Our speaker on 8 July 2010 was member and prolific author Brig Gen Dick Lord, who spoke about SAAF search and rescue operations. The topic of the lecture was Standby! - South African Air Force Search and Rescue Missions and Operations during Peacetime. The title incidentally, is also the subject of his latest book, an updated version of his first book "Fire, Flood and Ice", which launched his writing career.
In the latter part of his military career, Gen Lord also had SAAF helicopter units under his overall command, which routinely carried out the most hair-raising, dangerous and courageous humanitarian missions, over and above their normal military tasks. He pointed out that in many instances they had received no official recognition for their bravery as no senior officer had been present to witness and corroborate their courage and bravery and, for this reason, he had decided to write this book as a memorial to these men.
He started off with describing the "Oceanos" rescue operation which took place on 3 and 4 August 1991 along the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape. The Oceanos sailed from East London at 1530 on 3 August despite a 40 knot wind and a surge (wave height) of 12 metres. The ship was not in a very good state of repair and was not a new vessel. In fact, it should never have been allowed to sail.
At about 2140, the starboard hull plating had been badly damaged and water started pouring into the ship, specifically the generator room, causing a general power failure. The watertight doors were ineffective because the ventilator pipes had been removed during repairs which had never been completed. A Mayday signal was broadcast and, late that night, the passengers were taken on deck where they remained in the freezing wind.
Gen Lord explained that, in those days, two Puma (now Oryx) multi-role helicopters were on stand-by at each of the Ysterplaat, Durban and Swartkops Air Force Bases, with further helicopters available if required. When the Mayday signal was received by the Rescue Co-ordination Centre at Silvermine, the Air Force Command Post in Pretoria was immediately advised. They alerted the Helicopter units and their GOC who was Brig Gen Lord. When he reached the Command Post, he immediately realised that this was a large-scale catastrophe in the making and contacted the various air bases to be told that Ysterplaat had sent five Pumas, Durban four and Port Elizabeth a couple of BK117 utility/transport helicopters. Swartkops AFB were ordered to send two more Pumas. The SA Medical Service provided 35 doctors and nurses with a vast amount of blankets and medical supplies all of which were loaded on to a C130 and flown to Umtata (now called Mthatha). All of this on a weekend and at the shortest notice.
The SA Navy in Durban had been contacted by Silvermine and had promised three strike craft. Our speaker, knowing that sea conditions were appalling, queried this and was told that four strike craft were at sea! There had been a Currie Cup rugby match in Durban and the crews were ashore celebrating and so had to be rounded up. One of the officers reported for duty in his rugby supporters' jersey! Gen Lord noted that the area where Oceanos had come to grief was known for its turbulent seas with Coffee Bay having 12 metre swells. The swells between Durban and the Wild coast were 8 - 10 metres. Strike craft were ships of 415 tons and not built to withstand such seas. A number of Navy Divers had been sent as well.
Gen Lord showed a number of excellent views of the sinking ship and the helicopters flying actual rescue missions. He pointed out the threat to the rescue helicopters of the ship's aerial hanging between the foremast and mainmast of the ship - this was cut by a navy diver. The Transkei was an independent entity within the South African political dispensation at the time, but permission to operate in their territory was given immediately - as Gen Lord said "it pays to have a military man as President".
The rescue operation was a complete success, with merchant ships picking up people from the few life-boats that had been launched and everyone else being taken off by helicopters. All arms of the SADF had responded magnificently and provided all the help requested and more. He praised the gallantry and dedication of all concerned. The aircrews of the Pumas were all awarded the Air Force Cross and the navy divers too were decorated. After the rescue came the paper work. One pilot reported picking up 24 persons, this with a helicopter of which the safe carrying capacity was 16 passengers! When this was queried and asked for an explanation, the pilot's response was the ship was about to sink and these people might have drowned. Even standard operating procedures and regulations had to be waived in the face of irrefutable logic such as that! Congratulations streamed in from round the world and deservedly so.
