When BOAC issued the specification that led to the VC10 design, it was clear that operating in the Middle East and Africa would form a large part of the VC10's life. Both these areas required the aircraft to have above average performance to avoid having to offload cargo or fuel at higher temperatures and altitudes. That is just the technical side of things though. This specification also led the VC10 to become a link between the different parts of the British Empire, between the UK and various (former) colonies in Africa, between the Western world and the very different cultures in Africa. All the stories below feature the VC10 (of course) but also the very different world that is the African continent.
A passenger remembers flying on Air Malawi to Chileka airport.
"I flew on the Air Malawi VC10 between Gatwick and Chileka Airport many times in the late 1970's and early 1980's before it was retired.
The flights were much more gung-ho than the parallel service that British Airways ran at the same time. One always felt the pilots were much more familiar with landing at Chileka than the BA pilots. Chileka had a very narrow runway which could lead pilots feeling they were higher than they actually were leading to some heavy landings. The runway was also short and I always remember the very powerful reverse thrust that had to be applied upon landing. The engines would always die away at touchdown followed by immediate reverse thrust.
Chileka approach was always a turbulent one with a lot of big stomach lurching drops in the rainy season which was always rather exciting. I also remember large amounts of condensation dripping down from the ceiling lights whenever we landed in hot conditions. Why doesn't this happen on modern aircraft?
The Air Malawi VC10 met with a sad and undignified scrapping next to the runway at Chileka. They were great planes to be a passenger in."
In 2006 the movie 'The Last King of Scotland' was released to the theatres to tell the story of Uganda's leader Idi Amin as seen by his personal physician. This sparked some memories of BOAC crews meeting the unlamented General during stopovers.
"In the early 70's many BOAC VC10 crews used to meet General Idi Amin and indeed have a drink with him at the Appolo Hotel in Kampala, prior to operating northbound out of Entebbe. I don't remember how many services a week that went through Entebbe from Jo'Burgh to London but generally the north bound crews used to slip in the Appolo Hotel in Kampala and the southbound crews at the Lake Victoria Hotel near the lake and airport.
Because the BA crews were not in any way involved with local politics I suppose that General Idi Amin probably considered us to be neutral and thus safe to mix with. It was customary for the technical crews to have a drink around 11 o'clock by the swimming pool before getting some sleep prior to the overnight flight back to Europe. Frequently the general accompanied by a couple of bodyguards would appear and march up to our table. The crew (knowing the 'drill') would stand up and wish him "Good morning Mr President". He would then sit with us, ask us to be seated and order a round of drinks. We would attempt to make polite non-controversial conversation before explaining that we needed to get some shuteye, make a polite departure and go off to bed. Not the sort of bloke that we needed to upset! I remember that someone once remarked that meeting him was bloody good training for marriage and dealing with the mother-in-law!"
John Wilson, who previously sent me some photos of G-ARVF, has been in touch with his old friend David Samways, with whom he was stationed in Nigeria. David still has the 16mm films that he made while he and his wife (who is featured in the video as she was a BOAC Ground Stewardess) were working on the airfield and these have been converted to a digital format. They were kind enough to create a small 3 minute clip showing BOAC Standard VC10s operating from Ikeja. Enjoy!
Nigel Human found some old photos his father had taken for him in Africa during a business flight on G-ARVM. At a guess they were taken between 1965 and 1967. Later in life Nigel would have the opportunity to fly on 'VM himself.
"These photos were taken by my late father who was a frequent business flyer within East Africa, and he took these expressly for me, as I was already an avid fan of the '10, especially in BOAC colours. On this occasion, he was taking the '10 from Nairobi Embakasi to Dar-es-Salaam. The last photos were taken as 'VM was on final approach to DAR, and the harbour and town can be seen below.
