By Eduardo González Sarría and Lionel Reid


Luena, August 1985

“Wakey wakey, my pigeons, you’ve got a lot of flying today.”

The voice was accompanied by a banging on the bunk bed structure on which Eduardo lay.

“God damn you, Januaria!” Mauricio said.

The dormitory came to life, slowly filling with the muttering and cursing of men emerging from sleep. They were soon joined by the sound of running bathroom taps and the smell of freshly filtered coffee. Eduardo sat up on his bed and got ready for the day. Some men were dressing, others were already in the kitchen. Colás emerged with dishevelled hair and half-closed eyes, a towel around his neck, soap in one hand and his toothbrush in the other. He enjoyed a long stretch and yawn.

“What the hell, Colás, spare us your morning breath, dude!”

There was a burst of laughter in response to the unimpressed cook. Eduardo smiled discreetly and listened to the men getting involved in a pointless discussion about which Cubans spoke better Spanish. The habaneros from Havana, always proud of their heritage, argued that their dialect was superior to anything from the eastern provinces. The eastern orientales responded to this criticism by intensifying their unique cantaíto, a song-like, even melodic, way of speaking. Both sides had breakfast without taking a break or conceding defeat. When Chirino, the pinareño, tried to intervene, he was interrupted with a reminder of how in his birthplace of Pinar, renowned for the lack of forethought among its residents, a large concrete mixer had been left stuck inside a theatre after construction had been completed.

The trip to the aerodrome ended the discussion, and they arrived stiff with cold, as usual. Each MiG-23 had attached to its fuselage two grey fish-like FAB 500-kilogram bombs, the co-ordinates of their intended targets already pre-programmed into the aircraft navigation systems, following a detailed lesson from Eduardo the previous day. Instead of being vectored by the RIO or relying on their own dead reckoning, pilots could now be directed to the target by the equipment; it was just a matter of attending the pre-flight briefing and obtaining mission authorisation.

For this mission, attacking two UNITA bases to the south, Eduardo was the strike co-ordinator; he would be managing things from the control tower. He had selected Chirino and Carlos The Fatso to carry it out. The three of them completed the pre-flight planning and ran through their calculations together as a team to avoid any errors. Both pilots were relatively inexperienced with bombing missions on this aircraft type, and it had been decided to make use of the MiG’s radar to improve the accuracy of the strike. The task was complex, and they had completed as many practice drills as possible to achieve the required level of automatism. Only then did they consider themselves ready.

The briefing was short: timetables, codes and the identification table. Apart from the Cuban team, an Angolan flight of four aircraft would join them in the attack. Once again, the Angolan flight leader was Cassiano.

The Angolan MiG-21s took off first, using the entire length of the runway to get airborne. Cassiano’s aircraft, with a less powerful engine, lifted off beyond the end of the runway, surrounded by a cloud of dust from his jet blast.

They shouldn’t have configured such a heavy bomb load on that aircraft, Eduardo thought as he watched it gain altitude.

Then it was the MiG-23s’ turn. The two aircraft took off effortlessly, using far less runway, before disappearing over the horizon. A new feeling came over Eduardo as the minutes went by: two pilots of his squadron were heading their aircraft into a high-risk situation, and he was anxious. His nerves heightened as the moment for action neared.

Monitoring the radio frequency, he could hear the voices of the Angolan squadron as they prepared to attack. Their transmissions were loud and clear, despite some background interference. Then a shouted transmission in Portuguese:

“Tenho uma avería no aparelho!”

It was one of the Angolans, Mingo, reporting an emergency.

Eduardo leapt up. “Where is the search-and-rescue crew?”

“There they are, Captain.”

“Go tell them to start their engines and take off, southbound, quickly!”

Further transmissions came over the radio.

“¿Qué avería vocé tenh?” said Cassiano, querying the type of emergency.

“Dois hidrosistemas… que nâo…” (“Both hydraulic systems… won’t…”)

“Volta a casa. ¿Cuál é a vossa posiçâo?” (“Return to base. What’s your position?”)

This time there was no answer. The silence sent a chill down Eduardo’s spine. Before long, Major Ernesto Escarrá hurried into the operations room. “I’m taking the MiG-21UM with Damhas to search the area before the helicopter,” he told Eduardo. “I’ll call Mingo on the emergency frequency to find out if he ejected.”

“Okay. I’ll hold the helicopter on standby until you give me the go-ahead.”

The search-and-rescue helicopter was an Mi-17 Hip, with an armed squad consisting of an extraction specialist, two machine gunners and a doctor. The crew were on board and ready to lift off.

By now, the strike aircraft were returning; first the MiG-23s, then the three remaining MiG-21s of Cassiano’s flight. For the first time in Angola, Eduardo saw an empty space on the ramp where the technician waited in vain for his aircraft to return.

Escarrá and Dahmas spent 30 minutes circling the area where Mingo had gone down, returning without making radio contact. They met with the senior officers in the briefing room to perform a preliminary analysis of events.

The Angolan pilots explained how they attacked taking into account the position of the sun. Mingo had been hit by a surface-to-air missile while recovering from the dive of his bombing run. There were a variety of hypotheses on what exactly happened, none of them conclusive. Later they would listen to the recorded radio conversation without identifying anything new. They did all agree on one thing, however: the importance of performing escape manoeuvres against anti-aircraft defence when exiting an attack.

A few hours later, a Fokker F-27 landed at Luena, bringing a commission of Angolan officials to investigate the missing MiG. One of them embraced Eduardo in a hug. It was the Chief of the Angolan People’s Air Force, Francisco Lópes Alfonso, known to Eduardo as Hanga. They hadn’t seen each other since 1976, during the Cuban’s first tour. They chatted for a long time, enquiring about common acquaintances and talking about old times.

As the sunset dressed the sky in purple, they went into town to get some rest after a hard day. No-one was happy that night. The men all took time to fall asleep, the events of the day playing on their minds. Eduardo realised that anti-aircraft fire was an issue he would have to learn to deal with, and that taut nerves and tensed stomach muscles would be a way of life on this tour.   

Thirty-four years after the loss of Mingo’s MiG-21 in eastern Angola, Eduardo contacted Cassiano, the Angolan flight leader, now a corporate pilot based in Portugal. He still vividly recalled the day in question, writing in response:

“Junior Lieutenant Domingo Antonio ‘Mingo’ was shot down and killed in action nearby Lucusse on the 12th of August 1985 while flying C-329, a MiG-21bis. We were attacking the UNITA base ‘Haiti’. I saw the missile launch from the ground just outside the base in a cloud of dust, with a white smoke trail following it. At that stage Mingo was ahead of me as I attacked the launch site. I never saw the missile hit him, probably because by then our relative angles had changed and he was behind me in my 6 o’clock as I executed my attack. Some things we just never forget.”