Our speaker then described a rescue operation 90 nautical miles off the Natal coast, which involved a Taiwanese sailor seriously injured after having been hit in the face by a large tuna fish! A 15 Squadron Puma was sent out. It was winter with the sun setting early in Natal and 90 nautical miles is a long way out. The pilots found the trawler but it was getting dark and the pilot was reaching the point where the margin of safety with regard to the maximum flying time allowed for only 10 minutes to hover and recover the patient. The doctor was winched down and 25 minutes later the patient and doctor were recovered. Winching people up off a moving ship is not an easy task especially in the dark. The flight engineer can see what is going on but not the pilot. Carol Hope of the Natal Mercury was on the flight and shared her experience with the aircrew in a newspaper article. The extended time spent hovering meant that the helicopter was in imminent danger of running out of fuel over the sea on the long flight back to the mainland. The pilot risked disciplinary action but saved the sailor's life. Gen Lord commented that it was this total commitment to fulfilling the task at hand and knowingly risking the lives of crew and possible loss of irreplaceable and expensive equipment, which made helicopter pilots - and the camaraderie of the crews - a breed apart.
Another sea rescue from a container vessel off the southernmost point of Africa - Cape Agulhas - was described. Our speaker explained what it is like in a howling gale with the wind buffeting the helicopter. On this occasion, the National Service doctor thought that sea-sick tablets would counteract the conditions in the helicopter. They did not and he will never again make the same mistake! The helicopter had to land at the Kleinmond Police Station and spend the night there as they had run short of fuel.
Our speaker then described some SAAF fire rescues. One of the most noteworthy was the emergency that occurred when the middle floors of the 24-storey Agricultural Union Building in Pretoria, caught fire one fine day. Gen Lord showed us photographs which vividly depicted the horror of that day. The fire was burning fiercely and there were people trapped on the roof and on one of the narrow outside balconies on the 19th storey, in a desperate attempt to escape from the terrible heat of the flames howling through the corridors and the billowing smoke that filled the passages and offices. The updraft of the heat from the fire was terrific and the resulting turbulence made it extremely difficult to control the long, three-person hoists with which the helicopters were equipped to perform rescue missions. Despite the hazards and difficulties everyone was safely rescued, thus concluding another successful operation.
Gen Lord then described mountain fire operations, with which we in the Western Cape are very familiar.
He also recounted one of the hot extractions that took place during the Border War, which was illustrative of one of the more interesting of many of similar rescue operations, undertaken by helicopter crewmen in support of fellow "Vlamgat" "fly-force" comrades, suddenly reduced to walking from point A to B, and all due to enemy action. On 18 October 1979, a SAAF Impala was shot down while on a reconnaissance flight over Angola. The pilot, Lt A Bell, ejected and was in danger of being captured. Two Pumas were sent to rescue him, each carrying a stick of paratroopers. When the Pumas were half-way to the downed pilot, the Impala pilot circling Lt Bell informed them that a vehicle and troops had stopped less than a kilometre from the crash site. He had no more ammunition so could not fire at them but guided the Pumas to the crash site. When one of the Pumas was a few metres from the ground, the paratroopers jumped out to secure the rescue site. In the process they and the Puma came under heavy fire from AK-47s and RPG rocket launchers. Five minutes later the Puma returned to pick up the paratrooper and Lt Bell.
The Puma lifted off and was hit by enemy fire. Rifleman Brian Gibson was hit in the hip and one arm. The helicopter had been badly damaged and was losing fuel rapidly. It nevertheless reached Oshakati AFB safely. Rfn Gibson eventually made a full recovery. All the members of the casevac team on the Puma were awarded the Honoris Crux medal for their bravery. There were many similar operations during the Border War. Rfn Gibson's daughter subsequently - after many years - contacted Gen Lord, to ask him to autograph a copy of the book which the family wanted to give to her father as a gift.
Gen Lord then described the SAAF's rescue/humanitarian aid role in the floods which occur as regular as clockwork, annually, in Mocambique. He showed pictures of actual rescues, with floodwater stretching as far as the eye could see. Every year there are loss of human life, shelter, crops, livestock and food. With the rising of the floodwater crocodiles are also to found everywhere where what used to be dry land, and now is inundated under muddy water! The same apply to snakes fleeing from the rising water! The widespread inundation of villages and farm land mean that the human suffering is widespread, with no dry habitation, spoilt food, and worst of all, lack of potable water in spite of the abundance of water! Due to the wide-spread inundation finding landmarks are difficult during rescue operations and a lack of suitable places where helicopters can land to safely pick up refugees. His photographs showed desperate and frightened people on rooftops and in trees, clutching precious possessions while waiting to be rescued by the SAAF helicopters. Financial aid is provided by many countries, including the United Kingdom.
