Fireman in Africa - Chapter 3
From Great North Road
October 1954. And so we reach Lusaka. Although this has been the capital city of Northern Rhodesia since the mid 1930’s, its old power base has now been rather fragmented. As of this year, under the new Federal Government, several Ministries that were formerly under the Territorial Government in Lusaka, and by extension the Colonial Office in London, now come under direct Federal Government control from Salisbury. The new Department of Civil Aviation is one of these.
Population. Circa 56,000, of which some 6,000 were of European origin, giving a ratio of about 8:1 as the social historians of the day would reflect in their records.
The population as a whole for Northern Rhodesia in 1954 was reckoned as 1,900,000, made up of 1,860,000 ‘natives’ and 45,000 ‘settlers’.
Altitude. A bit over 4000 feet, or almost four fifths of a mile above sea level. One tends to notice things like this working in aviation because each airfield has to display the relevant height above sea level in a circle of whitewashed stones, or similar, together with the name of the place, and a windsock on a pole for the edification of any over-flying aviator
The roads of the time were mostly unmade with some sections having ‘strips’- narrow strips of tarmac to take the wheel width of a car – rather like the twin rails of a railway track, but a little bit wider. These had to be balanced on and whenever an approaching vehicle was spotted, you needed to pull over to one side well before you met so that just your offside wheels were on the strip, leaving the other strip for the oncoming motorist to do the same. After heavy rains, the erosion of soil meant there could be a step down of several inches alongside each strip, playing merry havoc with the side wall of the tyres when getting back up on it again. Fortunately, in those days, traffic was very light and you could travel for miles and miles without meeting oncoming vehicles.
Occasionally, at corners and bends there would be full width tarmac for just a few yards, and blessed relief, when you came to a town there would be a proper bit of road that lasted until you passed through and out the other side.In between some sections were the infamous washboard corrugations. These required careful adjustment of your vehicle speed to avoid the numbing vibrations that this surface could produce. Either too slow or too fast was a bone shaking experience. I was told that this type of surface occurred in only two places in the world, Northern Rhodesia and New Zealand and is something to do with the way laterite compacts.
On arrival, we stayed a few days at Longacres, the government hostel for civil servants on transfer, before being allocated our ‘new’ home. This was another Kimberly under thatch, but a much older and less well kept one than that which we had left in Livingstone. This one had all facilities outside, and mosquito gauze but no glass in the kitchen windows.
One room had no door in the doorframe and I noticed a small sandy coloured cone shape, about one inch long, sticking out of the frame. I tapped it to see what it was and discovered the cause to be white ants. Unbelievably, they had eaten the entire wooden parts of the door frame away but leaving behind several coats of white gloss paint, the exact shape of the door frame that had been there even to the moulded architrave.
At night, by the light of our Tilley lamp, we could lie in bed and look up and watch the ceiling move. This was made of Hessian sacking nailed to battens and whitewashed, so that the slightest breeze caused it to ripple, with flakes of whitewash falling like dandruff. Sometimes you could follow the passage of small creatures running or slithering across it.
This was one of three such houses built at the edge of the airport. My one was right on the centre line of the main runway which itself was only a few hundred yards away, and all aircraft movements either came in to land, or, even noisier, took off, a few feet over my roof. On discovering that the previous occupants had been re-housed on the grounds that the house was unsuitable for families with young babies, I made hurried application to the housing committee on the same grounds and was soon reallocated.
Our next house was one of a new development in the Woodlands area. No.1944 Rochester Close if my memory still works. This was modern brick with tiled roof and floors and an inside bathroom, loo and kitchen with a Dover wood stove that heated the water.
Because of the lack of telephones, I had arranged with the Woodlands police post to contact me in the event of an out of hour’s emergency. They had radio contact with the outside world, and could send a police constable round to let me know. However, on the only occasion during the six months incommunicado when this was needed, it did not work.
Late one evening there was a serious fire in the construction site of a large international construction company carrying out work in the town. One of the major civil engineering works was the reconstruction of Cairo Road, making it a dual carriage way. The fenced in site was on the corner of Cairo Road and Church Road where the Post office was later built, and enclosed the usual offices, workshops, plant, vehicles, caravans and fuel storage in 44 gallon drums, plus an explosive store.
Because Lusaka sits on a large outcrop of dolomite, every hole made in the ground had to be made using explosives. I had seen large rocks removed during road making when I was in Livingstone. The method used then was for the road gang to chop down trees from the surrounding bush, pile them on top of the offending rock and make a large bonfire. This was then left to burn for a couple of days. Once it was nice and hot, by pouring cold water on it, the theory was that it would crack the rock which could then be removed in smaller pieces. In Lusaka that method would have taken for ever, and it became a familiar sight when driving in town to come across a large pile of old tyres in the road, with a lookout armed with a whistle, hard hat and a red flag to bring traffic to a standstill. Suddenly there would be a loud bang, the tyres would jump up a bit, and you could then proceed around the blast site.
On the occasion of the incident referred to, the night watchman had evidently been refilling a bucket with paraffin from a drum in order to replenish the many warning hurricane lamps around the construction works when the fuel caught fire, fatally injuring him. In the absence of a local fire service in those days, the police provided what they could with a flat bed lorry carrying three chemical foam engines and an assortment of hand extinguishers. The manpower was provided by any available police officer who may or may not have had experience in using them.
The rapid spread of fire through the fuel dump meant that the extinguishers were quite ineffective even if it had been possible to get close enough to use them, and the police called for Civil Aviation assistance. The airport being closed at night in those days, our absence from there would not conflict with aviation safety requirements.
Eventually, a notice requesting Airport Fire officers was flashed on the local bioscope screen where two of my station officers were enjoying an evening out with their wives. As they got up to make their way out, there was a large explosion which, according to them, lifted the entire cinema and all within about three feet out of the ground. By the time they went to the airport, roused out a crew and returned to town with two fire appliances, the fire had taken a very firm hold and took quite a while, and a large quantity of our precious foam compound to bring it under control. Everyone was very conscious of the securely locked and inaccessible dynamite store that was gradually heating up.
Fortunately, it was not the dynamite store that blew up; there would have been a much bigger bang in that case. The main explosion that night, apart from several lesser ones from fuel drums and paint tins and so on was the oxygen cylinder from the workshop welding trolley. That went off like a bomb and as an illustration of the force involved, parts of the cylinder shrapnel were found way up past Duly Motors at the other end of Cairo Road. Through all this I stayed fast asleep.
Some time after the road was finished, and work was under way on the new buildings on that side of Cairo Road, people would come down to admire the most handsome storm drain in town. This now ran the full length down to Church Road in between the two new carriageways. It was about eight to ten feet deep with sloping sides that had been lined with pieces of the coloured rock from the excavation. These included slabs of rose quartz, white crystal and amethyst. The whole job was a work of art.
Unfortunately, there were occasional accidents, plus the risk of drowning in the rainy season, and one night after a rather well oiled customer came out of the hotel, and making his way across Cairo road to the railway station fell in, breaking both wrists so he could not climb out again, the City Fathers had it roofed over. From some recent photos I have seen of Cairo Road, it looks as though the entire stretch along what is now an island with trees separating the carriageways has become a curio seller’s market place. I wonder if they know what lies beneath their feet.
Back at the ranch, so to speak, we gradually began to firm up the service once we had overcome the loss of staff. Some former colonial civil servants were reluctant to lose their careers by joining the Federal Government and so left. Most of the African staff resented the Federation anyway and some decided to leave also. For myself, I was committed to making my home there and decided I would deal with whatever problems arose as and when they arose.
The only drawback was that the vehicle had to be stationary as the same engine drove both the wheels and the pump, but not both at the same time. It would be a great advantage if the vehicle could move around a large fire whilst extinguishing it. This was another little bit of information I stored away in a special compartment in my mind labelled ‘Things to do when they make me King’, together with things like asbestos suits, the complete lack of protective clothing, (boiler suits being considered sufficient) inadequate water supplies, no fire station buildings, no standard training etc, etc.
I had to go down to Salisbury to collect the first of the new appliances as it involved a driving training course through rough terrain, i.e. lots of thick mud, steep hills and big puddles. The drive back up to Lusaka was a dream. With empty water tanks and the powerful Rolls Royce engine, it sailed through the Chirundu escarpment. When empty like this, these vehicles could outrun and out manoeuvre any comparable size vehicle. Even loaded, they could shift along over rough or smooth country at a very respectable rate. We were almost looking forward to the occasion when she would have her first baptism of fire to show what we could do with it and as it happens that was to be the occasion when my old house at the end of the airfield burnt down.
It worked beautifully but we were unable to save the three houses. The very design of a sloping thatch roof is intended to deflect water falling on it so you are fighting a losing battle with these.
I suppose this is as good a place as any to refer to any particular incidents of note. Although, as said earlier, this is not intended to be a catalogue of incidents attended, there were some that are worthy of a mention, maybe because they were the cause of public concern at the time, or maybe because they were ‘odd’ or interesting in some way. These are not in sequence and are spread across some twenty years.
The largest ‘off the field’ fires were the two already spoken of, Zambezi Sawmills and the Cairo Road Site. The largest ‘on field’ fire was the result of an aircraft accident but not an air crash when three Hercules cargo planes were destroyed and others damaged on the ground at Ndola Airport. This was during the time after UDI when routes to the south were closed and Zambia was shipping out its copper to Dar-es-Salaam by air, courtesy of the Royal Air Force, and returning with drums of fuel.
Rationing of fuel had been imposed and the only source of supply was that being airlifted in, and there was not a lot to go round. On the scale of priorities, in the event that the ordinary motorist could not get any, and essential services were at risk, supplies would have been concentrated on supplying the mines with diesel as it was the top priority to keep the underground pumps running at all costs to avoid flooding and closure of the mines. If they failed, all else would go as well. It was that critical.
