By Eduardo González Sarría and Lionel Reid

Published by Mercury. Available in all good bookstores and online: R385.

EXTRACT:  THE HUMBLE ASSASSIN

THE HUMBLE ASSASSIN

How the humble SAAF Impala Mk 2 fought far above its weight class.

“Sometimes it is the people who

no-one imagines anything of who do

the things that no-one can imagine.”

Alan Turing, The Imitation Game

On 30 September 1985 the Angolan and Cuban forces operating in Angola suffered a spate of helicopter losses that effected their ability to support their troops. For a long time they were not able to understand what had happened to their valuable helicopters and pilots. They assumed it must have been ground to air missiles fired from deep within Angola. The truth was to be a big surprise – and humbling.

The MiG Diaries writes:

When Lionel and Eduardo started collaborating on this book, one of the challenges Eduardo laid down was to get “the full account of that day’s events”.

So began a task that felt something like initiating a cold-case accident investigation decades after the event. Even though it is probably impossible for every detail to be known in its entirety, the narrative that follows blends Eduardo’s original recollections with accounts of many of the principal protagonists in the air. Together, and in their own words, they have supplied the many pieces of an intricate puzzle.  

When Eduardo first wrote down his account of this day in 1995, forming part of a chapter in his book he called “Cactus”, it was based on the limited information known in Cuba at the time. Back then, their pilot reports and the previous RWR warnings in the area were still the only evidence the Cubans had to rely on, leading them to believe that the Cactus-Crotale surface-to-air missile system may have played a role in the fateful events that transpired. Final confirmation of who exactly their enemy was that day would come only years later through the books of Dick Lord and others.

Colonel Benítez briefed the Cuban squadron on the evening of 29 September. “Tomorrow there will be a resupply mission with the Angolan helicopters to the brigades near the Lomba River,” he told the pilots. “A pair of Angolan Su-22s will be providing a diversionary attack. One of our flights will provide top cover. There are reports that South African Mirages are entering into the Mavinga area when the MiGs aren’t around, so be on your toes…”

The following morning brought an early start to the flying programme, with Eduardo on the first sortie doing a short check-flight on Jorge Paez, the rookie. This was a non-negotiable before a first solo flight into the combat area. The check-flight proceeded satisfactorily, and Eduardo briefed the young pilot for what was to come next.

“Take off ten minutes after our flight going to Mavinga. Climb to altitude overhead the airfield so that we can use you as communications relay if needed. Your aircraft will have no external stores. There should be no trouble at all. Come back into the landing pattern with 900 litres. The aircraft is more comfortable to land with that amount of fuel. That’s it. Bôa fortuna, meu filho. [Portuguese: ‘Good luck, my son.’]”

One hour before takeoff, the pilots providing top cover met in the Angolan briefing room to receive final details for mission co-ordination: codes, frequencies, take-off times, call signs.

The mission plan was as follows. First, a group of Angolan helicopters consisting of Mi-17s and Mi-25s would lift off from Cuito towards the Angolan Light Infantry Brigades near the Lomba River to resupply them with food, ammo, batteries and spare parts. Seven minutes later the Su-22s would take off from Menongue, aiming to arrive near the battlefront at the same time as the first flight of choppers. The Sukhois would be conducting a diversionary strike, hoping to distract enemy attention away from the helicopters. Hanga would be leading the strike up front with Andrade as his wingman; the two were old friends. Last to get airborne would be the Cuban flight of four MiG-23s, providing air cover over the area.

Hanga and Eduardo enjoyed a friendship that went back many years. They had first met in 1976 when Hanga had been doing his initial flying training, and they had been together both in the USSR and in Cuba. Being of the same age, they could relate easily to each other, though Hanga’s life had revolved around a single goal: the struggle. While still a teenager, he had served with the guerrilla forces in Cabinda. By 1985, he had less overall flying experience than Eduardo, yet had completed many combat missions.

