The Accidental Rhodesian: Bush War Helicopter Combat Pilot Ace Mike Borlace
The secret night mission across the border into hostile Marxist Mozambique was completed. The CT [communist terrorist] camp was all but destroyed and all Hell had broken loose. The 31-man SAS patrol began a hasty retreat on foot back to the Rhodesian border. In a surprise counter-attack the SAS patrol found themselves cut-off from the border by swarms of armed troops of the extremely savage Frelimo government. They are everywhere, saturating the bush, using the cover of the night and then the light of the new day, to hunt down the trapped SAS men one-by-one…
By Sally-Ann Lowe
(reference source “Spider Zero Seven”, 2018, by Mike Borlace)
Forbidden Cross Border ‘Hot Extraction’ by Mike of 31 SAS Soldiers Under Siege
Despite an urgent radio communication request by the leader on the ground, Major Graham Wilson, for several helicopters to do an immediate ‘hot extract’ of all 31 troops out of enemy territory, Air Headquarters – disgracefully – were not immediately forthcoming, muttering about ‘political ramifications of being seen using helicopters over the border’ and ‘considerations of using high value assets’, and the like. No slouch to bravery, Major Graham Wilson (below) was later to become the last Commander of C Squadron (SAS) and the most highly decorated soldier of the Rhodesian Bush War.
The Rhodesian Air Force used French manufactured Alouette III helicopters which were limited by weight and space to transporting only 4 soldiers, with their heavy military packs and weaponry, in addition to the pilot and his technician cum gunner, so a total of 6 was the maximum number permitted.
Meanwhile the situation was seriously deteriorating by the minute for the pursued men hotfooting it back toward home territory. They were now conducting a continuous ‘guns blazing’ style fighting withdrawal with their very survival at stake. Back in Rhodesia at their Mary Mount Mission SAS support base in the north east of Rhodesia, anxious Commander Martin Pearce, still awaiting approval for helicopters from the top brass in their ivory tower, had explained the drastic situation to local helicopter pilot Mike Borlace. Only one helicopter and pilot were allocated to support this Mission in case of emergencies and that was Mike Borlace.
After training Mike was taken aside by a senior Air Force Officer who spelled out the rule on crossing the border. Basically, don’t! The only exception was a very serious casevac or the danger of death to a soldier and preferably he should get authorisation from Air HQ first.
Without hesitation Mike decided to use his lone helicopter, while they all awaited ‘the nod’, to start immediate hot extractions to begin the uplift of ‘sticks’ of 4 men at a time. They established a refueling point just inside the border and Mike would use minimum fuel and refuel to minimum requirement each time he dropped off a stick.
But how to land, uplift and takeoff and all survive while constant battle was in progress?
“We devised a pattern whereby they stand and settle into a static firefight with their pursuers, then break contact and run hard when we are about 10 minutes away in order that there are no enemy forces around the LZ whilst we are in the vulnerable positions of approach, landing and take-off. It works well but there are Freds [Frelimo] all over the place and we keep taking fire on each trip from groups scattered between the patrol and the border. We’ve got down to 16 guys left over the way and we have a rethink. They don’t want to leave an unviable fighting force on the ground. There is still no decision as regards extra helicopters. Ammunition is also becoming an issue so we take in a limited resupply on the next trip. Then disaster strikes.”
Above: Mike Borlace receiving the Silver Cross
Disaster Strikes During ‘Hot Extractions’
A handling error occurred as Mike attempted an awkward manoeuvre down into a narrow refueling zone amongst tall trees with a load of the extracted soldiers. A loud cracking sound emanated from the Alouette! Mike held the helicopter in a low hover as the 4 men quickly exited. DB, his technician cum gunner, checked underneath the aircraft. He saw the nose wheel oleo had snapped. He therefore ordered the aircraft shut down as it was now officially u/s (under service).
Who Needs a Nose Wheel?
Once the helicopter was shut down it would have to remain out of action leaving the remainder of the SAS patrol over the border in isolation in a vulnerable position in defending themselves from the hordes of enemy. Mike Borlace ignores his technician’s shut down order. Instead he maintains the low hover, and asks DB to remove panels underneath the aircraft to see if certain internal essential parts are damaged. At the same time Mike is hooked up to communicate with distressed SAS Commander Martin Pearce while holding the hover.