One Hercules had just landed with fuel drums, and whilst taxiing in to the rather confined space used by the RAF to park and load and unload, the rotating propeller of one outboard engine clipped the wing, (which is where an aircraft carries its own fuel supply), of another Hercules and a major fire erupted. The airport fire service was on scene within a minute, but it was a massive fire and with the complication that stockpiles of both full and empty fuel drums surrounded the loading bays. It took a long time before it was subdued and it took every last drop of foam compound, including the station reserve stock. This effectively closed the airport, not because of any fire damage or interference with operational areas, but because we now had no fire service available. This could have been a national disaster as the supply of fuel continuing was vital to Zambia’s existence.
Fortunately, this event was some while after independence and I had already been able to implement some of the ‘when they make me king’ bits. These included a large Fire Service Stores at Lusaka airport, the most central place with access to transport routes to all provinces. I had imported foam supplies in bulk for just such a contingency as earlier experience during our Federal years had shown us the problems we could have. At that time, none was manufactured anywhere in Africa and it was to be several years before South Africa began to produce a brand. It took an average of six months for shipment by sea and railway to reach us and so I ordered by annual tender for bulk supplies on the basis that sooner or later we were going to need it.
On this occasion with the assistance of PWD in Lusaka, several lorries with drivers and man power to load and unload were provided late in the evening. We drove up through the night and arrived in time for the airport to be fully operational at the normal time.
The most controversial accident was undoubtedly the crash of the plane carrying Dag Hammerskjold, General Secretary of the United Nations, to a secret meeting at Ndola with the Federal Government.
Central Africa was a very hostile environment at that time and the flight was made at night in great secrecy. Much has been written about that tragic event and I have seen a couple of recent (June 2007) postings about it. Some of the earlier reports were blatantly politically biased, some were just weird, and ranged from “I saw Welensky’s fighter planes shooting it down in flames” to “I knew it was going to crash because my dog began to howl”.
The sad truth is that after a very full and thorough investigation, it emerged that the pilot simply flew into the ground he did not know was there.
This accident was during the Federal era, and my boss, the Chief Fire Officer down in Salisbury posted me to Ndola for five weeks while the initial investigation went ahead. This was most thorough and involved, amongst other things, excavating the crash site to some depth and sifting through it all, removing every scrap that was not soil, rock or plant life to the hangar at Ndola airport for forensic examination. Although the responsible body with jurisdiction in this matter was the Federal Department of Civil Aviation, because of the highly sensitive nature if it, a number of other agencies were involved. These included the United Nations, the United States, the Swedish Government plus the manufacturers of the aircraft airframe, engines, instruments and flight control systems.
Despite the clear result, some political opinion could not accept this accident as other than a deliberate attack.
One also has to feel for the Airport Manager at the time, ‘Red’ Williams, who had only returned from long leave on the day of the accident, and who, together with his deputy, Vere Potts, the Senior air traffic controller on the airport, had to cope with a massive influx of people from all over the world, either to investigate the incident or to report on it.
Other strange things were happening too like the sudden arrival of a clapped out Viking that had been stolen from under the noses of armed soldiers at, I think, Stanleyville airport in the Congo. This had been impounded a year earlier by Congolese ‘authorities’ and had been pinched back by a couple of wild looking mercenaries and flown to Ndola. They later admitted that they had no idea what fuel they had, what tyre pressures they had, whether the batteries would work or whether the engines would start. We chased them down the runway as they landed just in case it all fell to bits and when we pulled up alongside, the two pilots climbed out, asked for a lift back to the control tower on the rescue tender, and wanted to know if the pubs were open yet!
Another day an African, a strange, Biggles looking character complete with all the leather gear, jack boots, long scarf, flying helmet and goggles landed on the grass in a light single engine plane with an open cockpit who said he had flown down from the Congo to join ‘our’ air force. The police confiscated the plane and after the example of the Viking having been nicked they unbolted the propeller from the Biggles craft and locked it in a cupboard in the Fire Station for safe keeping.
One other fatal accident stays in the mind. This was not the first, nor the one with the greatest loss of life that happened at the new Lusaka International Airport that had opened a couple of years before, but it affected everyone involved. The Presidential aircraft, a twin turbo prop medium range machine, a very modest plane by contrast with some other African States’ Presidential aircraft, crashed and caught fire on take off whilst doing routine crew training. The pilot was killed on impact and the co-pilot died later from his injuries. Tragically, the young teenage son of the base commander who had been taken up for the ride died in the crash too. The aircrew were RAF officers seconded to the fledgling Zambia Air Force which organisation shared the new airport as a ‘joint user’ with Civil Aviation, so everybody knew everybody.
A Viking of CAA was carrying out similar training, known as ‘circuits and bumps’. The aircraft is flown in a constant orbit round an airfield with continuous landings and take offs during which the various flight situations that could happen are simulated, and the pilot under instruction has to demonstrate his ability to deal with it. On this occasion the instructing pilot simulated an engine failure on take off and did this by taking the power off one engine (but not actually stopping it). The pilot under training has two options and needs to make a rapid decision. If the phase of the take off run is below the critical speed figure, he can abort the take off and take the power off the ‘good’ engine and bring the aircraft to a safe stop. However, if the critical point has been passed, he is committed to continuing and must get the aircraft in the air. If the second option is chosen, then to reduce the drag caused by the failed engine, the variable pitch propeller blades on that engine must be trimmed by the pilot, through a built in gearing system so that they were feathered i.e. facing fore and aft. If that were not done, the blades would continue to turn under the effect of the air rushing past, like a child’s toy, and in the event of a real engine failure, with damaged components, this could have disastrous consequences.
On the incident under review, it was believed that one of the pilots inadvertently feathered the propeller on the ‘good’ engine causing the aircraft to lose speed and fall to the ground.
To move out of the shadows, so to speak, I had earlier referred to Benny Beneke, the one time ground engineer at the Vic Falls airways. He eventually took up flying, obtained his commercial pilots licence, acquired a small single engine aircraft and went into the air taxi business. I think he charged about two and six in old money per air mile and seemed to be making a reasonable living at it. I remember him saying after he had taken a charter of three people down from the Copperbelt to Bulawayo and back for a rugby match that he would soon need to get a bigger plane.
As it happened, quite fortuitously, Kariba Dam fell into his open lap. In the early days out there, before any construction work on the dam itself had started, access was difficult and a small landing strip was hacked out to enable him to go out on a daily milk run basis to take the mail and supplies to the first people working there who were mainly surveyors and such hanging from ropes down the gorge walls taking measurements. Although that airstrip, now under some 150 feet of water, was in Southern Rhodesia, it was considered by my boss down in Salisbury to be more easily serviced from Lusaka, and so it became one of ‘mine’ for routine visits and inspection, along with half a dozen others, from Mongu in the west to Ft Jameson in the east. This meant I occasionally hired Benny to fly out if there was an urgent matter to be sorted. In those early days, a road journey to Kariba was an unbelievable expedition in its own right.
However, on the occasion I refer to, we were expecting a Royal visit in Lusaka. I cannot remember the year or the occasion but the whole place was being spruced up accordingly. The Public Works Department had made and erected a magnificent archway of four ‘elephant’ tusks some 25 feet tall at the entrance gate of the airport. The airport gardens were restocked with flowering blooms, and as with an Admirals inspection at sea, ‘if it moves, chuck it overboard; if it doesn’t move, paint it’ was the philosophy of the day. Because the Airport fire station was right next to the only gate to the airport through which all vehicles had to pass, we were doing our bit too. We breathed on and polished every nut and bolt in sight. Most of the appliances were already clean and polished as, like fire services any where, we took a pride in our equipment. For this occasion we went a little extra, and any painted surface that lacked sparkle had a wipe down with a mixture of paraffin and oil. An old trick that gives a temporary shine like glass and will last for a few hours. One of the older appliances was in the hangar having just had a re-spray of gleaming crimson Duco, and still had the masking paper stuck to the windows. A fireman was lovingly painting the wheel nuts with white enamel with an artists brush to contrast with the recently black enamelled wheels, and all the tyres had been given a coating of black polish buffed to a to a high shine. And very smart it all looked too.
It was about this point when Benny decided to clear off for a while as he did not want to be grounded in Lusaka. When a Royal flight takes place a ‘Purple airway’ is declared which freezes out the corridor of airspace allocated for the Royal flight so that no one can use it for sometime before, during and after the Royal flight. He used the grass runway to avoid any possible mishap on the main runway which had been carefully swept and almost polished, and took off. We could hear the control tower over the watchroom radio giving him clearance to ‘take off and right turn out’. At a height of about 150 feet he ran out of engine noise and dropped like the proverbial brick onto the golf course just outside the airport perimeter fence. A few seconds later and he would have come down in the grounds of state house, or perhaps even on the roof of state house.
Our standby appliance, which was always fully manned and had the engine running whenever flying was in progress, took off like a scalded cat with the rest of us following close behind, with the masking paper hurriedly torn from the windscreen.
When we reached him, Benny was unhurt, standing there, shaking his head and saying rude things to his aeroplane which was a bit bent. After we had got him sorted out, our immediate problem was the state we were in. Having done a bit of intensive bundu bashing to reach him - and some of the grass there was over six feet tall - our lovely shiny paintwork was ruined, with grass and bits sticking everywhere. It looked as though we had been pebble dashed with bird seed. Needless to say our uniforms were in a bit of a mess too. We kept well out of public view for the visit and watched the Royal proceedings from the fire station windows.
We had a couple of incidents with the WENELA flights. This organisation, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, recruited labour for the South African Mining industry from Nyasaland, using DC3 aircraft. The men recruited would be flown down from Lilongwe or Blantyre to Johannesburg through Lusaka, where there was a staging post on the airfield to accommodate them overnight, and reverse this at the end of the contract which was normally for one year.
Those travelling down were usually first timers, and climbed out of the aircraft at Lusaka wide eyed and relieved looking. Most had never been near to an aeroplane before. On their return, after a year down in the big City, they were completely changed. Smart suits, sun glasses, big hats, ghetto blasters, the lot, plus suit cases full of presents for their families, and the insouciant manner of the well travelled.
They were accompanied by a flight attendant, usually an elderly ex – Askari. On one occasion, during the flight leg to Lusaka, somewhere beyond the point of no return, i.e. that point in a flight when it is quicker to keep going than it is to turn back, one of the ‘rookies’ decided to cook a meal and lit a fire on the floor of the aeroplane with some sticks he had in a bundle of his belongings. The attendant nearly had a fit and the pilots up at the front end weren’t too chuffed and declared an emergency landing for Lusaka.