The same flood-rescue operations are being conducted by the SAAF in South Africa during flood disasters but luckily not on the same scale as is the case in Mocambique. However, not everyone in distress is appreciative of the fact of being rescued! One photograph showed the son of Gen Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, founder of the SAAF and Chief of General Staff, 1933 - 1949, who didn't want to be rescued off his inundated property when the Apies River were in flood a few years ago!
One of the more unusual rescues involved a couple of river rafters who got stuck in a whirlpool below a weir for some hours. The Oryx pilot sent on the particular rescue mission, hovered over the frightened men, tilted the helicopter so that the downdraft of the rotors could blow the raft out of the whirlpool, enabling them to safely beach further downstream!
Our speaker then spoke of mountain rescues in winter when the helicopters cannot land because of icy conditions and windy conditions causing dangerous eddies alongside steep slopes and in narrow valleys, due to the up and down drafts of cold or heated air. He illustrated these operations with a number of photographs of actual operations in the Drakensberg.
In Antarctica the SAAF supports the SANAE research vessel SA Agulhas. Gen Lord described a rescue operation when some new members of the German research team arrived at their base. The newcomers failed to record where they were going when they left the accommodation building. They saw whales in the bay and rushed off to look at them. The ice shelf on which they were standing broke off and started to drift out to sea! Initially they were not missed, but then the alarm was raised. Due to the climatic conditions that led to the ice floe braking free, it started to melt and the surface not only shrank dramatically, but it also became unstable, increasing the risk of capsizing and spilling the men into the icy sea. Cmdt Eric Elphick of the SAAF then flew out and lifted them off the floe, taking great care not to tip the floe over, which started out being the size of a football field but had melted to the size of a squash court at the time of the rescue! In addition to rescue operations, our helicopters are used to carry stores and personnel in Antarctica. Many hazards are encountered by the helicopters because of the extreme cold, ice and snow blizzards. Visibility is also poor. In one rescue operation the electrical circuits were damaged due to moisture from melting snow, short-circuited the helicopter's wiring. The pilot had no emergency battery power and to preserve his dwindling battery power, he switched all non-essential systems off and switched it back on briefly every ten minutes to use his compass to maintain his course. The mission, fortunately, was otherwise uneventful.
Gen Lord then spoke of "humanitarian" operations of a different kind - the hazards and challenges of what he called "the saving of the rhino", an adventure in which he, himself participated. In 1993 the SAAF assisted the KwaZulu-Natal Parks Board in relocating some highly-endangered Black Rhino that were part of a breeding programme. The animals had to be darted and, as every game warden or anybody who works in capturing these highly dangerous and extremely unpredictable animals know - when their ears start to twitch that means the rhino are waking up. It is then while the animals are still drowsy that they are quickly crated, the crate slung underneath an Oryx helicopter and then swiftly relocated in style - by air. The SAAF assisted in this way to relocate 12 rhino in the space of three days, which surely to this day must surely rate as a world record of some kind!
Gen Lord penultimately spoke of the birth pangs of the "new South Africa" and the SADF's key role in ensuring that the election of 1994 was free and fair. He attended meetings where the politicians talked endlessly achieving nothing. He presented Judge Kriegler with an operational appreciation indicating what the SADF could do to ensure that the election proceeded smoothly. Gen Lord was also involved in assisting the SAP in rounding up some 28 AWB members who had intended to disrupt Freedom Day celebrations by detonating bombs at various places in the Johannesburg-Pretoria area (now Gauteng).
Finally our speaker told of the "behind-the-scenes" difficulties experienced in organising the first Freedom Day fly-past for President Mandela. The whole process was delayed by overlong speeches and interruptions, which time and again upset the finely-tuned time-table worked out in considerable detail, for the fly-past! Aircraft and helicopters unfortunately cannot stay aloft indefinitely to suit politicians' whims, but had to refuel, either from tankers or on the ground. They then had to go into holding patterns all over the place until, as such time as the fly-past could finally take place, the various squadrons could form up in their carefully planned and -timed echelons to make their aerial contribution to the political pageant. In the end all went well and everybody complimented the SAAF on their professionalism and the precision of the fly-past, not knowing what improvisation and suspense and teeth-gnashing were involved! But in the end it was the sheer professionalism of the men in command and the actual air crews that prevailed - the whole country can be very proud of our excellent Air Force and the men in blue!
