The International Red Cross chartered Southern Air Transport on Sept. 2, 1991, to fly famine relief supplies of grain from Khartoum to Wau (Waw on some maps), located in southwestern Sudan. Capt. Kurt Redfern, First Officer Nancy Lemmon and I, Flight Engineer Ron Mclntyre, crewed the airplane, a Lockheed Hercules aircraft*.  A company mechanic, a loadmaster and a Red Cross representative would also be on board.
 
The view from my hotel room in the Khartoum Hilton came straight from the pages of an African novel. The Blue Nile, born in the highlands of Ethiopia, and the White Nile, from far to the south in Uganda, merged into one river below. The rivers struggled to maintain their identities, each keeping its own distinct color. This must have been what Col. Gordon saw nearly 100 years ago.  As long as I focused on that exotic scene, I could put off thinking about spending the next two weeks in a country that practiced slavery, engaged in terrorism and ethnic cleansing. To add insult to injury, alcohol was forbidden. Gulf war tensions caused a two-day waiting period for a clearance to fly. I also suffered from bad food and boredom.

The predawn takeoff from Khartoum relieved the tedium of the hotel. I looked forward to a day in the air. I felt that sense of relief at being back in the air that only experienced aviators have.

This was my first trip to Sudan. I had flown other African projects, sweeping in and out of those places in high spirals. Southern Air Transport required us to climb over the field to 17,000 feet to avoid the bad guys and then to descend in the same manner. Sounds paranoid, I know, but I felt someone was always out to get us, as evidenced by the Hercules' carcasses strewn over the African landscape. This went with the territory and had seldom bothered me before. Today I had the feeling that something bad might happen.

Leveling off at 17,000, I adjusted the throttles to cruise power and settled back to listen to the BBC World Service. Immediately I heard the announcer say, "All relief flights in the Sudan have been cancelled". What really attracted my attention was that the Sudanese had taken the Iraqi's side during the Gulf War and were not friendly towards Americans.  I told the captain what I had heard. He decided to continue on to Wau, circling the field to evaluate the ground situation. If we saw anything unusual, we would abort and return to Khartoum. Not a bad choice, since we were not in radio contact with anyone who could make a decision.

Two hours later we arrived overhead Wau. We did our usual spiral down, carefully staying on the government-controlled side of the river. Generally speaking, we believed that the rebels would not fire on relief aircraft as long as they stayed on the "right" side of the river. The airstrip below looked like a peaceful field of grass, bisected by a startling laterite-red gash.

Deciding to land, we continued the approach to the dirt runway. Seeing the deep ruts in the touchdown zone, Captain Kurt let the Herk float before touching down. The wing-high grass on each side of the runway gave the impression that we were landing in a tunnel.  As Kurt moved the throttles towards ground-idle, I called out, "Beta Lights" *, and upon thrust reversal, we momentarily became engulfed in a red cloud of dust. The rollout was uneventful.  One tiny building on the field served as a terminal. We taxied toward it, hoping for a quick turn around, because the more trips, the fatter our paychecks!

A quad barreled anti-aircraft weapon of some sort sat next to the mud-hut terminal. Many soldiers carrying Kalishnikovs and wearing grim expressions gathered to meet us. My anxiety level cranked up as I recalled a fellow engineer who had been held by "friendly" rebels in Angola for six weeks, after they murdered the rest of his crew. I sincerely hoped the "right" side held control today, as this was the front line of a prolonged civil war.

After some delay, a truck arrived with a crew to offload the grain. Soon after, another truck arrived, filled with men in military uniforms. Some carried rifles and some held huge machetes. The gang with the machetes attacked the tall grass beside the narrow runway, and their mates with rifles just milled around looking surly. A work crew slowly transferred the grain sacks from plane to truck. Kurt and Nancy chatted with the nervous-looking Red Cross rep.

I walked to the fence and handed a child a bar of soap I had brought from the hotel in Khartoum. I suddenly realized that he was going to eat it and made frantic washing motions with my hands as I shook my head, "No". At this point I decided to terminate my humanitarian activities, retire to the flight deck and watch the action from there.

The last sack of grain left the airplane and the loadmaster closed the cargo doors. The Red Cross rep who had flown with us from Khartoum decided to return with us because he felt unsafe in this place. Another Red Cross rep made the same decision, giving us two passengers. If they had only known what was about to happen, they would have stayed on the ground.