In the fire station watchroom we monitored air to ground radio traffic and so heard some of the commotion up there at first hand.
To make matters worse, the attendant did the right thing of trying to put the fire out (in the face of some opposition from the ‘cook’) but unfortunately the only extinguishers carried in those days were the literally quite lethal CTC hand pump type. The liquid in those is carbon-tetra-chloride which is quite dangerous at normal temperatures, but very dangerous when heated, such as when putting out a fire. It works very well at putting out fires, but in an enclosed space will put out any thing else, like people, as well. Probably to improve the atmosphere, which by then would have had people choking; the attendant opened a window, which is in fact an escape hatch over each wing through which to escape following a heavy landing or ditching on water. The effect of having a fairly large hole suddenly opened in the side of the plane in mid-air does horrible things to the temper of the crew, and not surprisingly they were thoroughly hacked off by the time they landed.
On another occasion, an emergency was declared by a DC3 freighter, which was transporting a couple of very special and very large pigs from some where or other to somewhere else. These were carried in approved crates and, wouldn’t you just know this was going to happen, somehow, one of them got out of its box. We followed the radio conversation with some interest as we knew that we would obviously be involved at some stage. On this flight there were no flight attendants, just the two bods up at the front driving.
A safe landing was made after a ‘straight in’ approach. They didn’t hang about with ‘on downwind leg’ and all that stuff. Two very peeved pilots exited the aircraft via a ladder we placed for them under their emergency escape door at the front. The door between the flight deck and the passenger cabin stayed closed. That left the pigs in there, on their own.
After a while, it all went quiet in there and one of the fire crew, Sub Officer Andrew Mumbwa, an ex army sergeant, a man of several talents including a way with animals, climbed aboard and somehow charmed the loose pig back into its crate. All the rest of us had to do was hose out the aeroplane after the crates had been off loaded.
A further illustration of Andrew’s talent was displayed several years hence when we had been asked to assist the Flying club fill up the new swimming pool they had built next to the club house. The nearest hydrant was by the fire station and it was a simple matter to run out a few lengths of fire hose, turn on the tap and fill her up. The only problem was how to avoid laying the hose line across the busy main road. Fortunately, there was a concrete culvert pipe running under the road between the storm drains on either side of the road. Unfortunately this was only about twelve inches wide and some 35-40 feet long. We tried pushing long poles through and even tried a catapult and a bow and arrow to get a length of string through. It looked as though nothing was going to work when Andrew, who had been an amused onlooker so far, headed for their nearby housing area, muttering about momparas, and returned with a sleepy looking chicken hanging upside down by its feet.
He set the bird down facing the culvert and it settled down comfortably in the dust, the way that they do. Andrew tied the end of the string to one of its legs, then leant down, and said something to the chicken. I had gone across the road to wait and catch the bird as it came through the other end of the culvert so I don’t know what he said. But it worked! The bird took off and came out the other side going past me like a racing camel with its tail on fire. However, we soon caught it and in no time at all we used the string to pull the hose through and were soon in business. We sent the chicken a whole mealie cob as a thank you.
At one time, the Flying club had made various civil aviation staff including myself, honorary club members, but when, on legal advice the Club became a limited liability company, as distinct from a private club, this concession could not continue. The way around that evidently was to elect honorary instructors. Our operations staffs, who were all pilots anyway became honorary flying instructors and I now became the first ever honorary swimming instructor.
Before leaving the ‘grot’ jobs behind, there are a couple that occurred near to my time of leaving and so I do not know what the sequel may have been. People living there after 1974 may know.
The first of these involved an overland bus on its way back to Lusaka from Malawi. This was I think just before Christmas 1973. The incident occurred, late at night, at the immigration check point near to the Luangwa Bridge. The bus was full to capacity. According to survivors’ statements, when the bus had stopped, a petrol tanker lorry pulled up right alongside. Two men got out of the lorry and went off into the bush at the side of the road. There was a very violent explosion and the badly damaged bus was enveloped in the ensuing serious fire. The petrol tanker was almost completely destroyed by the explosion. There were many fatalities. The injured survivors were eventually cared for in the nearest Mission Station. News of the incident did not reach Lusaka until early next morning.
I was asked to attend and investigate as it was not thought to be a ‘normal’ fire/explosion. It was soon evident that a quantity of man-made explosives had been packed into the two fire extinguishers carried on the petrol tanker and these were detonated by a timer of some kind.
Evidence was collected and brought back to Lusaka for forensic examination. Eventually I attended the High Court to give evidence and a finding of murder against persons unknown was given. I have often wondered if the guilty persons were ever found.
Another odd one, again near to the end of my time there. A young man had been driven up to Lusaka airport from his home in Mazabuka to catch an early flight to London. When he opened the boot of the car in the airport car park to get his suit case out, he saw smoke coming out of it. The airport police were soon on hand and they called the airport fire service. With a charged hose reel line ready, the duty fire officer carefully raised the suitcase lid and when a small spurt of flame erupted, this was immediately doused.
The subsequent investigation by the police forensic people showed the cause to have been ‘most unusual’. In my own experience it was unique.
After brushing his teeth that morning, the young man put the still wet tooth brush back into the plastic tube that it was purchased in. That was then packed inside rolled clothing in the suitcase. This clothing included a sports jacket. The vibration caused by the journey over corrugated roads caused a charge of static electricity to build up in the vibrating toothbrush which ultimately discharged against the plastic tube. There was a small ‘blued’ hole in the tube where the spark passed through it and into the shoulder pad of the jacket which had a kapok type of padding. This started a small smouldering fire which could not develop as the air supply in the suitcase was limited. It was only when the lid was lifted, allowing fresh air to reach it that it burst in to flames.
A report of the incident was made by me but I have no idea if it was ever distributed. No one in the Fire or Civil Aviation business that I have spoken to since has heard of it. Previously such reports would be circulated world wide to all agencies with an interest in air safety, but by now things were different in Zambia.
My concern then was, as it still is today…. what might have happened if that suitcase had been loaded unnoticed into the baggage hold of the 747 aircraft the young man was travelling in and it had slowly smouldered its way out into open air five miles up on the way to London?
All this talk of aircraft accidents may make people think that flying is highly dangerous. It actually is not so. Someone once worked out that you stand more chance of being struck by lightning than of being killed in an air crash. This is even further reduced when speaking of commercial air transport which is where most of us travel.
A comforting (?) figure in support of that is taken from a statistic in the USA where any thing happening is numerically more numerous than elsewhere because everything there is more numerous.
In 1964, more people died in road traffic accidents by 10am on January the first that year than died in scheduled air transport flights for the rest of that year.
Civil Aviation throughout the world takes safety very seriously, which explains why people who fly and maintain aircraft have to be much more highly qualified (and need to undergo continuous training to keep their licences) than do people in any other form of transport.
Whereas sovereign governments set the standards for the various organisations, services and public facilities they provide, such as police, army, health, education etc, those for Civil Aviation are set by an international body, The International Civil Aviation Organisation, with its headquarters in Montreal. This is the reason that the Department of Civil Aviation was predominantly European for some while after the police, army, health, education and others were Zambianised.
For example, the Lusaka City Fire Brigade was Zambianised fairly early with its first Chief officer after independence being Adam Zyambo, who had at one time been one of my firemen at the Lusaka City Airport.
Foreign airline operators will not route their services through any country where the host country cannot conform in all respects to the safety levels set by ICAO for the provision of e.g. air traffic control services, communications, meteorology, operations, which includes the examining of pilots for licence qualifications, aerodrome operation, which includes the provision, design and facilitation of licensed aerodromes, engineering, which includes the examination and licensing of aircraft engineers, accident investigation, and, of course, the provision of rescue/fire services.
As a landlocked country, Zambia relies on air traffic for communication and so the pressure was on to expedite the training program of Zambianisation.
This was very much tied in with the first five year development plan which had been in my mind for some while. During my ten years as Senior Fire officer at the City Airport, I made mental observations of changes that I would like to make if the opportunity ever arose, i.e. when they made me king. This came about in June 1964, following Independence when I was appointed Chief Fire Officer. Before that though, there were things still going on.
From its early days, the Airport Fire Service was seen as a bit of an expensive white elephant by those holding the purse strings. We had to be there in order for the airport to operate, but to the powers that be we hardly ever seemed to do anything, yet another case of people not knowing what we did, until we stopped doing it. The order of the day seemed to be for the necessary appliances to be purchased and a qualified person or two put in charge and that was about it. The ‘Fire Station’ would be a small corner of an existing aircraft hangar or some other structure that did not have to be paid for. Uniforms were almost invariably a boiler suit and a beret, which had to serve as protective clothing also. Training was entirely based on the knowledge and experience of the Fire Officer on duty, and his ability to pass this on to others. In other words, there was a mountain to climb.
During the ten year Federal period, there were some improvements. New, purpose built appliances were a great step forward, and the standard of uniform improved. However, there was still no protective clothing and the opinion seemed to be that as there were so few aircraft accidents the cost of its issue was not warranted. The fire service was not held in high regard in some quarters. Down in South Africa, the Jo’burg airport authorities actually deployed the duty fire crew as baggage handlers. Our chief officer down in Salisbury, a South African himself, fortunately resisted doing this in the Federation although it had been suggested.
One of the extra jobs that did come our way was the provision of emergency lighting for night flying. At Lusaka there was a rather elderly electric flarepath that was subject to failure when it rained, or when the sometimes erratic mains electricity supply failed. To provide against the latter we had a diesel driven generator in a small power house next to the fire station. To be on the safe side, a bit like wearing a belt and braces to keep your trousers up, we would start this up before any night flying took place, and position a fireman at the control panel to switch over to the standby power instantly if the mains power failed. If there were electrical storms about, meaning very probable mains failure, we would go over to our standby power straight away without waiting for the town supply to fail.