“He tells me that the air request for more helicopters has been turned down but that they have now upgraded it to a ‘life or death’ request as things have turned pear shaped for the guys over the border and they are in deep serious doo-doo. The reinforcement helicopters cannot be here until last light at the earliest which probably means no extraction until the morning. DB reappears and says there doesn’t seem to be any damage to the control rods but I must shut down as he is not prepared to certify the aircraft as fit to fly. I tell him to wind his neck in and dismantle the nose wheel and then get fuel in while I maintain the hover.
He starts to give me a lecture on serviceability and the legalities of continuing to fly. The SAS Officer starts to reason with him about the peril the men over the way are in but I cut him short, explain to DB in words of one syllable that I’ll take care of the paperwork and as long as I don’t shut down the aircraft, it has not technically been put u/s, and to get his arse into gear as I am getting tired holding the hover. He is extremely hacked off but gets to work.”
No doubt DB had this scenario on his mind. Mike’s crashed helicopter occurred on another mission with another technician.
To be fair to the technician, from his perspective, their flights across the border had not been approved, he was responsible, in these times of global economic sanctions, for the survival of the Air Force’s scarce thus precious resource, the Alouette helicopter, and he was following official regulations. Yet closing down the aircraft would have likely resulted in the deaths or worse, the capture, of the remaining 12 combatants.
A New Dilemma and Crucial Decision is Made
An unenviable decision now had to be made – whether to start returning men over the border to reinforce those left behind or whether to continue depleting the patrol by continuing to uplift 4 men at a time. Rather than another 3 trips which would leave just 4 men behind under attack at the end, Mike made the daring decision that he would attempt to uplift them all in just 2 further runs. This meant 5 men next run and then, unbeknownst to DB, all remaining 7 soldiers in a final run. This last uplift would therefore total 9 men, a number considered a physical space, weight and gearbox ‘no-no’ for the Alouette III.
This plan required that on the final run the last 2 soldiers boarding would need to remain outside the aircraft standing on the step and hanging on for dear life. Those inside would have to hold on to them to prevent them falling to the ground if they got shot as the grossly over-weight and stressed to the max helicopter would never be able to manoeuvre back down to retrieve them.
Everything possible was first removed from the aircraft to lighten the load including tools, refueller, and ammunition. The first uplift of the 5 men went reasonably well as they had broken contact temporarily although DB grumbled a bit about the consequences to the gearbox. To increase power to take off “there is a maximum contingency setting which we can pull for 2 seconds for emergency use” and Mike went straight to this. They took a fairly heavy burst of small arms fire from a group of Frelimo on the way in and passed over another group on the way out though these instead ducked for cover.
They unloaded the men and refueled at which point DB was stunned to find out that the intention was to uplift all 7 of the remaining soldiers in one go “and started whinging big time”.
The last remaining 7 soldiers had meanwhile discarded and booby-trapped all their kit, except guns and communications radio. Just as they were entering the Alouette the leading edge of the Frelimo forces appeared at the LZ and started firing. Despite the extra weight and given that the power being used was way beyond the design limits, with Mike’s skillful manoeuvering they took off fairly easily, with 2 men standing outside the helicopter on the step but hanging on. However, a new and serious problem then developed!
“The centre of gravity of the helicopter is now out of limits too far forward and the cyclic stick is back against the stop. I have no more collective to pull in, and no more movement in the cyclic to raise the nose so we are not gaining any height to clear the bush in front. There is obviously no way we can land and sort this problem out so I scream to DB to get the soldiers to lean as far to the rear as they can and for the two chaps on the outside to move as far back as they can.”
This worked sufficiently enough to enable Mike to aim toward a gap where the bush was thinner. They exploded through it, the rotor chopping branches. He carefully avoided tree trunks, but branches were flying everywhere! They slowly moved on out but were limited in power and speed and could only move forward just over the treetops. It was decided to drop off 4 men just before reaching the Rhodesian border, drop the rest over the border, then return immediately to pick up the 4. This was achieved successfully and incredibly, a later check on the Alouette showed there was no damage to the gearbox, a remarkable testament to its manufacture by the French.