Although only around 13 years of age at the time these were taken, I ended up working for BOAC in Sales at Victoria Air Terminal, my first job on leaving school in 1972. Around 1973/4, I was reunited with 'VM when I was lucky enough to get a jump seat position on a training flight doing circuits and bumps at Stanstead from LHR. I'll never forget eating sandwiches and sipping hot coffee with the crew during a rest break half way through the exercises whilst 'VM sat stationary on the runway with all 4 engines running on idle for around 10-15 minutes, as though we were on some exotic picnic!"
All photos P. Human
Julian Fitzherbert has flown on VC10s on several occasions. In this account he tells us about the two last VC10 trips that he flew on, during a return trip to Malawi for the Christmas holiday of 1978.
Trip 1: London Heathrow (England) to Blantyre (Malawi) via Khartoum (Sudan) and Dar-es-Salam (Tanzania) about two weeks before Christmas 1978.
"I was in my final year studying Geology at Chelsea College London University and visited Blantyre over the Christmas holidays. This gave me a chance to see my parents who were working there and to finish my geological mapping project, which needed more on site data. More important was the fact that I also managed to fit in some more flying as I had ‘gone solo’ the previous September in a Piper Cherokee (7Q-YWC). My flying instructor on that occasion was Brian Meadley who was the CFI (Chief Flying Instructor) at the Luchenza Flying Club and also a First Officer on the Air Malawi VC10. On previous trips to Blantyre I had travelled by the Air Malawi VC10 (7Q-YKH) but this Christmas, presumably due to flight availability, I went by British Airways Super VC10 from Heathrow. This turned out to be my last flight on a Super VC10.
Walking to the departure gate past a British Airways Concorde, the VC10 turned out to be G-ASGA, the prototype Super VC10 which would later in life be sold to the RAF and converted into a K4 tanker. It was scrapped in 2006 after 42 years of service!
The flight from London Heathrow to Blantyre was not non-stop as we are used to these days. After an evening departure from Terminal 3 the VC10 flew through the night and just after a sunrise over the Sudan G-ASGA started its descent towards Khartoum, arriving at about 6am local time. After a quick turnaround the departure was about an hour later, heading towards the second stop at Dar-es-Salaam. Unfortunately I don’t have pictures to show of Khartoum or of Dar-es-Salaam later that morning. The flight finally arrived at Blantyre in the late morning. From cruise altitude, before commencing the descent into Chileka, the southern end of Lake Malawi was visible looking to the west.
We landed from the west on runway 10 at Chileka with the aircraft moving along the runway to the turning circle at the eastern end so that the BA Super VC10 could turn around and backtrack to the terminal. The Chileka airfield had two intersecting runways, a long main runway (10-28) [2325x30m] and a shorter secondary runway (15-33) [1372x30m].
Trip 2: Blantyre (Malawi) to London Gatwick (England) via Nairobi (Kenya) and Amsterdam (Holland) about second week of January 1979.
"The picture below is one of only three photographs that I ever managed to take of the Air-Malawi Standard VC10 (7Q-YKH). The difficulty being that taking photographs at Chileka Airport was actually forbidden. This picture was taken from the Luchenza Flying Club Piper Cherokee (7Q-YWC) as we landed on the main runway (28) at Chileka. Also shown is one of the Air-Malawi HS748 which is just starting engines. The HS748s often used the shorter secondary runway (15-33). The building to the right of the VC10 is actually the Presidential or VIP building. This picture was taken in January 1979 just a few days before I left Malawi for the last time and my last flight on a VC10.
A few days after the picture above was taken I was back at Chileka to depart on the Air Malawi VC10 back to England. On this occassion the VC10 was sick, only the second time a VC10 was ever delayed for me, and we were told to come back the next day. The following day the VC10 could be heard long before we got to the airport doing engine runs. While we all checked in, a task made very difficult by the deafening noise of the VC10 at moderate throttle outside, we were told that the aircraft was mended and final checks were underway. Once in the departure lounge with the aircraft fully visible I was surprised to see the two ex-pat engineers on top of the port engine nacelles while the engine(s) were running! They had an access panel open and even with ear defenders it must have been even noisier up there. Eventually they were happy with their work and the engines were shut down. Silence decended on the airport although my ears were ringing for many minutes afterwards as it had been that loud!
