Tuesday 3 December 2013

"Anywhere, anytime"

By Mitch Stirling (Air Rhodesia)

RUAC Salisbury.

“Anywhere, anytime”

The pleasure of flying a Beechcraft Baron around Rhodesia and being paid for it by Captain Colman Myers — managing director and founder of Rhodesia United Air Carriers — was something a budding young pilot would never forget.

Log Book.

A glance at my own log book of the 1970s brings back many happy memories of faces and places from my days at RUAC, Salisbury. In those days the pilot complement was: Ken Murrell, Charlie Bewes, Dave Rider, Phil Nobes, Ken Maurice, Dave [Boo] Addison, Vic Miles, Robin Cartwright, Roger Paterson, Martyn Taylor, Rob Jordan, John Grimes and, later, Rob Gaunt, Charles Paxton and Ken Edwards. 

RUAC Barons at Salisbury airport.

Of the above, Col Myers was particularly impressed with Vic Miles who, he said, was one of the few “natural” pilots he had ever met. Stan Murray was, most certainly, another. He was in charge of the Lonrho contract and operated a temperamental, super-charged Queen Air VP-WHH on their behalf. A most skilful pilot, with years of experience, Stan spoiled his passengers outrageously by providing them with the early morning paper and warm, hand-wrapped pies, whilst regaling them with his stories of “fine fishing”. He tied his own trout flies on stopovers. The passengers loved him. 

Above: Police Reserve Air Wing pilots Stan Murray and Dan Eardley [director of RUAC] and an observer. A number of RUAC pilots flew with PRAW and No 3 Squadron of the Rhodesian Air Force.

On the engineering, stores and administration side of the company were Chummy Page, Chuck Drake, Bob Richardson, Steve Rutherfoord, Carole Brooks, Sandy Paterson, Debbie Page and Tanny Palmer. “Washer”, one of the African assistants, seemed to be in all departments, simultaneously. He was everywhere. Unfortunately, many more names escape my fading memory, but perhaps readers will add their own memories in the comments section at the end of the article?

Pilots Rob Dalton [SAA retired] and Chris Marchant [Royal Brunei] were there at the time, as I recall, but they flew off to greener pastures at an early stage, as did many young pilots in those days. Promotion to a big jet, or the national carrier, was an ever-present temptation when the opportunity arose. Shortly after Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, Tudor Thomas and Mark McClean joined the company when their contracts to fly Hunters in Oman fell through. John Barnes from the Air Force arrived as well. Thomas the cat, Tudor’s namesake, was a special member of the office staff for many years to come!

With 1 000 hours of flying experience and an instrument rating, a successful young RUAC applicant joined a professional team of pilots whose network  covered domestic hubs, generally not serviced by Air Rhodesia, and regional destinations as far away as Zaire. And there were commuter and freight services to agricultural and mining projects around Rhodesia as well, so there was never any shortage of interesting places to visit. Safe, disciplined airmanship was learned behind the controls of a light twin or single engined aircraft, as bush flying experience was gained. That's where “real” pilots learned their trade, in a “seat of the pants, stick and rudder” flying environment. As an introduction to a career in commercial aviation, it was second to none. 

Inevitably there were mishaps and some accidents, as many of the bush strips were short and rough and a little “hairy” too, to say the least, especially as they were often situated right in the middle of Rhodesia's hot war zones. Flights into Ratelshoek in the eastern border tea plantations, or into Middle Sabi, Chisumbanje and Hippo Valley in the lowveld sugar estates, were very challenging for new pilots, as were remote airfields at tourist destinations on the Zambezi River and at various mines around the country — the emerald mine at Sovelele, gold at Umvuma and Cam and Motor, coal at Wankie, nickel at the Empress, iron ore at Buchwa, tin at Kamativi, phosphates at Dorowa. Flying was often carried out at tree-top level and seldom above 5 000 ft agl, unless cloud seeding. 

The absence of on-board weather radar made things very interesting when flying in the rainy season. But, as far as I know, there was only one fatal crash due to weather. Beech Baron VP-YXM crashed near Tete in Mozambique in bad weather during the 1960s, killing all on board. The passengers were top management from the unfortunately named “Wright Rain” company.

Cessna 210s and 206s were used when flying into some of the rougher airfields like Skelton, Chiwira, Makugwe, Chiurgwe, Nyajena, Mazarabani and Tonje.  VP-YLT was one of the C 210s and the other was ZS-EWD, with the Robertson STOL conversion, fondly known as “Edward”. VP-WIR and VP-WCK were the C 206s.
VP-WDX was a Beech Queen Air which, in addition to its usual charter duties, was used for cloud seeding. It was sold to Brian Patten and a new, personalized registration was added, VP-YBP.



