'Air Trans Africa'

An excerpt from the autobiography under the same title, by Jim Townsend.
Edited by Peter Petter-Bowyer for Continuity.
It is a short account of some of my experiences from January 17th 1968 to September 17th 1968 giving
Given here are stories that will help you understand my reasons for becoming a mercenary for a short time during my period with Air Trans Africa.

This article appeared on the http://www.ourstory.com website


I left the RRAF in 1963 after serving 6 years and went back to the UK to obtain my Civil Aviation qualifications as a Flight Engineer and Maintenance Engineer. Following my success in this, Autair International employed me in the UK. This company assisted Jack Malloch in forming a company called Air Trans Africa (ATA) in Rhodesia and building up from bits remaining from Jack's old Rhodesian Air Services.
Since I wanted to return to Rhodesia, I was seconded to ATA and worked for the company from early 1965 to 1980. I really enjoyed this period of 15 years in the capacities Chief Inspector, Engineering Manager and Professional Flight Engineer.

During the period Jan 17th 1968 to Sept 17th 1968 I worked as a mercenary flying from Lisbon into Biafra (Nigeria) for a private company owned and run by a man named Hank Wharton, who was operating a small fleet of L-1049-G Constellation aircraft flying arms into Biafra. The reason for my working for Hank Wharton was that in 1967, when Biafra seceded from Nigeria, the then new military government of Biafra, through various other countries such as Rhodesia, S.A., Portugal & France requested assistance and because Biafra was rich in oil they received undercover assistance. Due to this, ATA was requested to help start a new airline in Biafra, because the secession had led to a civil war between Biafra and Nigeria.

We as ATA were flying all types of goods to Biafra from Gabon, Ivory Coast, S.A. and Portugal, starting in 1967. (This is all detailed in my Autobiography), Because we were flying as an airline and all of our aircraft, when scheduled, were ferried into Holland. This was to a maintenance base in Woensdrecht for our technical needs.

On Jan 17th 1968 I was scheduled to fly our L-1049-G, VP-WAW into Woensdrecht Holland for a maintenance check. At the same time Jack Malloch was ferrying a newly purchased DC-7C aircraft from Europe to Biafra via Lome, (TOGO). Unfortunately the crooked politicians in Lome confiscated the DC7-C and placed Jack Malloch and the crew into jail so they could steal the millions of Biafran currency that were on board and also to keep the aircraft for themselves.

Whilst in Holland we were informed about Jack and his crew being in jail with no signs of release. In fact we heard that they might be executed for treason. When our money ran out we were completely stranded in Holland and also had our ATA, DC-4 VP-YTY aircraft at Woensdrecht undergoing maintenance. This meant we had two full crews in a Hotel right in the middle of a bad winter with absolutely no money.

We sold anything of value to survive, even to sending messages back to Rhodesia for financial assistance. Eventually after many good and bad experiences we decided that we had to get out of Holland somehow and leave the aircraft in Woensdrecht, because we could not pay the bills. The two Captains and F/Os left to go back to Rhodesia via UK and the other F/E Bill Brown and myself managed to get to Lisbon to approach Hank Wharton for a job flying his L-1049-G airplanes. This is because we had heard that he wanted experience crews badly. (Hank Wharton operated and ran his so-called business from a Hotel in Lisbon).

As I was fully licensed and experienced on L-1049-G airplanes, I was hired immediately. Bill Brown however had to fly as a second F/E for a while until he was allowed to go alone on flights.

To enlighten those readers with no experience on Constellation airplanes, it was a Flight Engineers airplane - a fact that really concerned some Captains and that is why only professional Flight Engineers were qualified to operate this type of aircraft. The F/ E sat behind the pilots to allow him to operate any control on the airplane, other than the flight controls. The pilots did not even have a propeller-feathering button up front. Their only engine controls were the Magneto switches, one master Propeller lever and four throttle levers. Everything else was completely under the control of the F/E; this is the reason why there had to be complete trust between the Captain and his F/E to operate the aircraft safely. The F/E also handled the throttles, (power levers) during T/O, Climb, Cruise & Landings. So he was a busy man and it was never a boring job.

