Monday 21 January 2013

Rainmaking After Independence

By Chuck Osborne (RhAF)

As most of the experienced Met guys had left the country at Independence, there weren't enough to help with the cloud-seeding program, so volunteers from the Air Force were called for as 'gunner' or 'trigger-finger'.  A few of us engineers on 3 Squadron in 1980 volunteered to fly with the UAC pilots at the back of the two Barons flying out of Harare.  We flew in Barons VP-WAX  & -WBX, both with normally-aspirated engines, so it was a bit of a struggle to get up to altitude, and when there, we flew with a definite nose-up attitude, just hanging on the props, and could often feel the juddering of the onset of a stall if the pilot pulled a bit too much on the control column.  On one occasion, we were taking off with Charles Paxton as pilot, the door 'popped' ajar on rotation.  I had closed the door, and although the handle was in the locked position, the door wasn't fully locked.  I tried to re-close it, but couldn't push against the air flow to get a good swing.  Much muttering from the pilot as he called for a horseshoe back onto the runway, he re-closed the door himself, and we took off again.  He said that he was told when doing his conversion onto the Baron that the door will catch him, as it has caught every Baron pilot, but prided himself in not being caught, but I changed all that.  Not a happy bunny.

Our duties consisted of firing the Very pistol cartridges when the pilot registered the 500 ft/min rise on his IVSI in the front, noting the position of the firing and any visible results when out of the cloud.  We plotted our position by map-reading or VOR triangulation from the pilot.  It was also our job to watch the horn balance of the elevators for ice build-up and consequent locking of the elevator, and when build-up was too much, to inform the pilot, who would say 'hang on' and then would quickly jerk the control column back and forth to free the ice.  Sometimes the ice build-up was just too much on the parts of the airframe that weren't de-iced, adding far too much weight, so we would descend to about 13000 ft to loose the ice and work our way back up to altitude.  We did consider on a few occasions landing at an airfield in the area that we were targeting, and waiting for developments, but never actually did it.  The ICA's used to ask the Met Department to please target their area when they were desperate for rain.  This wasn't always possible if there weren't any suitable clouds in that particular area.  I remember for about a week targetting the area to the East of the Great Dyke, as the farmers were screaming for rain, but the clouds would build up to the west of the mountain range but would just die off over the Dyke.  We would pop the clouds nearest to the Dyke, and try to get them to bubble over the barrier.

But I have to say that it was very 'seat-of-the-pants' flying, as you never knew what waits for you inside these clouds.  On one occasion, we hit the cloud with 'both barrels', and my VSI in the back was hard on the stop at 3500 ft/min up draught, but, what goes up must come down, and my VSI quickly unwound to 3500 ft/min down draught - and I was grabbing pencils and cartridges off the roof before I got pelted...

When I left the Air Force, I worked for UAC in Bulawayo, and -WCX was the Baron based there that was used for the seeding contract, and normally flown by George Mawson (as mentioned in an earlier installment), and backed up by Roger Fenner.  The city was in a bad way for water as the city's main dams were south of the watershed/dyke, and again what few clouds there were, were only to the west of the divide.  We in Bulawayo were also hampered by a Met chap, on loan from Australia, who was convinced that cloud-seeding didn't work.  On a day when there was a healthy build-up happening, the Met fellow wasn't interested.  But George phoned the cloud-seeding controller in Harare and explained the situation to him, and that I had been 'gunner' before, so he gave permission, and we went off and had a merry day popping clouds.   Needless to say that the Aussie got a 'flea in the ear' from higher up.  However, there was a slight problem before we set off, in that a totally wild cat had had a litter of 4 kittens in the Baron, as the Baron had been a 'hangar-queen' during that rainy season so far, but we managed to evict the family only after much hissing and scratching.


Thanks to Chuck for sharing his memories with ORAFs.

Met man Ian Davy kitted-up and pilots Roger Paterson and Dave Rider

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Recommended reading.
Rainmaker (Pt 1) on
Rainmaker (Pt 2) on

Mitch Stirling (Air Rhodesia) Writes:-
Thanks to Chuck Osborne for his very interesting 'trip down memory lane'.

Ref. Civil aviation



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