Sitting in the cockpit, Eduardo read over the details noted onto the knee pad on his right thigh. The Cuban MiG-23 flight would be “Rum”, the Angolan flight “Cognac”. IFF would be channel eight. IFF (identification, friend or foe) is a transmitter on the aircraft that sends a signal identifying it as friendly to the radar interrogating it, to avoid a blue-on-blue incident. Eduardo turned the switch on his channel selector over to the figure eight. Ready. On the other side of the ramp the Angolan flight started their engines. The Cuban aircraft followed suit. Everything was running on schedule, and two minutes later they began their take-offs in the planned sequence.

Meanwhile, the group of Angolan helicopters had got airborne from Cuito – as soon as they did, the South Africans knew they were coming. An embedded reconnaissance team hiding close to the airfield notified SAAF command at Rundu that a resupply mission was on its way to the FAPLA brigades. UNITA also had the ability to monitor the tactical radio frequencies that the helicopters operated on, and the information was relayed to Commandant Mossie Basson in the SAAF operations room. It was the information he and Colonel Dick Lord had been waiting for.

The South Africans had noticed how these helicopters flew according to a set pattern while conducting resupply missions to the brigades, following the same routes and sticking to the same height, about 800-1,000m above ground to avoid small-arms fire. In war, it is a cardinal sin to be predictable, and on that day the gods of war would offer no absolution. Mossie made a quick calculation to determine when the choppers would arrive in the area of the brigades, and the timing was relayed on. As the Su-22s and MiGs climbed out from Menongue, another group of aircraft had been scrambled and was racing towards the Mavinga area.    

Built under licence in South Africa, the Aermacchi MB-326K light strike fighter was named the Impala MkII by the SAAF. André van den Heever, the officer commanding 4 Sqn at the time, was tasked with the role of helping to stop the FAPLA advance against UNITA.

“On the 15th of September I had been summoned to SAAF headquarters in Pretoria,” he recalls. “My brief was to muster eighteen Impala MkIIs and get them to Rundu the next day. Most of the pilots and aircraft were from 4 Sqn, with a few from 8 Sqn. At sunset on the 17th, I led a sixteen-ship Impala ground attack strike,1 and while we were waiting for feedback on the results, a new tasking arrived: to intercept and shoot down the Angolan resupply helicopters.”

Their first task was to establish if and how this might be possible. “We identified an area on our side of the border that had a similar topography to the planned area of operation in Angola. On the 23rd of September, a Puma helicopter was instructed to fly in this area at 3,000ft above ground following river lines and roads, thereby simulating Angolan helicopter operations. Our aim was to establish if visual detection, positioning for an execution of an attack on the helicopter, was possible. It was a success and we were quite confident the job could be done.”

The plan soon emerged, with six aircraft being configured to fly in three pairs. The most likely areas where the helicopters might be encountered were identified, nearly 300 kilometres north into Angola, and enclosed into a triangular shape consisting of three 28-kilometre legs. Each leg was approximately three minutes’ flying time, with the consensus being that the one most likely to produce results followed the Lomba River flowing in a westerly direction.

“In this way we could ensure that each potential leg would always have two aircraft patrolling,” André explains. “Furthermore, the expected combat area was divided into numbered blocks of 5 x 5 nautical miles so that, in the absence of co-ordinates, we could report our positions to each other by referring to the applicable block.

“Total radio silence was to be maintained. Even the Rundu control tower was briefed in this regard. Radio silence would be broken only in the event of an emergency or when combat commenced. A common radio frequency would be used for all six aircraft, and in addition there was a separate frequency for each pair; this would ensure optimum command and control. To ensure that the three pairs arrived at the designated starting point of the triangle three minutes apart, the take-offs would also be staggered in three-minute intervals.”

The Impalas would patrol for as long as they could, until they reached “Bingo fuel” and had to return to base.

At 08h55 on 30 September the call came, and the six Impalas scrambled in three pairs. Wayne Westoby, one of the 4 Sqn pilots, was in one of them. He takes up the commentary: “We had a very good idea of the timeline for the choppers to get from Cuito to the Angolan brigades. Once there, the Mi-25s would orbit, giving cover while the Mi-8s or Mi-17s would take a few minutes to offload supplies and load personnel to take back to Cuito. From radio intercepts we had been informed that there were plans to extract the Soviet advisors who were embedded with the Angolan brigades. We hoped to hit the choppers on their way back with the Soviet advisors on board.”