The only other airplane that I operated that was a complete F/E's airplane was the C-97G or B-377 Stratocruiser, which I operated in the US for about two years, (another part of my autobiography). Other airplanes, needing F/Es only required them as systems operators - they include DC-4, DC-6, DC-7, DC-8 & CL-44, (I hope that I have not hurt anyone's feelings).

When I started flying for Hank Wharton, all his crews were part timers during leave of absence from their airlines in the US. Although generally they were very competent they were also rusty because some had not flown Constellations for quite a while. Some also found it very difficult landing in Biafra on roads cleared for us with no more than 17 ft of tarmac either side of main wheels. I was lucky in that I managed to team up with an ex S.A. pilot, Captain Peitrie, from Johannesburg, who had been flying bigger Constellations - the L-1600 series. We formed a good team and flew together for about 6 months and trusted each other completely. That is why, I am sure, we came away unscathed in spite of experiencing just about every type of emergency that one could imagine. As a consequence, I did become very proficient in emergencies, which stood me in good stead later, in my career in the US with Pt 121 airlines.

After each completed full round trip we got paid by Hank Wharton in US dollars placed in our hands at his hotel in Lisbon, no cheques. We would not fly another trip until we got paid for the last trip because there was not a lot of trust. Hank Wharton had a German girl friend called Ziggy living with him and I am sure that she really ran his affairs.

The Constellations that Wharton had at Lisbon were mostly ex Lufthansa and originally were in good shape. But although there was a skeleton crew of German mechanics at Lisbon airport, who were very good, they did not do any preventative maintenance. They only undertook rectification on flight defects and, sometimes, a sporadic Pre-Flt. Nonetheless I always did a thorough Pre-Flt myself and I found some hideous faults which would have caused us problems in flight. In one particular case after take off from Lisbon airport, I had to shut down an engine because two spark plugs in one cylinder were shorted out by metal pieces from the valves. We were at or above our MTOW and, even though I pulled METO power on all three engines, we could not maintain altitude. So I had to go to T.O. power. After landing I got the Chief of the Maintenance Team, (a Tom Flooney - now a Boeing Rep) and told him that the engines were all acting very tired and worn out and I would like to see the engine log books, which he eventually produced after a lot of pressure. After I checked them I found that all of the engines were run outs, (Expired and sold with the airplanes). Naturally we refused to fly the airplanes until all the engines were replaced. This was done and, on the test flight, I found that the engines were acting the same way. Again I checked the new engine logs and found them to be run outs as well, - all sold 'as is' by Lufthansa, Now we were told by Hank Wharton that he had no other engines but run outs. I was not very popular with the mechanics, but we had no choice other than to fly with these engines. Oh boy! Did I nursed those engines like babies after that.

The average trip was Lisbon - Guinea Bissau- Pt Harcourt/Ihalia- St Tome- Lisbon, a normal flight time of 31.00 hours from start to finish and a duty time of approximately 35.00 hours with a normal time on the ground between each leg of 1.00 hour. After each one of these trips I slept for at least 24 hours to recover and if we flew two trips a week I was completely shattered, but the money was very good. Of course there was no such thing as duty time or flight times, we just kept on going and, once we settled down into a cruise pattern, we took turns in dozing off.

I did experiment and learn a lot about getting the best performance and range on these trips. As an example, the last leg from St Tome to Lisbon was a 14.00 hour flight (empty) and fuel was critical if we landed with 1,000 lbs (170 Gallons) in Lisbon. We were doing good the normal landing fuel should be 3,000 lbs, as the Constellations we were flying did not have the tip tanks installed on as on the long range versions. Once we had settled in the cruise I leaned out the engines 10% and set the power to as near as possible for wide open throttles, (power levers) and every hour pulled back the RPM pitch levers in 50 RPM increments. At approximately 7 hours into the flight I had full throttle on each engine with the RPM about 1700 RPM, (this is not in the book) but the airplane simply sailed along and you could just about see those paddle prop blades rotating. This was good for the engines with less frictional losses and much reduced fuel consumption. Believe it or not the engines performed better, ran cooler and were more reliable for us on our airplane when other crews suffered many engine failures.

During my time as a mercenary with Wharton operating from Lisbon I lost three airplanes. One was due to Landing Gear problems into Lisbon, one to a wing fire on take off out of St Tome and the third at Guinea Bissau as a result of a bomb placed on board that went off whilst the airplane was on the ground.