Maj Gordon thanked our speaker for another really outstanding talk and expressed the hope that he would someday write about his time at Lossiemouth with the Fleet Air Arm, where the two of them first met. He then presented our speaker with the customary gift.
Two new members have joined the Branch during the last month. We welcome Miss F Bichlmaier and Mr L van der Westhuizen and hope to see them at our monthly lectures.
If you have not yet paid your subscriptions, please do so as soon as possible. Thanks to all who have paid.
Two of our members have been invited to participate in a workshop (hosted by the Gauteng chapter of the SA Arms & Ammunition Collectors' Assoc.) on the Border/Angola War and act as speakers:
- Maj Helmoed-Römer Heitman will open the proceedings on the first day and deliver the curtain-raiser address with a lecture titled the Evaluation of Current African Conflicts, and
- The chairman, Johan van den Berg, will give an illustrated lecture on the Soviet Bloc Small Arms used during the Border Conflicts.
The two-day Workshop forms part of a three-day Firearms- & militaria collector's exhibition/firearms auction at the War Museum, Johannesburg, appropriately called the "Arms Fair", to be held from the 7th - 9th August.
NEW PUBLICATIONS/SPECIAL OFFERS
There are still a few copies left of the two titles that well-known author and one-time member of this branch, Mr Ian Uys, has offered at a special rate to members of the branch. The two books, dealing with maritime disasters/shipwrecks around South Africa's coastline, as well as incidents of South African historical interest, are:
- SURVIVORS OF AFRICA'S OCEANS (1993), 184 pp., Paperback. The book deals with shipping disasters and incidents dating back to Portuguese and Dutch seafarers, the Waratah incident, WWI (Mendi), WWII (Laconia, Nova Scotia & Llanduff Castle), postwar (Klipfontein) and more recently, the Oceanos incident. Normal retail price: R220,00. Price for branch members: R190,00
- OCEANOS: SURVIVOR'S STORIES (2010), 184 pp., Paperback. The book recounts the reminiscences and personal experiences of the survivors and the story of the amazing sea rescue performed by the brave crews of the South African Air Force. Normal retail price: R195,00. Price for branch members: R165,00
(As we had only ten copies of each, members wanting a copy are urged to act before are sold - please contact the chairman, Johan van den Berg, who handles the sales on behalf of Fortress Publishers. Tel: 021-939-7923 - Cell: 082-579-0386 - Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
DVD:- ANGOLA: van Konflik tot Hoop ('n Besoek aan die Bosoorlog slagvelde van die jare 1975 tot 1988 - en die Angola van vandag). Produced and marketed by Mr Cloete Breytenbach. The DVD is a copy of the original marketed at R200,00 per copy, but now available in a budget packaging for only R85,00. Copies of the DVD will be on sale at the meeting as the producer in fact, is our guest speaker for August.
FORTHCOMING PROGRAMMES (SECOND THURSDAY of month for rest of year)
THURSDAY, 12 AUGUST 2010: UNITA, Angola and the Media - A Personal Retrospective by Cloete Breytenbach
Our speaker will be will be the well-known photographer/journalist, Cloete Breytenbach, who had the unforgettable experience of spending long periods of time in the bush deep inside Angola, documenting the Angolan War from the perspective of one of the three main contenders for political control in the war-ravaged country, UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola - National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). This inevitably also led to getting to know one of the most perplexing and enigmatic personalities in the Angolan Civil War - Dr Jonas Savimbi - on a personal basis. Mr Cloete Breytenbach also contributed to the South African literature on the Border War / Angolan War by way of a photographic history of the Angolan War, as well a photographic record of his time spent in the bush, called Savimbi's Angola (1979). The Breytenbach brothers, Col Jan and Cloete, recently undertook a "trip down memory lane" to revisit some the Angolan battlefields of yesteryear - the memories of which are captured on an Afrikaans-language Video Disc (DVD) currently on sale (available from the speaker and selected outlets).
THURSDAY, 9 SEPTEMBER 2010: A Ghost Laid To Rest?? Memories of a Child Prisoner of War in Java during World War Two by Prof Herman de Groot
Our speaker, a well-known gynaecologist and professor in medicine, will share some of his boyhood memories of the Dutch East Indies under occupation by the Japanese Imperial Forces during World War Two.
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