We cranked up and taxied back down the dirt runway, past the men cutting grass with machetes. A soldier ran along side of the Herk, waving his arms. We ignored him and headed for the turn-around point. With the checklist finished, we still had several hundred feet to taxi.

Suddenly I heard a tremendous explosion, which thrust the nose of the Herk violently skyward, then slammed it back down. The flight deck filled with a cloud of red dirt, smoke, flames, and glass.  I knew that we had taxied over a land mine. The explosion had blown away the nose landing gear strut, shredding most of the flight deck floor, bowing it upward.

We skidded forward on the nose for about fifty feet. With frantic hands that groped for the same instruments at the same time, Kurt and I ran the evacuation drill. The fire raged up the inside wall, the flame being fed by a mix of pure oxygen from the bottles stored under the flight deck and by the hydraulic fluid.

Kurt yelled, "Let's get out of here," and dove over the side through the swing window. I tried to stand up, intending to exit through the crew entrance door as I saw Nancy also struggling to get out of her seat. I then saw that my right leg, from about six inches below my knee, pointed in the wrong direction.

The sudden upward force of the explosion had turned my bone to cornflakes, ejecting some the fragments through the skin. I dripped blood from my right arm and leg.   I hopped on one leg towards the stairs, only to find them consumed by fire. I looked up at the escape hatch, seeing it had been blown away in the explosion.

Struggling against pain and shock, but knowing I could die in here, I got one foot on the ladder rungs and pulled myself up through the hatch, using one arm and one leg. I grasped the escape rope and tried to throw it overboard while balancing on the good leg. The rope kept looping and the weight of the loop caused it to slither back into the flight deck.  After several tries with the rope, Nancy screamed at me to hurry. I saw her standing in the fire so I held the rope with my good hand and dove overboard, dragging the rope with me. I must have blacked out because I found myself suddenly on the ground in front of the engines that were still running. The explosion had severed everything between the flight deck and the wings.

I found myself lying beside the burning plane and in front of a huge turning prop. Lacking a nose gear, the crippled Herk's engines pointed directly at me. I thought I might be chewed up by the prop. I felt Nancy bump over the top of me. Thinking her hair was on fire, she rolled along the ground. Andy Anderson, the mechanic, had exited through a gash blown in the side of the fuselage, as had the other passengers.  He escaped relatively uninjured with a few cuts and bruises and a handful of shredded control cable lodged in his Jockey shorts. He scooped up Nancy and ran forward, away from the plane. I crabbed along on one hand and one foot towards the wingtip. Kurt had run into the tall grass out of sight. The flames completely engulfed the flight deck.

After what seemed to be hours, but in reality were only a few minutes, two men pulled up in a Land Rover. They attempted to pick me up with the classic, "You grab his arms and I'll grab his feet," method. My screams convinced them to try a different approach.

Kurt, in spite of his severe back injuries, staggered back out of the grass and collapsed in the dirt.

The men from the Land Rover just dumped us on the floor of the truck. They heaped us on top of one another with no regard to our injuries and the fact that we were screaming in pain.

My right foot flopped back and forth with the motion of the Land Rover. The bone shards ground against my flesh. I tied my belt around my feet to keep the bone ends from grating and asked Kurt for his belt. I wrapped it loosely around my leg to lessen the bleeding. The Land Rover rushed past the burning plane. I was terrified that we would run over another mine.

After passing the plane, we stopped and the men moved us into an ambulance that looked as if came right out of the set of "Mash". Again, they just tossed us in with no regard to our screams of pain. There was nothing in the ambulance - no litters, no medic. We seemed to be driving cross-country. The ambulance bounced and jolted while we careened off the floor and sides.

Suddenly the ride ended, and we were taken into a dispensary of sorts. Most homeless people would pass this up as uninhabitable. I thought part of the ceiling would fall on me as I lay on a gurney. Several Sudanese removed my pants by pulling them over my crushed leg. It hurt so much I wished I were back in the bouncing, jolting ambulance. No one seemed to understand English, and I communicated with them by making scissor-like motions.