We did lose a few other airplanes from landing mishaps at Pt Harcourt and Ihalia in Biafra and others that went missing. We suspect these crashed into the mountains in Cameroon - unfortunately Bill Brown, the other F/E from Rhodesia, was killed during a go around at Ihalia.

With regard to mishaps, I still have gray hair and short fingernails to this day as a legacy from Lisbon/Biafra days.
A landing gear problem we suffered started in St Tome when another crew skidded the Connie on the runway and ran its nosegear off into mud. After the airplane was towed off and offloaded, the gear was checked visually and seemed to be OK. However we as a crew were asked to ferry this machine back to Lisbon whilst leaving our Connie in St Tome for another crew to deliver our load into Biafra. Thereafter we would collect our own Connie on return from Lisbon. The Connie that we ferried to Lisbon was 5T-TAC an L-1049-H with electric operated Propellers - a real dog of an airplane.

After take off from St Tome the gear would not lock up correctly and, after two or three attempts, we succeeded. From there on the flight was normal. However, 'normal' may be something of a misnomer because, when flying direct from St Tome to Lisbon, I'd swear that there was no need to navigate. It was just a matter of following our oil slicks across the desert.

We arrived at Lisbon with 1,000 lbs. of fuel after a 14-hour leg and upon lowering the gear the nose gear would not lock down. We tried unsuccessfully, maybe 6 times, to get the nose gear to lock down before I started the emergency nose gear extension procedures. The L-1049-H Connie is older and differs from the L-1049-G which has an isolation selector valve in the cockpit to direct all hydraulic pressure to the nosegear down lines. This is to only lower the nose gear which is at least 8 ft long and swings forward into the air flow which naturally resists lowering of the gear whereas the main gears lowering was assisted by the air flow which offered no problem.

In the L-1049-H however I had to go into the lower fwd baggage hold, remove the side panels and crimp certain hydraulic lines to ensure all pressure was directed to the nose gear actuator. Unfortunately every time I crimped the line with pliers the line broke due to age and of course spewing hydraulic fluid which squirted everywhere and all over me. I tried crimping, maybe three times, with no success except to lose more fluid, so I got the fire axe from the cockpit and cut a hole in the fwd cargo loading door of the front cargo compartment. This was in the front nose gear wheel well where I could see the nose gear, I dared not try to open the door as I was covered in fluid and would have been sucked out into the partially open wheel well.

I tried poking the downlock into lock position with a broomstick through the hole that I had cut, but with no success as the broomstick was not quite long enough. I went back up into the flight deck and decided that I could get to the downlock through the cockpit floor underneath the F/E's seat. Time was getting short as we were getting very low on fuel having circled for some time over Lisbon bay.

Again, with the use of the fire axe, I cut a large hole in the cockpit floor and managed to get to the uplock and I managed to prod it into what I thought was the locked position. Having now acquired three greens we had no choice but to land. As we made our approach I feathered #4 engine which had started to cough due to lack of fuel upon touch down #3 engine quit due fuel. Having landed we could not taxi, which was just as well because the nose gear would have folded up as the uplock was holding by less than a 1/32 of an inch. The mechanics that came out to us had to chain the nose gear to prevent it from collapsing on the runway.

After the event it was decided that the airplane was too costly to repair immediately and it was to be scrapped due to all the damage to the nose gear and structure caused by me with the fire axe. Nonetheless the aircraft was eventually repaired.

Another serious emergency that we had occurred when operating out of St Tome which is a Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean off the Biafran coastline. At that time we were operating from St Tome into Biafra and returning to St Tome twice every night. Instead of operating continuously from Lisbon, we used to take in turns to base a week in St Tome and a month in Lisbon. Although our trips were short they were hard on the airplanes involving four take offs every evening.