It seemed there was a difficulty with the bleed air for the pressurization system and although the problem was resolved enough to allow the aircraft to fly we were told to close the air vents above our seats shortly after takeoff as the fix wasn’t totally successful. This didn’t prevent the flight continuing to England but clearly the aircraft was beginning to show its age and went out service with Air Malawi later in 1979.
This was still in the days when it was possible to visit the flight deck and during the stop at Nairobi I introduced myself to the crew. I think the Captain was Van Rensberg and although busy with organising the refueling he graciously allowed me to visit the flight deck during the ground stop. Although my flying instructor (First Officer) Brian Meadley was not on this flight the Captain later invited me back to the flight deck and I was able to sit in the extra crew seat watching operations from Nairobi to Amsterdam. Company regulations did not allow me to be present during takeoff and landings but I did get some great views.
The VC10 flight deck is especially roomy and to be allowed to be there while the Flight Engineer, Navigator and two pilots did their stuff was a privelege I’ll always be grateful for. Flying over the Ethiopian Highlands and watching the thunderstorms below was memorable as was the flight up the Adriatic. The nearest I came to flying the aircraft was being allowed to turn the autopilot to a new heading. There’s a big heading adjust knob on the central console behind the throttles and as I turned it the aircraft banked in response to the new heading. That was awesome – to me anyway!
Arrival at Schiphol airport was shortly after dawn and was noticeable by the lack of reverse thrust on landing. I later discovered that noise abatement procedures meant the pilots engaged reverse thrust but in idle only. There was a change of flight crew at Schiphol with the previous crew becoming passengers for the short flight to Gatwick. The aircraft was thus lightly loaded and the new Captain, whose name I don’t recall but looked very young, did a very short takeoff from Schiphol. The nose lifted seconds after the takeoff roll began and the aircraft was airbourne very shortly after. A normal takeoff roll lasts about 30 seconds but this was much less! The arrival into Gatwick was normal but being a day behind schedule the aircraft was parked at a remote stand near the cargo area and we were bused to the terminal.
I never saw 7Q-YKH again and discovered later that it went out of service with Air Malawi and was stored at Hurn Airport near Bournemouth from 29th October 1979. On 12th May 1981 it was ferried back to Chileka for possible sale. Sadly this never happened and the aircraft lay derelict and even sat on its tail before it was eventually scrapped during January 1995."
Phil Hogge flew VC10s from 1964 to 1978 and looks back on those days with fond memories. He e-mailed me the article below about flying on the African routes for which the VC10 was designed.
"Reading this excellent website has set so many memories going. I was on the first Hamble intake to join BOAC in 1962, converting to VC10s in 1964. This was my first jet type, and looking back, I realise now how lucky I was, not only to fly this magnificent aircraft, but also to do so on such an extensive route structure, first to West Africa, and then to the rest of Africa, the Far East, the Americas and across the Pacific to Australia.
In the early 1960s, the world had not changed so much from pre-war days, and, except in the USA and a few other places, high rise buildings were the exception. Dubai for example was still a small trading station on a creek in the desert with wooden dhows drawn up on the strand. The crew hotel was one of the tallest buildings in town, all of about four or five storeys – a far cry from the ‘Las Vegas’ it has become today.
I have few exciting tales to tell, most of my memories are of the wonder of being able to explore much of the world before it became homogenised. Of all these memories, flying through Africa is perhaps the most intense.
Communications were, by modern standards, primitive (overseas telephone calls had to be pre-booked several hours ahead), HF communications could be hit and miss, navigation aids frequently did not work, airfield lighting was sometimes only partly available, met reports could be highly dubious (it was better to ask the BOAC station officer to look out of the window and tell you what he saw than to rely on the official observation) and en-route ATC was often ‘do it yourself’. When away from London, you were very much on your own with no instant data-link back to head office – far more fun, if somewhat less efficient.
