The Colour of Adrenaline
It’s 13 September 1979. I had arrived in Grootfontein the previous day with an overly large crew, with the assumption that another big ‘Ops’ was in the planning stages. I was the commander of Skymaster 6901, and all those who had anything to do with that magnificent old bird lovingly called her the ‘Spook’ – for good reason.
The Spook had been permanently rigged out as an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) machine. Almost the entire length of its cabin was filled with highly sophisticated radios and other listening devices which analysed the frequency spectrums of various enemy radar and communication transmitters. There were also banks of recorders to capture those emissions and transmissions, and a few electronic gadgets which jammed or disrupted enemy transmissions.
The overly large crew we had on board was there to man the myriad of different transmitters and receivers. We even carried a few interpreters on board to make sense of voice transmissions which were mostly spoken in Spanish (Cuban). In short, the Spook was a four-engine spy-plane. Her airframe might have been dated, but her equipment was state of the art.
Due to various other operational commitments, many of the younger electronic operators on the Spook were regularly changed, from trip to trip, so a number of the operators on board were often complete newcomers. However, the more senior hands had become almost an institution on board.
This particular flight was no exception and we, as the flight crew, really only knew Major Johann Lourens, the electronics co-ordinator, and WO II Phil Davel, the comms co-ordinator. The rest of my flight crew consisted of Maj. Charlie van Wyngaard, co-pilot and F/Sgt Corrie v.d. Burgh, the Flight Engineer, and we were all scheduled to remain in the border area for another week or two.
Due to the nature of our flights and the weird hours we flew, the crew were housed far away from AFB Grootfontein’s general population. We even received our own rations and prepared our own food at those isolated barracks. Sadly, our culinary skills were restricted to barbecues with the odd attempt at a Bully Beef soufflé thrown in to relieve monotony.
As a day of operations in the Spook, 13 September kicked off pretty normally. During the early morning briefing, Johann Lourens and I were instructed to get airborne at around 15h00 and fly a “patrol” in the Ruacana area until such time when we were called off task or ran short on fuel. Here, it might be fitting to mention that 6901 could carry more fuel and oil than the rest of the fleet – in fact, she carried 3,592 US Gallons of fuel (14,368 litres) and with careful fuel management (flying at endurance speed or shutting down one or more engines) she could remain airborne for more than 15 hours if needed. This trip was destined to be another of those overly long flights.
Anyhow, we were to patrol an area about 100 nm east and west of Ruacana, but avoid Angolan airspace. Dayton, the radar monitors at Oshikati, would, as far as possible, keep track of our progress along that border, but at times we would be out of their range and thus be “on our own.” Not a problem – we were young, tough and fearless, and quite a few of us were veterans of the Spook.
One of our ‘veterans’ on board was Corrie, the engineer, and that day, all was not well with the old stalwart. Corrie, from time to time, suffered severe attacks of gout, always in his big toe on his right foot, and he was suffering one of those painful occasions. Unfortunately, there was no other engineer available to replace him. The poor man could hardly walk, but Charlie, Johan and I promised to carry him into the cockpit if necessary and, once on station, we would allow him to retire from his station, the fold out seat between the two pilots, to go and make himself more comfortable in one of the ex-airways seats we had fitted in the rear of the passenger cabin, right next to the toilets.
We ate lunch at about 13h00 and then, at 15h00 exactly, the Spook, en-route to Ruacana, staggered into the air off Runway 26, Grootfontein. We were loaded up to the windowsills with high octane fuel, fully prepared for a marathon flight. Just on 17h00, we reached our first waypoint and throttled back to endurance speed – there was a long night lying in wait for us.
As promised, I excused Corrie as we set heading towards the east, and with great difficulty and pain, the man hobbled back to one of those welcoming seats near the toilets. We were cruising at 11,000 feet and, at least for now, did not need Corrie’s presence in the cockpit.
Day slowly changed to a particularly dark night, as a blanket of high Alto clouds blanketed out most of the stars above. Those who can recall the area in those long-ago days will remember that there was a marked absence of electric lights to be found in the northern Ovamboland/Kaokoveld that now stretched out serenely below us. Some time, close to 23h00, we, for the umpteenth time, passed just to the south of Ruacana, heading west. Far below us, only because it was one of the few places that had any electric lights whatsoever, we could only just make out the military camp, located to the south of the dam. Shortly thereafter, the camp receded far behind us as we headed ever westward towards the Marienfluss.
