In 1958 De Gaulle gave the French Congo (now Central African Republic) their independence. The Belgians followed suit and gave the Belgian Congo theirs.
13 million people lived in the Belgian Congo at that time. Like all African countries it was exploited by Europeans. The Belgians immigrated there, built up the country, but most of all they built empires: farming, factories. They looted the country. The locals were just slaves. In 1960 the Congolese's were not trained and were ill prepared to run the country. It was obvious, that the white men days were numbered. The locals turned on the Belgians over night and started to slaughter them.
At that time I was flight engineer with Continental Airline, based in Hamburg/Germany, operating four Douglas Skymasters. You could describe us as a tramp airline. The aircraft could carry 72 passengers or 9 tons of freight to any place in the world. The seats could be easily removed and stored in the belly holds.
The usual route: Hamburg / Athens / Bahrain / Bombay / Bangkok / Hong Kong / Tokyo and return - about 120 flight hours in seven days.
We took a contract with Sabena to evacuate the Belgians to Angola. The seats were removed, we lashed 140 people to the floor and staggering off the end of the runway with engines screaming, full power, the throttles pushed to maximum we lifted off. There was no room for mistakes.
I saw a lot of nasty things: raped nuns, killed priest, kids with chopped off fingers etc. etc..
After four weeks the United Nations moved in and we were chartered by them to fly food and supplies around the Congo.
There were others like myself around: English, French, and Danes. We helped each other, anybody that had a technical problem with their aircraft we would all lend a hand to rectify the aircraft. Spare parts were not largely available: I would supply a cylinder in exchange for a carburettor, barter deals - no money.
On one occasion we were preparing the aircraft in Hamburg. A Limerick man hitched a lift. The aircraft crashed near Kano (Nigeria) into the woods. The Limerick man was the only one killed, the number two engine went through the side where he was sitting. Only by the grace of god the others did survive. My boss and myself departed immediately to assist in whatever way we could. I sat hours talking to a burnt mechanic; in a hut they called hospital. He was delirious, there was no skin on his legs, arms or face, and he had been wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt.
The aircraft had crashed because the captain and the co-pilot had neglected to set the altimeter to the terrain, which was 400 feet above sea level. The captain was reduced to co-pilot, the co-pilot talked himself out of the problem. Lloyds paid for an aircraft replacement, the agent gave us the wreck and we removed one engine and several other bits, which we sent for overhaul. At least this gave us some extra spares.
The company was down to three aircraft. During this time we had another aircraft coming through Kano with passengers for Germany. My boss then was Rudy (Rudolph), the two of us were departing the aircraft when the flight engineer made a mistake and pulled the landing gear selector instead of the flaps up, while standing on the tarmac the nose gear retracted. What a mess: propellers 2 and 3 "kaputt", fuel gushing out of the fuel tanks. We quickly got the passengers out and were lucky that the fuel did not ignite.
We spent eight hours to get the aircraft back to normal position. To do that balancing act we put empty 200 litre drums in the tail of the aircraft and filled them with water. At the 11th drum it started to move. We had to be careful, that it did not move to much, because then it would sit on its rear and do even more damage. To repair the aircraft Rudy wanted to exchange two engines and two propellers. My stand-point was that only the props needed to be replaced. The general manager agreed with me. Rudy returned to Hamburg and resigned. I was promoted to assistant chief of maintenance. What a way. After having ferried the aircraft back to Hamburg it took six weeks to get it fixed.
We were in Elizabethville when the shooting started. I was changing an exhaust pipe when a bullet blasted a hole in the aircraft, inches from my head. We quickly went into the hangar and sat in the toilet until the shooting stopped. Later we found out that this had been the beginning of another little war between Katangies, local soldiers and UN-troops. Apparently they had been drinking beer together and started a fistfight. The shooting lasted one hour. By this time a Sabena/Congo aircraft was burned up. Two of my mechanics went out to it and by using some wood stopped the engines from hitting the ground. We kept one of the engines.
Our aircraft had about 10 holes, which grounded us for a week while we repaired it. The first bullet that missed me was fired from a bunker 100 yards away by a Ghurkha, an Indian UN-soldier. Even though he should have been shooting in the other direction.
I made a report and sent it to the major in charge of the UN-troops and requested he sign it, so I could invoice the United Nations for the damage. He took a sergeant and a warrant officer to check it out. He started telling me the shots came from the other side. I explained: when a bullet enters, only a small hole, when the bullet is exiting it leaves a gapping hole. We had some harsh words. They left. Half an hour later the sergeant returned and requested me to show my passport. He wanted to take it back to headquarters, I explained that I was an aircraft engineer and also an officer working for the UN. He backed off, but compensation we never got.