Another of the 4 Sqn pilots scrambled that morning was Dudley Trollip. He outlines their task: “The sortie was planned to be flown in a LOW-LOW-LOW profile. The 30mm DEFA cannon would be the weapon used, with the only external stores being two drop-tanks, so as to give us minimum drag and maximum time in the area. There were three rivers that we expected them to navigate on: the Lomba and two of its tributaries, the Cunzumbia and the Cuzizi. The lead pair was André van den Heever with Wayne Westoby as wingman. The second pair was Leon Maré and Skippie Scheepers. I was the wingman in the last pair to get airborne; my flight lead was Kevin Truter, and we were allocated the western portion of the Lomba to patrol. We ingressed at 300kts, down at tree-top height, our gunsights set to air-to-air mode.”

It was an approach that had already brought the Impalas two kills. Just three days earlier, on 27 September, Leon and his wingman “Pine” Pienaar had used the same tactics to surprise two Angolan Mi-25 Hind-Ds eastbound along the Lomba. These were the Hinds flown by Felisberto Matias Bessa and António José dos Santos that Angolan High Command believed had perished in a mid-air collision. In the short encounter, Leon and Pine shot down one Hind each; there were no survivors. The downing of the helicopters had caused much uncertainty to Antenna Bravo and the men of the Angolan helicopter detachment, and three days later there was still no certainty on how these Hinds had met their fate. As a result, the helicopters, Sukhois and MiGs were still unaware of their inbound enemy. The scene was set for another deadly encounter.

As the MiG flight was climbing out of Menongue, Eduardo heard Paez request take-off clearance so he could assume his position as communications link to the top-cover MiG-23s. UHF communications always had the disadvantage of limited range, but an aircraft stationed at altitude overhead the field could solve this problem, passing on messages immediately and thus acting much like an airborne relay station.

As they passed abeam Cuito Cuanavale, Eduardo rocked his wings and his flight tuned into the designated co-operation radio frequency with the Sukhoi strike flight up front, the resupply helicopters and ground troops. He observed his RWR: no lights had illuminated, nor were there any audio signals through his helmet. And they were at a high enough altitude for the Cactus-Crotale system that they suspected to be in the area to be of little concern.

A radar controller’s voice crackled the radio into life: “Da minha posiçâo, azimute ciento y cincuenta; oito kilómetros.” (Portuguese: “From present position, azimuth one fifty, eight kilometres.”)

“Copied.” It sounded like Hanga’s voice.

The supply helicopters also spoke on the frequency, indicating that they were about to begin their descent into the troop’s landing zone. The radio was becoming a real problem: the heterodyne squeal from so many people transmitting at the same time, with many voices on edge, indicated that the critical stage of the operation was about to begin.

“Conhac-um, ataco.” (“Cognac-one, attacking.”)

The two Su-22s began their diversionary attack on enemy positions.

“Vodka-um, tenho a tropa a vista.” (“Vodka-one, I have the ground forces visual.”) This was the leader of the supply helicopters.

Despite the excessive radio chatter at lower altitudes, everything seemed to be going according to plan. Nobody from the top cover flight spoke; they listened only, a rigid discipline that is difficult to acquire. It took quite a few “chewings out” to achieve, but with time, maintaining radio silence became an indication of each flight’s professionalism.

“Conhac-dois, ataco.” (“Cognac-two, attacking.”)

The sky was fairly clear. They knew the flying terrain off by heart, with the non-perennial river channels all oriented in one direction, and a well-defined road linking the major landmarks. Eduardo reduced the throttle setting to 80% and began the descent to 3,000m. It would be their patrol height in the landing zone area, while providing top cover.

“Bombing.” Andrade delivered his ordnance.

Finally, in his 11 o’clock and below him, Eduardo distinguished an Mi-17 a few kilometres ahead; it was part of a column of helicopters, with another Mi-17 ahead of it.

