In 1963 the UN, giving up on what it correctly perceived to be a bad job, decided to remove all of its foreign peace keepers from the former Belgian Congo. We were invited to participate. Upon receiving the call, our smoothly functioning, highly coordinated, and totally standardized segment of Dover’s aerospace team climbed into our C-124, leapt into the air, and headed for the Heart of Darkness.
Our mission was to establish ourselves in Entebbe, Uganda, (pre Idi Amin) and then airlift the Ethiopian troops from Stanleyville, Congo, back to Addis Ababa. No one knew how many troops there were in Stanleyville so we planned to fly a full load each day until Stanleyville was evacuated. From Dover it took us five days to get there via Goose Bay, Newfoundland; Mildenhall AB, England; Wheelus AB, Libya; and Khartoum, the Sudan. Needless to say, on crew rest at Wheelus we stocked up on the essentials: cigarettes, assorted beverages, Oreos, and the old MATS standby, the Beanie-Weenie. Whatever the Dark Continent held for us, we were assured of a balanced diet.
In Entebbe we were billeted in the Lake Victoria Hotel, a class act right on the shores of the famous lake (and source of the Nile for you Jeopardy fans). Up and about at the crack of dawn, we’d rumble over to Stanleyville, fill the airplane with Ethiopians, and head for Addis. If we did everything right, we’d discharge the Ethiopians and make it back to Entebbe in time for afternoon tea on the veranda. Very civilized we were. Flying under visual flight rules (air traffic control was essentially non-existent), we saw some of the most spectacular scenery our planet affords. A crucial navigational beacon, Lake Awasu between Stanleyville and Addis, was never on the air. We’d requested its activation coming through Wheelus and every day as we left Entebbe we’d ask again. No joy. Finally we located the village and spotted the antenna and the shack which housed the generator. We enthusiastically buzzed the village and even dropped a note. Fat chance. It finally came on the air the day we left for home and we later learned that to turn it on a soldier was dispatched from Addis on a nine-day trek mounted on a donkey.
One day the weather went sour on us and we had to fly under instrument flight rules. That was then we discovered the minimum enroute altitude, not to collide with the scenery, was 16,000 feet. We wondered about the genius of the individual who sent an unpressurized Old Shaky to haul passengers at 16,000 feet. In clear violation of Air Force regulations, we went anyway. The flight engineer pushed up the throttles on those big engines, and up she went. The crew was on oxygen, of course, but all the guys in the back went to sleep for an hour and woke up with a headache. We were running late that day and, while we were working the tower, maneuvering for landing, and in the clouds, the clock struck 5 p.m. The locals turned off the tower and the approach beacon, and they all went home. That’s what they did every day. Why do it differently today? We continued our approach by guess and by Gadfry as the radio compass needles spun aimlessly. We broke out at about 1,000 feet and landed.
Several times we got stuck with weather or maintenance problems and spent the night in Stanleyville or Addis. We slept in the airplane at both places but made it downtown once in Addis. We saw Haile Selassie’ s palace with lions loose in the garden. After the sun went down, the airfield was infested with bad-looking laughing hyenas so we’d button up tightly before hitting the sack.
We made a total of four airlift missions and when we’d removed everyone, including the Indian tower operators, we headed home. At Wheelus the flaps failed to extend and we had a three-day delay and a test hop before pressing on. We arrived at Mildenhall, England, having exceeded our flying time limits. The MATS duty officer offered to get us a waiver so we could press on. We all collapsed in hysterical laughter and when we recovered headed for London.
Some interesting numbers/fact:
» It took five days to get into position. We were in country for 20 days and moved 400 troops.
» It took 11 days to get home due to maintenance and excessive flying hours.
» We wore civvies so no one would know we were Americans (of course the airplane had the Stars & Stripes on the tail and “U.S. Air Force” in three foot letters on the nose).
» We were totally out of touch with the MATS tracking system (which wasn’t that hot anyway), and we were not once able to raise any military high frequency (HF) station.
» Every few days the U.S. Embassy would send a minion out to check on us. “MATS says you guys are in big trouble and wants to know what you are doing.” We gave him our movement reports and said send them to MATS. Did they ever get there?
Years later when I was an Air Force Reserve and TWA pilot, I was summoned to the Dover Airlift Command Post late one night where some guys claiming to be from the Defense Intelligence Agency swore me to secrecy and quizzed me about the layout of the Entebbe passenger terminal. Twenty hours later Israeli commandos stormed the terminal where passengers from a hijacked El Al plane were being held. I’m still waiting for that Israeli medal.
Col. Sibbald was editor of the MAC Flyer from 1966 to 1967.
NOTE: Not all Congo missions are fondly remembered as that of Colonel Sibbald’s. On August 27, 1960, a C-124 crew from Dover AFB landed at Stanleyville. Prior to the landing, the crew had been warned that a huge crowd had gathered in preparation of a visit by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The landing and taxi in were uneventful, and the aircraft commander and navigator proceeded to file a flight plan for the next leg of their flight. After the aircraft was unloaded, a few Congolese soldiers asked the crew if they could look around the aircraft, and permission was granted. A short while later the soldiers ordered the crew members off of the airplane at gun point. Once outside the aircraft the soldiers and the civilians, already restless after a three hour wait for Lumumba, pounced on the defenseless men kicking and beating them with rifle butts and clubs. Some of the crew were taken to a prison compound at gun point and later were released. All crew members were eventually hospitalized. As a result of their wounds and their courage all received the Air Force Commendation Medal and three received the Purple Heart.