Most of the captains I first flew with were either ex-Imperial Airways or ex-RAF bomber pilots. Their stories of flying boats through Africa told of a magical mix of flying, ‘sea faring’, night stops in lonely staging posts on rivers and lakes, and low sight-seeing over vast herds of wild game. The ex-RAF people, understandably, had less to say, some of their experiences being too harrowing to tell except after many beers. But all felt that flying was ‘not what it was’, a feeling that exists in every generation, including my own.
The VC10 was designed for the hot high short runways of the African routes. Therefore it had an excellent take-off performance, a little over-powered from an accountant’s point of view, but much enjoyed by us pilots. It was a real pilot’s aircraft; lots of performance, precise powerful controls, very stable and with an ability to flatter even the most ham-fisted pilot. It also had a roomy well laid out flight deck, with large windows giving good visibility, and a legendarily quiet cabin. Not for nothing was BOAC’s slogan ‘Try a little VC10derness’.
But it was Africa which captured one’s heart. Flying south from Cairo towards Khartoum along the Nile, you could see this thin green ribbon stretching far out ahead, winding through the vast brown desert, first far out to the eastern horizon towards Luxor and Aswan, then back underneath near Wadi Halfa, only to disappear in the west towards Dongola, returning once again as it wound its way east towards Atbara, and finally to Khartoum. This was indeed to see one of the wonders of the natural world.
I have always been fascinated by exploration, and having read about the Victorian explorers, Burton, Speke, Grant and others, searching for the source of this mysterious river, and now seeing it with my own eyes really drove home the modern wonders of jet travel. Whereas they had sweated and struggled here was I, comfortably sitting in my shirt sleeves, taking the same journey in a matter of hours. I remember once, later when I became a captain, going through the cabin to talk to the passengers after a long delay in Rome on our way to Nairobi, being accosted by an irate lady passenger who was upset by being only a few hours late. She was most unimpressed when I pointed out that the journey we were now taking in little more than six hours would have taken her over six months only 100 years before.
In the 1960s, when daily services were a rarity, one had many days off at slip stations. There was time to explore: to hire horses in Cairo and ride out into the desert to see the stepped pyramids at Saqqara; or to go sailing in Khartoum on the Blue Nile from Blue Nile Sailing Club whose club house was the Melik, Kitchener’s gunboat, built in 1896 and used at the relief of Khartoum in 1898. There was time to hire cars and drive out from Nairobi up the Rift Valley to Naivasha, and then north around Mount Kenya via Gilgil, Nakuru, Thomson’s Falls, Nanuki, Meru, Embu and Fort Hall. On one memorable trip we hired a car in Kampala and drove to Murchison Falls and Lake Albert, arriving just after a thunderstorm had passed. The sky was dark blue/black, the earth and trees newly washed sparkling clean. There was no one around, the only sign of human existence being a low pipe rail fence. And there before us, only yards away, the whole White Nile thundered 140ft down through a gap just over 20ft wide. That image is still vivid in my mind.
Other occasions that live in my memory include hiring a minibus and driver in Addis Ababa and taking an entire VC10 crew to the Blue Nile gorge, second only in size to the Grand Canyon; taking the train from Lusaka and staying in the Victoria Falls Hotel right on the edge of the falls; going down a gold mine near Johannesburg to a depth of around 6000ft (well below sea level); walking through an African village on the banks of Lake Malawi at dawn (I was still on the wrong time zone and couldn’t sleep) and being greeted by happy villagers who must have been very surprised to see a lone white man passing by.
I remember one day early on in my career the aircraft went sick in Kano (even VC10s did that sometimes), forcing us to stay until the spares arrived. It was a real lesson in how to handle a problem, one that I tried to emulate later in my career. The captain and station manager organised hotels and hired buses for us all (passengers and crew) to tour around the old city. In 1965 Kano was like something out of Beau Geste, with aircraft being greeted on landing by robed men on camels blowing long trumpets! At the end of our enforced stay one of the passengers remarked that he had never really wanted to visit Kano but had enjoyed the tour very much. I could go on and on…..