Early on the evening of May 11th 1968, during a normal maximum heavy take off from St Tome on 5T-TAG, and just after gear up, I saw from the corner of my eye through the F/E's window sparks coming from #3 engine's PRT (Power Recovery Turbines). There are 3 PRT,s per engine driven by engine exhaust and directly coupled by oil clutches to the engine crankshaft. Rotating at very high RPM each one delivers 150 HP to the crankshaft). Now looking directly out of my window I noticed flames around the wing between #3 & #4 engines, yet we had no fire warning. I shouted to the Captain who was not aware of our situation that we had a serious fire. He did not hesitate and turned the airplane on a wing tip 180 Degrees, lowered the landing gear and put the airplane down back onto the runway that we had just taken off from We shut everything down and abandoned the airplane on the runway. It was burning fiercely. Fortunately we were only carrying Red Cross supplies but the airplane was totally destroyed. But for the Captain's quick action and not questioning my emergency call we would have been in a serious air emergency. Another saving grace was the fact that we had to land south to north because on the northern end of the runway (we took off from north to south) existed a very high mountain which could have made for a tricky landing and made more air time.

I later found that that #3 engine's top PRT had disintegrated shedding white hot turbine blades across into #4 engine and into the wings. Normally this occurrence would have been contained by the PRT exhaust hood ejecting debris out of the exhaust and over the wing, without causing further damage.

In September of 1968 the Biafran war was reaching a crisis point and the Biafran military wanted jet fighters to improve their situation. They purchased two French Mystere fighters and were trying to get them to Biafra The Nigerian government was aware of this situation and offered money to anyone who could stop the delivery or hijack airplanes delivering the fighters. It was also learned that Nigeria offered a reward to any person who could destroy or stop the delivery crews in Lisbon. Because of this, none of the crews working for Wharton at this time would take the flights.

I am not sure if it was bravado or greed that caused our crew to decide to deliver the airplanes into Biafra. Anyway we all undertook to deliver them to Biafra, as it seemed certain that none of the US crews were trusted to not hijack them into Nigeria. As the crew that could be trusted we were tasked for the ferry. The wings of the Mysteres were loaded into our Connie on June 1st 1968 and during my Pre-Flt at Lisbon airport, I found what appeared to be a mine or a limpet mine inside a PRT exhaust hood. I immediately notified the airport police, the airplane was unloaded and searched for any other devices, none were found. Because of this I slept in the airplane throughout that night and stayed with the airplane when it was reloaded with the Mystere Jets wings. We eventually departed Lisbon on 5T-TAK at 06.30 hrs local time, June 2nd 1968.We also had on board a French TV camera crew of 6 persons to film a documentary in Biafra. The flight of 8.20 hours to Guinea-Bissau was uneventful until, on descent, I had #3 engine losing oil because the fluid drive had failured on #3 engine's second PRT. This was not an uncommon occurrence so after we had landed I replaced the PRT. But then on engine run up I saw a cylinder with two shorted secondary patterns on the ignition analyzer screen, indicating that I had a cylinder failure. We notified Lisbon and because of the nature of our load they sent two German mechanics out to change the cylinder. The airplane was securely guarded at all times by the Portuguese military, as Bissau was a military base.

The next day the mechanics arrived and replaced the cylinder and called me from the hotel to run the engine. The engine run was fine but a hydraulic leak developed under the cabin floor in the center section, meaning that half of our load would have to be removed to get to the site of the leak. Another Connie was scheduled to pass through Bissau that day and it was agreed that it would take over the TV crew and equipment and transfer to our Connie some of their cargo. This was carried out and the other Connie duly departed.

Once the mechanics found the leak and rectified the problem, they called me again to run the engines to confirm that the leak had been fixed - this was after two more days of delays. Upon my arrival at the airport I was coming around the Terminal building when one of the mechanics came running round the corner shouting fire, fire in German. As I rounded the building I was knocked of off my feet by the blast when our aircraft exploded on the tarmac. The blast was such that it blew out every window in the terminal and the windows in the ATC cupola leaving just the frames.

When the dust and smoke dissipated, there were clouds of Biafran money floating out of the sky blown from the cargo holds by the explosion. The Portuguese soldiers were running around the airport grabbing handfuls of bank notes as they floated down and stuffing them into their tunics. Little did they know that the Biafran money was worthless outside of Biafra.

The largest parts of the wrecked aircraft were the tripletail across the other side of the runway and the landing gear struts. Everything else was gone including our bags etc. When at last I caught up with the terrified mechanics, who must have run at least a mile before they stopped, they told me what had happened. Having put the flooring back in place they were cleaning up when one of them noticed a column of yellowish smoke coming up from amongst the cargo that was placed on board from the other Connie. That is when they all leaped off the airplane and ran for their lives.

