The Chibuto Caper - P1

March 2000

Grumman ZS-VYI

Other commentators have termed this operation the biggest and longest-running airborne disaster relief effort ever in southern Africa - don’t know about that, but it can claim to have worked well and to have achieved the objectives it started out with.

It all started with this writer sitting innocently at his desk, pondering the mysteries of Windows 95, as the computer crashed for the third time that day, when the phone rang. My first mistake was to lift the receiver, the second was to listen to the party at the other end!

EAA 973 member Trevor Trautmann posed the question "How many aircraft are owned by EAA members?" The answer of "about 300", was followed by the announcement that he, Trevor, had been watching the news on TV about the disastrous floods in Moz, and would it not be a "GOOD THING" to consider mobilising these aircraft to assist in flood relief after all, they are only wasted sitting in hangars, surely?

Grumman ZS-VYI

The response from this side was that the thought had already occurred, but had been promptly put out of mind, with the sure knowledge that somewhere, somehow, such a seemingly simple idea, just HAD to translate into a mountain of work for the elusive somebody who would do that work!

With the cunning thought that such work should surely be done, not by EAA volunteers, but by the permanent staff at our National Body, Aero Club of SA, I promptly called Mike Van Ginkel, Director-General of said august institution. Well the stars must have been moving in a certain way or something, because that very morn, Mike had had the call from the pres. of the Aero Club Moz, to tell him that their Cherokee 6 had crashed with two killed during relief flights, and could SA help out, as the situation was truly desperate.

At this time the SAAF helos had just about completed the rescue phase, plucking people out of raging waters and off the tops of trees. We talked for a time, about the seemingly simple task of setting up a volunteer-based delivery system for the mountains of relief goods undoubtedly lying here there and everywhere, but which could not be moved except by air. After that I put Trevor in touch with Mike, hoping that between them they would put it together and leave me out of it!

Grumman ZS-VYI
Grumman ZS-VYI

To my great and continuing surprise I next found myself driving to Nelspruit on 4 Mar to meet MVG at the offices of the Forest Fire Association at the airport, where Mike’s son Andre had arranged for us to work. This apparently arose out of the fact that, after Mike and Trev had spoken and within an hour of that event, Trevor had raised R100000 from AirBP and a further R100 grand rom Engen - hell, now we gotta spend the money!

The next days up to Wednesday Mar 8 were spent liasing with all and sundry – it’s amazing how they all come swarming when they hear of little airies crossing international boundaries, concerned as hell for our safety, legality and every other bureaucratic impediment they can find to slow things down! Oddly enough in normal times, none would give a damn whether you crash and burn, unless you happen to do it in their front garden, but now they were on us like fleas on a dog! To their credit however, many were very helpful and went out of their way to assist once they realised that we were not actually a bunch of flying cowboys out to disrupt the important relief agencies in their vital work!

Grumman ZS-VYI

During this period the CAA DH Beaver arrived with pilot, Col. (Retd) Brian Wilford at the helm and Murad Ishmail of CAA as co-jockey and GPS twiddler. Brian was for the past two years,until very recently, the Project Manager Safety Oversight at our beloved CAA, but had now reverted to the civvy life, due to high blood pressure occasioned during his sojourn at CAA. Fortuitously said blood pressure readings are now, after some months away from his previous employment, back to normal.

After clearing the way through the bureaucracy, the remaining question was that of the destination airfield. Chibuto lies on the northern bank of the Limpopo in Gaza province, the worst hit region and being some several hundred feet amsl, the airfield has not been submerged, nor indeed the town itself.

Wanting to see for myself before asking anyone to go land there, I embarked aboard Grumman AA1B, "King Kitty", a real pussycat of an airplane, and last year’s winner at AirWeek of the Mark French Best Restoration Trophy, Owned and flown by Trevor Trautmann, we lifted off from FANS for the 152 nm flight to Chibuto.

This was on Tues Mar 7 at 0dark30. Taking off in pleasant weather, we soon encountered the clag around Malelane and it got worse the further we went. Luckily for VFR pilots, the terrain is as flat as a pancake with no structures higher than single storey, so scud running at low, low level was de rigeur.

Grumman ZS-VYI
Reaching Chokwe (Choque) on the Limpopo, we sailed eerily along at a few hundred feet, over watery desolation and an all-pervading stench of decay. Water levels by this time had fallen, but houses were underwater, bridges had of course been swept away, roads were impassable with debris and railway lines ripped apart in many places. Approaching Chokwe we flew over an abandoned military base, beside which were parked dozens of vehicles including Russian T34 tanks, lined up neatly in the field and quietly rusting away!

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