But there were darker sides too. Like several days spent at the Ikeja Arms hotel in Lagos with no power or telephones while rumours of riots ran rife. This was shortly after the massacres in The Congo and the imagination runs away so easily. Being driven to Lagos airport in the crew bus during the Biafran war, coming to a road block with soldiers armed with rifles and machine guns, and the driver not stopping at the barrier but accelerating through, and all of us crew members throwing ourselves under the seats – but nothing happened, although it was the only time I saw a black African go white with fear! On another occasion, unloading the aircraft at gunpoint in Tripoli while Algerian air force fighters refuelled on their way to Cairo to support the Egyptians in the Six Day War. No one would refuel our aircraft or unload the holds and when we started to do it ourselves the army stopped us by surrounding the aircraft. Eventually after a lot of shouting and arguing we unloaded everything onto the tarmac, threw the joining passengers’ luggage into the holds and departed. The fastest start, taxi and take off that I can remember – just in case they changed their minds.
Some of the flying problems were interesting too. Early morning arrivals at Nairobi often encountered low cloud which, before the days of autoland, meant holding before the cloud lifted. On some occasions it was necessary to have to work out how best to make the approach with a mixture of aids that were only partly working. Or arriving in Lagos to find that half the runway lights were unserviceable because the locals had stolen the copper wires to make bangles. Or taxiing out at Entebbe for a heavy weight departure for London with a growing feeling that something was wrong until it dawned on us that the grass was leaning the wrong way. We stopped on the taxiway and, after a long ‘discussion’ with the tower, got them to admit that the anemometer had been broken for several days and the wind data they had given us was three days old. So we each made an assessment of the wind speed and direction by looking at the grass, re-did the take-off calculations using our combined estimates, and took off in the opposite direction to ensure we had a head wind!
I have often been asked which was my favourite route. To me, the best was a 10 day triangular trip that could be done in either direction with different selections of stops. For example, the first leg might be to Bahrain, the next to Bombay or Calcutta. Then to Singapore and Hong Kong; back via Singapore and Colombo; then across to the Seychelles and on to either Blantyre or Johannesburg. And finally back to London via Nairobi or Entebbe with night stops all along the way. What a diverse selection of cultures and aeronautical problems; the monsoon in India, the Chung Cheu ADF approach through the harbour to Hong Kong; back to Colombo flying along beside the awe inspiring thunderstorms of the ITCZ, filled with sheets of almost continuous lightening. The VOR let down on limits to the Seychelles which involved flying overhead the VOR, heading southeast out to sea, descending to break cloud and then turning back towards the island, peering through low cloud and driving rain trying to see the lighthouse at Victoria and then flying along the coast until the approach lights of the airport appeared behind the hill. All good Mark 1 eyeball stuff.
Then on to Africa for a landing at Blantyre where the narrower than normal runway made it difficult to judge the flare height – the locals used to come to watch the resulting spectacular bounces. Or, alternatively, to Johannesburg with an elevation of 5,500ft.
What a wonderful trip, and with time off at most of the stops to explore. Rose-tinted spectacles? Yes, most certainly – but that is what memories are made of. What a magnificent aircraft and what wonderfully diverse routes for us to enjoy!"
This video from Youtube is part 2 of 2 of a promotional video from BOAC called 'BOAC presents: The VC10', showing the VC10 in action during route proving. From 2:08 onwards you'll see footage of an arrival at Kano, Nigeria, including the men on camels with trumpets as mentioned in the article above. For part 1 of this video click on this link.
Gwyn Mullet flew VC10s as a copilot between 1966 to 1970 and came back to them as a captain from 1976 to 1979. He has written a book about his flying life and decided to share an extract from his work. The famous captain in this extract shall remain nameless but people who were around then will recognise him.