Meanwhile, the Impalas had arrived in their designated patrol areas. As Wayne Westoby explains, “We were the first pair, as well as being the easternmost, as we operated our combat air patrol to the west of Mavinga. We stayed down low near the treetops, as these helicopters all seemed to operate at about 2,500-3,000ft above ground.”

The South Africans generally referenced altitude in feet and distance in metres, whereas the Cubans almost always followed the Soviet metric preference for both; in their terminology, the helicopters were operating at around 800m.

“We used the code word of ‘Umbrellas’ for the helicopters on the radio,” notes squadron commander André van den Heever. “We were well aware of the fact that these helicopters might have fighter aircraft as top cover, but we were confident that even if detected, we could hit the helicopters and get out of there before the fighters could react.

“Wayne and I reached the Lomba River and turned north-east on the first leg of our search triangle. After three minutes, we turned south-east on the second leg; as we reached the last part, and just before turning west along the Lomba, radio silence was broken by Wayne reporting, ‘Umbrellas 10 o’clock high.’ Sure enough, there they were.”

Wayne continues: “I saw four helicopters flying east to west following the Lomba River: two Mi-17s were in front, with two Mi-25s behind them. All were flying in a trail spaced about 300 metres from each other, except for the last Mi-25, which lagged the rest by about 1,000 metres.

“When I called the choppers visual, André called for a turn hard left and instructed me to lead the attack. We turned, hugging the ground, passing below and to the north of the helicopters. All that was required now was a sharp right-hand reversal to position ourselves astern of the helicopters for the attack.”

Oblivious to what was happening, the Su-22s had just completed their attack and were turning back north-west, while higher above them the MiGs were pointed south-east.

Suddenly, the Cuban and Angolan radio frequency burst into life – a transmission filled with forbidding news.

“¡Misil! ¡Lançaram um misil! ¡Puxa, puxa forte!” (“Missile! Missile launched! Break, break hard!”)

“¡…Vocé está a arder! ¡…Volta a esquerda! ¡Nâo… nâo… so aesquerda! ¡Volta mais a esquerda, caralho!” (“You’re on fire! Turn left! No… no… only left! Turn harder left, dammit!”)

“¡Aviôes inimigos na área!” (“Enemy aircraft in the area!) In radio calls, this was the worst possible news.

“Rum flight, maximal,” Eduardo instructed, pushing his throttle full forward while sweeping his wings to 45 degrees. The aircraft leaped forward. There was no longer any discipline on the radio, just a cacophony of screams and heterodyne squeals, nothing clearly audible. But one thing was apparent: at least one of their aircraft had been hit.

Eduardo put his radar into search mode. On the third sweep, two targets appeared on the screen at a distance of 34 kilometres. Great, he thought. Automatically, his left hand turned the throttle drum, and next to the distance scale on the radar display the mark indicating the search area shifted until it matched the distance at which the targets were displayed. Then he pressed the radar lock button on his control stick, and on the display it showed that the radar had begun the automatic tracking of one of the intruders.

Eduardo activated the WEAPONS MASTER switch. The indications started to appear: a green light came on, signalling the preparation of the missile that had received the radar data. Which one? he wondered. The digit “4” appeared on the screen, indicating that the R-24R missile under the right wing had declared itself ready. His index finger detached the trigger from its catch and a thought rang loud in his mind: I’m going to fuck you up, bastard! The alignment circle and the cross were slightly offset from each other; a bank to the right made them match.

The distance was still outside the missile’s maximum launch parameters; if he pulled the trigger at that moment, the system would not permit launch. A few more seconds of waiting and the distance closed to within range, the signal LAUNCH PERMITTED appearing – but Eduardo’s inner voice of experience reminded him to confirm the identification first. His left thumb switched on his IFF and almost instantly all the target indications on the screen disappeared from view: the IFF had identified the targets as friendly. He looked in the direction as indicated by his radar. Two aircraft came into view ahead and slightly to his right, travelling at high speed. Hanga and Andrade’s Su-22s. Eduardo breathed a sigh of relief. He had almost opened fire on his allies.

