In 1968, at the age of 9, I was sent to boarding school in Rhodesia from my home in Malawi. This period of my life was underpinned by my very regular flights to and from school and my early acquaintance with the Vickers Viscount and Rolls Royce Dart turboprops.
My junior school was in the mountains outside the border Rhodesian town of Umtali – present day Mutare. Although there were the occasional road trips from our home in Blantyre, these trips were infrequent as they involved a gruelling all-day dirt road trip through Mozambican territory, across the massive Zambezi river (and in those early days this was achieved via an extremely dodgy ferry boat system), branching through Villa Peri (present day Chimio) and on into the Vumba Mountains. Having dropped me at the school, my parents would then have to retrace their steps the following day.
It was clearly much easier all round to fly and, as the budding avgeek that I was, I thoroughly agreed! But even this was not necessarily an easy achievement – there was no commercial airfield at Umtali so no scheduled flights could take place. Occasional charters were undertaken by my Malawi-based friends – destination would have been the Grand Reef airfield just outside Umtali which later became a military airfield supporting the Rhodesian war effort against the Mozambique-based guerrillas after Portugal dramatically gave up its colonies in 1975. Alas I never had the pleasure of flying out of Grand Reef!
Instead – along with my school friends – I would fly from Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre, and my favourite all-time airport, Chileka, to Salisbury, Rhodesia. With three terms per year, this meant a minimum of six annual flights for the next nine years, in addition to the various family holiday flights we made to surrounding countries of Mozambique, South Africa, Kenya, Mauritius and the United Kingdom. And having arrived in Salisbury we then still had to make our way on to Umtali – a distance of some 270 km. This we made by train – on board Rhodesia Railways second class carriages overnight, a very exciting journey for us schoolboys! We were joined at the Salisbury rail station by our school friends from Zambia as well as around Rhodesia and an aura of great excitement built as the time to depart at 11.30pm approached. And having pulled into Umtali station in the early hours of the following morning, we still had to gather together for the hired buses from the station up to our school – a journey that took at least three hours. Whilst we were excited to travel outbound, that was nothing in comparison to the excitement generated for the return journey, backtracking down the mountain, the train ride, the wait at the airport, the connection to the plane, and the flight home.
And that forms the most fantastic memories for me. By 1968 the federal airline Central African Airways (CAA) had been dissolved and three separate airlines formed in its stead – Air Malawi, Air Rhodesia and Zambia Airways. Air Malawi retained relations with Air Rhodesia while Zambia Airways made steps out on its own, effectively cutting relations with Rhodesia. Air Malawi started with a small fleet inherited from CAA – two Vickers V700 Viscounts (7Q-YDK and YDL), two Douglas DC-3 Dakotas, and a pair of de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beavers. The Viscounts formed the mainstay of our flights to and from Salisbury, the journey taking an hour and 20 minutes for the 480 km direct flight. Yes – our Viscounts were indeed comparatively slow – but were also very reliable! 7Q-YDK was the main aircraft used by Air Malawi (7Q-YDL operated in Air Malawi colours but was in fact under subterfuge in sanctions-busting flights for Air Rhodesia) and was the original Viscount owned and operated by CAA. She first flew in 1956 as VP-YNA and named Lord Malvern. Following Air Malawi’s upgrading of its fleet from 1969 she reverted to Air Rhodesia and flew on with that airline until her ultimate retirement to the museum at Gwelo/Gweru.
The very distinctive sound of the Rolls Royce Dart engines on start up will forever be a memory for me. Carrying 56 passengers plus two flight crew and two cabin crew, as a Malawi resident my favourite was clearly to travel with Air Malawi as opposed to Air Rhodesia – my perception being that it was friendlier! Nothing could beat the pull of the engines straining on take off, the gradual climb out of a full aircraft on a hot day, taking at least 20 minutes to reach our cruising height. Our Viscounts flew at comparatively low levels in comparison to today’s airlines – 15-16,000 feet above sea level, and some of our flights were quite exciting in bad weather. I remember quite clearly a battering received by a Viscount from a hail storm (I wasn’t on board!). Recognising the rivers as they passed below us culminating with the massive Zambezi as we passed overhead Tete in Mozambique. Then the right turn as we descended over the Shire River in Malawi before settling onto finals for Chileka. Magical times!
A couple of incidents stick in my mind. On a flight up to Blantyre with an Air Malawi Viscount – travelling on my own as a schoolboy – I was invited to the cockpit by the crew for a look around. Obviously a massive excitement for me as a growing enthusiast. However, whilst standing in the cramped cockpit I asked the Captain if our aircraft had a hooter. Probably somewhat surprised he nevertheless took this in his stride and obligingly tweaked a couple of buttons that produced a very convincing hooter sound! On another occasion and still on the Viscounts, as a family we had flown on an Air Rhodesia aircraft back from Salisbury to Blantyre. As an avid observer of all activity related to flying, I noted that we were not climbing as fast or as easily as usual. And sure enough as we turned back our captain announced that we were returning to Salisbury with an engine problem, and our number one engine had indeed been feathered. Very exciting for me – somewhat less so for the other passengers…! But of course we made it safely, deboarded into the transit lounge to await a replacement aircraft which duly took us once more on our journey. Finally, whilst waiting at Salisbury for our flight back to Blantyre returning from school in Umtali, I was very excited to see an unusual aircraft sitting on Salisbury’s apron. This was an El Al Boeing 707 that had suffered an engine problem en route from Johannesburg to Tel Aviv and had put in to Salisbury to effect repairs. She remained on the ground for several days and sadly I didn’t get to see her take off.
Initial Viscount services were once a day in each direction by each of Air Malawi and Air Rhodesia – but as sanctions began to bite, frequencies rose to four a day and sometimes more with additional charters. For a brief period in the early 1970s through to the closure of Mozambican airspace in 1976, Chileka Airport in Blantyre was literally buzzing as the connection for flights from Zambia, Mozambique, East Africa into Rhodesia and South Africa. And during this time, Air Malawi’s fleet update saw my travel changing – with the introduction of Hawker Siddley 748s, BAC 1-11s and Britten Norman Islanders. Stay tuned…!