'Murder in the Zambezi' retells horror of airline passengers shot dead
Eighteen people, including the two air hostesses, survived the crash, but their reprieve was brief. While eight of the survivors went off to seek water and help, within half an hour a group of insurgents, drawn by the flames and smoke from the burning aircraft, arrived, found 10 people huddled together and shot them dead.
Looking back over 40 years, one has to remember Rhodesia was in the middle of a civil war, but it nevertheless seemed an act of astonishing cruelty to kill people who were injured and in shock and who had just survived the unimaginable trauma of an air crash.
The news flashed around the world.
Ian Pringle, a pilot living in Rhodesia at the time, has meticulously researched this event and the second of its kind when another Viscount, also flying from Kariba, was brought down just five months later with the loss of 54 passengers and crew.
On Sunday, September 3, 1978 two Viscount flights were due to take off from Kariba’s tiny airport within about half an hour of each other. It was the last day of the school holidays and many people were returning home after a break at the lakeside resorts.
Once all the passengers had boarded the first flight - RH827 - there were a few seats left and these were offered to passengers due to fly on the second flight - RH825. Pringle writes that Kariba airport had a relaxed attitude to late passengers, so that if they arrived late for the first flight, they could board the second, while some passengers booked for the second flight took advantage of being at the airport early and caught the first flight.
By the time the second flight was ready to take off there were 52 people aboard, including 11 children. Several were in family groups. The last to board were a couple, Hans and Diana Hansen, who were off on the first leg of a holiday jaunt to South Africa. The only seats left were in the tail and they took them.
What neither they nor the passengers and crew of RH825 knew was that there was a group of rebels attached to Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (Zipra) in the Matusadona Hills near Kariba. They were armed with heat-seeking missiles, and were waiting for the opportunity to shoot an aircraft down.
For reasons that are unclear, they either ignored the first flight, RH827, or fired and missed. But half an hour later and flying at a height of 1600m, RH825 was heading straight towards their position. The missile struck the wheel bay near the edge of engine number three’s exhaust. It was 5.12pm.
Immediately First Officer Garth Beaumont radioed: “825 mayday, mayday 825, I have lost both starboard motors. We’re going in.”
Pilot John Hood spotted an old cotton field, relatively flat, and headed for it. But a drooping wingtip snagged a couple of tall trees, and then the aircraft crashed into a donga bisecting the field and caught fire.
Astonishingly, 18 people made their way out of the aircraft, although several were injured, some with broken bones. Five set off for a village they had spotted to find water, while Diana and Hans Hansen and another man went back to the aircraft to see if they could find anything that could serve as bandages and blankets. The other 10 huddled together. Within half an hour they were all dead, killed by a group of rebels who Pringle says could not have been those who shot the aircraft down, as they arrived at the crash site too quickly.
Pringle, who now lives in Cape Town, has interviewed some of the survivors and their families, as well as military and airline personnel and people who were involved in the search-and-rescue operations. He details how, even after the first crash, when everyone knew Zipra forces were operating in the area, aircraft in and out of Kariba made few changes to their schedules or flight paths.
Pringle is a product of his times and South Africans who disparagingly liked to refer to white Rhodesian emigrants as “When We’s” will find a couple of slightly cringeworthy moments in this account.
But he has written a fast-paced book that reads like a thriller and will have most readers gripped, particularly the first half.
There is an unlikely postscript. After the crashes, brass plaques listing the names of the dead were put up in the Anglican Cathedral in Salisbury, but following independence in 1980, “colonial relics” including the plaques were taken down and stored in the cathedral’s basement.
Families of the survivors found them and today both plaques are part of a monument to the dead unveiled in 2012 in the grounds of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria.
Read this and other reviews by Horler on thebookspage.co.za.