Our crew got back to Lisbon by scheduled airline and faced the music there from Wharton and the Biafran Embassy staff. Much later I learned that a US Captain (no names) flying the other Connie had been bribed by the Nigerians to stop our flight at any costs. It was he that planted the bomb on our airplane and it should have exploded while we were flying - so we were damned lucky to have been delayed in Bissau.

I later met, entirely by accident, this same captain in Miami. He nearly had a heart attack on the spot and I feel sure that he thought I was after him.

During the interviews in Lisbon over this occurrence I was cleared of any wrongdoing and was asked to go back to flying for Wharton. Unfortunately however Captain Pietrie was suspected of being involved. He disappeared after this and I have never seen or heard of him since.

While still in Lisbon, Jack Malloch arrived there after his release from prison in Lome. We met at his hotel where he asked me to go back to Rhodesia with him and attempt to restart his company, I agreed and Jack spoke to Bill Brown asking him also to return to Rhodesia. But Bill wanted to do a few more trips to get enough money to buy a smallholding and retire Sods Law - on his next trip he crashed and was killed.

At the time I was in Lisbon with no change of clothes, just in what I was wearing when the aircraft exploded. Fortunately I always carried my passport on my person, but I was in Lisbon trying to buy a suit or jacket, but I could not find a shop in Lisbon catering for a person of my size. In the hotel that I was staying at in Costa del Sol there was a group of Americans tourists always playing poker every night. One of them was exactly my size and he was wearing a jacket that I thought would fit me but he would not sell me his jacket. So I started playing cards with these Yanks. The gods must have been smiling on me because I was doing very good and winning most hands, but it was getting late and on the last hand I made a wager with my hand against the American with the jacket. I won and I had one of those long mustard colored jacket which I wore to cover my shirt.

Upon my arrival in Rhodesia my wife met me and wanted to know where I got that awful jacket and where were my other clothes, as all that I had was in a plastic bag. I treasured that jacket for a long time until my wife gave it to our houseboy.

To return to Bill Brown who was killed when trying to land at Ihalia in Biafra. It was normal on the short flights to carry a fourth crewmember to observe that all procedures and precautions were observed, especially during flights into Biafra. This was necessary because things happened fast and every crewmember was relied upon to do his checklists properly and correctly with no double-check actions from any other crewmember. Due to operational necessity it was dark with no lights etc as precaution against Nigerian fighters and other outside ground threats.

Anyway, as always happens it was a sequence of events that led to the accident. Firstly the fourth crewmember was not allowed by the crew to fly because he was drunk and, secondly, we always flew two airplanes for safety. When the first was landing the second aircraft used to circle as a safety watch then landed when the first airplane was safely down. This system worked well (as explained in my autobiography) particularly as we were targeted many times by Nigerian fighter aircraft.

Getting back again to Bill's story – they had taken off from St Tome for Ihalia with no extra crew member or second back up airplane. During the descent into Ilhalia, which was only a road as previously mentioned, it was pitch black and with only automobile lights lighting up the runway it was difficult to spacially orientate oneself with no reference to a visual horizon. This was very difficult and took a lot of judgement to land, which explains why they must have misjudged the landing and did a go around (overshoot) then crashed.

I was called by Red Cross and the local priest on behalf of Bill's wife Maureen to go back to Biafra and Lisbon to find out what happened and to get money due from Wharton. I eventually got the money owed to Bill with help from the other crews in Lisbon who threatened Wharton when it was realized that he did not want to pay. I then proceeded on to Biafra by Wharton's airplanes and on inspecting the crash site found the engine instruments, which indicated that at impact they had full (max) power on #2 & #3 engines. BMEP gauges but zero on #1 & #4 engines. So when Bill pulled max power for the go around he only gained full power on two engines, not four engines. A NO WIN situation!

We then found the fuel control selector panel and found the levers to be in the wrong position indicating that the outer engines were starved of fuel when full/max power was applied. This awful accident reinforced the reason why we carried a fourth crew member to back all crew members flying Connies into a war zone.
There were many other accidents and occurrences which I was told about:

One occurred during landing at Pt Harcourt in Biafra. A Whartons Connie piloted by an American, Bob Majors, got too low and too slow. This situation was potentially fatal for a Connie because tail elevator effectiveness became too poor to prevent the nose of the aircraft from pitched up sharply when full power was applied for a go round or missed approach. Because, in this NO WIN situation the speed would fall further with the nose pitch up more rapidly, there was only one option. That was to cut power and accept a heavy landing. At Pt Harcourt one end of the runway had a drop off with a sharp edge of about 4 ft. As the nose rose up under increased power the aircraft main wheels arrived under this edge and both landing gears were torn away causing the airplane to roll over tearing off one wing then the other wing.

