Thursday, September 24, 2020

OK1 down in a war zone

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore. ÔÇô Isaiah 2:4

At 1430 Hours, 7 August 1988, Botswana’s presidential jet ÔÇô OK1 ÔÇô departed from Sir Seretse Khama International Airport for Luanda, Angola. On board were President Quett Masire and a delegation of seven, which included Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration, Ponatshego Kedikilwe, and a crew of three. The delegation was travelling to Angola for a summit of the Frontline States to be held the following day.

They didn’t reach their destination.
At 1632 Hours, at an altitude of 35 000 feet above sea level, there was a loud explosion. As it would turn out, the blast emanated from the right hand engine. The explosion damaged the right side of the fuselage and the right engine was completely separated from the aircraft. What followed can only be described as a feat in aviation. Five minutes after the explosion, the plane was manoeuvred to a safe landing at Cuito, capital of the province of Bie.

On board, Masire and his Chief of Protocol ÔÇô Bashi Ikitseng ÔÇô had been injured by fragments that followed the explosion. The two were on consecutive seats on the right side of the cabin.
What is now known, but unknown at the time, was that an Angolan MiG-23 Flogger pilot fired two R-60 (AA-8 Aphid) missiles at OK1, a British Aerospace 125 Series 800. One missile hit the right hand engine of the business jet, blowing it off the airframe. The second missile locked on to and hit the falling engine, forcing Captain Arthur Ricketts ÔÇô on secondment from British Aerospace ÔÇô to negotiate a successful emergency landing on a bush strip at Cutio Bie. His co-pilot was Botswana Defence Force’s Colonel Albert Scheffers, one of the army’s pioneer pilots.

On the evening of Tuesday 7 August, Masire’s party arrived to an emotional welcome in Gaborone. They had travelled aboard a jet provided by Angola’s President Eduardo dos Santos, who dispatched his foreign minister Van Dumen and two doctors to accompany the Botswana delegation. Later that week, Office of the President would release a statement that the Angolan government had explained that OK1 had been mistaken for an enemy aircraft. Apparently, the note from Angola also carried a formal apology for the incident.

Kedikilwe, whose office released the statement, would rule out that the occurrence could strain relations between Botswana and Angola. Of course, that was diplomatic-speak because at the time, Angola’s government ÔÇô in the middle of a long and bloody civil war ÔÇô was known to have not-so-privately voiced suspicion that Botswana was backing Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA movement.
In a light moment, Kedikilwe told one interviewer that when the explosion that nearly changed the destiny of the nation happened, the delegation had just finished their meal, and “I was still enjoying my cheese”.

He said when the aircraft was hit, the crew did not say anything to the passengers as everybody was taken by surprise. It was only after Ricketts felt adequately in control that the engineer advised the passengers to wear oxygen masks.

So what really happened that late afternoon over the Angolan war zone? The public might never get to know. An investigation was launched in both countries to determine the exact circumstances under which the shooting took place. The outcome has not been made public ÔÇô 20 years later.

Though Office of the President said the plane had followed an international civil aviation route that had been duly cleared with the responsible authorities in Luanda, questions later emerged how ÔÇô if the route had been duly cleared ÔÇô OK1 could have been mistaken for an enemy aircraft. News organisations later carried reports that the newly acquired P10 million-jet had been intercepted flying over a restricted area. The government of Angola said Corridor UG853D was closed to all civilian traffic due to security reasons and that all airlines had been notified of this in August 1987 ÔÇô a full year before OK1 strayed into the area. Asked whether the area where the plane was shot fell within the war zone, BDF commander Lt. General Mompati Merafhe said the place was in central Angola, “but what place is not a war zone in Angola anyway?”.

Twenty days after the incident, Mmegi’s deputy editor Douglas Tsiako published an investigative piece that suggested that the presidential jet overflew a danger zone. The route apparently overflew Maun, Shakawe, and the Caprivi Strip. Inside Angola, it was slightly to the west of Jamba ÔÇô Savimbi’s capital for the previous 13 years.

Further north-westerly, the route was directly overhead Cuito Cuanavale, the site of fierce fighting involving Angolan government forces and their Cuban allies on one hand, and South Africa and Savimbi on the other. The town over which OK1 was shot was identified as a fortress town.

Tsiako’s investigation revealed that the radio facility at Cuito Cuanavale was not available for navigational use, probably having been rendered unworkable by rebel artillery. The same applied to the facility at Menogue, approximately 10 degrees west.

Aviation experts said two alternative routes had been in use to Luanda since UG853D was restricted. One flew to Bulawayo and then on UB53D through Livingstone and Mongu in Zambia, to Luena in Angola and then Luanda. The other was B733D over Maun straight to Luena, and then on to Luanda. The second route was said not to be entirely safe as it went slightly to the east of Jamba. Apparently, the safest route, which also turned to the longest, was to go to Harare and then on UA400,to converge with the other two routes at Luena.

Contrary to speculation that heads would roll at the BDF’s air arm, or that demotions were likely, the incident was allowed to go away quietly. It is not clear if a reprimand was done away from the eyes of the public. Whatever action was taken, the words of Scheffers hang in the air.
“We are living a second life. The whole of us,” the colonel said as he met his preacher father, mother, and lifted young sons ÔÇô Malcolm and William.
The last word must go to the master joker himself.

“Re bana ba banna,” Masire called out to well-wishers. Vintage Quett!
On Thursday, it will be 20 years since OK1 was brought down in Angola. Will the nation ever get to know what led to the incident of Sunday 7 August 1987 ÔÇô when another president nearly died in office?

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