"SNATCHED FROM THE SKY"
The four ton Aero Commander hurtled towards the krans, out of control, its fate sealed.
We were up early. There was a pre-dawn promise of spring in the air, and it had its own
mystical Karoo flavour, recognized and eagerly anticipated only by those who have been
there. This was to be a day like no other. It would be a mountain day.
Libby and I had arranged to meet at breakfast, a two star event in Beaufort West. Elizabeth
'Libby' Stark, a Private Pilot in her own right, had an energetic, bubbly personality, and
was a navigator of note. Her apprenticeship well served, she had crisscrossed vast
expanses of Southern Africa in a surveyors bid to capture and record if only for now
vital information for which mining companies, municipalities and a host of private and
government agencies paid very well.
Klaus Buchholz on the other hand was an unknown quantity. Recently arrived in South
Africa, he was making his way in his chosen field of electronics, seeing the vast expanse
of his new home in double quick time from the platform of a 'go anywhere' survey
aircraft. Libby would be working up front with me, whilst Klaus would be doing his own
thing in the back, behind a rack of instruments the complexity to which I would not be
privy. South Africa was at war if only sporadic and low key, and ours was a civilian
operation. 'We were not to know' as the expression goes.
The nature of the survey however gave away its end purpose, we where in the course of a
single day to cover a vast area at a height above ground of 300 feet, traversing the most
singularly remote and spectacular mountains in South Africa the Roggeveldberge.
Specific to this survey was the line spacing. Each line was to be flown no less than 5
kilometers from the previous line. The height above ground would have to be at as
constant a parameter as was humanly possible; calling for a day where the pilots attention
would be directed endlessly at the radar altimeter as the aircraft followed the undulations
of the mountainous terrain below. No roller coaster anywhere on earth could provided
such a spectacularly panoramic view of this vast empty stately landscape. This would be
a hit or miss operation a very general survey. After all, self-sufficiency was what being
South African was all about. On board was a Scintillometer, a device carrying a crystal
that would be able to detect any radioactivity should it be encountered. Remote and semi-
covert we were on our own.
Full of anticipation I was going to meet an old friend, all-be-it in a different guise.
ZS-CWD was a famous and venerable bird of the skies. First imported to South Africa by
the late John Schlesinger this aircraft was then the latest state-of-the-art wonder machine.
Equipped with two IGSO 540 engines it required kid-gloves on the part of the pilot not to
grind away the gearing on the propellers, not to over boost the supercharged engines that
were capable of reaching 48 inches of manifold pressure at an instant, nor to over impress
any bystander whose head would be turned towards that most distinctive roar on takeoff.
As the Flagship of Map Studio Productions, Charlie Whisky Delta and I had spent no less
than 1301 hours in the sky on every conceivable survey mission. Starting on 13 March
1968, we had kept our secrets. Not much takes place on mother earth without an aerial
photograph first being obtained from an archive or if not available, then from a
commission to go out and get the necessary pictures. We were therefore on the cutting
edge of up and coming projects in South Africa, pre-knowledge of which would have had
the potential of throwing the JSE into disarray and turning those in the know into instant
Winding along the dirt road leading to a typical unkempt small town airfield, CWD came
into view. No longer recognizable in the distinctive black, gray and orange livery of Map
Studio Productions, the inscription read 'Planning and Mapping'. No matter; CWD was
instantly recognizable and if inanimate objects are capable of embrace, we did just that.
Pursuant to their own expertise the crew set about readying their stations for the mission
ahead. It would, of necessity, be a long day.
No sooner airborne and Libby took control. On her lap were the mosaics, on which were
drawn the predetermined lines we were going to have to locate and follow to the
satisfaction of client and conscience. What was different this time was that ground
proximity required a level of situational awareness, not to be found in a photographic
environment. The geophysical survey operation as distinct from a photographic one
(where all that is required is a stable platform for the camera to do its work) dictates
constant power adjustments of mixture, pitch and throttle to accommodate the fluctuating
terrain and hold that all important distance between ground and equipment. Flight path is
under constant surveillance from a camera facing down under the fuselage, and ground
separation is being monitored at all times. With crew performance being scrutinized
in this way, there was no room for error.
The Aero Commander Series of aircraft (all but relegated to posterity by the
specialization to be found in aviation these days) were machines with high aspect ratio
wings (i.e. highly tapered) which at speed, made for a wonderfully stable platform for
photography. What we were not told, and had to find out for ourselves, was something
that would have a decisive influence on the outcome of our activities that day.
The tracer camera beneath the aircraft, set at its fastest, would only record an unbroken
flight path if the aircraft could be flown at no more than 150 knots. Aero Commanders
were most stable and therefore controllable at their cruising speed of 170 knots. This,
more than anything else, became the single most important factor overriding that day's
operation. With an unbroken flight path record, correlating data collected would proceed
Back at base the rest of the team busied themselves with reams of film and graphic
recordings from the previous days production and were the only people aware of our
mountain project that day. We would be expected back around four thirty in the
afternoon. Radio communication from our low level and remote situation was all but impossible - in
any case we where far too busy with the hands-on nature of the job to take time out
communicating an irrelevant position report. Our only other possible traffic that day
would be soaring mountain raptors.