As it was told to me by the F/E the airplane was tearing along the runway upside down with the crew hanging upside down on their seat belts. All they could hear was the metal above their heads being torn and worn away.

Eventually the sliding stopped and they all crawled out without a scratch - but the most amazing thing was that they had 12 White Fathers in the rear of the airplane, and all of them got away Scot-free. As the F/E stated these Fathers must have had their joint prayers answered that day.

Another occasion, before my time with Wharton, there was a French Connie called the Grey Ghost being operated by a French crew out of Lisbon into Biafra. Their F/E quit on them because it became too dangerous because these guys used to drink only wine on board. They always loaded 2 to 3 boxes of wines for every trip. Anyway the two Pilots decided that they could operate without a F/E. Because nobody would fly with them, this was OK for a couple of trips when nothing happened. Then early one morning on take off from Lisbon they had an engine overspeed. But, because the airplane was so heavy and hard to handle with much drag from the overspeeding engine, it took the two of them to fly the airplane; so neither one of them could get back to feather the engine. But, they managed to land the airplane at a nearby military airport at Porto.

This seemed to have frightened them so badly that they did not fly another trip.

Last but not the least of my stories is one about our landings and take offs at Ihalia and Uli in Biafra. These were basically tarmac roads surrounded by the military. For landing control they operated a portable VHF system and a beacon that was not too reliable. The runway lighting was initially done by shining their vehicle lights along the runway edges which was very dangerous for us due to only about 17 ft clearance from the outer main wheels to the edge of the tarmac. Later they rigged up a portable lighting system powered by generators which, upon our request for landing, and providing there was no action from the Nigerian MIG fighters around, they would tell us to land. Even then we would only request lights when we were close to their beacon. You have to imagine this - it is pitch black with no distinction between the ground and sky and two sets of lights suddenly appear ahead in the black with no horizon to help orient on these lights. We had a Captain on leave from Seaboard flying a Connie and landing ahead of us on his first trip into Biafra. We were in the safety Connie circling overhead while he attempted to land, well after his fourth failed attempt he had had enough and returned back to St Tome and would fly no more into Biafra.

Another hair-raising part of flying into Biafra was the take offs out of there because it was too dangerous to keep the runway lights on in case of the Nigerian fighters. So we always had to take off using our own aircraft landing lights and as soon as we cleared the ground switching them off, the Nigerian did claim to have shot some airplanes down, especially after take off. One positive kill that I personally was aware of was a Red Cross DC-7C that got shot down just before the coast. We had a special technique for take offs and flying, one of which was not to have any lights on at all since aircraft navigation lights and especially Beacons made a night fighters hunt too easy. Another precaution against night fighters occurred when we reduced to first power reduction from Maximum power. Thereafter we reduced down to Min Climb power to prevent the long flames from the engine exhaust PRTs.

I spoke to a Swedish Red Cross DC7 Captain in Uli and advised him of our procedures, but it went against deaf ears. He would not believe that the Nigerian MIGs would shoot down a Red Cross airplane. How he expected them to specifically identify a Red Cross aircraft at night was obviously known to him but not the Nigerian pilots.

I watched him take off and, as expected, left all of his lights ON and kept on METO power which lights up the night skies from the substantial exhaust flames. The airplane disappeared between Uli and the Biafran coastline. We believe that a MIG got him.
From 1967, a year prior to my Lisbon and Wharton experiences, I was flying into and out of Biafra with many more interesting stories and incidents with ATA and Jack Malloch in DC-4, DC-7C and Connie. After flying with Wharton I went back to Jack Malloch and continued flying into Biafra up until 1970. So although I was flying into Biafra for Hank Wharton in 1968 I continued flying into Biafra with ATA for a total period of three years, with many more experiences and incidents to last a lifetime. These will be detailed in my autobiography.

Jim Townsend

Thanks to Jim
Distributed to ORAFs and Friends in February 2007