In the sky ahead hung a ball of black smoke from where the helicopter had been hit in mid-air, with a separate smoke trail from its fall pointing to the spot where the crumpled remains still burned with the crew trapped inside. Eduardo looked everywhere. An open sky. He flew over the downed helicopter, passing just west of it, putting on some left bank to observe it, all the while turning his neck from left to right. Nothing on the radar. He looked back; his flight was intact and in place, following his lead. The radar warning receiver? Also clear. To keep up their energy and remain in the area, he began a canted loop to the left, completing it and reversing into the right. The G-loads increased again and he felt nailed to the seat, but he continued to pull. He kept looking, but without any luck.

Their fuel reserves, which only allowed a limited time in the area, were now running low. Once his course reached 292 degrees, he levelled his wings and began his return home. On the radio, almost unnoticed, everything had returned to normal. There was no more screaming, no orders, no squeals. The silence was ominous. Approaching Cuito, the voice of the radar controller came onto the frequency, advising them that Menongue lay 190 kilometres straight ahead. He acknowledged automatically. His thoughts were already trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle that just didn’t fit, even though he had been part of the picture. No enemy aircraft had been positively identified, at least one helicopter seemed to have been shot down, and now the radio was eerily silent. Perhaps a detailed post-flight analysis would make sense of what had happened.

At that stage, it was only the Impala pilots who knew.

“We were racing at low level east along the Lomba,” recalls Wayne Westoby, filling in the details. “Getting behind the helicopters would require a sharp right-hand turn and a descent into the dip of the river valley. It was a turn that nearly cost me my life. As I was banking, I looked up at the choppers, positioning myself relative to them. I glanced to my right and was shocked to see my right-hand tip tank slicing through the tops of the bullrushes on the riverbank! It was the closest I came to dying in an aircraft – ever.

“Quickly recovering, I positioned myself so that the rearmost chopper was above me in my 1 o’clock, and I began my pitch up to about 3,000ft. The Impala is quite underpowered and so the energy bled off fast. I had an almost uncontrollable nervous shake, more scared of failure than anything else.

“The stadiametric ranging on our gun sights was set for the chopper’s main rotor blade diameter and a firing range of 250 metres. When about 400-500ft below the Mi-25, I started firing at a range of 300 metres. Nothing happened. Then just as the realisation started to sink in that I had missed, the chopper exploded into a fireball.”

Looking at the gun camera footage more than three decades later provides a clue as to why the Sukhoi pilots called a missile hit on the chopper. The Impala’s 30mm cannon shells hit the fuel tanks in the belly of the Hind, creating a sudden fireball that would have looked similar to a missile strike.

“As the helicopter’s fuel tank exploded, it pitched about ten to fifteen degrees nose down and continued down, leaving a thick black smoke trail until it crashed into the ground. I had pulled over the top of the helicopter, my speed bleeding off, and had to descend straight away. As I got back down to low level my speed continued to drop off – that’s when I noticed my engine had flamed out. That was a wake-up call, but the hot-start igniter-system gave an instant relight as I pressed the RELIGHT button. Then I turned right to reposition and check where André was.”

In accordance with procedure, André had been staying low level to spot any missile launches. “I saw Wayne firing and the thick black smoke coming from the Hind,” he recalled, “then I pitched up to a position higher and 8 o’clock to the next Mi-25, from where I would try to create a tracking curve. In getting up there I passed the first helicopter, which was smoking and descending, but still seemed to be flying. Thoughts flashed through my mind: was the nose gunner in any state to still fire at me if I took a chance and flew in front of him? Could I risk flying in front of him to perform the attack on the next Hind ahead? Do I have sufficient closing speed to attack the second helicopter?

“The two Mi-17s ahead helped me make up my mind. They had started to descend, and I realised that the helicopter crews must’ve warned each other. Realising that they might escape, I made a snap decision: as the smoking Hind disappeared behind me, I attacked the Hind in front. My closing speed proved to be insufficient: if I waited to close to a firing distance of less than 400 metres I would end up line astern of the helicopter, and if I then hit the target I would be right in the path of any possible debris. So I fired at approximately 500 metres, and saw the rear part of the tail boom coming off. It passed to my right and slightly below. I broke to the right and shifted my attention to the two Mi-17s, which were now in a steep descent. Wayne was passing below and to the left of me, tracking one of the Mi-17s.”

