents dwindled all too rapidly! I remember well our first call to ''London Airways", and the courteous and efficient acknowledgement and instructions. It was bitterly cold in the cockpit, and  we could not coerce the cockpit "heating" to produce any heat! We were looking rather like a R.A.F. crew on a bombing mission, as we had to wear oxygen masks to reduce background noise on the old type microphones which we used in the early days! Every member of the crew was doing his best to ensure the successful arrival. A little  "fiddling" of power settings was necessary to make up lost time, and it was with considerable satisfaction that we touched down at London Airport, dead on schedule, following a most efficient Radar "Talk-down". There was a hush in the cockpit for several moments until Captain Strange (my co-pilot) came out with a cryptic and rather unprintable remark as we were taxying in, and we realized then that the first Zambezi Service had arrived and we  could relax!

The return flight which we operated a week later (Captain Hodgson and his crew having taken our aircraft back  while we "slipped"' in London), went according to plan, until we landed at Juba in the southern Sudan. We were  ahead of schedule, and everything was working like a charrm. Just as we were about to embark, however, I was  handed an urgent signal by the Air Traffic Control Officer to the effect that all Vikings were "grounded" till further  notice, and that I was to await instructions and on no account to proceed beyond the point where I received the  signal! Despite some very fast talking, I was unable to "persuade" the A.T.C.O. that the signal had not been received  by him till I was just airborne, when I could have pressed on to Nairobi! So there we sat . . . for five solid days ... in  jolly Juba! We became more and more depressed as the days passed. There were some enlightening moments, but  they were few and far between. One morning at breakfast a Sudanese waiter brought a ladies' handbag, soaking wet, to our table. It had just been retrieved from the local swimming pool, and it seemed that some scoundrels had actually thrown our Hostess (Jeanne Aylwin) into the pool, fully clothed, during the night.

I spent most of the time concocting signals to the Operations Manager. I even suggested that I fly the Viking "solo" to Nairobi . . . but all to no avail. My signals were ignored, and I was not surprised, on our eventual return, to find that the Operations Manager did not speak to me for some months!

Seven-and-a-half-years lapsed until I took off from Salisbury last week to fly the very last of the Zambezi Services.  This time in Viscount R.M.A. "Malvern" (VP-YNA), with, as usual, a pretty full load of passengers. As we flew  northwards, we received several messages of goodwill, all couched in nostalgic terms.

The northbound flight to Entebbe was un- eventful. and I handed over to Captain Flote and his Crew there. Captain  Flote operated through the night to Benina. where Captain Barlow and his Crew took over to London. Captain  Wilson and his Crew operated from London back to Benina, and then came on as passengers, leaving the two  Hostesses (Miss Clarke and Miss Gardiner) to return to London from where they caught the Comet to Salisbury.

The spectacle which confronted me when Captain "Hurry-Hurry" Flote landed at Entebbe southbound (ahead of  schedule!) was one which I will not forget easily! The aircraft seemed to be bulging at the seams.

There were masses of passengers on board. I remembered the Operations Managers parting instructions to me . . .  "Get as many of the Crew back to Salisbury as possible, because we are desperately short." I was beseiged from every quarter by Crew members who had vital need to get home for a variety of reasons which were amongst the most  original I have ever heard! It seemed that the Crews already on board had made the most of shopping facilities on  the last Service, because there were numerous parcels, camel saddles, bunches of bananas, suitcases and so forth  stowed in every available corner of the fuselage!

After considerable wrangling with E.A.A.C.'s, Traffic Supervisor, I closed the load sheet with sixty-one souls on board (of which eleven were Crew!). I managed to clear sufficient room in Hold 1 to "stow" Jock Elphinstone in there, and  every available seat was occupied in the cockpit and in the cabin! To crown it all, a tropical storm broke over the  airfield just as I was about to embark the passengers. This delayed us somewhat, but once the rain eased off. we went aboard. I had visions of needing an oversize shoehorn to get everything in, and perhaps some tyre levers to get the doors closed.

We took off in the rain, and I remember seeing a pair of very apprehensive eyes peering anxiously from Hold 1 as we opened the throttles! However, all went well, and we landed back in Salisbury only a few minutes behind scheduled time on Sunday night, and so ended the epoch of the Zambezi Coach Service, Salisbury/ London—for the present at any rate.


 Mr. Frank Collier, BOAC Manager, London Airport, and Mr. Bob Rose, CAA Manager, London, with the crew who brought VP- YNA from London on our last Zambezi service on the 1st October, 1960.

 Left to right: Mr. Frank Collier, E/O Jack Dunklev, F/O 'Robin' Hood, A/H Pat Gardiner, H/Supt. Vi Clarke, Capt. Mike Wilson and Mr. Bob Rose.


Extracted and recompiled by Eddy Norris from the SCAANER of October 1960 publication which was made available by Dave Vermaak

Thanks to Dave for sharing his memories with ORAFs.
Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at  and they will be loaded to this article.

(Please visit our previous posts and archives)

Ref. Rhodesian Aviation



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