Meet the Impossibles: Rhodesia’s Bush War Flight Engineers in CHOPPERTECH
“Do not fear the enemy, for your enemy can only take your life. It is far better that you fear the media, for they will steal your Honour.”
by Gordon (Beaver) Shaw. Images and captions added.
Gordon wrote the book “Chopper Tech”. His grandfather was of original 1890 pioneer stock and Gordon was born in Gwelo, Southern Rhodesia in 1955.
An (Extra)Ordinary Day in the Life of 22 Year Old Bush War Helicopter Tech/Gunner Gordon Shaw
My son is a Drone pilot for a Security Drone outfit. While giving him some advice about how to deal with difficult and stressful things that happen on operations, I began to recall the fine details of my own past experience as a Rhodesian helicopter Technician/Gunner. He has a busy schedule with many problems that remind me of my time on Seven Squadron in Rhodesia, except that he is both pilot in command as well as the engineer ensuring his VTOL drone is operating correctly. So there are many things to consider for safe and productive operations that he has to deal with.
In War There are No Second Chances
In my advising him, it took my mind back to 1975 and being sent off on my very first bush trip. I was 22 years old and arrived at Buffalo Range Airport to do a tour with a G-car [Alouette III 4-man stick-carrying helicopter] flown by Willie Knight. There were so many things to try and remember and in war there are no second chances!
We had to be able to troubleshoot the quirky starting system on the Alouette which had what was the first electronic system using a thing called a mobile block which gave light sequences giving you information on what was going on during the start. It could also be used as a tool for troubleshooting.
Then there was the tracking of the life and service history of every component fitted to the helicopter. Each night you had to report to the Technical Officer and give him your helicopter status in case there was servicing due or component changes due. This had to be done for planning for the Fireforce as COMOPS needed to know what assets were available all the time. This was also necessary so that we had the spare parts etc on hand as required without any delays.
7 Squadron’s Highly Respected Helicopter Technicians’ Achievements Due to Team Support
When our helicopter came up for a service we could not just ground it and do the required maintenance. Rather, the scheduled maintenance was done (mainly at night!) on sections of the helicopter in a progressive manner and the check would be signed off on the due date or time. We had a sop [service operation] that only one panel would be removed at a time during the day and the helicopter could fly when required. The other flight engineers on the squadron always assisted in case of need. We worked as a finely honed team.
To be able to Work Alone Out in the Remote Bush was Crucial
Things we had to consider were that you had to be able to operate, troubleshoot and repair and service the helicopter on your own and be able to work remotely. Cleanliness of each and every helicopter and its weapons were the individual flight engineer’s responsibility and we were very strict on that. You could always see us with mutton cloth in our hands on top of the helicopter cleaning whenever there was a chance to do so, even in lulls during a contact!
The Day’s Work Began Before Dawn and Ended Only at 8pm
We were responsible for all the survival equipment, rat packs, water, ammunition and spare batteries or radios carried on our individual helicopters. Every morning just before first light all flight engineers would meet up and push the helicopters out of the revetments park them in the line, carry out a pre-flight inspection, then make sure that we had the correct fuel, topped up oils and hydraulic systems, clean and armed guns, adequate smoke grenades for marking targets, also clean windshields and a check of electrical and radio systems.
Only after all this, it was off to a shower, toilet, breakfast and the day started as normal with cleaning and tinkering with the helicopters as required. There was always a bit of tension in the air waiting for the siren. Every night at last light we would push the helicopters, fully fuelled and armed to Fireforce requirements, back into the revetments.
Once this was done we would carry out servicing or repairs/troubleshooting and then at about 8.00 pm, give the tech officer our aircraft Status Report for the FAF, Air HQ and COMOPS. He would then deal with the situation as required by ordering spare parts, manpower or any requirements. The system worked well with hardly any major problems.
Flying Duties Were a Whole New Challenge
Flying duties took a while to get used to. Once the helicopter was running you had to be seriously switched on. Weapon drills had to be adhered to and communication between the pilot and flight engineer was crucial. We had to take care of passengers and their correct weapon handling drills, and to ensure communications with the stick leader or medic or Army Commander.
We were also expected to look for power lines, obstacles, even lighting pilot cigarettes and making tea for them.
When landed, we were responsible for rolling fuel drums and refuelling our aircraft, lubing the tail boom every five hours, also the weapons for both taking on the enemy or protection of the helicopter. There must be a host of duties I have omitted to mention. IF YOU LIKED THE PILOT AND WANTED BROWNIE POINTS YOU COULD ASSIST HIM IN STRAPPING IN BEFORE START UP.
When the Siren Went Off all Hell Let Loose
The flight engineers would run to the helicopter and remove all protective covers and blanks and ensure the helicopter was ready to go. The troops would run to congregate at the individual choppers and pilots would be in the Ops room getting their briefing then run to their helicopters, strap in and start up with the troops seated and ready.