Having witnessed André shoot down the second Hind, Wayne now targeted the Mi-17s: “I saw the Mi-25 without its tail boom start snaking in the sky; the pilot had to dump power to stop the torque from counter-rotating the fuselage, and it continued to descend in a nose-down attitude until it crashed into the Lomba floodplain.

“One of the Mi-17s up front had started a right turn towards the north. I pitched up and behind him, so that I was above him in about his 4 or 5 o’clock, and fired a burst that hit him in the gearbox. It rolled all the way to the right and went down, remaining inverted until impacting the ground.

“Then my engine flamed out for the second time that day, and again the hot-relight system worked perfectly. My theory on the two flameouts is that they were caused by long bursts of 30mm fire from both cannons at a very low speed, under 150kts, with a suspect fuel-dipping system.”

At the time, André was unaware of Wayne’s flameouts, and only found out about them at the post-mission debrief.

“My word, what presence of mind Wayne had that day,” he recalls. “Things were now happening very fast. I saw three impact points with black smoke and the last remaining helicopter on an escape run at very low level. Its descending left turn was so sharp that I found myself in an unsuitable attack position. I did actually take a shot at him but my rounds seemed to miss due to the extreme high G and close proximity to the ground. Switching to the common frequency, I informed the other two Impala pairs in which block the action was, and that the last helicopter might escape. I knew the pair of Kevin Truter and Dudley Trollip must have been more or less at the start of the Lomba leg of their search pattern, and the smoke should be visible to them too. Knowing the nature of these young pilots, I was pretty sure that Leon Maré and Skippie Scheepers would be rushing towards the action as well. That small piece of airspace would soon be swamped with too many aircraft and perhaps enemy fighters as well, so I switched back to our formation frequency and ordered Wayne to get out of there and return to base with me.”

Although the fourth chopper avoided the attentions of Wayne and André, it would not escape. Dudley Trollip recounts its fate: “We were halfway along our planned route as the westernmost pair, when the radio came alive with calls about André and Wayne attacking the helicopters.

Kevin steered us south-east towards three columns of smoke. Moments later we were head-on with an Mi-17. Kevin and I were about 300m apart and the chopper passed between us. I assume that the crew were attempting to get it on the ground as soon as possible, as the blades had a high coning angle, and I observed the tail boom breaking off as they touched down. Kevin called the pitch and I stayed low to look for missile launches. He rolled in and I saw his 30mm burst scoring a direct hit, a dark-orange ball of flame erupting from the mid-section of the chopper. I then also pitched up and rolled in, squeezing the trigger when my pipper was on the smouldering Mi-17, the rounds impacting to the 12 o’clock of the target. As we discovered later, the gunsight adaption unit had a fault, causing the pipper to sit lower and resulting in an overshoot of the cannon impacts. As I fired, I saw some people escaping from the chopper and running for shelter.”

By this point, an Impala acting as a Telstar, flying at high altitude to the south of all the action, was warning the attackers that radio intercepts indicated there were MiGs in the area.

The warnings were well founded – the MiGs were there, but it was a day that was going the SAAF’s way. The confusion on the radio and the rapid sequence of events meant that the MiGs, with Eduardo in the lead, had raced past the Impalas to the south-east, searching for an invisible enemy. The Impalas hadn’t seen the MiGs flash past initially, above and behind them. With their task complete, the Impalas headed south, while the MiGs turned back to the north-west, and this time as they passed each other, the MiGs’ passage did not go unnoticed.

“At this stage I was getting really worried about the messages from the Telstar,” recalls Wayne. “The intercepted transmissions indicated that the MiGs might have seen us. We turned south and started running home as low as we could go. Just then I saw a MiG-23 above us and passing about 3,000-4,000 metres to our left. He was about 500-600ft above ground, wings swept and going at really high speed.”