“Before I leave my beloved VC10 I must tell you about a couple of trips I did with the infamous Capt. ‘G’. On one occasion I was with him in Nairobi and on the day of departure it was normal to go the local food market where the fruit and vegetables were bloody scrummy. The prize fruit was the pineapple which was pretty well unknown in England and we usually ended up with a large basket delivered to the hotel in time for the pickup in the evening. It was normal to ask the Captain, out of courtesy, if it was OK to carry the fruit but Capt. ‘G’ was just not around to ask. So the complete crew plus a large contingent of fruit baskets got to the airport and then Capt. ‘G’ arrived with his basket of fruit.
“Nobody approached me about the loading of fruit so it will all be offloaded and only mine will travel” He barked.
As the crew bus moved towards the waiting aircraft struggling under the weight of all the baskets the atmosphere on board could be cut with a knife.
“Sir, we were unable to find you all day” I piped up on behalf of the crew.
“I have said that the crew fruit will not travel on the aircraft and that is final” was his curt reply.
He actually got out of the bus and walked over the crew hold and made sure that the only fruit to go on board was his own. So there was this pile of sad looking baskets sat by the aircraft and just the one miserable basket in the hold. It was customary for the Flight Engineer to leave the Flight Deck just before the doors were closed to check that the all the panels were closed up. The stand we were on required us to do a sharp right about turn before taxiing for the runway and as we did this turn the Flight Engineer tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned me silently to look out of the right hand window and low and behold there was this fruit basket flat-packed on the tarmac with tyre marks embedded on it. Now wonder the aircraft was difficult to move in the first place since it had to climb a fruit basket first. Have you ever struggled not to giggle when you know that it is out of order? I struggled to Heathrow with a grin from ear to ear. The arrival at Heathrow was conducted like a military operation whereby the Flight Engineer scarpered off quick and got the fruit loaded well deep into the boot of the bus with only the crew bags showing. Once we got back to the crew report office we all evaporated into thin air with our fruit baskets tucked under our arms. I was certainly not going to be around when Capt. ‘G’ found that his fruit basket was missing. Sweet justice I thought!!”
The recent delivery of ZA150, ex-5H-MOG, to Dunsfold and its retirement with The Brooklands Museum triggered some memories from Tony Russell from his time with East African Airways. He has kept a scrapbook from those days and has lots of slides so if anyone wants a trip down memory lane involving EAA and Kenya in the 60’s and 70’s, please feel free to get in touch.
"In September 2013 I went to Dunsfold airfield to witness the departure of one of the last flying Super VC10 aircraft. Its registration is ZA150 and it was proudly camouflaged in RAF livery. In February 1970 I was on the apron at Nairobi airport as a fifth Super VC10 was delivered to East African Airways. Its registration was 5H-MOG and it was proudly displaying its colourful cheat line and the national flags of its new owner. It is the same aircraft. Congratulations to a beautiful aircraft for superb service and two excellent operators for all the care and attention during its 43 years life.
The arrival of 5H-MOG in Nairobi was one of many VC10 associated events that took place during my eight year working spell with East African Airways based in Nairobi, Kenya (1967-1975). Not only was this a special time in my life of working and travelling widespread through a beautiful country, but it sealed a lifelong love affair with the supreme of all subsonic commercial airliners ever built.
In my roles within the EAA Technical Office, I was privileged to interact with every facet of the Super VC10 operational life, including visiting the Vickers build line at Weybridge and regular visits to OEM suppliers and MRO subcontractors (even as a retired aircraft engineer I still slip into acronym mode!) Operationally my Conway maintenance licence entailed some very interesting supernumerary flights, particularly those involving C of A test flights conducted over the Indian Ocean. Quite nervy waiting with hands-off for the stick-push to operate to get you out of the induced stall and then seeing the ocean racing towards you! Another reason for my appreciation of the VC10's flying abilities!
