John was flying routine game counting transects when he was called to provide aerial support to arrest poachers – and that’s just the start of what turns into an endlessly demanding day.
“Mission control, Hotel Fox Delta (HFD).”
“Please confirm with India Alpha Lima (IAL) the colour and type of vehicle.”
“HFD, last update, it is a metallic light green Volkswagen Combi and whereabouts unknown. IAL is searching on the eastern boundary.”
“Copied, mission control, we will continue in this area and keep a look out.” I glanced over at my navigator and raised an eyebrow, unsure of my next move.
We were patrolling in the south-western section of the reserve, following fixed transects in pre-selected blocks, 3,000 hectares in size, and were under great pressure to complete the allocated area of 25 blocks per day. Each transect was 400 metres apart, animal movements within the block could only be accounted for by ensuring the blocks were completed sequentially – breaking away from the task could jeopardise the accuracy of our survey. But the desire to participate in hunting down and capturing the suspect was great.
“Okay guys, what do you think? Shall we continue on our task, but if we see any vehicles in the distance, break away to investigate? We may get lucky,” I asked, thinking this was a good compromise.
“Let’s do that,” came the unanimous agreement.
My mind was wandering. As much as I intended staying on track, maintaining precise height and speed, I couldn’t help myself – I kept searching the near distance for any vehicles. I’d be damned if these bastards would escape again.
45 minutes had passed with no news, and I was more anxious than ever to go and fly along the east/west road just north of our work area. Turning the helicopter back onto a north-bound track and settling to maintain 70 knots and 300 feet was instinctive by now, as was glancing at the magenta GPS actual track getting superimposed over the fixed blue computer-generated track. The routine was mechanical: GPS tracks aligned, height and speed checked, instruments in the green, then, eyes out scanning … and yes! There was a glint of a vehicle in the morning sun.
Automatically I found myself lowering the helicopter’s nose and pulling in some power, accelerating towards the vehicle, butterflies doing loops in my stomach.
“What do you think? Let’s have a quick look. It’s not too far away,” I said to no one in particular, as if anyone had an option – my mind was made up.
I knew the odds of finding the correct vehicle were slim. Arriving overhead the road, 100 m behind the car, I realised that we didn’t know the number plate. I flew a little closer; my heart sank and I pulled away. It was a pale lime colour – not metallic and not really green – but it was a VW, a very new, modern VW … and it had dark tinted windows. What was a car with dark tinted windows doing in a game park?
I circled away, keeping my eyes on the vehicle and called mission control to find out if they had a number plate.
“HFD, IAL, do you copy?” The pilot of the Cessna 182 called. He was finally in reception.
“IAL, have you strength five. Go,” I replied.
“Number plate is Oscar Hotel Juliette 695 Mike Papa, do you copy?”
“Copied IAL, thanks. I’m going in to look. Will get back to you.”
I circled back towards the road, falling in a couple of hundred metres behind the vehicle, descending and reducing speed until we were close enough to read the numbers.
“Confirm Oscar Hotel Juliette 695. That’s the vehicle! Keep your eyes on the windows, and make sure you see if they throw anything out.”
I pulled back 200 metres, matching the VW’s speed, while noticing a shiny black Jeep Cherokee, also with dark tinted windows, trailing the VW. I then saw that the Jeep had slowed right down, and the VW had accelerated, widening the gap. My pulse quickened, my mouth was dry and my awareness heightened – that old familiar feeling of impending action had returned.
“IAL, HFD, I have a positive on the numbers. There are two suspicious vehicles: the lime green VW and a black Jeep. Require immediate assistance. The two vehicles are separating. Moving west towards the gate, GPS co-ords will follow.”
“Mission Control, HFD, we have a positive on the vehicle. Need immediate back up. Two vehicles, now separating fast. GPS to follow.”
I climbed high enough to maintain watch on both vehicles and hovered in a way that allowed all eyes in the helicopter to monitor the suspects. Time seemed to freeze. Frustration and a sense of helplessness came over me as I realised that I would soon have to make a decision to stay with one vehicle. Where was IAL?
“HFD, IAL, I have you visual. I am on your three o’clock, two miles, inbound, 1,500 ft on QNH 1023.”
“Have you visual. I will stay with the black Jeep. Please can you follow the VW. I will update control,” I replied.
I pulled away and descended, lining up behind the Jeep. There was now a good kilometre separating the two cars, and it was widening.
“Mission control, HFD, IAL is on scene and following the VW. I am monitoring the Jeep. Please get support to our position ASAP. We will need both helicopters to get manpower on the ground.”
“Copied HFD. You are radar identified. Oscar Kilo Papa (OKP) and Juliette Mike November (JMN) are lifting off now and will be with you in two zero minutes.”
“HFD, IAL, the VW has reached the T junction, turned right and is speeding towards the gate. Copied last transmission from control.”
“Copied IAL. We are coming to the T junction now. Jeep is hesitating. Jeep turning left. Can you keep visual on the VW?”
“Affirm HFD. I have visual.”
“HFD, this is OKP and company. We have you on TCAS inbound at 500, five miles out.”
“Copied OKP. We are with the black Jeep. IAL is with the green VW. We are standing by to give you top cover.”
“Have you visual HFD. JMN is routing to assist IAL. We are coming in low, direct for target. Please keep top. Make sure you see if anything is thrown from the vehicle.”
Below me the Airbus Squirrel B3 darted towards the unsuspecting Jeep like the predator it is. They circled, no doubt assessing the environment, then rapidly went for a landing a safe distance ahead to allow enough time to deploy a stop group. One fully armed scout took position in the middle of the road, weapon at the ready, another dashed for side cover to the left of the road and the third ran to the right, establishing a perfect ambush. My heart thumped as I watched the story below unfold, and I couldn’t help but to grin at the thought of how the Jeep’s suspects had no clue what firepower was waiting in the bush. God help them if they tried to make a run for it.
The Jeep slowed down as it came around the corner, the driver no doubt realising he had a fully armed soldier aiming an automatic weapon towards his face. The Jeep stopped; the scout moved in, at the ready, aiming at the driver. I could make out by the gesticulating that the scout was ordering the driver out. The two concealed scouts emerged, also at the ready, one each side of the vehicle.
My focus was rudely interrupted.
“HFD, we have the area secure. Can you get to the VW to relieve IAL, and provide top cover for JMN? The vehicle is closing towards the gate.”
I banked away, checked my fuel, and accelerated towards JMN.
A few minutes later, I had IAL visual, orbiting high, and JMN tailing the vehicle.
“JMN, HFD, I am on your six, inbound at one mile.”
“HFD, take my position. Can you give top cover? I will bank right to position for deployment.”
A flush of adrenalin intensified my awareness as I slowed to take position above the Combi. JMN accelerated ahead, finding a suitable landing site and deployed the scouts, who, with honed precision like the others, took their positions. Again, one man, weapon at the ready, in the middle of the road, another to the left and one to the right. The fourth scout stood ready to support the leader stopping the vehicle.
It was suddenly all over, an anti-climax, but we were elated with the success.
A quick ‘well-done’ and I turned back to continue my task – flying transects. I had to fight off mixed emotions. I wanted to be more involved on the ground and know the outcome. I wasn’t ready to go back to flying boring transects and struggled to re-focus.
Eventually I calmed down and settled back to my work. After a while, I realised that my transect flying was actually great.
Transects done, it was time to head back to base. It had been a long day and it was getting late. I had a lot to think about and I looked forward to shutting down, finding some silence, a mug of tea and catching up on the news. I couldn’t wait to hear what the outcome of the two vehicles was.
Continued next month ...