This still left us with the possible problem of lamp or cable failure if rain water got into the system. On the same principle as the belt and braces philosophy, we went a little further and, metaphorically speaking, would wear our elastic topped trousers as well by laying out a ‘Gooseneck’ flarepath. This consisted of some 30 flare pots laid each side of the runway. Each of these looked a bit like a rather squat, wide watering can with a lid. Emerging from the spout was a length of thick, braided cotton wick with the other end coiled around in about two gallons of paraffin in the container.
This was no quick fix as the trailer carrying the flares had to be hitched to a Landrover which then drove down one side of the runway, dropping off a flare pot at intervals, then returning to base for extra flare pots until the full flarepath was laid.
A second vehicle, usually the rescue tender, which was in radio contact with the airport control tower, would drive down the line of pots with a fireman hanging out one side holding a flaming torch to ignite the pots as we drove past.
As a safeguard backup it worked well enough and from the pilots point of view it was a godsend. Imagine coming in to land on a wet and windy night, and just as you are approaching the runway all the lights go out! All your visual reference point to orientate your self in space are gone, and since the power failure also affects your radio link with the airport control tower, you can’t even ask the questions you suddenly need answers to.
This was obviously expensive in paraffin consumption as apart from the quantity we burnt off, we found that each time it was laid out, some of the people living in Kalinglinga, the illegal compound at the far end of the airport, would climb through the ‘security’ fence with assorted containers and drain off what they could to take home. A secondary problem was the occasional spate of small fires as the aircraft slipstream would often blow the flare pots over resulting in several large puddles of burning fuel. Our efforts to extinguish those at the far end of the field drew ribald comments from the observers hiding in the long grass as we evidently hindered their efforts to pilfer the fuel. A reminder of our Livingstone flarepath days and a touch of the ‘I’ve been here before’ feeling was inevitable.
I wonder what the Health and Safety people would make of this today when it is some sort of a hanging offence to light a cigarette within half a mile of an aircraft.
Training still worked on an ad hoc basis and left a lot to be desired. Due to the relatively low level of basic knowledge held by our recruits, there were obvious difficulties in teaching the elementary subjects that firemen the world over are expected to learn. Physics, hydraulics and chemistry etc would have to go on the back burner and we would concentrate on such practical things as getting them to start and operate a pump at the right pressure, get a hose line run out and correctly applied to whatever was burning, and leave the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of it happening for another time. Demonstrations of practical things worked much better than a classroom lecture in those days.
To illustrate, when an aircraft has an accident during take off or landing, either on or near to the airport, the airport fireman is likely to be first on scene. Sometimes an aircraft in these situations will remain relatively intact and the fireman could be faced with a badly damaged aircraft that is upside down or on its side, with engines still running and the crew incapacitated. Part of his training, therefore, is to be familiar with the necessary switches, knobs, levers etc that shut down engines, fuel and oxygen lines etc. on every aircraft using his airport, and to be able to do this in the dark and in unusual conditions. This familiarisation is done with the co-operation of the airlines and under the supervision of their aircrew or ground engineers. Just giving the firemen the relevant technical engineering manuals to sit and read would not work.
An example of such a lesson arose when the RAF were based at Lusaka for a period following UDI. We had a number of Javelin fighter planes and some Canberra bombers staying with us, all a bit new to us civilians. As with all military fighter aircraft, these were fitted with ejector seats, military pilots being more valuable than the planes.
This device is triggered by the pilot when he has to get out in a hurry whilst the aircraft is airborne. When used, there is an explosive shell under the seat which blasts the pilot, still strapped in his seat, and complete with parachute, out of the aircraft. To ensure he is blown well clear of his aircraft, which could be travelling very fast, the explosive charge is, of necessity, a very powerful one.
In the event of one of these aircraft coming to rest upside down you will appreciate the consequences of the thing going off with the pilots head about two feet off the ground.
Not all triggering devices were the same, but in all of them provision is made to disarm them by inserting a metal bolt, known as a safety pin, somewhere in the firing mechanism to render it inoperable. Details of where to look for this and where to put it are conveniently displayed on a small notice somewhere inside the cockpit.
One day, we were all gathered round a Javelin whilst an RAF sergeant was instructing our lot on this procedure and doing so in the typically robust manner of sergeants the world over. For the benefit of sensitive GNR readers, and firemen everywhere I will paraphrase his brief, succinct and probably accurate description of what happens if you get it wrong.
“If you fumble this bit (holding up the pin) there will be a very loud bang and any rescuers still left in the vicinity will become rescuees. The pilot will suddenly compress to a height of about ten inches and become quite dead.”
Fortunately we never needed to try this out. The only Javelin that crashed was at Ndola and that one landed the right way up with no injuries. It finished up as a ‘play’ item in a children’s playground.
The problem we found with these fighter planes was that they acted a bit like large blow lamps. They had a long jet of flame from their exhausts when they started up which set alight anything below such as grass and tarmac. We didn’t run to concrete at Lusaka.
Detailed plans to formalise training were in preparation in my head as soon as it became clear that the Federation was not going to continue, together with a few other matters I had been stewing over for a while. But before that the existing world we lived in had to be accommodated.
Apart from such incidents as have been touched on, work for the fire services everywhere in Northern Rhodesia increased during the ten year Federal period. The local municipal brigades were growing from strength to strength but they rarely had more than one or two appliances in each municipality. Throughout this time there were numerous anti Federal government attacks and in the nature of things at that time, fire was the chosen weapon. Later on, when independence had been achieved, and one would have thought peace would follow, there were still outbreaks of violence from disaffected groups or persons. At the Luangwa Bus disaster referred to earlier, for example, we found a modern machine gun of foreign make in the remains of the petrol tanker dashboard. Clearly, not every one out there loved us.
These incidents also often involved fire, but now more sophisticated weapons were seen too. A letter bomb sent to the Chinese Embassy in Lusaka, explosives set off in the military barracks in Lusaka, a parcel bomb that went off in the recipients car outside the post office in Lusaka, a plastic explosive bomb attached to petrol drums at Lusaka city airport. Electricity pylons damaged etc and similar attacks around the rest of the country.
During the Federal time there were frequent ominous sounding radio broadcasts declaring a ‘State of emergency’. Post Federation we had the Lenshina uprisings, with massive loss of life and before that, the Belgian Congo exodus of people fleeing, in whatever clothes they stood up in, across the border into Zambia and UDI on top of it all. Looking back, we seemed to have spent the whole time living from crisis to crisis. I am glad I was not a politician but we were kept busy enough doing our own thing. I tried not to take my work home and we did our best to avoid disturbing the children’s lives.
By now I had another son and a daughter, both born in the Lusaka hospital. All three attended the schools in the City for their entire education, an option we chose, against the availability of sending them to boarding schools in England. Their principal sport, like mine, was swimming, and as I took them to the pool and stayed to bring them home I found myself becoming involved, and soon became an instructor and then a certificated Amateur Swimming Union timekeeper. Eventually I was elected club coach and stayed until I finally left Zambia.
As it was my belief that I would live there forever, I became involved in other community matters. I was for a while the signals instructor with our local Sea Cadets, teaching Morse, semaphore and flag signals, at the behest of a friend, Frank Hartley, who was the station master in Lusaka and very much involved with the running of the cadets. I was a member of the Red Cross and a member of several Fire Safety bodies. I became chairman of the Parents and Teacher association at the Kabulonga Boys School.
I mention these involvements only to illustrate that I was putting roots down, it being my opinion, at the time, that I belonged here. I really felt that I did.
So, back to the old City Airport for the moment to wind up the end of the Federal time and move on.
This being the main port of entry for the country, there were many famous people coming through, although I am a bit pushed now to remember them. One that stands out for me was a visit made by Louis Armstrong, or ‘Satchmo’, the jazz trumpeter. Mr Macleod, a British Government cabinet minister, who was not a popular man with the locals and almost had his car overturned during his visit. Another British minister was John Stonehouse, the MP who later faked his own death by leaving his clothes on a beach and disappearing. He was being expelled from Northern Rhodesia at the time. And when Jack Catchpole passed through on his way down to Salisbury with his assistant from Karoi who came up to meet him, they stayed in my office chatting for the hour or so during a wait in Lusaka pending the arrival of their Salisbury flight. The old airport did not have a private lounge for passengers who did not wish to be contacted by others and on that trip they were both going down to finalise the sad story of Mrs Lilian Burton. In such cases the most convenient place to wait, ensuring privacy and immediate access to flight side, was my office in the Fire Station.
It was also the practice in those days for sick or injured people in the North to be transferred by air down south for any specialist treatment if such treatment was not available in the north, and so we would occasionally have patients in transit waiting for their aircraft to arrive. Sometimes these would remain in the ambulance in the cool of the Fire station or occasionally in one of the beds in the fire station sick room. The attendant nurse would often wait in my office and we came to meet a lot of the ‘sunshine girls’ as they were called. I would have a small flag positioned in front of the fire station on these occasions to let people working about the place know, and to moderate their language, as some of the ground staff could express themselves quite colourfully. I must say here that I never heard our African staff swear, or if they did in their own language, I never understood them.
The Fire Service at each of the three main airports in the north between them serviced all licensed government airfields in their sector of the country. In a sparsely populated country as big as Zambia these were spread far and wide. There were 137 airfields when I left including mission stations and some well to do farmers. This involved equipping, maintaining and training a fire service unit at 19 airfields where we maintained a crash tender, an ambulance and crew, and equipping, maintaining and servicing the fire fighting equipment, normally fire extinguishers, at the other unmanned ones. These had to be visited on a regular basis and during the Federal era these were done by Landrover, and obviously time consuming. When Sam Leversage, the former deputy of Livingstone municipal fire service came to join us up at Lusaka, he enjoyed these outings more than most. He was a true Afrikaner and could live off the land. When he packed the vehicle for a trip, he would load on the necessary bits for the job in hand, and then load his fishing tackle, a rifle, a mincing machine, a bag of potatoes, some onions and his spice box and would be gone for several days, returning with boerevors, biltong and smoked fish.