We flew five trips per day with two aircraft, so most of the repairs and inspections were done at night. That's when the mosquito's worked as well. We put newspapers inside our socks, wore long sleeves, but still got bitten, even through the slacks. How I hated them. In those days you had to take chinin tablets every day against malaria. I was lucky to escape, a lot of my friends got it.
Nightlife was nonexistent. We mostly stayed to our little group (we were ten altogether in the meantime), played cards or chess. The local girls usually started to look whiter as the weeks went by. One of our mechanics, Guenter, decided to eat the forbidden fruit,
well he paid a high price.
We had to send him back to Hamburg; he had picked up some unknown disease, nothing like syphilis or gonorrhoea.
Even though he was at a special clinic for tropical diseases.
I was on board when we flew into Goma. Fuel was delivered in 50-gallon drums, which had to be pumped into the aircraft with wobble pumps by hand. 500 gallons took about three hours. It was getting dark, I was about to enter the aircraft when my local helper pushed the steps away and I fell four meters onto the tarmac. I knew I had broken my wrist; I went to the UN-troops first aid tent. They rapped my hand in linen together with two laths of wood. When I got back to the airport the aircraft had departed to Kinshasa. I could do nothing else but wait four days till the next aircraft came through. The operations manager drove me to the UN-hospital in Kinshasa. It was late in the evening. The doctor on duty was a Belgium and drunk. He told me in very vulgar language to piss off. The next day an Indian doctor x-rayed my arm and put plaster on.
The captain (Will) who had left me behind was more unlucky than me. It was usual to leave the aircraft by the escape rope (it saves time), which is bolted on the inside of the aircraft. However, it was lose, consequently he fell backwards 14 feet onto the tarmac. Both hands and arms were badly broken. The aircraft was delayed for 48 hours till the substitute captain arrived.
We had a hydraulic problem on an aircraft for weeks, venting all the fluid overboard on a few occasions. Changing several components to no avail. Captain Will and myself performed an air-test in order to try to reproduce the venting. It was clear blue sky. We were over the Congo River; several little fisher boats were out. Captain Will decided to have a little fun. He descended to a few feet and laughed at the fishermen diving overboard. Later we learned that plenty of alligators were in the river.
I was advised that a certain amount of stealing was going on. We were requested to keep our eyes open. Everybody was sure it was done by the locals. I noticed that Jack one of my staff had quite a variety of cloth. I went to his room and observed, a cupboard full of shoes, underwear, shirts, you name it - he had it. He surprised me and admitted supplying all the crew. Each time he was on board, he went down the back and selected the right sizes. I sent him home - that stopped the stealing.
On one occasion, while I was in Hamburg, I got a phone-call from Elizabethville, explaining a defect. The engine was functioning perfectly on the ground, but on take-off all the oil went overboard (20 gallons). I telexed back eight checks they should perform. Two days later they reported back - nothing found. So I flew Hamburg, Brussels, Burundi, and Elizabethville - 20 flight hours. Immigration stopped me for a visa, put me under guard with a soldier - pointing a gun. The aircraft was only 15 yards away from me.
The mechanics had been informed, that I had landed, but as I did not have a visa, was not allowed to enter the country. So they came up to me and I gave them instructions and we found out that one of the initial checks had not been done properly: a tooth was missing on a cog of the scavenge pump. The aircraft then ferried to Leopoldville and I was deported on the Sabena aircraft I came in on.
I got of in Bujumbura, got on another aircraft to Leopoldville and removed the reduction gear of the engine, replaced the scavenge pump and the aircraft was airworthy again. Seven days the aircraft had been out of operation. The general manager sacked my assistance who was responsible for this. He was just interested in showing off wearing his white cloth with his big sun hat, like the big white hunters you see in films.
Irish soldiers also served in with the UN. A large division of Congo soldiers surrounded twelve Irish - outnumbered 20 to 1. They used up their last bullet. They drew bayonet and killed a lot of the enemy before they were taken. The Congolese considered them very brave and consequently ate them.
Our contract went on for two and a half years and we returned to Hamburg late 1962. We made a lot of money for the company. However, we did not get our wages in November. Early December the company declared bankruptcy. We had four directors that became millionaires. The American owners of the aircraft showed up. As the aircraft was unserviceable, they needed assistance. I being the holder of an American licence was approached. I was employed and doubled my salary.
I arranged mechanics to fix two aircraft and pilots to ferry them to Luxembourg on December 17th, 1962. I set up office for the yanks, offering the aircraft for sale. It was during this period in time I met Rul Buckle. I was trying to sell the aircraft to him but he did not buy. He offered me a job in Stuttgart as chief of maintenance instead, which I took.
Some of the mechanics from the Congo I employed into Suedflug, others went elsewhere. This was in September 1963.
We could all agree: we were richer in experience at least.