Wayne wasn’t the only one who spotted the MiGs. While the Impala pair led by Leon Maré had not encountered any helicopters, their day wasn’t lacking in adrenaline. As Leon recalls, “We were flying north-west in our sector when we heard the calls from André van den Heever that the last helicopter might escape, so we began a hard right-hand turn towards the south-east. My wingman was trailing me in the turn, effectively looking through me, and called, ‘Mirage F1s in sight.’ I looked and got the lead aircraft in sight, then realised it was a MiG, not a Mirage! I could see the swept wings and white AAM missiles as the MiG was banking to the right. I was concerned he was turning to engage us, so continued my right turn towards him.

“I soon realised he was most likely banking to search for something, and as he was nowhere near as low as us, with our very effective camouflage scheme he had no chance of seeing us. Soon after that the MiG raised his nose, lit his burner and accelerated away. I rolled out and only then saw that there was a second MiG. He too nosed up and followed his lead – bye-bye!”

For the Impalas, their excellent Olive Drab and Dark Earth camouflage and surprise low-level tactics, together with the speed with which they dispatched the helicopters, had created such chaos that they had all managed to slip away unnoticed, leaving behind a deeply confused enemy. The frustrated MiGs had seen no sign of them.

Ten minutes later, Eduardo slowed down and began his descent into Menongue. His flight of MiGs landed uneventfully and parked on the ramp. Hanga, Colonel N’Gongo, Colonel Benítez and others were waiting there. He hugged Hanga, who made a strange gesture, but did not speak. N’Gongo asked Eduardo to give his account of what he had seen in the area, which he did. Using the map that the Angolan commander was carrying, he located where he’d seen the downed helicopter.

“Did you see it going down?” N’Gongo asked.

“No, but the trail of smoke indicated the trajectory the helicopter followed before crashing, and it was still there, burning.”

“At what height did the helicopter receive the impact?”

“At 800m, Colonel.”

The rest of the pilots approached and joined the group.

“It seemed to me the missile came from the east,” said Hanga.

“Did you see any Mirages?” Eduardo asked.

“No, I didn’t see any aircraft. The missile seemed to come from below…”

“But someone shouted, ‘Enemy aircraft in the area’?”

“I also heard that, but perhaps it was a forward air-controller on the ground when he saw your MiGs?”

Jeeza! What a mess, Eduardo thought, reflecting on the day’s events. “Listen,” he said to Hanga, “I almost launched an air-to-air missile at you during all the confusion…”

Paez approached them.

“Hey, Lieutenant, how did it go?” Eduardo asked, holding out his hand.

“There were no real problems. I was a bit deep on the landing.”

“Sorry for not congratulating you earlier. I was a little busy.”

“Yes, I know,” Paez said, blinking repeatedly without smiling.

The mystery for the Angolans and Cubans remained after the event. That night, Colonel De la Paz called Eduardo into a briefing, where he informed him of the extent of the helicopter losses. Understanding the pressure on the crews in Menongue, the colonel gave his squadron commander six bottles of rum to dispense to the men.

Looking back today, Eduardo recalls that it simply did not occur to the Cubans and Angolans that the humble and seemingly innocuous Impala could be a possible culprit responsible for so many kills so quickly. It was a day in which the SAAF offered a hard lesson in the results that can be achieved with good tactical planning and the wise use of resources.

The fortunes of war often exist in stark contrast to one another, and the evening of 30 September 1985 was no exception. As the Cubans in Menongue found some solace in the rum from their chief, further south in Rundu, the SAAF crew celebrated with beers from their own chief. That morning, General Dennis Earp, the Chief of the Air Force, had wagered Mossie Basson a case of beer that the Impalas would not better their score of two helicopters achieved three days earlier. General Earp lost, and these beers were handed by Mossie to the victorious pilots.

The harsh reality of what was being toasted was, however, not lost on the men, as Wayne Westoby remembers: “That night, while everybody was celebrating at a braai, I made a remark to André to the effect that, just as we are celebrating here, on the other side I wonder how many families are receiving the news of their loved ones not returning. I found that day to be a defining moment, a bittersweet one. For me, I realised that there is no glory in war.”

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