He once or twice came with me to Kariba in those early days when it took all day to get there and a day to get back. By then a road of sorts had been cut through to allow the huge cement container lorries to transport their load to the construction site on the north side of the gorge. These purpose built lorries left Chilanga cement works near Lusaka at regular intervals throughout the day and night for months on end. The dust never fully settled between vehicles and that road was a nightmare scenario with everything within view on either side of the road, trees, grass, sky, the same pale colour as the road for mile after mile, and not a vestige of green to be seen. This road, as well as the construction site, were not accessible to the public. The Italian main contractors had a small village on the south side by now, but I towed my caravan so that we had a comfortable night’s sleep and a cold Castle or two from the fridge with our supper. It was here that Sam showed me the delights of cooking over an open fire using a plough disc. Bread dipped into the little puddle of gravy that collects at the middle of the disc after cooking a steak is unbeatable.
We were obliged to sign an indemnity form whenever we visited Kariba in case of an accident. These were rather frequent and in the beginning Benny would often fly an injured person into Lusaka for us to load into an ambulance en route to hospital. Eventually, a modern hospital was built on site and in time a full blown town developed there. In the beginning, there was a girder bridge crossing the gorge, about where the dam wall now stands, very close to the top of the coffer dams which were being put in to begin the actual base of the dam wall. The mixing of the concrete was all done on the northern side and it was then carried out to the place it was to be used in the wall, and deposited with precision from a large steel bucket carried across the gorge on a ‘Blondin’ cable. Although up close this bucket was enormous, from down on the ground it looked tiny and the minute looking amounts of concrete dropped on each trip reminded me of the little hornet making a nest back on the fireboat.
At one stage I was visiting Kariba on a monthly basis and it was a never ending source of fascination, especially when Operation Noah was under way to move the animals off the ever shrinking islands as the water level behind the dam wall rose. The wildlife patterns also changed. Elephant began to migrate downriver from the valley as it filled and many must have thought they had stumbled upon Shangri La when they found the Chirundu Sugar Estates further down the valley. Big cats began to be seen in places they did not used to be. On one occasion a couple of young men who were apparently sleeping in their car with the doors open because of the heat, somewhere in the Chirundu escarpment area, had an unfortunate incident when one awoke to hear his friend calling for his help. A lion passing by had grabbed one by the leg and was dragging him off. This was said to be a most unusual event in that area which was normally leopard country.
Some while after the dam filled, there were two quite strong earth tremors felt in Lusaka which ‘experts’ attributed to the floor of the dam settling. We had two cats a dog and a bird in a cage at the time and all of them gave a clear advance warning that something was coming, long before we heard the tremors approaching. It sounded, and felt, a bit like standing above an underground railway just as a train is approaching and rushing under your feet before disappearing down the tunnel again.
After independence, the Department acquired three of its own aircraft, all twin engined and capable of carrying passengers. These were essential for the work of the department, particularly the operations and aerodromes branches, all of whose staff were qualified commercial pilots. (Under the Federation, those functions were based down in Salisbury where the departmental aircraft, a De Havilland Beaver, also lived and so we could not use it). This now meant that we could now carry out our part of the airfield inspections by air and so our outstation visits were speeded up.
Towards the end of the Federal era, we were subjected to a bit of sabotage rather close to home. A complete new annual issue of the ‘chocolate’ uniforms was destroyed by battery acid, and, perhaps more worrying in its implications, the wheel nuts down one side of a crash tender were loosened. The wheels coming off several tons of fast moving machinery don’t bear thinking about. The local CID investigated, without result. The advice from Salisbury was to fire the lot and start from scratch, which brought the words baby and bath water to mind.
There were no further incidents but we were left with the uncomfortable feeling that we had someone within who harboured ill will to a dangerous degree and we had to increase our own safety checks.
With Independence now imminent, we again had a major exodus of European staff as many did not wish to work under a ‘black’ government. For myself, I now regarded the country, whoever ruled it, as my home. For a period then, we ran on a much reduced staff level insofar as Watchkeeping officers were concerned. At Lusaka this meant that the two of us left after the exodus were on continuous duty, since at that time the airport was open around the clock. As civil servants, there was no question of overtime pay in those days. However, to recognise the unusual circumstances, payment was agreed to and in one rather extraordinary week around the time of the Lenshina uprising, I clocked up 100 hours of overtime. This was over and above my normal 45 hour week, and as there are only 168 hours in a week you can see we were a bit squeezed. My wife used to bring meals up to the airport for us.
After independence, I was promoted to Chief Fire Officer and in consequence moved away from the airport to drive a desk in an office at the department’s headquarters up on the Ridgeway, the main thoroughfare where all the government ministries were housed. This was a mixed blessing as, although I had now been made ‘king’ and could set about righting some of the wrongs I had been identifying, it meant I was no longer part of the day to day operations that I had enjoyed for some 16 or more years. In any job, the further up the ladder you climb, the further away you seem to get from the reasons you had for joining in the first place.
The new conditions of service that we worked under meant that we no longer went overseas for our long leave every three years. Sir Roy Welensky, the new Prime Minister declared that when ‘his’ civil servants spoke of going home, they should mean their house, not a foreign country. We therefore took shorter leave periods: six months is a long time to spend contemplating your navel, and since unspent leave could now be accrued, we put the unspent days in the ‘bank’, which turned out to be the best decision I ever made, apart from getting married. (Another change was the compulsory loss of permanent status. We were no longer pensionable civil servants and now worked ‘contracts’ on what were called BACS, or ‘British aided conditions of service,’ with extra allowances paid by the UK Government. We became in effect, pensioners of both the Federal and Zambia governments.)
One of our short leaves was a two month holiday down in South Africa on the wild coast in a small place called Umzumbi. We rented a beach house and learned the illicit art of cray fishing which we ate nearly every day. That holiday was marred by a series of deadly shark attacks along that stretch of coast, one of which was on a 14 year old girl down on holiday from Bulawayo, who lost an arm to a shark whilst still only waist deep in the sea at Karridene Beach, next to our beach. We have since been struck by the fact that along that coast is a Margate, Ramsgate and St Margaret’s Bay, all of which are along the coast from where we now live. The nearest town was Port Shepstone and to get there we had to drive along the coast road and then cross over the river on a road/rail bridge that also carried a water main and communications. This was only the width of a vehicle and you had to drive along over the railway lines, a bit scary in the dark, so we stopped before crossing and put an ear on the track to listen out for any trains approaching. If it was all quiet we would set off with everyone dead quiet and looking out for any oncoming headlights. During the day, there was a crossing guard who would control car traffic and warn of trains coming.
One day a Frigate of the South African Navy arrived and dropped a couple of depth charges to scare sharks away. I would have thought that this would have stunned a few hundred tons of fish which would bring all the sharks in the Indian Ocean in for dinner. It certainly did not seem to affect the shark attacks which carried on for several months.
Another short holiday we thoroughly enjoyed was on Kalala Island in the Kafue National Park. I had heard of this little bit of paradise from Norman Carr the senior game ranger there at the time. He had called at my office to discuss the fire fighting arrangements he would need for the newly opened airfield in the game park and described the place in glowing terms. When he retired he went on to open a safari lodge in the newly opened Luangwa Park. From what I hear, he still never wears socks. He was famous for rearing two lion cubs and wrote a book about them.
Another interesting man I met there was Freddie Laker. He had come out to negotiate a bid to operate the fledgling Zambia airways and sat and had a cup of tea in the office with me whilst he waited to see the Director. Unfortunately he did not get it, the Italian Airline, Alitalia won.
A close colleague, Paul Millbank, a Scot I had worked with for some years, and who was staying on, was temporarily in my old seat at the City Airport, but quickly, as staff were recruited, we set out to fulfil the ‘grand design’ that had been in my mind. Paul became my deputy with responsibilities for getting the Training School up and running. Tom Crow, an experienced and seasoned ex RAF man came in as senior officer at the City airport. Eventually, when it had been built Tom went on to the plum job of running the new Fire Station at the International airport.
One of the first steps was to create a Fire service structure, and so a detailed plan was submitted following the lines of the UK but built for Zambian use and convenience. As it was the intention to send our Zambian Cadet trainees to the UK for some of their training, it made sense to use the same ranks, titles, duties and responsibilities etc. A detailed schedule setting out the career structure from basic recruit up to CFO was approved and issued, setting out the precise nature of the work expected of each successive rank, together with the individual duties and responsibilities for each level, and the qualifications needed to progress up through the system.
There was now no doubt in any ones mind about what was expected of them, and also informing them of their career opportunities. The establishment was increased from the existing level of some 200 or so to 350 officers and men so as to recruit and train up the necessary staff for the first five year development plan. As well as the new International airport for Lusaka which was on the drawing boards, other aerodromes were being upgraded and some new airfields were due to be opened in new game parks, such as Mfewe.
This question of manning levels caused a few raised eyebrows and had to be properly accounted for, even strongly argued for. Simply put - and this calculation applies to any job anywhere - if you require a bum on a seat to perform a function around the clock, every day of the year, you allow one and a half bums for each of the three periods of eight hours (to make one whole day). That figure of four and a half persons is then rounded out upwards to the nearest whole figure, in this case a five, and that is the basis for arriving at the required establishment.
At the New Lusaka International Airport, which would be a Category 10 in the international terminology, we needed a minimum of twenty firemen to man the six crash tenders and two ambulances and man the watchroom on each of the three shifts. The total crew manpower then would be five times twenty, or one hundred men.A new uniform was approved, together with the appropriate rank markings for each post. These were all currently available and made to Home Office specification by several specialist clothing companies in the UK. Again, bearing in mind that with our proposed Cadet scheme we would be working with the UK fire services, this was in our interest and to our advantage. Additionally, the local authority brigades in Zambia had adopted this form of dress and rank markings already, so we were coming into line with them.
Under the Federation we had the titles ‘Fire Officer’ and ‘Senior Fire Officer’. This misuse of an adjective as a noun was confusing. Imagine identifying a Police Officer or an Army Officer in that way. No one would phone up a Police Station to ask for ether a Police Officer or a Senior Police officer if he wanted to speak to the Inspector, the Chief Inspector or the Superintendent.