Life with the VC10 was not without incident and sadly one of the fleet of five aircraft was lost in April 1972 (5X-UVA in Addis Ababa). The recovery of parts and subsequent investigation was not easy for any of us involved. Another serious incident that can now, with the benefit of time, seem somewhat humorous concerned an aircraft slipping off its jacks in the hangar. Coming into work and seeing a Super VC10 in rotation position within the hangar is not something you see very often! The tail support went through the rear fuselage and damaged the engine cross beam and for some time an aircraft write off seemed on the cards. Fortunately, this did not happen and 5Y-ADA saw its life out as ZA148 with a new engine beam – some clever engineering was involved in this incident.
Sadly, due to financial reasons, EAA finished operations in January 1977 and later that year the four aircraft returned to BAC and subsequently to the RAF. Over subsequent years I have frequently caught sight of the VC10s in operation with the RAF. I always get that same proud feeling. Thank you RAF (my father served for 35 years) for caring for those four special birds through to their final resting places. RIP."
John Anderson sent me this story about some of the more memorable days of his time as BOAC Duty Officer in Entebbe, Uganda. Tensions between various African states in those days led to some interesting situations.
"I was posted to Entebbe on a temporary posting as BOAC Duty Officer in early 1972 and lived in the bachelor “quarters" near Entebbe Airport. John Ferris, an Overseas Engineer, was the other bachelor on station at the time and so we shared the bungalow. Off duty time was mostly spent at the local expat watering hole, the Lake Victoria Hotel.
At the time, relations between Idi Amin Dada and most other African governments were uneasy, to say the least. We operated a Super VC10 service to Lusaka via Entebbe. An early morning arrival from London on 14th June 1972, and, half asleep, I drove up the hill just before dawn to the ATC complex in the hired VW Beetle to pick up the weather folder. On the way back to the terminal, I barely noticed a couple of army trucks parked by the side of the dirt road in the dark.
Back in the office, I finished off the fuel and ATS flight plans (which rarely varied), there was no joining load (transit passengers and cargo only) and I spoke to the inbound aircraft on VHF radio, having noted from the load signal that several thousand day old chicks were in transit to Lusaka. After checking that the Handling Agent (East African Airways) was up and running, I made my way to the ramp. “Scotty" the BOAC Station Maintenance Manager was out there with ground equipment, refuellers, steps, caterers etc., all lined up. The aircraft nosed in towards the terminal, chocks in, GPU attached and then up the front stairs to help open the forward cabin door.
I was not long into my chat with the inbound flight crew, when there was a shout of “what the hell is going on?” from the first officer (I think that his exact words may have been somewhat stronger!). Looking out of the flight deck windows we were faced by a grim faced Ugandan soldier, hanging onto the firing handles of a heavy machine gun mounted on the back of a Soviet type jeep, which was pointing at the flight deck. Adding to the soldier’s sinister appearance was his Russian fur hat, complete with hammer and sickle badge.
A Ugandan Army Major then appeared on the flight deck to inform us that the aircraft including transit passengers (all suspected of being mercenaries!) were being seized for carrying illegal weapons. This situation lasted for a couple of hours before the, by then grinning, army major allowed the passengers and crew to leave the aircraft.
It transpired that part of the transit cargo load was a consignment of mortar barrels for Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambian Army. As per IATA Regulations, BA had naturally informed the Ugandan authorities in advance that the barrels were in transit, however no one had realised that Idi was intent on embarrassing both the Zambian and the British governments by claiming to have uncovered a potential British plot to commit a military coup in Zambia.
As diplomatic negotiations and wrangling involving the “grown ups“ continued over the next few weeks, I had to deal with such mundane tasks as what to do with the consignment of day old chicks, which had been in transit and by then were were getting on for 5-6 days old. Permission was given for the surviving chicks to be offloaded and distributed around the villages near the airport. So I went out with one of the British vets (part of the British aid programme) dropping off boxes of chicks to grateful local villagers. I would like to think that the descendants of those day old chicks are still wandering around those villages 40 odd years on.
Eventually after Idi Amin was satisfied that there was no “plot”, the aircraft and the mortar consignment were released.
While the aircraft was being detained, permission was received to power up the aircraft engines/systems on a regular basis to prevent longer term technical issues, and so John Ferris taught me how to start a Super VC10’s engines. Not surprisingly, I have never needed to use that particular skill since!"