VP-WCK at a Middle Sabi farm strip.
VP-YLT at Tilbury. Bought specifically for cloud seeding.

A scheduled service from the old Perrem's airfield, Umtali, was introduced in 1978 using the C 206 VP-WCK. There were some interesting moments in the early days, particularly when Umtali was mortared by a group of “terrs” [for the second time]. Mortars were launched at the town from the ridge above the Aloe Park motel, where the resident pilot was staying at the time, and the Rhodesian Artillery boys, stationed at Impala Arms in the Vumba, traversed their guns and opened up on them with volleys of 25 pounders. Cordite and big bangs were in the Umtali air!

On another occasion the pilot of VP-WCK was briefed by the Grand Reef Air Force commander that there were confirmed reports of Strela [SAM-7] missiles in the Chipinga and Umtali area and to therefore fly below the lock-on height. Consequently, just north of Middle Sabi, he took small arms [AK47] hits — three rounds through the baggage compartment, one just aft of the wing spar and a round through the pilot's door, just missing his head. The bullet exited through the top of the instrument panel and windshield. When he saw tracer coming up, our pilot dived hard for the ground and very nearly collided with a high tree! His log book entry dated 19th March 1979 states: “Terrs hit aircraft abeam Cashel. Five bullet holes, Chisumbanje to Umtali, no injuries.”

Windscreen bullet holes.

VP-WCK at Chiwira, Honde Valley, showing the later matt grey, anti-strela paint job

VP-WCK at Perrem's.

Beechcraft Barons formed the backbone of the RUAC fleet, with type BE 58s VP-YKM and VP-WHV. They proved to be popular with passengers, offering easy access with their rear-entry doors. The BE 55s were: VP-WBX, VP-WHG, VP-WCX and ZS-FJP. One of them skidded off the end of Kamativi, damaging the propellers, but the author [conveniently] can't remember which one! Baron ZS-IJK was previously owned by the Malawi government, used by Kamuzu Banda as his personal aircraft and flown by Captain Richard Cook.
Another BE 55 at the time was VP-WAX. It went swimming in Lake Kariba at one stage. “Glassy water” effect was a very real danger on a hazy morning at Bumi Hills, when the waters of Kariba dam were mirror-smooth. Blue sky, perfectly reflected in the lake, could blur the horizon and cause momentary visual disorientation. Fortunately, in this instance, there were no injuries. The pilot stepped off the wing onto a rescue boat and the Selous Scouts retrieved the soggy aircraft in due course.
The gear-warning system on the Baron was a source of endless problems. The circuit breaker, to silence a very irritating audio warning whenever the throttles were retarded, was often manually “popped” OUT in flight by the pilots. But remembering to push the breaker back IN on landing, was a critical part of the landing checks that could easily be forgotten. An unhappy incident is recorded when one of the earlier pilots managed to land with the wheels UP at Risco [twice!]. The adage that there are those who have, those who will, and  those who will do again is a warning that should never be forgotten by pilots of any age and experience.

Above: VP-YWT Beech BE 55 was registered to RUAC in 1964, until at least 1976, then to Val and David Barbour in 1980.

VP-WAX with Colman Myers in control.

The company's “winged workhorses” were two BN 2-A Britten-Norman Islanders — VP-WHX and VP-WEX. They were known as the “constant noise, variable speed machines”, although the speed varied little from the target 65 knots for take-off and landing. There was a modest increase in speed during cruise to all of 120 kts TAS.

Z-WHX was shot-up at Quelimane in Mozambique at a later date, while contracted to the International Committee of the Red Cross. This resulted in some serious injuries. 

In Bulawayo, George Mawson, Richard Darlow, Roger Fenner, Chris Brittlebank, Barney Reichman, Garth Lee and Andy Searle were the pilots at the time, with Reg Reynolds and Chuck Osborne looking after maintenance. Judy Paxton was in the front office. But no story of RUAC would be complete without mention of engineer Laurie Hippman, who carried out the maintenance on the resident Islanders and “Dungbeetle” Apache VP-YDP. He was also the receptionist, telephonist and bookings clerk. Any “spare time” he had in his busy day was spent working on George Mawson's dreaded VW Beetle! Simon, Bernard and Lyshus, the African staff, always provided faithful, all-round service.

Bulawayo-Mashaba-Shabani proved to be a successful Islander route and a scheduled service was introduced. The Bulawayo Baron operated through Fort Victoria to Buffalo Range. It is interesting to note that RUAC engineers were experimenting with anti-Strela devices at the time. They re-routed the shrouded engine exhausts on the Baron to the inside of the cowling. This mod was not approved by Lycoming and caused quite a few raised eyebrows from passengers when they saw warm glows coming from “inside” the engines at night! 