I designed a Brigade cap badge*, which was approved and protected through the Zambia Colours Control Board procedure, depicting a fish eagle against a blue sky showing the bird stalled at that point in its flight just before it snatches its prey. (I had drawn a sketch of one alighting on a tree branch when I was on the river and rather fancied this image as part of my working life) This was then put into the centre of the traditional Fire Service eight pointed star and worn on the cap or beret of every man in the service. One of these was presented to President Kaunda during a visit he made to our training school, when he became the very first ‘Honorary Buff’ member.
This was also produced as a transfer and issued to any manufacturer building appliances and ambulances for us to affix to the vehicle above the legend “Department of Civil Aviation. Rescue Fire Service.” This change of name from ‘Fire and Rescue’ was in recognition that the emphasis in our service was rescue.
Protective clothing was another matter to be urgently dealt with. In our own service we had none. In the UK at this time, the fireman’s uniform/protective clothing was still the old traditional ‘Lancers’ tunic, a heavy navy blue serge tunic, buttoned down the front with two rows of chromed buttons, worn with trousers of the same colour and material, worn with a belt and axe. The protective element - when responding to a fire call - consisted of a pair of black waterproof leggings pulled up over a pair of knee length rubber boots. The only difference between 1964 and 1942, when I first joined, was the helmet. Now it was usually of black leather or black plastic. During the war, like every other outfit that worked during air raids, we were all wearing the tin hat, or more correctly, steel helmet, with the NFS (National Fire Service) transfer badge stuck on the front.
The tin hat had good and bad points about it. It was cheap and had been made in the millions for all the armed forces. Obviously it protected your head when stuff fell on it but most of us found that after you had been standing close to an intense fire for any length of time with your head bowed down to protect your face from the heat, the helmet heated up and when you eventually moved back out of range and went to take your helmet off to cool down, the thing would be almost glowing and you could burn your fingers on the rim, (Gloves were considered to be a bit sissy back then) similarly, with the double row of large shiny buttons. Not only could they almost glow in the dark, they made life very difficult when crawling through confined spaces.
I had already researched the protective clothing industry world wide during the early sixties, and was primed and ready with information ‘come the day’. Wherever possible, we obtained and tested out samples of such fabrics to destruction at our training school. It had always been a concern of mine that we should be expected to somehow get close to an intense petrol fire with only a boiler suit to protect us. The heat generated at such a fire could blister the paintwork on the cab of a crash tender that was using its powerful, far reaching roof monitor to get foam on to the fire, so you can imagine what it could do to a fireman trying to get close with a hand held hose. As far as I was concerned, ‘entry suits’ were not practicable in crash fire fighting, whereas ‘approach suits’ were. These offered sufficient protection to enable men to get close enough to do useful fire fighting work or effect a rescue without putting themselves at unnecessary risk.For this we chose an American suit with a separate aluminised hood with a visor, and aluminised heavy duty gloves. These could give protection to the face if the visor had been removed by just holding the hands in front of the face. The suits comprised three layers. A tough outer canvas water resistant layer with a Neoprene stitched in completely waterproof lining throughout, and an inner lining of woollen material to absorb perspiration and insulate the wearer. Jackets had a broad reflective stripe around them and on the back of the jackets the letters DCA were writ large in reflective tape as well. No one was going to miss us in the dark. The fire resistant hoods were fitted with a gold (leaf) visor that cut the radiated heat by some 85%.
We used a lightweight American style helmet, and a standard manufacture of knee length fire boots with steel inner soles and toecaps to protect the feet from sharp or heavy things.Also on the subject of personal safety, we introduced the latest type of compressed air breathing apparatus. I believe we were the first Airport Fire Service in Africa to use such equipment.
Design specifications were drawn up which included some of the desired features that our past experiences had brought to light. Tenders were invited on an International basis for the construction and delivery of three of the major tenders and twelve of the other as a first step, with a further thirty of the smaller units to follow.
After full consideration of the various competing bids received, orders were placed with two UK manufacturers. This was not done on any national favouritism basis but because they were excellent machines closely following the specific design features requested. They were also manufacturers of vehicles commonly used throughout Zambia which meant a good spares back up, plus the local PWD workshops staff were all familiar with their maintenance. As it happened, a couple of years after the opening of the Lusaka Airport, we arranged for the provision of our own workshops at the Fire station under the supervision of a Mechanical superintendent as we needed the availability of rapid response day or night in the case of mechanical failure.Crucially, the major appliances now had the ability to engage the fire pump whilst still driving. Not only did this now give us the great advantage of being able to fight a fire whilst on the move, but for the first time anywhere enabled us to lay a foam blanket on the runway, if required, to assist an aircraft to land with its undercarriage jammed in the up position. Some other airports around the world did provide for this but it usually required the attachment of a trailer of some sort to be towed out and this was not the speediest of operations. With our new machines at Lusaka, each one could lay a 24 foot wide by 850 foot long foam blanket in two minutes, just by operating the appropriate lever in the driving cab.
Also in the watch room was the very latest in modern fire alarm systems. The whole of the new terminal buildings had alarm boxes placed strategically throughout as well as many automatic detectors in places of high risk which would operate in the event of smoke or high temperatures. These all fed back to the fire station with a large indicator panel to identify the location of the alarm.The fire station itself, believed to be the first purpose built one in Africa, certainly on this scale, has five bays, each being three vehicle spaces deep. Provision was made for the usual offices, stores, workshops and domestic needs plus a resting room with beds for the night crew to rest when there was no further work or training for them, a locker room for their clothing and a shower room. The officers had similar provision in the admin side of the station. Many a time in the past I, and the others, have had to go home dirty, reeking of smoke and sometimes in stained clothing. Unless one went into the public toilets in the terminal buildings, there were no facilities to clean up. If the firemen needed to go to the toilet, they would have to go home!
There was also a system built in whereby each vehicle in its designated parking space had a low voltage electrical lead plugged in to provide power to heat the engine oil, and therefore the engine, so that they were always at operating temperature. This provided for instant engine starting, whatever the outside temperature, and allowed for maximum speed immediately you drove out. To ensure that we never suffered from flat batteries, this same connection provided a trickle charge to the vehicle batteries and to a bank of hand lamps in a special compartment. Whenever the vehicle drove off, the plug and socket disconnected with the lead automatically recoiling into its reel so as to keep the floor clear. The station had the conventional fire station quick opening, spring loaded folding leaf doors that opened by pulling a rope, allowing for a rapid turn out when needed.We also now sported a drill tower. This provided the usual dual function of those in a town fire station, provision for training in ladder work and ladder rescues* and for hanging up hose to dry. These were in 100 foot lengths and needed to be hung up after use to drain and dry, so part of the tower formed a vertical tunnel with pulleys to hoist them up. At the top of the tower was a lookout room, manned by a spotter to keep the airport and any aircraft moving under constant surveillance. This was in contact with the watchroom by intercom and radio, and buttons for the station fire bells and crash klaxon were duplicated up there. Our past experience told us that it was this close visual observation by one of our own that usually spotted trouble before anyone else.
A short distance back from the fire station was the fire service store where we held stocks of everything that we were likely to use, some of it in considerable quantity due to the extended delivery routes and shipping delays.
Back out to the vehicles again, included in all of the new appliances would be a system to discharge a dry chemical powder extinguishing agent which is necessary to deal with a fire that is a risk peculiar to aircraft. Should a tyre blow out on landing, the metal part of the landing gear will scrape along the runway until it comes to rest. The heat generated through friction caused by this sliding contact is sufficient in some cases to ignite the heavy metal undercarriage casting which is customarily made of a magnesium alloy for lightness combined with strength. Without getting too technical, magnesium at or above its ignition temperature has the unfortunate ability to convert water, H2O, (or foam, which is H2O with bubbles) into its two separate elements of hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen will produce the biggest bang you ever saw, (just think THE bomb), and oxygen is vital to support its combustion. Dry powder applied in very finely divided form will smother such a fire without exploding and so allow it to cool down to below its ignition temperature and become safe again.
One of the new appliances at Lusaka is a dry powder tender which carries a ton and a half of powder and can discharge it either from two hand lines at rate of 56 lbs per second or from its roof mounted monitor (just like my fire boat again) at over a ton a minute, again another first for Zambia.
The principle of foaming runways, as described above, is to provide (a) a lubricated surface to reduce friction and the build up of heat in exposed metal parts and (b) to provide a coating of foam all over and around the aircraft when it finally comes to rest so that there will be some measure of protection for the occupants pending our arrival with the cavalry.
One of the other specialist appliances at Lusaka was a CO2 tender. This carries a large quantity of compressed fire extinguishing gas which is predominantly used for aircraft engine fires. These are probably the commonest fires on aircraft and occur on start up. You may have noticed a small trolley with two gas cylinders and a long extension applicator somewhere in the vicinity of the front of the plane whenever you go on board an aircraft. That is there just in case. Our new machine is a big brother to the trolley and carries a series of applicators and lances to gain access to an engine cowling. These are designed with a small spring loaded trap door to allow a fire extinguisher nozzle to be pushed through. The big advantage of this gas is that it can extinguish an engine fire without collateral damage. If you had to start pumping foam or dry powder into an engine, it would mean an engine change with colossal delays and cost to the airline. Another first for Zambia, although I know they have been using this appliance at Heathrow Airport for some years. Nothing ever stays still though and with the recent introduction of titanium in the construction of impellor blades in modern jet engines comes a material that is even more difficult than magnesium when it get hot enough to get going.Another specialist appliance, produced to our specification, was the Emergency Tender, and it is intended to replicate this at Livingstone and Ndola. This vehicle is built on the same Bedford 4 x 4 chassis as the standard medium Crash Tenders and is the same as those used by the army and the police, so are common to PWD workshops.
This is intended to provide the fast response that we previously aimed for with the Willys Jeep and then the Landrovers. This is now a much more powerful machine and carries an enormous range of equipment for gaining forcible entry. We still carry the old style 12 inch circular metal cutting saw but now powered by a much more powerful built in alternator. This can also power a set of extendable flood lights and searchlights. Now too we carry the very latest in hydraulic equipment, the ‘jaws of life’ as the Americans call them, which can force open most things we are likely to come across. We also have inflatable air bags that can, for example, be pushed under an overturned vehicle and inflated to raise it allowing access. Plus a full range of the very latest hydraulic, pneumatic, electrical or plain old fashioned hand operated gear to achieve the purpose of rescue. This vehicle also has a front mounted, very powerful winch. Additionally, all vehicles, except the two ambulances which are not Landrovers have a ‘capstan’ on each wheel axle enabling them to extricate themselves from soft ground etc by running a cable from any nearby fixture, tree or vehicle etc and engaging slow gear.
