WID Planes of the Biafran Airlift

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The planes we flew were no longer first line equipment in world commerce. Jets had taken their place. The Douglas DC7 had been the ultimate in the evolution of reciprocal engine propeller driven passenger planes. It was much faster and more powerful than the DC6. The Lockheed Super Constellation was a comparable plane. The Boeing 707 and the DC8 replaced these in airline service.

Joint Church Aid, C-94 Aircraft
Joint Church Aid, C-94 Aircraft

And the DC7 quickly became nearly worthless. Its powerful R4350 engines were more sophisticated than the R3350 engines in the DC6 and the C46, but they were also more finicky and required almost daily maintenance. They were much more expensive to operate, and they no longer generated the revenue. As jets took over, secondary carriers continued to haul freight in the old propeller planes, and they preferred the reliable workhorse DC6. That is why when ARCO chartered companies for the airlift, these companies brought DC6s. That is why when ARCO bought their own planes, they bought DC7s, because they were very cheap. And that is why I was hired as a help mechanic.

One day Helmut was looking for the source of an oil leak in the left inboard engine of a DC7. He told me to go up and start the engine. I’m sure I stood there looking stupid. “Do it,” he said. “It is easy.” But Smyth was in the cockpit checking instruments, and he started the engine for me. Back on the ground, Helmut stood next to the exhaust port looking into the engine. The propwash blew his hair back. The exhaust was a cone of blue flame 6 inches in diameter and 3 feet long. Inches from his head. At night when a DC7 flew over, you could always tell it from other planes by the deep sound of its engines, and by the intense blue flames behind each prop.

“Wait small.” That phrase turned my head around to see who had spoken it. It is Pidgin English, and so far I had heard only Portuguese and standard English. The speaker was named Valerio, and he was from Cape Verde Islands, a Portuguese possession like Sao Tome. He and his brother Oscara became my good friends. They had learned to speak Pidgin or “Broken English,” or just “Broken” at various jobs along the coast of West Africa – in Calabar, Port Harcourt, Warri, Lagos, and other ports. “Broken” was a common market language in Nigeria, where there are 256 different languages, and it was also used by travelers and traders in French West Africa. Valerio and Oscara, along with other African workers, were help mechanics and maintenance crew with our planes. The Biafran airlift was an attractor for many peoples.

Valerio and Oscara expressed strong political views about the Portuguese and about independence for Cape Verde. They, and the people of Sao Tome, observed the massive effort to assist Biafra. They watched those of us who came to the island, and the way we behaved. A few years after Biafra lost its bid for independence, Cape Verde and Sao Tome became free.

The R4350 engines on a DC7 had two banks of cylinders arranged radially around the propeller shaft. Each cylinder had two spark plugs. So when we changed plugs on a plane, we changed 144 of them. The back plugs on the second bank of cylinders were hard to reach. The plug wrench used to tighten them had three flexible elbows. Leo dropped a plug he was trying to insert in one of the most difficult spots to reach. I watched as he came down the ladder, found it, blew the dust off of it, and put it in. When that plane was ready to take off that afternoon, it taxied to the end of the runway, and the crew performed the engine run-up, a standard procedure on prop planes. The flight engineer noticed something wrong on his oscilloscope. The captain turned the plane around and brought it back to the maintenance area. Of the 144 plugs on the plane, the engineer could tell that one of two was not firing properly. We replaced the one Leo had dropped, and the plane flew its mission.

That incident scared me. We were help mechanics, not experienced, certified professionals. Suppose we did something to cause one of these planes to go down?

No doubt the old planes needed help. I heard the backfiring as some of the engines tried to turn over. I saw planes take off from Uli on three engines. On the way home one early morning a prop came off the right inboard engine and ripped a gash in the fuselage as it spun away. Somehow I had slept through that in the back of the plane. I pointed to the hole when I woke up, and the engineer just grinned. One more thing to fix.