This clip from the AP archives is from 16th June 1972 and shows detained Super VC10 G-ASGC at Entebbe Airport. At 0:05 the author and his colleague John Ferris can be seen walking in front of the left main gear of the aircraft.
Footage copyright AP
As I mentioned in the introduction to this page, the VC10 linked the Western world to the African continent. This meant that within a few hours you were transported to a very different world, a world that not many people in Europe knew. Nowadays a lot of people have been on a holiday to a different continent at some point in their life but in the 60s and 70s this was something that was only available to the 'rich and famous', or as they were known then, the jet set. The VC10 was part of the change that allowed more and more people to experience different worlds. The story below, written by Phil Hogge who was a VC10 captain at the time, illustrates the culture shock - the enchantment even - that travelling on a VC10 could create.
I was staying up-country, a Pan-African conference of some sort having filled all the hotels in the city. We had been driven through the night for an hour or so before tumbling gratefully into bed. It had been a long day, we could be anywhere.
When I awoke and drew back the curtains, only a feint light showed in the eastern horizon. Unable to sleep, I dressed and went outside. The stars were slowly fading as I made my way onto the terrace in front of the hotel. It was of a typically 1930’s design, but extended more recently in a style that only partly matched the original. A gentle slope led down to the fore-shore of a large lake across which, I could just make out some hills on the far side. I wandered slowly down to the water’s edge where I found the remains of an old concrete slip-way. Around its crumbling end, small multi-coloured fishes darted and flashed in the gathering light.
The freshness of the morning air had not yet given way to the heat of a tropical day. There was little point in returning inside, I was on the wrong time-zone, sleep had already escaped me, and it was far too early for breakfast. Behind the hotel, a slope of worn grass gave way to the encroaching jungle. The tops of tall trees were just beginning to catch the sunlight. They glowed with the vivid green that is only found in Africa after storms have washed everything clean the night before. Their colour was made even more vivid by the red murram paths below. I followed one of them in amongst trees that dangled with creepers. I knew not where it would lead but, judging by the many footprints, it was well used.
I must have walked for a mile or two before I came to a clearing. Mealy plants lined the path. Further on, some had been recently cut. A cock crowed, a goat bleated in the distance, and I began to hear the sounds of voices. A smell of wood-smoke was intensified by the damp morning air. I rounded a corner and entered a village made of round huts with conical grass roofs. Between the huts, on the beaten earth, chickens scratched, waiting to be fed. A mangy dog of indeterminate parentage came to inspect me. People were emerging from white painted doorways, stretching in the early morning light. Some children came out, saw me, shot back inside and peeped shyly around the door frame.
Their parents stared at me in astonishment. I politely wished them good morning and was greeted with smiles. Others appeared – the men in tatty khaki shorts, the women in brightly coloured dresses, with some kind of turban or cloth wrapped around their heads. Word must have spread because, soon, others came to look as I made my way between the huts.
A man, considerably older than the rest, came forward. His hair was greying, his skin wizened, he lacked a tooth or two but such was his dignity that, had I been wearing a hat, I have no doubt I would have raised it to him. He said some words in a language I did not understand. I wished him good morning in my very British way and apologised for intruding in his village. He seemed to sense the meaning of what I said, or perhaps he was just being polite. He offered his hand; I shook it and wished him well. Everywhere, people smiled and, when I raised my hand in greeting, the men waved back, women nodded shyly, while children stared wide-eyed from behind their hands.
When I came to the edge of village, I turned to look back. There was quite a crowd; the old man gravely raised his right hand. I did the same and entered the forest. I went down the slope along a path which I hoped would lead me back to the lake. Fortunately it did. When I came to the shore, I followed it back to the hotel. The sun was now well up, soon the heat of the day would be upon me. I mused on what I had seen. Had I been an African, dressed in tribal costume, walking through a remote village in rural England, I wondered whether I would have been greeted with such courteous warmth and grace.