SAAF Impalas shoot down Cuban Mi-25 Hinds. Excerpted from Bloodsong, Copyright © Jim Hooper 2011. Used by permission.
Mi-24V – Hind E (Photo Copyright © Jim Hooper 2011)
LIEUTENANT COLONEL PINE PIENAAR
Pine Pienaar: A young captain a year out of my instructional tour, I was attached to 8 Squadron, ‘The Flying Cockerels,’ flying the Impala Mk21. Aside from day after day of practicing with cannon, bombs and rockets, I also learned the principles of air-to-air combat and ultra-low level navigation, using only a map and stopwatch as navigational aids. Grasping these skills ensured that, when the day came, I’d be able to deliver the required weapon accurately, defend myself against other aircraft while doing so and find my way back home again.
It was around 14 September 1985, when we received a heads-up from SAAF Headquarters: all serviceable aircraft and flight crews on immediate standby, an indication that a Cabinet-level decision was in the making. Two days later, eight of us departed Bloemspruit for the four-hour flight to Rundu at the western end of the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, where we went straight into the ops room. The briefing revealed that a massive offensive had been launched by Fapla and the Cubans towards Unita’s strategic logistics base and airstrip at Mavinga. If it were overrun, which at that point looked a distinct possibility, Savimbi’s headquarters at Jamba would be within range of Angolan and Cuban MiGs.
Were Unita to be pushed out of their self-proclaimed ‘Free Angola’ it would not only be a major propaganda victory for the communists, but open another 800 kilometres of border to Swapo infiltration. A grim intelligence officer revealed that South African ground units were already moving north with heavy artillery and multiple barrel rocket launchers. As soon as they were in range, waves of Impalas, Mirages, Canberras and Buccaneers – 41 aircraft in total – would strike the advancing enemy juggernaut. As soon as the last aircraft pulled off target, the army would add to the carnage with their rockets and artillery.
Late on 17 September the strike launched from Rundu and Grootfontein. Everyone returned safely and the next morning we learned that the enemy spearhead had been halted. But large reserve elements were already moving forward and being frantically resupplied by Cuban-flown helicopters. Intelligence indicated that the resupply would actually gain momentum and that the enemy would continue with their push towards Mavinga.
Our long range reconnaissance teams were reporting that the enemy helicopters, a mixed bag of Mi-8s, Mi-17s and Mi-25s, were coming out of Cuito Cuanavale, climbing to 3,000 feet to avoid small arms fire and following two tributaries to the Longa River and from there to the advancing enemy battle group. The enemy’s success or failure against Unita hinged on that helicopter air bridge. It was our job to see that it failed.
With the ground reports and a stream of signals intelligence pouring in, the SAAF planners spread their maps and went to work. They looked at the distances involved and balanced them against the range of the Impalas. They calculated airspeed, time and distance for the enemy helicopters. They counted the number of strike aircraft available. They took into consideration that the Cubans had MiG-21s and MiG–23s at Cuito Cuanavale, which meant that the South African pilots, operating within the enemy’s radar cover in their much slower Impalas, would definitely be playing with the lion’s balls. Ideas were tossed back and forth, examined, discarded, re-examined. After endless cups of coffee, the operational plan was dropped on the boss’s desk.
It was to be an ambush.
The selected target area lay thirty nautical miles southeast of Cuito Cuanavale. As soon as the Recces reported a flight of helicopters lifting off, a brace of Impalas on 24-hour cockpit standby would launch, aiming to arrive at the ambush site at the same time as the enemy. They’d have to go in low to stay under radar coverage, making navigation over the featureless terrain with only map and stopwatch extremely difficult, but that’s what they’d trained for. On arrival, they had 22 minutes to spot and destroy the helicopters before low fuel forced them to scoot for home. If more helicopters were reported, there were another ten Impalas for five more waves. Sounds good, the boss nodded. Do it.
We spent a couple of days practicing our tactics against SAAF Pumas imitating enemy flight profiles, Pine explained. Approaching on the deck, we’d pitch up to carry out simulated cannon attacks. Keeping them in our gunsights wasn’t easy, but our guys were much better than the Cubans and they knew we were coming. The Cubans didn’t.
On the 27th, Leon and I were the first two on cockpit standby. Keyed up, we settled into our seats and the flight engineers cinched the harnesses down. And we waited. Time ticked by, cuffs were pulled back to check watches, fingers drummed on the outside of the cockpit. I yawned. Suddenly, a bug-eyed intelligence officer ran out to the flight line, madly waving his arms and screaming at us to ’Fucking scramble! Go-go-go!’