Joint Church Aid, Ground Crew
Joint Church Aid, Ground Crew

Individual planes were designated by call letters: TRZ, Tango Romeo Zulu; FOP, Foxtrot Oscar Poppa; BCW, Bravo Charlie Whisky. Bravo Charlie Whisky was the flagship of our DC7 “fleet” and my personal favorite. It was involved in a secret diplomatic mission that I observed only from the far periphery. We were told to get it in top condition, put seats in it, and clean it. It flew a high level delegation from Biafra to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Presumably, there was an attempt to negotiate an end to the war, but after Bravo Charlie Whisky returned, and we removed the seats, I never heard another word about it.

Image:Bravo Charlie Whiskey.jpg
Joint Church Aid, Bravo Charlie Whiskey

Through the open door of one of the hangers on Sao Tome I could see the wingless bodies of two small jets. They were Fouga Magisters. Here is the story that one of the mechanics told me about how they got there. Biafra bought the two jets for its Air Force. They paid an American cowboy-type pilot, who had his own plane, to fly them in pieces to Sao Tome. He brought the fuselages. On the next trip he brought the wings. Right after he landed, he and his crew were seen running from the plane. The plane blew up. No more wings. Supposedly, he was paid by Biafra to deliver the jets, and he was paid by Nigeria to destroy them. Sabotage and betrayal. I don’t know how much of that is true, but I did see two Fouga Magister jets in the hanger with no wings.

On an afternoon when I had just finished loading a plane, and the engines were started, the Caritas priest came to me with a large package. He ordered me to stop the plane and put the package on board. I objected that the plane was already buttoned up and on its way. We could put it on the next plane. He said that the package was very important and must go on that flight. I ran around in front of the plane waving to the pilot. I pointed to the package, and he stopped taxiing. Helmut helped me put it in the forward cargo hold. When we backed away and the plane moved on, I said to him, “Do you know what is in that package?” Helmut said, “I do not care what is in the plane, only that it flies.” It was sanitary napkins for the Nuns.

We washed a DC7 one day. It took all day and a lot of soap and water. I was soaking wet, but that wasn’t so bad for a hot day on the equator. The point of cleaning a plane was to reduce the skin friction, making it faster and more fuel efficient. As we did every evening when we weren’t flying, we watched the planes take off, and later watched as they returned. The plane we washed didn’t return. We waited and watched and turned to the tower for news, but there was nothing. It was gone. I had the terrible feeling, as when we dropped the spark plug, that we had done something wrong when we washed the plane and caused it to crash. The investigation later determined that it had hit an iroko tree on approach to Uli in the dark. The iroko tree is one of those rain forest giants with the fluted roots at its base that project above canopy. The plane disintegrated.

There was a church near one end of the runway at Uli. The crew of our plane and others that went down during the airlift were buried in the churchyard. I heard that after the war Nigeria bulldozed the airstrip to eliminate the memory of it. And they bulldozed the graves.

In spite of the bombing, the mechanical challenges, and the hazardous navigation, the planes kept flying, most of the time. At the height of the airlift, during the time I was there, we had up to 44 arrivals a night at Uli, which made it one of the busiest airports in Africa. But there were two times that I remember when the air crews refused to fly, and the airlift stopped for a few days. On one occasion a rumor spread that the Nigerian Migs would begin flying at night to shoot our planes down. Caritas and WCC pleaded with the crews to fly, and eventually they did. Another rumor stopped the airlift a second time. One night the news spread that France had recognized Biafra. This was a tremendous morale boost for a people who felt so isolated; who felt that the whole world was against them and their cause and their lives. In jubilation Biafran soldiers fired their guns in the air. The rumor wasn’t true, and some of the bullets struck a plane coming in at Uli. There was no serious damage, but the crews stopped flying again until the WCC and Caritas convinced them to resume.

Before a return flight Father John summoned me again. A van was parked in a clearing near the plane. Several Biafran men were standing about, silent and uneasy. There were children in the van in the last stages of starvation. We carried them up the ladder one by one into the plane. They were so very light. Their eyes were open but unseeing. One boy, staring up into the dark sky, mumbled something. A man said to me, “Do you know what he is saying?” I didn’t. “He is saying, ‘My father, why don’t you speak to me? Don’t you know me?’”

Uwa de egwu.


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