All appliances were equipped with two way radio in touch with our own watchroom and the airport control tower, and the emergency tender also carried walkie talkie radios and amplified loud hailers.
There was one other specialist appliance which I would dearly have loved to have seen through to completion. Two of the new Station officers recently arrived from the UK had had experience in designing and building small hover craft and with their expertise we were nine tenths of the way to completing one of our own, the very first of its kind in Zambia. This was powered by two VW Kombi (air cooled) engines, one on either side for the lift fans, and a Lycoming aircraft engine for propulsion. My eldest son, who was studying aeronautical engineering at the nearby ZASTI, (Zambian Air Services Training Institute), an affiliate to the University, was one of the students providing the necessary aircraft engineering input.
ZASTI also had a pilot training scheme running, using 5 Cessna single engined aircraft. There were initial difficulties here leading to some of our own in-house comedians referring to it as a private crash training programme. It also brought to light the sad fact that many Africans suffer the disabling condition of Sickle cell Anaemia. Apart from any other debilitating symptoms, the size of the sickle shaped platelets in the blood, as distinct from the round ones in non sufferers, causes a reduction in the amount of oxygen that each cell can carry in the blood stream. In normal life, this may not be as noticeable but when flying at altitudes where the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is already greatly reduced; this further reduction can cause anoxia, or oxygen starvation, causing syncope, or fainting away. Flying a light aircraft at ten thousand feet when you suffer an attack of the vapours is not good news.The last in this line up of our vehicles is the smallest, but one of the most important since this is what it is all about. Our ambulances in use up until now were built on a standard 109 inch wheel base Landrover. Functional but basic is how I would describe them. I had been in touch with various specialist ambulance builders and eventually we opted for the Lomas ambulance*, built on a Bedford chassis. Two were delivered for Lusaka, and were to be prototypes for the fleet. With the proposed expansion under the National Development plan for the second five years it was anticipated that we would require several more of these. As can be seen from the photograph, one modification to meet our specification was to enable four stretchers to be carried. I had by then attended more road traffic accidents than I care to remember, but I can still see with clarity the shortcomings of the ambulances available to the Health Service. These were, in the main, a conversion of the VW Kombi, carrying one stretcher, hardly any equipment, and usually with no trained attendant. It was not uncommon in some places to have the ambulance arrive with just the driver. Not long after independence a gift of 50 Kombi ambulances which were better equipped was made to Zambia by Germany, but I think these all went to rural areas.
I remember one enthusiastic ambulance salesman extolling the virtues of his product, built on the new six wheel drive Range Rover, saying that with their special suspension you could drive over a six inch high kerbstone at sixty miles an hour without undue disturbance in the back. I wonder what a patient lying back there with an assortment of painful fractures would make of that sort of driving. Our drivers were all taught that when going to an incident you drove on ‘blues and twos’ i.e. using the flashing roof lights and the two tone klaxon, as fast as was consistent with safety and within the law. When coming back with the ambulance, you drove at a moderate speed consistent with the best care for the patient/s in the back. This could sometimes mean quite slowly. The sort of driving one occasionally sees on a television drama programme should stay where it is: in the TV programme. There are really only a few genuine occasions warranting the high speed dash on the way back in the real ambulance world. In some cases there will still be a long wait at the hospital.
The correct handling of the injured was obviously important and we took an interest in new developments. For example, we introduced the plastic inflatable pressure splint into use some while before they became more universally used. We were also the first service to introduce Entonox into use. This is a 50/50 blend of nitrous oxide (known to the world of midwifery and dentistry as laughing gas) and oxygen, which is self administered by the patient. This was to be available on each of the emergency tenders and each ambulance.
Any fireman who has been involved in releasing some poor soul from a heap of tangled wreckage has no doubt dreamed of the day when someone would invent a magic knock out drop to ease the suffering of the victim while they worked on him. Nowadays, I believe it is in common usage but we were using it back in the mid 1960’s. The correct use of this equipment was taught to our staff by the consultant head of anaesthesia at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, who also advised us on the acceptable methods of resuscitation.
When liaising with the hospital in the early stages of planning the treatment of any air crash casualties, it was pointed out by them that if we were to suddenly send them, for example, 50 injured people, we would merely be transferring the panic from the runway to the hospital. In the end we had a small ten bedded ‘hospital’ wing built on to the side of the fire station, complete with bath/toilet facilities and a medical treatment room. In effect a small operating theatre. This would act as a temporary treatment and holding centre for casualties who would be prioritised and selected by the attending medical team that would respond from Lusaka Hospital under the general crash orders. These orders were issued to all the emergency services that would be involved following a major incident. If required the entire floor space of the fire station would provide shelter for stretchers as it was envisaged that in the case of a large number of casualties, it may be necessary to fly some of the less serious ones out to other centres if our own hospital was inundated and we would need somewhere to look after them.
We had made provision in the airport staff establishment for a nursing sister to be on duty in the terminal building sick bay, for the convenience of passengers. Under the crash orders, she would report to the fire station to assist and advise in the medical facility there pending the arrival of the hospital team.
And so to the matter of training and a continuance of this little bit of ‘Blowing our own Trumpet’. And why not I say. Contrary to the opinions I have heard, mainly from people living in England and who have never left it, that the white people who lived and worked in Africa lived off the backs of the poor natives and did no good at all out there, I know to the contrary and feel obliged to set the record straight. A lot of good things were done and are still being done, and if the people who know this do not say so, no one else will ever know. People who have this skewed view of events remind me of the words of the poet who said, ‘what can they of England know, who only England know’. In other words, get out a bit more and see for yourself before making judgments.
I had never been all that comfortable with the sort of training that we were giving the crews and seized the opportunity to deal with this as quickly as we could. In parallel with the new career structure, Paul produced training programs for the induction of new recruits and for obtaining the qualifications for progression through the ranks of the structure. We opened the very first residential fire training school in Africa using the old WENELA accommodation block at the city airport, plus a couple of new prefabs. We engaged a cook/manageress and the necessary domestic staff and opened for business with the first six week course of recruits. Adverts in the press for recruits led to well over 1000 applications. These had to be interviewed, tested and medically examined, and 22 of the best of these were selected for the first ever course.
Once the recruiting program has finished, every man in the service would attend the same basic course and also a refresher course every 2 years. There were also promotion training courses for each of the four promotion grades as well as specialist courses for advanced first aid and the use of breathing apparatus. President Kaunda came to watch one of the early course demonstrations with some of the new equipment and I have a copy of the Zambia News news reel of the occasion. He seemed to be impressed but when I was explaining to him that one of the advantages of the new major crash tenders was that they could, in emergency, be operated by one man, he said that he did not think that his Minister of Labour (who was industriously trying to employ as many people as possible) would see this economy of manpower in quite the same light.In due course, Paul and his assistant, Ian Shand, another Scot, opened the very first purpose built training school near to the International airport complete with its own fire station, crash tender and ambulance, fire training ground with ‘mock up’ structures to simulate various fire situations, and an array of lecture rooms and equipment demonstration rooms complete with a 16mm sound projector and overhead projectors. On one occasion we were visited by current President of the Institute of Fire Engineers, who was the then Chief Officer of the City of Lincoln Fire Brigade, and who was on a world tour of Fire services on behalf of the Institute. In his opinion, our school was the best he had come across and our equipment and standards were exceptional, and this was internationally.
The work of the school in organising and standardising training was vital to the running of the service which now had 325 officers and men, and was scheduled to expand under the next five year development plan. The Civil Aviation Rescue Fire Service, with its 19 Fire stations, the Training school, 65 specialist appliances and 15 ambulances was already larger than the 14 local authority Fire brigades (which it had been responsible for bringing into being) in Zambia put together.
At the forefront of the training program was our Cadet scheme. For this we carefully selected the six most able men from the existing ranks and sent them, in the beginning, to the Evelyn Hone College of further Education in Lusaka so that they could have a crash course in the basics such as English and maths in order that they could follow the training in advanced subjects that they would have to learn. I had previously had discussions with my opposite number in the UK ministry of Aviation and arrangements were made for our cadets, after undergoing advanced training in our own training school, to go to England where they would spend some time with the Civil Aviation Fire service. After attachment at a major airport they would go on attachment to a local authority brigade to get a taste of their work and would also make occasional visits to the manufacturing firms currently building some of our appliances so that they could participate in their acceptance trials and become familiar with the process. After six months, during which they would be responsible to the Zambian High Commission in London, they would return to our training school for final polishing, before becoming the first Zambian Station Officers in their own service.
All in all then, on the operational, staffing, equipping, building and training levels we had climbed our mountain and meant to keep the momentum going. If at any time in the future people were unfortunate enough to be involved in an aircraft accident in Zambia, they would be afforded a Rescue Fire Service second to none.
It was now, sadly, that things began to go pear shaped. I started to see young men arrive at my office bearing a letter from a relative, usually a senior member of the government, which ‘obliged’ me to give their nephew a position either as a Fire Officer or as a cadet. For many reasons I was unable to ‘oblige’. For a start, I had no idea of their medical condition, not to mention the feelings of our existing men who were hoping to fill any promotion posts themselves. Also the establishment was at full strength with a waiting list of applicants numbering over a thousand. In general, I found some Africans had a rather naïve approach to education and tended to overvalue what they had. Some really seemed believe that a Form II education would qualify them to become a Minister.It seemed that our Department fell into disfavour. We were the only one to still have a large element of European staff and with alarming speed we found that our Director was given very short notice to leave, followed quickly by the deputy Director and one of the senior operations officers, a former training captain with a large international airline. A new Director arrived, and it soon became clear that his brief included the removal of the few remaining European staff as soon as possible. My cadet scheme was taken out of my hands and outsiders were admitted into it. Without having set foot in a fire Station they were sent off for training at the Air safety Centre in Beirut up in the Lebanon. Not surprisingly this was a failure and the seeds of discontent amongst the men who had been bypassed were there. There is an aspect of working with Africans, at that stage of development that was not as widely recognised as it should be. Some thought needs to be given when putting someone in a supervisory position as the giving of orders to another of greater age or seniority in his own tribe can upset ties of culture and kinship, and sometimes create animosity between different tribes. Whilst nepotism was becoming widespread, it was not popular with those who did not have important relatives.
