EMERGENCY LANDING IN THE DESERT
SAAF Dakota 6852
From Air Africana Newsletter 87-04
On 8 September 1945, a Dakota of the South African Air Force set course in a southerly direction over the Nubian Desert on its way back to the Union of South Africa. It had 24 returning South African soldiers and a crew of four on board. The aircraft was one of many used on the shuttle to bring back South African soldiers after the war. In the cockpit was Captain Jimmy Groenewald, the pilot, and Lieutenant Luyt, the Second-in-Command.
As the desert landscape passed under the Dakota, the trained eyes of the pilot noticed ominous signs of a fast-approaching desert dust-storm. Despite the fact that the aircraft had already reached an altitude of 10-thousand feet, the clouds of dust soon swept past it. Visibility was zero. The heat was overwhelming with the pilots perspirating as they tried to keep the heavily-loaded Dakota on course against the gusts of wind and clouds of dust.
Then something occurred that baffled Captain Groenewald for a moment. The starboard engine began misfiring and gradually deteriorated until it could no longer drive the propeller effectively. Mercilessly the wind pushed against the Dakota, while the sky became darker with ever denser clouds of dust. Flying back to Wadi Halfa on one engine was out of the question, as they would not have made it.
The captain new that they were somewhere close to the River Nile at that time, approximately halfway between Wadi Halfa and Khartoum. For half an hour he continued flying on one engine, though the Dakota gradually started losing height. The pilot, who flew that route regularly, then remembered that there was an emergency landing strip at Karima, next to a railway line parallel to the Nile.
Thinking about his passengers (who by then were pale with fright) , the captain then decided to look for the emergency landing strip.
He took the Dakota down, lower and lower, struggling on one engine against the dust-storm. At last, after what felt like hours, he could distinguish a faint line - the River Nile. Of the railway line there was nothing to be seen initially. Patiently he flew to and fro over the river, all the time dangerously low. With a sigh of relief he eventually saw the railway line, which was half buried under the sand. He turned the nose of the plane and got the starboard engine going in such a way that the extra bit of power could get the aircraft to a slightly safer height.
What Captain Groenewald described as the biggest piece of luck in his flying career, occurred when he suddenly saw the wind-sock of the emergency landing strip through the clouds of dust straight ahead of him. A crosswind of between 40 and 45 knots blew over the runway, and when he realised that the first landing attempt would end in disaster, he decided to overshoot. However, visibility was particularly bad and the aircraft almost hit a small hill which appeared out of nowhere.
With one engine still roaring powerfully, the Dak fought its way against the gusts of wind, made a wide turn and landed. Although this second attempt was particularly difficult, it was a success. The machine came to a standstill with a jolt on the sand runway.
Captain Groenewald said that he had seldom in his life seen such a bunch of relieved men together as those 24 passengers when they realised that they were safely on the ground. They were thoroughly aware of the danger, as they knew that only one engine was working and relied on the pilot to find that emergency landing strip in the desert.
Captain Groenewald later said that the radio operator had sent out a running commentary of the events during the flight and had transmitted a distress signal immediately after the aircraft had made the safe landing. At the time it was impossible for any other aircraft to land, since the dust-storm continued to rage until the next morning.
In the meantime, the pilot realised with a shock that they had no food. He quickly established that there was small Sudanese village nearby and instructed the passengers to go and look for some food while he and his crew were looking for the fault in the defective engine. The passengers later returned with a sheep, dates, eggs and onions!
The following day, after the weather had cleared, the first rescue aircraft arrived, piloted by Captain F.R. Robinson, who took the passengers back with him, as well as the spare part requirements. Captain Groenewald and his crew had to wait another five days before they could take off again. Then the lighter side of the incident occurred: they found sleeping-accommodation in an old houseboat on the Nile. Their only bedding was hard matrasses. During the day they swam in the muddy waters of the Nile to cool off and in the process their stubbly beards became matted with mud because it had been days since their last shave. They also found a cook and 12 bottles of beer, brought in with their rations by an Anson. These beers were tied with ropes and let down in the river to keep cool! Captain Groenewald commented afterwards that beer never again tasted as nice as those beers!
Their greatest disappointment was when the aircraft, which had to offload the spares, forgot to touch down on three occasions. When the spares eventually arrived, the days had become so hot that they could work only during early mornings and late afternoons. Captain Groenewald later recalled that it was so hot, that they actually cooked eggs on the aircraft's wings. Tools became so hot that their hands were burned.
His mechanic's hands were burned the same way as if he had picked up a red-hot iron.
At last the repairs were completed and the defective engine working properly again. As token of their gratitude towards the local Sheik's hospitality, Captain Groenewald invited him and 15 of his tribesmen along on the test flight which he had to undertake before he could set out on the return journey to Cairo. Soon he had the Dakota high in the air and made a few wide turns over the Nile. After landing, he discovered to his surprise that the Sudanese did not feel too happy in the air. They left the aircraft and, without looking back, cleared the area!
The journey to Khartoum was completed without mishap. They landed there on 13 September. The next day he departed with Dakota 6852 and a load of 24 passengers for the Union. (6852 later became known as "Fleur" and was used to transport VIPs). A few hours later Captain Groenewald casually flew over the same area where a few days ago he had fought life-and-death against the violence of a desert dust-storm and willy-nilly became the guest of the Sudanese.
He touched down at Swart Air Base, Pretoria, on 17 September and again took off on 24 September - to Italy to fetch another load of South Africans.
(Former Springbok wing Tony Harris was the man who told Mrs Groenewald a few days after the emergency landing that her husband was safe, despite the close shave. Tony Harris, incidentally, was a returning prisoner of war and passenger on that eventful flight.
This article first appeared in KOMMANDO of February 1956 and was translated for AIR AFRICANA by Gawie le Roux.