We were some miles south of Epupa Falls, still at 11,000 feet, but now with high ground below us, when Johan Lourens came up to the cockpit to inform us, almost casually, that one of the operators in the back thought that we had been “lit up” by a radar somewhere to the north of us. It had to be enemy radar because we were definitely out of range of Dayton’s radar at Oshikati, and besides, that radar lay to the south.
Seconds later, the casual atmosphere in the cockpit became considerably more un-casual. Phil Davel shouted in a high-pitched voice over the intercom, “Major, head south. We think there might be a MiG tracking us. It is definitely heading our way. We distinctly heard the callsign Corozan Cinco.” (The callsign of one of the more capable Cuban jet jockies.)
I had barely commenced the turn south when Phil shouted in an even higher pitched voice, “Major, that MiG has got a ‘lock on’.” Phil’s shout came as the big red warning light in front of me started flashing angrily, signalling that there was a positive fighter ‘radar lock on’. The firing of a missile was imminent. In that fleeting second, I thought I spotted the faint image of the old Grim Reaper. He was leering triumphantly at me from behind that curtain of the dark night, ominously swinging his long-handled scythe to and fro!
Never, even in my worst nightmares, had I ever dreamt that I might one day be involved in a ‘one on one’ situation with a MiG, while flying a slow, trundling, old Skymaster. Yet, that unthinkable situation had now come to pass and the old bird still had more than 7,000 combined litres of highly flammable fuel left over in those eight fuel tanks of hers. Wow, if that missile hit us, we would light up the skies over the Kaokoveld like that time millenniums ago, when the Hoba Meteorite flashed over that very same area. It really was time to ‘Get the Hell Out of Dodge City’.
The rapid evacuation intensions of ours were great but the Skymaster just couldn’t run very fast – 180 knots was her Vne. She could, however, fall out of the sky quite rapidly in a spiral dive once her throttles were fully closed.
That night, I might just have bent the steel bars on those throttles ever so slightly as I held them fully back against the stops while I had cranked the old girl over 60-degrees and entered a dangerous spiral dive in pitch black conditions. Maintaining a great presence of mind and a calmness that didn’t suit the seriousness of the situation, Charlie shouted out the indications on the Vertical Speed Indicator (VSI). He soon stopped when the needle hit its stops at 3,000 ft/min. From that moment onward, he only shouted out the altitude readings on our speedily downwards winding altimeter, adding from time to time the odd readings on our rapidly cooling oil and CHT gauges. What a star! I remember hearing “niner thousand feet, eight thousand feet, seven thousand feet” as Charlie kept up his monologue, while I hung onto the control column, holding the old girl steady at about 170 knots.
Sometime, during that dizzy dive, Corrie somehow managed to slither into the cockpit and into his seat. How he managed to fight the G forces in the steeply banked aircraft, he could never explain, but he definitely wasn’t hobbling at the time. Glancing momentarily at Corrie’s face, I could swear that his reading glasses now looked more like contact lenses as, despite their sturdy rims, they now seemed much smaller in diameter than his wide opened eyes.
Only when we passed through 6,500 ft, did that bright red ‘lock on’ warning light, in front of me, go out. We had broken the lock of the MiG, but our problems were not nearly over. We were still hurtling earthwards like Icarus after his wings had melted in the glare of the sun. Somehow, I managed to ease the old girl out of the dive and back on an even keel by 5,300 ft. We weren’t sure where we were, but we were well aware that somewhere in our immediate vicinity mountain peaks rose considerably higher than 6,000 ft – at least 700 ft above our current altitude – and outside it was still as black as a witch’s armpit.
Keeping a beady eye on the warning light, I climbed back up to 5,800 ft and set heading for home. For now, “this sortie is over” was the unanimous decision of the crew.
Strangely, the gout in Corrie’s foot was gone; in fact, there was no recurrence of that ailment for many months afterwards.
How did we lose the MiG that night? Maybe, our unexpected and violent spiral dive caught Corozan Cinco by complete surprise. Possibly he might have thought that we were out of control and doomed in any case. Maybe he was infinitely wiser than I was and did not dare to chance his arm or his aircraft with the high ground of the Marienfluss, looming below. Maybe he was at the extreme limit of his range. We’ll never know. Whatever the reason, Corozan Cinco retained his bragging rights – he scared the shit out of us.
Continued next month …