We were airborne in minutes. I remember a very dry mouth and thinking, ‘This is it. You’re going to war big time. Don’t mess it up.’ Under radio silence, Leon and I found our Initial Point, a bend in the Cubango River just east of Rundu. With the bush blurring less than a hundred feet beneath the Impalas’ bellies, we settled down to low-level navigation, SAAF-style. Thirty-two minutes after getting airborne, we were waiting for them over one of the Longa’s tributaries, eyes searching the sky.
We were turning towards the second river, when my eyes snapped back to something. Is that what I think it is? Yes. Halleluiah! There they were, two helicopters in our two o’clock position, one trailing the other by approximately 1,000 meters. Leon hadn’t seen them and was still turning.
‘Leon, we have two bogeys,’ I said, breaking radio silence, ‘two o’clock high, range three miles.’
‘OK, I have the lead. I am pitching up to attack the rearmost guy. Watch me and I’ll give you commentary on the lead bogey.’
By now we’re only thirty kilometres from Cuito Cuanavale, where I could imagine a couple of MiGs on cockpit standby. Time turned into treacle and it seemed forever as I closed the range. Then – dammit! – I’d overcooked the attack, ending up about 700 meters behind the Mi-25. I bunted the aircraft to accelerate to a decent fighting speed. The cannon’s ideal range was 350 meters, but when I reached my next firing position, I was still about 500 meters directly behind it. I was furious with myself.
Leon’s voice came through my earphones. ‘Pine, Leon, I have the lead target visual and I’m starting my pitch-up.’
Rather than taking more time to close the range, I aimed slightly above my chopper and pulled the trigger, firing for what seemed an awfully long time. There were bright flashes, followed by an audible whooff and the chopper started burning from underneath. The flames stopped, replaced by brown smoke.
Shit, it’s not dead yet.
The pitch-up manoeuvre had placed us squarely within enemy radar cover and I was sure that any second now a wild-eyed Cuban intelligence officer at Cuito Cuanavale would be running onto the flightline and screaming in Spanish to a couple of MiG pilots to Fucking scramble, go-go-go!
In desperation, I firewalled the throttle. With only empty drop-tanks under the wings, the Impala accelerated quickly. I chopped power and found myself alongside. Hunched forward in their separate cockpits, both Cuban pilots were clearly visible and very busy. Probably thinking they’d been hit by large-calibre groundfire, they were checking instruments, fighting to remain airborne as on-board systems went down. Through the three square windows in the cabin behind the aircraft commander I saw a lot of Cuban faces staring at me in horror. They knew.
The Mi-25 started a gentle left-hand turn back towards Cuito Cuanavale. I pulled up and over, positioning myself on the outside for the rear-quarter attack that I had practiced so many times. Allowing the chopper to pull away, I rolled in from my perch position, mentally reciting each step. It was straight out of the manuals.
‘Airspeed: good – approaching 300 knots. Stadiametric ranging device: pegged at 350 meters. Wingspan: set. Armament master: ON. Angle-off: looking good. Aiming point: selected – the right-hand exhaust.’
There was a sparkling ripple of hits along the cowling, the high explosive shells tearing apart engines, drive shaft and gearbox. The helicopter rolled violently onto its left side, blades folding into a tangled mess and I knew this particular Mi-25 was going nowhere but down. Rolling inverted, I screamed for the deck, very worried about those MiGs. Down in the trees, I threw a quick glance over my shoulder. Two columns of thick, black smoke were rising into the sky. For a moment or two I became a gibbering idiot trying to get the word to our Telstar aircraft that we had just splashed two Mi-25s. The news was relayed and we landed at Rundu to a tumultuous welcome.
Two days later we did it again – this time two Mi-17s and two Mi-25s. I hadn’t joined those missions, as I was going into a night cycle in preparation for night attacks on the Fapla positions. But that’s another story…
Pine Pienaar with one of the MiG-23s he flew while contracted to Executive Outcomes in Angola. (Courtesy Pine Pienaar)
1 A small, subsonic jet aircraft optimised for the counter-insurgency rôle, the Italian-built Aermacchi MB-326K was armed with a 30 mm DEFA cannon and could carry a combination of bombs, rockets and external fuel tanks
Author’s note: The Mi-25 was the export version of the Mi-24 and given the NATO designation Hind-D.