Copyright © Jim Hooper 2010 (www.jimhooper.co.uk)
South African Air Force helicopter pilots were heavily involved in Angola, regularly penetrating deep behind enemy lines in support of ground forces. Though the primary target of cross-border operations was Swapo terrorists attempting to infiltrate into South West Africa/Namibia, they often faced Cuban-flown gunships and jet fighters, as well as Soviet-operated missiles. By the mid-1980s, the SADF’s successes against Swapo saw the East bloc pouring thousands of additional Cuban troops and billions of dollars of sophisticated military equipment into the conflict. The immediate goal was to deny the South Africans air support by deploying the first SA-8 surface-to-air missile systems and upgraded Mi-25 Hind helicopter gunships outside the Soviet bloc.
These were extremely worrying developments, but after years under an international arms embargo, the SAAF was well versed in devising new tactics against the communists’ more technologically advanced military hardware.
“To counter the air threat,” said ‘Juba’ Joubert,” we started air combat manoeuvres with our senior and junior space club, the Mirage and Impala fighter pilots. These exercises pitted two fighters against one or two helicopters at low level, where we could make full use of our eyes, ears and the terrain to survive. The opposition needed fourteen gun-camera frames for a ‘kill’, but the most they ever got on me was eight and I made them work for those. These exercises gave us great confidence and at the same time taught our fighter pilots attack profiles against enemy choppers. As far as the missile threat, there wasn’t a great deal we could do beyond flying as low and as fast as the situation allowed.
“By early 1987 I was a senior Puma commander with experience all across southern Angola, but nowhere was there a better guarantee of action than around Cahama in the southwest. In February I was tasked with inserting a Special Forces team sixty kilometres north of the town. The plan called for dropping them at last light, but we didn’t lift off from Ruacana until just before sunset, with the uncomfortable prospect of having to find the LZ in the dark and no assurance that it was safe. Because the other Puma commander was not night-formation qualified, as mission leader I took the No 2 position on a wide dogleg around Cahama to avoid its AAA and suspected SA-8 batteries.
“Twenty minutes after lift-off the sun had disappeared, replaced by a full moon. Rather than maintaining position from above on the lead Puma’s formation lights, I tucked into his eight o’clock. This silhouetted him against the moon, allowing me to stay just above the trees. The tallest along the route were 150 feet, and I briefed my crew to give me radio altimeter readouts when I went below 170 feet. Approaching the road from Cahama to Humbe, I descended. When my co-pilot read out 160 feet, I had a quick glimpse to confirm the height and just then saw a bright orange flame streaking towards us from the direction of Cahama. It passed astern at supersonic speed, but with rising terrain and trees flashing by, there was no time to see where it was going. I eased back up to 170 feet, continuing under radio silence. We had apparently been just far enough outside the SA-8’s twenty-five-kilometre range to prevent it locking on to either of the Pumas.
“Arriving at the drop-off area, I descended to a hundred feet, switched on the landing light and came down to twenty feet on the radio altimeter. Unable to get lower, I hovered over thick bush and told the team to bail out. The first guy had a look, tossed out his sixty-five-kilo rucksack and followed it, with the rest of the team just behind. I told the lead helicopter to set heading, but to cross east of the road in case the Russians had a spare SA-8 or two. They decided not to waste another on us.”
“Ten days after the SA-8 experience we had a casevac callout south of Cahama. A group of sappers had been ambushed while sweeping a road and taken eleven casualties, four of them serious. I briefed our two doctors, both on their first operational tour, that just before crossing the border I’d reduce speed so they could slide the doors open and keep watch for MiGs. While I was confident of our chances of survival, the looks on their faces suggested they were less so.
“We crossed the Cunene River and were five minutes out when I tried to raise the call sign. No answer. Climbing to improve the range on the VHF radio, I looked for smoke marking the LZ. At 800 feet over their reported position I was distinctly uncomfortable; if there were a roaming missile battery in the neighbourhood we were sitting ducks. But there were Priority 1 casevacs on the ground that we had to get to hospital. Just then I saw a distant flare off the nose and turned towards it, flying another twenty-five kilometres, which placed us close to two known Swapo bases. If they saw or heard us, they were sure to radio a report to Cahama.
“I was descending, when a warning came through that five Mi-25 Hinds had been spotted forty kilometres to the east. I took us down fast and over the edge of the Huila plateau to get below the horizon and blend in with the terrain. We had to get in and out as quickly as possible. I finally raised the ground commander and requested smoke. A pale cloud from a white phosphorus grenade billowed out of the trees. I swore when the LZ came into view. There was only enough room for one Puma at a time. The pick-up was going to take longer than I wanted.
“I went in quickly, and as soon as we touched down the flight engineer helped the medic and the doctor out of the helicopter and I saw them disappear into the bush for the casualties. Come on, hurry! Long minutes went by with no one in sight. Then the report came through on the HF radio that the Hinds were heading in our direction. The flight engineer was standing outside and I asked him over the intercom system what the hell was going on, but his helmet microphone cord had come unplugged and I got no reply.
“The casualties were brought out of the bush and were being loaded, when there was an explosion not far away. I pulled power to warn them they must hurry up as we are under attack. Seven wounded were quickly loaded under the doctor’s supervision, but there was no sight of the medic. I pulled more power to tell the engineer I was getting airborne and he just had time to grab hold of the steps and a chair leg to pull himself in as I lifted off. Because visibility was so limited in the thick bush, it wasn’t until we were in the air that I realized the explosion had come from another white phosphorus smoke grenade someone had stupidly thrown. Then the doctor told me that one of the wounded was going to need more blood than he had brought. I told the No 2 to pick-up the other four casualties and the medic. They went in and there was a green spray of leaves when their rotor tips hit the trees.
“We were scanning the horizon for the Hinds, when another message came through that now MiG-23s were also airborne and on course for us. With their down-look radar capability, they’d have no problem spotting us from overhead. The No 2 lifted off with my medic and the last four casevacs. Because of the urgency for blood, I set heading directly for Ruacana instead of the Ondangwa hospital.
“We had just come up to speed, when the ground commander called to ask if we could return for another casualty. Gritting my teeth, I brought the Puma around, advising him not to throw smoke: I had no interest in giving the MiGs or Hinds an easier target indication. I was suddenly on top of the LZ, flaring harder than the Puma is designed for to touch down at zero speed. The last casualty was loaded in record time and we were back in the air. I turned towards the Ruacana River, using the terrain for protection and keeping the Puma’s fuselage between the trees. In the cabin behind me the doctors worked frantically to keep the worst casualties alive. Another message came in that the MiGs were ahead and patrolling the border to intercept us. But I knew that first they’d have to find us, and then hit us on the first pass before having to break off because of fuel. If our Mirage and Impala pilots couldn’t get me, the Cubans had no chance.
“As it was, we thudded across the cutline without interference and were soon settling on the helipad. Immediate transfusions saved three of the worst wounded. The last, though he fought for his life for four more hours after getting to the hospital, finally died.”