Chris Brittlebank and Islander in anti-strela paint.

Hangar 2 Bulawayo.

VP-WHX in Bulawayo hangar with Reg Reynolds.

The RUAC team at Victoria Falls for the “Flight of Angels” and aerial game spotting consisted of Xavier van den Berg, John Wilson, Pat Weir and John Honman, with pilots from home bases in Salisbury and Bulawayo helping out in rotation. “Van” and his wife Sue, who ran the office, were the stalwarts at RUAC, Victoria Falls, for many years. He had over 14 000 hours when he retired, mostly spent over the cataract or up the river and adjacent game park, giving enormous pleasure to countless thousands of passengers. Dicky Bradshaw was the resident engineer, literally — he lived in the hangar — an unforgettable character with a wicked sense of humour and unquenchable thirst! His animated characterization of wild animals was hilarious.

Three Apaches were in use. VP-WCE  was a turbo-charged PA 23-160H, also used for cloud seeding in Matabeleland. PA 23-150 VP-YPP was previously owned by AG Burton of Salisbury. Apache VP-YOM PA 23-150 was sold to Monty Maughan. The Aztec in use, VP-WGD PA 23-250B, was a Northern Rhodesia machine in earlier times.

Two other RUAC pilots, Mike Grant and Eddie Marucchi, were involved in an unfortunate collision at Sprayview which became known as the “Fly United” incident. Blades from the propeller of Aztec VP-WGD inflicted some serious damage to the body of VP-YUR when they united on landing. WGD was repaired and flew again, but Aztec YUR’s wreck helped to increase the size of the rubbish dump behind the hangar which, over the years, became a treasure trove of aircraft parts. Engineer John Martin even found an undercarriage leg from an old Avro Anson buried in the junk. It was a veritable aviation museum, dating back to the days of Spencer's Air Service in the 1930s/1940s.


“Fly United.”

Dicky Bradshaw on recovery.

Z-WGD flies again.

Sprayview has been swallowed up by urban encroachment in recent years.

On 2 November 1977 pilot Eddie Marucchi had another narrow escape. A heat-seeking SAM missile, launched from the north bank of the Zambezi, was fired at the Apache he was flying. But it homed instead on the heat emanating from a local hotel. The up-market Elephant Hills Casino Hotel was burnt to the ground.

Above: Apache VP-YPP, of missile fame, is now beyond mechanical repair and rotting away in Harare. Richard Muir in picture.

After independence in 1980, Rhodesia United Air Carriers changed its name to RUAC (Pvt) Ltd and later to United Air Carriers (Pvt) Ltd, then to the abbreviated United Air (Pvt) Ltd. The “VP” prefix was erased from all aircraft registered in Zimbabwe, RUAC’s included, and replaced by the letter “Z”. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. But the enduring legacy of Colman Myers continued into the early years of the new Zimbabwe. The occasional accident endured as well, unfortunately, but “anywhere, anytime” remained the reassuring motto, as did “our aircraft will never leave without you”.

George Mawson's memento.

UAC Aztec Z-WGD at the Falls.
Obituary. It is with great sadness that I report the recent passing of Carole Brooks and Captain Xavier van den Berg — now “Flying with the Angels”.   

Photo credits, with thanks to: Sue and Calvyn van den Berg, George Mawson, John Hayler, Richard Darlow, Rod Bater, Ed Fleming, Deb and Allan Addison, Paul Maher, David Jessop, Richard Muir and the collection of Kjell O. Granlund in Oslo. [RUAC photos have wandered far and wide!] Research by David Newnham and Roger Paterson and John Reid-Rowland for his editing skills.


Thanks to Mitch for sharing these photographs and memories with ORAFs.

Comments are welcome  please mail me on orafs11@gmail.com.

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At 17 February 2014 at 07:53 , Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you Mitch, what an interesting article .....full of memories o some great years

At 4 November 2015 at 09:09 , Blogger Unknown said...

Any chance the Chris Brittlebank in one of the photos is the same one flying with EK these days? Thanks.

At 1 January 2018 at 19:18 , Blogger jurgenation said...

Great pictures and history

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At 7 August 2020 at 12:58 , Blogger Unknown said...

I met up with Charlie Cooke (and his brother Stuart) in 1979 at Zomba, Malawi. Charlie had a Beechcraft Baron. I later heard he was lost in a Learjet accident in the vicinity of Greenland. Can anyone confirm that? Fascinating article of 'yesterdays' - well done.

Best wishes, John Templeton Smith

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