Grumman ZS-VYI

The Chibuto Caper - P2

March 2000

(contd from P1 - Back) Circling Chokwe we found an airstrip of sorts. This did not look at all useable for most aircraft, although there was parked there, in the remains of a hangar without a roof, a turbo-prop crop sprayer in good nick and obviously useable. At this airstrip stood hundreds of people just waiting! - presumably for manna from heaven, which, of course was en route!

In the misty and cloudy conditions, we decided to follow the river to our next port of call and destination, Chibuto. Easier said than done, when he river is several miles wide - more like a lake that sort of points to the sea.

Approaching the "koppie" where Chibuto sits, we found the engine going into Auto Rough, as it had obviously detected that we were over the ocean, a part of the Limpopo in fact that was 11 miles wide at this point.

Leaving this expanse of water, we could easily see Chibuto airfield and circled several times, looking for any hazards, or indeed any signs of activity at all.

One reason for the recce flight was that reports had already been received of SAAF helos being besieged by hungry survivors when dropping food - we did not want the volunteer pilots to be placed in such danger, nor their aircraft, and wanted to know whether this airfield was under any sort of official control.

Grumman ZS-VYI

After carrying out a precautionary inspection, we lined up for Runway 19, which points towards the river and Trev dropped the aircraft onto it’s mains to check the surface; adding a little power we ran down the length of the runway, all the while alert for any signs of sinking in or soft spots. I looked back at this point to see dust being kicked up by the main wheels. Lifting off again, we decided that the runway was serviceable and set heading for home.

At the time we saw no persons during our initial circling,but by the time we ran the wheels along the runway, there was a truck and a few people at the open airfield gate.

Since it was our intention to station our own forward control team at the airfield, we felt that control could be established without too much difficulty, and in the event this was later the case.

The flight back was conducted on top of broken stuff and after 4 hours of flying we landed at FANS.The next day, after final liaison with LASS at Hoedspruit, who were alerted to the relief flights and who would be tracking all aircraft on radar and with SAR on standby, the first flight to carry supplies left. This was the DH Beaver, which was later joined by several others who had arrived.

Grumman ZS-VYI
Unfortunately the weather now turned nasty, with very low cloud, violent rain squalls all over the place en route, whilst FANS met was quite fair.

In such conditions VFR pilots are wise to head for home and several made the right choice and did just that. Those with IF skills often managed a way through, or by going on top out of FANS and descending over the flat lands through a convenient hole. Sunday saw 7 tons delivered in easy conditions and the next few days proceeded along these lines.

However aircraft became scarce with the work week, so tonnages could not be maintained.

Also during this period, two aircraft were damaged. Mike van Ginkel’s own Twin Commanche, flown by son Andre was caught landing in a squall and wound up below the glideslope in blind conditions, striking the nosegear on an obstacle short of the runway and coming to rest short - with both props severely bent and damage to the fuselage.

Grumman ZS-VYI

The other was also a twin, a C310 of Paul Kirby. Unable to find a way through to Chibuto, he had to turn back a mere 30 miles from the destination. After a normal landing at FANS in good conditions, the right hand gear folded and the aircraft left the runway. Coincidentally perhaps. maintenance to the gear had been performed shortly before his arrival at FANS for the AirBridge.

By Saturday 11 Mar, the weather had settled in. Another cyclone had hit and the edge of it closed FANS completely. All pilots stood down and retired to the pub! Sunday 12th dawned perhaps not bright and clear, but certainly flyable and the game was on again. With 13 aircraft having arrived by now, this looked like it was going to be a good day for the flood victims as fair tonnages should be possible.

By this time, our forward team,, placed at Chibuto under volunteer Jay Nel, had begun to get things organised and had in fact set up our very own distribution system under the management of a local doctor, Alberto Da Silva. Jay and the doctor had become the de facto airport management team and were assisting all relief flights and not only those of the Aero Club, thus helping enormously the process of distribution.

Grumman ZS-VYI

Amazingly they had also come under harassment from locals purporting to be officials, who wanted to take over their distribution role, and were busy making threatening noises! Jay was to spend the next seven weeks of his life living at the airfield under canvas, battling heat, humidity, mosquitos and other 2-legged pests, many of whom saw an opportunity to get free food or money or both!

When Jay ran the SA flag up the flagpole on his tent, officials, accompanied by local police, came along to arrest him at 10 pm! When it was pointed out that there was no law to forbid this they retreated, muttering dark threats.

>>> Next >>>