On their arrival over the border SAS commander, Pearce, already had a security party right at the border to defend them as well as some crates and sandbags on which to rest the wheel-less helicopter nose so that the Alouette could be safely shut down. DB ensured the weight rested on a rare part of the nose that could handle the load, requiring several fiddly hovering adjustments from the pilot who at last could eventually rest the nose safely on the mount then shut down the rotors after having his hands on the controls for 3 hours, and exit the aircraft. “Everyone here is just relieved and disbelieving that we are all here and unscathed.”
DB never flew with Mike again and he learned later that a few of the other technicians apparently refused to ever fly with him. Yet Borlace never took it personally and maintained tremendous respect for the role and capabilities of the Rhodesian helicopter technicians cum gunners under extreme pressure, so much so that the dedication in his book reads:
This book is dedicated to the real heroes of the Rhodesian Air Force
All of the technician/gunners of 7 Squadron
But most especially to the memory of “Hajj”
Flight Sergeant Henry Allan James Jarvie, MFC
Killed in action, Mtoko, 12 January 1978.
Mike Borlace, Gun Ship Pilot and Fireforce Commander, himself is a genuine hero of the Rhodesian Air Force. Call sign Spider Zero Seven, he was just one of the many exceptionally reliable and brave young men whose pivotal role in 7 Squadron as helicopter pilots under extreme pressure in the Bush War effort placed their lives time and again in mortal danger. They repeatedly performed essential tasks such as direct involvement in the unique and lethal fireforce counterinsurgency actions, lifesaving casevacs under the most hair raising situations and, in the enemy’s killing grounds, doggedly performed ‘hot extractions’ under fire.
Mike, Rhodesia Silver Cross recipient, was a ‘man among men’ with that ‘can do and will do when lives are at risk’ defiant spirit. It was dependable men like him that nurtured the close bond of mutual respect achieved between Rhodesia’s Air Force and the Ground Forces who greatly appreciated their support whenever the SHTF. On one mission alone his helicopter was hit 47 times. Amazingly, both he and his then technician cum gunner Mark Furnell and the aircraft (with some patching up) survived this barrage.
Mike was born in Cornwall, England and trained in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, becoming an operational commando helicopter pilot. His entry into the Rhodesian Air Force was ‘accidental’. In fact he had just been approved to join the Air Force of the Sultan of Oman.
A Brit ‘Press-Ganged’ into the Rhodesian Air Force
On receiving a discrete large brown envelope with his contract papers to fly Hawker Hunters for the Air Force of the Sultan of Oman, Mike was mystified to receive at the same time a second large anonymous brown envelope containing a recruiting application from the Rhodesian Air Force, thanking him for his enquiries! Clearly, it can be amazing what comes out of a get together and chin wag between a group of ex-British military pilots visiting the Red Lion, their favourite London watering hole. New acquaintance, ex Royal Air Force character ‘Jock’ MacGregor, who had very closely quizzed Mike on his background experience and future plans, turned out to be in service with the Rhodesian Air Force and discretely trawling for suitable qualified ‘volunteers’.
A partial quote from Patrick King, Producer, Westminster King Productions:
“I have known and shared adventures with Mike for over thirty-five years so it is a real pleasure to be asked to produce his book and a documentary about the Rhodesian conflict.
Of the 1,096 days he served in 7 (Helicopter) Squadron, 793 days were on combat operations. During this period 327 days were as a gunship pilot and fireforce commander, resulting in 149 contacts with the enemy, in addition to 204 fireforce operations that resulted in no contact.
He undertook 82 casevacs and 99 operations with the Rhodesian SAS, the Selous Scouts and Rhodesian Light Infantry Commandos on cross-border raids, including several hot extractions of compromised troops under fire.
He was shot down 5 times and wounded twice, and is one of only 5 holders of the Silver Cross, the highest gallantry award given to members of the Rhodesian Air Force.
Mike’s service record could easily be mistaken for a movie script except that real life is often more extraordinary than the wildest fiction. In 1978, he left the Air Force to join the highly secret Selous Scouts…”
But that is another story … see future article.