Up and down the imaginary roller coaster we flew. Strapped to our stations, we followed
those vertical and horizontal contours. If fatigue was setting in we were too involved to
be able to detect its insidious inroads. A welcome break occurred when at around noon
our fuel situation required a landing at Fraserburg.
For most of the morning we had approached and tackled those mountain ramparts head-
on. For the uninitiated this would be like approaching Table Mountain from the height of
one of the taller downtown buildings. The trick lay in knowing at what point to start the
climb that would allow the aircraft to clear the ridges at the top of the mountain with the
required 300 feet in hand. Libby indicated with two fingers in the air that we were on our second last line for the
day. It was now four o'clock in the afternoon and we were flying north. The last line
would take us east towards Beaufort West and a well-deserved shower and cold beer.
For the first time that day the mountain confronting us looked just too mighty to
challenge, the same way we had tackled the rest. I indicated my intention to break line, at
which point Klaus would suspend his recordings while we retraced our flight path, all the
time climbing to a safer altitude from where we could tackle the apex in a securer
position. The decision (while time still permitted) to break line, was lying on Libby's
lap, as she would have to find a suitable feature on the ground up ahead for the tracer
camera record, in order to identify the exact point at which Klaus had stopped his data.
It was later determined that the farm road Libby had chosen on which to break line lay
approximately 5 to 6 kilometers from the base of this particular mountain. At the moment
the 'break line' call was given, a climb to the left was initiated and as we now found
ourselves in a huge amphitheatre with a saddle dead ahead connecting an isolated koppie,
known as Bobbejaan's Kop to the rest of the ramparts of this colossal obstacle, a decision
had to be taken as to whether the rate of climb would permit for an assault on the saddle
or if a climbing turn to the right would the safer option.
The climb required for the saddle was lacking in momentum and a right hand turn was
commenced that would take the now rapidly climbing Aero Commander on a course
parallel to an immense rock face. At optimum climb speed, with balls to the wall, the rate
of climb had increased to 2000 feet per minute, a sure indication we where in the grips of
a mountain wave. Pointing the nose of CWD away from the mountain we drew level with
the krans, The IGSO 540s were at max takeoff power and it was all action.
Fate being the hunter, we were now in the hands of providence. Time-warped moments
can be relived, and those last few seconds before impact are today as vivid as if they
occurred only yesterday. Sudden death has to be the most expeditious way of leaving this planet. Before the mind
can comprehend what in fact is taking place life is painlessly over. Facing death should
not be what a normal working day is all about however, hazards abound in an aviation
environment where pushing the envelope is hardly ever called into question and expertise
is a presumption rather than a reality.
If a moment can be frozen in time, it has to be those seconds before inevitable death that
become etched on the brain as it miraculously comes to the realization that somehow the
inevitable did not happen. Some people will pass it off, as a close call. What happened to
Libby and myself in the Roggeveldberge on the 16 October 1974 defies explanation. Out
of control and hurtling towards certain destruction at full flying speed, the only thought
was 'this is it, I'm dying'. On reflection; if you remember hearing the destructive noises at the moment of impact,
then guess what? You have survived.
Other senses were delivering the screams coming
from Libby, as the same inevitability of our fate became evident to her, and then the sight
of all those rocks along the edge of the krans. In a flash it was over. The all-pervading
sensation now, was the utter silence of this place. There was a slight breeze and only
silence. I was facing at some 70 meters distance, the wreck of CWD, and less than 5
meters from CWD was the vertical edge to the krans a krans the height of our survey.
On impact (it was determined later) the right wing struck the ground first where traces of
the navigation light were found. The main body of the fuselage then struck a large rock at
a speed and angle sufficient to cause the nose of the aircraft to break and tuck under the
rest of the fuselage, depositing the pilot on the mountain in an upright position still
strapped to his seat. Libby and Klaus were carried further in the aircraft as it careened
forward through the rocks to total destruction.
Undoing my seat belt I made my way over rocks towards the wreck at the same time
noticing Libby moving away from the carnage that was once CWD. Klaus was nowhere
to be seen. At the wreck my first concern was to make Libby comfortable. Fuel was
dripping from the wings and a fire was a real threat. Tearing some carpeting from the
exposed wreck I got her to lie down. It was glaringly obvious that she was in
considerable distress, as a large bump had developed above her buttocks. There was total
silence, other than the whimpering sounds coming from Libby, and I expected the worst
The sun was sinking fast, and to all intents and purposes nobody knew of our plight. A
chill, common to high mountain environments, was already noticeable and I knew
instinctively that Libby would not survive the night if a rescue was not mounted
problem now, was how to get off the mountain.
Note from the Editor John S Goulet.
I would like to thank
Nico Willoughby-Smith for sharing his "I walked away from that" story with us. This incident happened quite a few years
ago now, but the lessons are still valid! The Attitude Indicator will take you back to Friends.
Last modified on
March 05, 2006
(c) Virtual Horizons, 1996.