In early 1980, following the Lancaster House Agreement, a general election was held in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. The purpose was to decide who was going to govern the country after the end of white rule. The election was to be monitored by British and UN observers to ensure it was free and fair.
A small fleet of five helicopters was contracted from South Africa to fly the observers around the country and visit scores of polling stations situated in towns and remote villages. The fleet was composed of four single engine 4-6 passenger machines and one Bell 212 twin engine aircraft, which was mine. The 212 has 15 seats, including the pilot’s. It also has a cargo compartment situated behind the cabin at the front of the tail boom. This can hold up to 400 lbs/180 kgs and is only accessible when on the ground. It’s the place where stuff which takes up too much space in the cabin would be carried.
As a relatively complex machine with two engines, I carried an engineer with me when there were no observers on board. He and another looked after the fleet during the trip – I’ll call him Fred.
Terrorist groups were still active, even though the bush war was over and we had to fly low and avoid their camps, because they were suspicious of aerial activity and liable to shoot at us. I could relate several stories about that trip, but this one will suffice.
We spent almost three weeks in the country before we packed the aircraft in Salisbury (Harare now) and left on the 3rd of March. Prior to the flight, I carried out my usual pre-flight inspection, including looking in the cargo compartment, because if there was too much weight in there it would affect the aircraft’s balance. All I saw was the stuff Fred had loaded. He was experienced and I trusted him – you have to trust your engineer. The trip back was uneventful, and I thought no more about it.
Some years later, while still in South Africa, I went to an outdoor trade exhibition and was wandering around the stalls and looking at the camping and vehicle equipment on display. Fred suddenly appeared in front of me. He was red-eyed, swaying slightly, talking slowly and grinning his head off. He greeted me like a long lost friend even though we had no close ties. If he hadn’t been so drunk I doubt if he would have told me what he did.
Almost falling over himself with laughter, Fred told me that he had loaded a number of AK47 assault rifles in the cargo compartment and hidden them behind his tool kit and boxes of spare parts. I like to think I’m not easily shocked, but I was then. As the aircraft captain, I had been fully responsible for what was carried. If the South African customs had looked and found the weapons when we arrived back in the country, I would have been the one under arrest and slung in jail, not Fred.
There are some who will read this little tale and know who I’m talking about. If you tell the world his true name, that’s your decision, but I won’t, even though it is tempting.