The K Car [lead helicopter] would call each helicopter up on the radio and check that we had communications and once established, K Car would taxi out with the section following in line, a very noisy and gut wrenching moment for everyone. Once airborne the flight engineer may be briefed or we would just have to listen up and get the gist of what was transpiring from the radio chatter, sometimes during which we would be normally lighting a Madison or two. I personally used to keep a keen eye on Keith Spence’s Seiko watch.
When landing at our destination in the bush it was our responsibility to check for obstacles on the ground, check under the belly, tail rotor safety and to defend the helicopter as fast as we could. Also to ensure everyone in the stick was aware they were going to do a hot deplane. It was important that we ensured that the troops all keyed up would not debus from a height that could kill them which did happen on occasion and with lots of recriminations.
New Technicians Had the Option to Leave after First Experiencing Fierce Ground fire
When you were new to the squadron you had to have a written report submitted to the Squadron WO about your performance every tours end for six months as you were on probation. Some guys opted out after having been in a helicopter that was hit by fierce ground fire, you had the choice to leave if you thought the job was not for you.
The Pressure for a K Car Technician/Gunner Was Something Else Entirely!
K Car was a different story for a flight engineer. One had to be able to work under severe pressure which would come from the Army commander or on Sunday, your pilot, who sometimes ran the whole contact as the army guy would not be trained for the task and whatever was happening on the ground or around you.
You had to be super switched on listening and understanding all the radio chatter, being able to mark the target as soon as possible with a big smoke generator and identify the enemy, keeping track as far as possible where they were and also where our troop positions were, a difficult task for a gunner as any mistake could kill one of our own.
I can tell you that it is no easy task to attempt to gun down twenty or so running men from a height of 800 or so feet at 60 knots in an orbit or even on a passing attack. You have the heavy gun in both hands looking through a tiny crosshairs sight with many things to consider – direction of flight, speed of flight, ground conditions, return fire, position of stop groups, radio chatter and the yelling of army commander and pilot directing you on to numerous targets. The noise and smell in the cabin is indescribable. You need to think quickly and make fast decisions and also fix problems with the weapon where you can.
Sometimes when things got bad and the guns were jammed by mechanical failure, dust etc, you had to then use the service weapons in the helicopter. This happened often later in the war. In the early days you could get a medal for that!
Many times, when the stick on the ground’s radio failed, K Car would land in the contact area and ‘drop off’ a spare radio. It was our task to take the radio to the stick sometimes under fire. There was no time or place to be scared, you just acted to the situation.
When the K Car came for refuelling either the second K Car, if available, or a G Car would take over top cover so, even when you were sitting on top of a gomo in a G Car, you had to stay aware of the scene going on at all times.
During the contact, while doing your orbit, everyone had to be aware of all the aviation assets in the air so as to avoid a mid-air collision with another helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft also in the area.
All this is only a thumbnail sketch of what we had to do!
A Close Call During a Hot Extraction of Selous Scouts in Botswana
The busiest time I ever had in the K Car was on 9 September 1979 when we were picking up a Selous Scout call sign needing hot extraction in Botswana where we were attacked by a BN Defender fixed wing which fired rockets at us narrowly missing the K Car!
During this time the G Cars were uplifting the sticks, these troops debussed as soon as they saw the attack happen and fired at it hitting both us and the Defender! We had fired a volley at the Defender striking it twice. However the rounds that missed it impacted close to the troops on the ground who then thought they were being mortared as the rounds were HE.
Believe me it was hectic and stressful and by then I was only 24 years old! Not bad for a newly badged Sgt who only a year or two earlier wore a Pink flying helmet with a baby dummy stuck to the top. ANYWAY THIS IS THE GIST OF IT. Now I am hoping my son can do the same. He will I am sure.
Source: Flight Engineer Gordon (Beaver) Shaw wrote this information as a youtube comment, under Fighting Men of Rhodesia ep. 15: Beaver Shaw 2nd talk.
I’m home and available to sign and write a note in your copy of Choppertech 2nd Ed. I will be returning to Abu Dhabi on the 23rd January 2021. I am proud to say that books are selling fast so if you don’t get one soon there may be a delay while we print another batch here in Kenya.Beaver Shaw
A Gunner’s Reflection of Fireforce Operations in Rhodesia by Beaver Shaw (1976 – 1980) Choppertech (Second Edition) is a personal reflection of FIREFORCE operations during the war of what was then Rhodesia. Beaver Shaw was just eighteen and writes:
l felt the fear as the helicopter gunships or G cars were fired at with AK 47’s …. the sky sometimes red or green with tracer, the dry feeling in the pit of my stomach as the helicopter pulled up into the orbit of a terrorist camp in Zambia or Mozambique. With guns blazing at me I desperately attempted to suppress the fire. The troops on the ground needed to know they had our full support and protection at all times which was a big call.
This shows the unique bond of mutual respect in the Rhodesian Forces between airforce and ground troops.
For a copy of his book please contact Pamela Hope Shaw via firstname.lastname@example.org or +254714396493. The price is $175.00 + P&P