At the training school, matters were taken over by ZASTI who now controlled all aviation training, causing upset and conflict. The catering was taken over leading to the loss of our catering staff and was replaced with plates of deep frozen European style food on trays that had to be micro waved. These were the same as the meals supplied, by the same contractor, to all airlines using the airport and completely not to the liking of our men who had previously enjoyed plentiful traditional food of their choice. Anyone who has grown up with sadza and relish and suddenly finds he has been given a plate of deep frozen fried egg and sausage will understand.
In the light of these changes, particularly the change in attitude at the top, now apparent, that seemed to be aimed at disposing of the old hands; both Paul and Ian resigned and left the country. Their draft manuscript for the Training Manual never saw the light of day as no one at the top, to whom everything now had to be referred, seemed to care anything about it. Changes were also evident at the airport fire station. Two new fire officers arrived from India and were obviously close to the new director who had apparently recruited them. The situation out there went from bad to worse causing Tom Crow, the Divisional Fire officer and several of the expatriate station officers to resign and leave too. Soon most of my officers, friends and colleagues had gone. Out of the 25 expatriate officers that I once had, there were now 3 of us left. The other two were planning to move and one went down to Swaziland where he became a Chief Fire Officer.
Up at head office, the European staff in all branches were falling like autumn leaves and it was made obvious that my absence would be preferred to my presence. As it happened, I had a residence permit, having lived there long enough, and so I was not given the 48 hours notice to leave bit like some of the others. But the pressure was on and I was no longer in control of the fire service. Requests of mine were ignored and instructions countermanded. Staff were appointed without my knowledge and posted to stations without reference to me. The writing was clearly on the wall and I was obviously going to have to go. One day, when things had come to a head, I informed the Director accordingly, and gave him my notice of resignation. He was clearly pleased.
I must say here that, in principle, I have absolutely no quarrel with being Zambianised. For some years I had been working towards that very end and our Cadet scheme would produce the first Zambian CFO within a few short months. The intention was that after the short period at the training school on returning from the UK they would be appointed as station officers for Lusaka, Ndola and Livingstone. In three months time the best would become Divisional officer at Lusaka international and after a period of gaining experience there would move to HQ and ride ‘side saddle’ with myself for three months before being promoted as chief. This would ensure a well briefed handover and the incumbent would be familiar with operational matters at all levels as well as ongoing matters such as contracts with overseas suppliers and correspondence with other organisations etc. which would be difficult to deal with if he was just dropped in at the deep end, as actually happened.I was obviously disappointed at the way this particular matter was dealt with, and a few years later, when the man that took over after I was hurried away, Jerome Katyamba, (the cadet I was in fact recommending) asked me to meet him in London when he was over in England on official business, I gained some idea of the difficulties that he faced and was facing. Although I really did feel sorry for him there was absolutely nothing I could do to help him. I have not maintained contact since, and until I became aware of the existence of GNR in late 2006, I had not looked over my shoulder during the intervening 30 odd years. I guess I did not want to know what they had done to something that I had put so much into.
We bowed to the inevitable and held a family indaba. The options of where to go were limited. Going south was not one of them as both of our sons could have found themselves conscripted into the army and possibly facing some of their former school mates in a bush war. For various reasons we all opted for the UK in the end since it would at least give us jumping off ground for a new life. The eldest son was 20 and well into his studies as an engineer, which he was now going to have to give up, to his deep regret and distress. The second son was 18 and had just left school with 8 ‘O’ levels. There were no ‘A’ levels available in Zambia. Efforts to find a career for him proved fruitless. At one interview I took him to, the message was spelled out plainly. It was not enough for him to be a Zambian (which he was) he would need to be black, a card holding member of the ruling UNIP (government party in power) and, preferably a member of the Bemba tribe. We gave up trying.
Our daughter was 16 with two more school years before her finals. It was an incident at her school which gave me the final push to leaving. For some time, the standards had been falling with the exodus of teachers. Their replacements came from other countries where they did not speak English and the results were noticeable. A similar situation was noted in law enforcement and in health. We were burgled six or seven times in our last few months there, had already had a car stolen from outside the house and had cars broken into in town with property stolen. There was no concern shown, nor apparent attempt to do anything when these were reported.
The matter that I found especially offensive was an instruction for all pupils to attend the arrival of a visiting head of State, where they were to line the airport road somewhere between the airport and State House to offer a spontaneous display of affectionate loyalty when the president and his guest drove past. Flags would be provided. Bring your own refreshments as you might be there for several hours.
When I went to the school to tell the headmistress that my daughter would not be attending, I was warned that dire consequences would follow as she would be sending my name to the Minister of Education. I informed her that I was removing my daughter from school with immediate effect and we would continue her education at home.
The honoured guest on that particular outing was Romano Ceausescu, president/dictator of Romania. He ran an evil oppressive regime in his own country that did not deserve any applause from anyone, and certainly was not going to get it from my daughter. It would not be that long after his visit to Zambia when he and his wife were both dragged out and shot to death in the courtyard of their palace by their own ‘spontaneously adoring’ public.
And so we began the sad business of selling up. With so many expats leaving at the same time, it was a buyers market and we watched our precious belongings go for a song. There was only one way out of the country in those days, by air, and the cost of airfreight was prohibitive; somewhere in the order of ten shillings, or one Kwacha per 1lb weight. The only road route out was over the aptly named Hell Run, some 1250 miles of unbelievably rough road where breakages and theft from lorries was so high that it was impossible to insure goods in transit to the coast. In the end, we had just the one crate a little larger than a tea chest to go by air, but we still had no address for its destination. Eventually, a colleague who was due to leave three months after us saw our plight and offered to let us stay in his house in Herne Bay until he needed it for himself, in return for paying his mortgage in lieu of rent whilst we were there. Gratefully, we accepted, made out the paperwork for our crate to go off now we knew where to send it, and looked up where this place called Herne Bay was on the atlas.
Those were sad days watching our precious belongings go off in the back of a stranger’s truck. Marjorie in particular was distressed to lose a beautiful glass fronted display cupboard that her brother, a cabinet maker down in Rhodesia had made for her for a wedding present, and also a carved camphor wood chest she had before we were married. Marjorie and our elder son had to sell their cars, a pair of Minis, and I had to let my beloved 220D Diesel Mercedes go. I actually got the same sum back as I had paid for it new some six years earlier. Everything we received had to be paid into our bank account. The exporting of currency was illegal and in fact no country outside would accept it as legal tender, as we found out to our dismay when we had finally boarded our aircraft, and were told that we could not even buy a drink with our loose change.
I found that my life insurance policy, and those I had taken out as education policies on each of the children as they were born were not transferable and had to be disposed of as ‘Sold up’ back to the insurance company at a considerable loss. The money from that also had to go straight into the bank account, access to which would be denied to us as soon as we left the country and we were told we could make application after one year for a small part of it and thereafter we could apply annually for a bit more.
A similar arrangement existed down in Southern Rhodesia as we found after we were living in the UK. Marjorie and I had been left a sum under the will of Marjorie’s Aunt who had been killed in her home down there. We could not have the capital for 12 years, but could have the annual interest once a year. With the devaluation of the dollar it soon became more expensive for them to write out and airmail a cheque than the value of the cheque itself. We also found that my Federal pension suffered the same loss of value, until they, as did the Zambian Government, reneged on their pension arrangements and just stopped paying them.
If I remember correctly, one of my last monthly Federal pension cheques, after the effect of devaluation on our non indexed pensions at that time, came to about thirteen shillings. I had planned on framing that one and hanging it in my garden shed alongside my Certificate of Federal Service, signed by Sir Roy Welensky but I learned that if the cheque was not paid into the bank, cancelled, and eventually returned to the payee, they would assume I had shuffled off this mortal coil and stop paying any more cheques. At that point in my life thirteen shillings a month was not to be sneezed at.
And so, we were coming to an end, but not, the end. My family were obviously distressed at being made to leave their homeland, as I was my adopted one. We were now homeless, unemployed, with myself unqualified for any job outside of the Aviation fire service, income-less, uninsured and denied access to our savings in our bank account for a whole year, and we were soon going off into the unknown to build a new future somewhere, somehow, without the faintest idea of where or how to start. The future was not the brightest.
Although this series of reminiscences had started out as a semi autobiographical account of the beginning and the development of Fire Services in Zambia, especially the Aviation Service, I was not able to see it quite through and so I have entitled them ‘A Visiting Fireman’. That was the designation given years ago in London when the law required a visiting fireman to be in attendance backstage in any theatre giving a live performance. He was there to provide advice, assistance, protection and safety for the actors and theatre patrons in case of fire. When the show was over he could go off duty and go home, as I must now do.
However, I did leave my mark there and I am proud to have helped Zambia to develop and make progress. In fact, to blow on the trumpet again, put her right up in the front in our particular line of business.
Late in the afternoon of July 12th 1974, the day after my 47th birthday, we took off for pastures new yet again. After the stressful months just gone, and the daunting prospects ahead, we had asked the travel agent booking our flight out to arrange for a stop over somewhere en route so that we could lie in the sun on a beach and relax for a little. They booked us into a brand new hotel in the ancient seaside resort of Kyrenia in northern Cyprus for a week commencing tomorrow, Saturday the 13th.
And so, with some sadness at the manner in which we were made to go before I could complete the task, we finally flew over the lights of the airport I had helped to design and build for the very last time. In this rather reflective mood I couldn’t help asking myself if things could get any worse, and wouldn’t you just know it, considering the date and the place we were heading for, but yes they most certainly could.
For anyone interested, and isn’t fed up with all this reading, there will be a sequel.
In the meantime, Tsalani bwino, my Zambia …
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