Tuesday 18 June 2013

Those embargo-busting jets

The world was amazed when three Boeings suddenly joined Air Rhodesia's fleet in breach of United Nations sanctions. But offers of aircraft have come from several countries, says AL J. VENTER.

 SANCTIONS BUSTING Air Rhodesia's three Boeing 720 jets airliners were acquired after "dozens of false starts" in the airline's secret negotiations in several countries to buy passenger jets.

 Captain Pat Travers, the chief executive, revealed to me that they had received many offers of American, British and European aircraft, but there was always a hitch until the 720s were offered.

 Only a part of the story of their purchase can be told, and an element of mystique surrounds Salisbury Airport, where they can be glimpsed from behind high fences in the maintenance area. Although they are a familiar sight on training flights over the Rhodesian capital they are still a regular topic of discussion among Rhodesian where they came from, how they were acquired, and their cost. There were only a part of the story of their purchase can be told, and an element of mystique surrounds Salisbury Airport, where they can be glimpsed from behind high fences in the maintenance area. Although they are a familiar sight on training flights over the Rhodesian capital they are still a regular topic of discussion among Rhodesians - where they came from, how they were acquired, and their cost.

 The words Air Rhodesia painted on the fuselage against a white background — sleek lines, an elegant trim and demonstrating a new-found vitality in a country long hamstrung by mandatory United Nations sanctions — have turned quite a few heads.

 By now everyone knows that the three Boeing 720s were used in Germany and were American-owned before that.

 The cost, in cocktail party terms, ranges from R 280 000 each, to R6-million for the three. Similar sources are equally vague about how and by whom they were acquired.

 Some people mention the American secret service, the CIA. Others talk about South African involvement. One person had the idea that they were a gift to Rhodesia from a South American millionaire.

 But ask people at Salisbury Airport about their new acquisitions and talk turns to other things.

 What is interesting is that this was not the first negotiation Air Rhodesia had entered into in their bid to buy jets. Captain Travers told me: "Many people came to us with offers. It would surprise a few United Nations officials to know which countries were willing to sell to us.

 "But each time the deal was about to be concluded there was a hitch. Either the supplier did not have an adequate supply of spares or there were problems with the manufacturers involving legalities which ultimately came into conflict with United Nations sanctions. We inspected dozens of aircraft, and during this time our executives made numerous trips to Europe and elsewhere to inspect offered planes."

 Finally, said Captain Travers, the three 720s were offered. "The planes were waiting for us in Switzerland. It was a package deal, and not only was the product right, the price reasonable, but all other factors fitted into place. The deal was concluded."

 The three aircraft had originally belonged to Eastern Airlines, American operators, who on switching to Jumbos sold them to a West German firm, Calair, which used them to transport package-deal tourist groups to holiday centres, including Kenya

 As Jumbos claiming a larger share of the market and Boeing 707s and 720s became more readily available and cheaper, the charter companies mushroomed. Then several, including Calair, went out of business.

 Although Captain Travers would not say how the three aircraft were delivered, another source provided this information.

 The aircraft were sold in Basle, Switzerland. Air Rhodesia crews who had undergone Boeing conversion courses were sent to fetch them.

 In their Calair colours they were flown first to Portugal and then to Salisbury. At some stage there was a brief delay while Air Rhodesia colours replaced those of Calair — a process which, reports have it, probably took place at a Portuguese military base.

 The redecoration project was an efficient one, although obviously completed by foreigners, for the design was not exactly that in use by the Rhodesian airline. However, the slightly-altered motif is so effective that Air Rhodesia has decided to adopt it for its other aircraft.

 Having been shown over the planes, I can say that they are in excellent trim. In spite of claims to the contrary, the jets have many years of service ahead of them.

 The galleys and toilets, usually the first place to show signs of wear and tear, are in good shape. The seats have been reconditioned, but the original armrests remain, and these do not indicate 14 years of use, as has been claimed by one critic of the purchase.

 Whereas some airlines maintain their planes with more regard for functionality than aesthetic values, the previous owners clearly took good care of them. Everything was in its place, and there was little "lay about" evidence of major overhauls or part replacements — as one sometimes finds in Middle East or African aircraft.

 Tell-tale signs are often that a screen or a cover has not been carefully screwed, glued or sewn back into place. These are sometimes left open in case further

 In spite of sanctions and a breakdown in the supply of spare parts Air Rhodesia has prospered. Where Rhodesian engineers could not obtain new parts from the manufacturers of the Viscounts in Britain these were designed from scratch and built in Rhodesia.

 One of the parts in everyday use in the Viscount turbo-props is an electronic fuel-flow indicator which was designed and built by Air Rhodesia boffins in their Salisbury workshops. These indicators are now part of the standard equipment of all Viscounts in service with the airline. Its designers claim it is more efficient than the original device.

 While most African airlines battled with annual losses, Air Rhodesia has moved to a position of strength during her years of isolation. Figures released while I was in Salisbury show that the airline is carrying more passengers and covering more kilometres than did the old Central African Airways, which offered services throughout South and East Africa as well as regular routes to Europe.

 Passengers carried by Air Rhodesia during the past year totalled 367 000, almost 45 per cent up on the number carried by Central African Airways in its last year.

 Passenger kilometres flown increased from 172-million (by CAA) to 205-million (for Air Rhodesia) during the same period.

 The last word comes from Pat Travers: "The way for us in Air Rhodesia is going to be an uphill struggle. However, there is one saving grace — we are used to it."

Above: Captain Tony Beck, the airline's chief pilot (right), is greeted on the tarmac at Salisbury Airport on his arrival from Europe with the first Boeing. He is seen talking to Mr. Ron Maskell, Mr. Henry Radnitz, head of Air Rhodesia's engineering division and Mr. Jack Cocking.

Above:  Other changes are apparent — Air Rhodesia hostesses in their distinctive new uniforms.

 Above: The man who engineered the sanctions breakthrough. Captain Pat Travers, chief executive of Air Rhodesia. He was formerly general manager of East African Airways.


Source: Newspaper The Sunday Times Colour Magazine of 4 November 1973 of South Africa which was made available to ORAFs by Dave Vermaak (Air Rhodesia).

Article was extracted and recompiled by Eddy Norris for use on "Our Rhodesian Heritage" blog that he administers.

Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at orafs11@gmail.com

Suggested reading.
Air Rhodesia's B720s — "a riddle wrapped in a mystery"
Visit. http://rhodesianheritage.blogspot.com/2013/05/air-rhodesias-b720s-riddle-wrapped-in.html
Sanction Slipping (Air Rhodesia's Boeings are worth a lot.)
Visit. http://rhodesianheritage.blogspot.com/2013/05/sanction-slipping-air-rhodesias-boeings.html

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