I must have dozed off from the effect of the drugs that finally were administered to us. Kurt, in the next bed, awakened me with his screaming. He had several crushed vertebrae giving him extreme pain. One of our passengers was in a bed next to Kurt. He moaned and tried to communicate with us in Swiss-German, but the explosion had removed his hearing aids. He could not hear us. We could not understand him. I shared my cigarettes with my fellow patients and tried to deal with my own pain.

I must have dozed off again and woke up to flash bulbs popping. The local general and his entourage had arrived for a photo session. The general questioned me about the explosion, and his tone implied that we were somehow responsible for all the trouble.

"Why did you not stop the engines?" the general asked.

"How could we stop the engines when the flight deck was completely destroyed?" I retorted angrily. "Tell your men to fire rocket-propelled grenades at each engine." The general wheeled about and left the room, followed by his aides.

Time dragged on as Kurt finally slept. I desperately needed to talk to someone. I think that five hours had elapsed since the explosion. I wanted to ask why it was taking so long for help to come. Did anyone even know what happened? I had not seen the loadmaster or the mechanic since arriving in the ward, but I knew they were not badly injured.  As it turned out, the loadmaster and the mechanic had not just been sitting around. They hounded the Red Cross officials until they were allowed to use a radio to contact our people in Khartoum. Finally help was on the way.

It was now five p.m. A Red Cross nurse who had just arrived from Khartoum, and the doctor who had treated me earlier in the day visited me. The nurse asked me a few questions about my well-being. She gave me an injection of painkiller, which I welcomed. She and the doctor began signing forms and trading papers as I slipped back into that wonderful, drugged feeling. Finally, the paperwork was complete and I was treated to another ride in the "Mash" ambulance. The injection helped to smooth out the bumps this time.

As we arrived at the airfield as a thunderstorm passed overhead. While being transferred from the ambulance to the Red Cross King Air, I was instantly drenched by the heavy rain. In spite of the gentle hands of the attendants, I began to slip off the litter as they tried to maneuver it through the narrow aircraft door. A rush of adrenalin surged through me as I slipped towards the ground. The men caught me just in time.

I was placed on the bare floor of the plane, with Kurt and Nancy wedged in beside me. As we shivered against each other, I heard the turbines light off. I hoped no mines were scattered along our taxi route!  The King Air roared along the dirt runway, and suddenly we were airborne. I was wet and cold, but I felt safe again. As I tried to regain some of my optimism about the future, we must have penetrated the line of thunderstorms.

We lay unsecured on the floor and were jolted up and down in the turbulence. Lightening flashed through the windows and I ungraciously cursed the pilot for the rough ride. In reality he was a hero, willing to risk his life to rescue us, flying into where there might be landmines. I felt bad about cursing him. I knew I needed to get back in control. I was saved from further embarrassment by passing out!

Southern Air Hercules L-100-30 off Miami Beach


(Lynne's note**):  Ron, Nancy and Kurt were taken to a hospital in Germany where they received treatment until they were stable enough to be flown to the U.S.  Ron was then taken home to Redding, California, and over the next five years he had many operations on his foot.  In order to save his foot, the doctors grafted muscle from the side of his chest onto his foot.  He lost two inches on the right leg and also the ability to articulate that foot.  But he was able to take many hikes with me, drive, shop, and do other normal things.  Because of his injuries, he was never able to perform duties as a flight engineer or as a pilot.  Even though he took medical retirement from Southern Air Transport, he never lost his love for flying.

Whenever we were out hiking and a plane flew over,  he would look up and identify the kind of plane,  how fast it was going and where it was headed. The last month of his life,  he wanted to take lessons in a flight simulator at a flight school located near Los Angeles.  I was ready to make the appointment and drive him to LA when he started to decline and ultimately became too weak to get out of bed. He succumbed to cancer January 4 2005. I sincerely believe that he is out there somewhere, flying among the stars...


** Lynne, Ron's high school sweetheart and the one with whom he spent the last years of his life.
 
    Kurt would soon follow Ron, also succumbing to cancer,  leaving Nancy, the only survivor of that flight crew.


* Lockheed Hercules: A high winged, four engine turbo-prop aircraft, capable of operating from short unimproved runways.

* The Hamilton Standard propeller used on the Hercules had two operating ranges.  The normal Forward pitch range referred to by the engineers as the "Alpha" range and the Reverse pitch "Beta" range.  Hence, the light on the instrument panel , indicating that its propeller is not in forward pitch, is called a "Beta" light.