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Escorting Moi with fighter jets

Friday December 18 2009



On November 13, 1979, a Kenya Airways Boeing 707 took off from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, headed for Tel Aviv. On board was a Kenyan government delegation led by President Daniel arap Moi, who was off to Israel on a state visit.

Approximately four-and-a-half hours into the flight, the huge jet entered Israeli airspace. There, with flawless precision, it was met by Israeli Air Force jet fighters, which fell into escort formation.

The fighters escorted the 707 to the safe environs of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport.

At the end of the visit three days later, the President’s 707 departed Ben Gurion and, once again, another flight of fighter jets fell into escort formation. They escorted the plane to the limit of Israeli airspace before turning back for home.

For the Government of Israel, having fighter jets escort a VIP state guest — the head of state of a friendly country of long standing — was the right thing to do.

Israel was in a state of war and no chances were to be taken in the discharge of certain responsibilities. VIP security was a task requiring elaborate logistics, with their attendant high costs, and was part and parcel of duty.


But the regal spectacle of that flight seems to have made a big impression on the Kenyans. The President had travelled to other countries before but nothing in the manner of his travel changed.

After this visit, a tradition began: the Kenya Air Force was henceforth to provide escort services to the President’s plane as it departed from Kenya and as it hugged Kenyan airspace on return.

Public profile

Says a retired army officer: “Early in President Moi’s reign, the military assumed a very high public profile. When travelling to and returning from state visits abroad, there was always a full guard of honour for him. He used to be escorted by Air Force jet fighters and then the same jets would give him a fly-by when he finished inspecting the guard of honour. He opened many agricultural shows around the country and the story was the same: guard of honour, Air Force fly-by. He was very different from Kenyatta who seemed to have little time for the armed forces.”

Adds the officer who is now in academia: “There are two institutions that President Moi seemed in a big hurry to revamp and bring under his personal control — Kanu and the armed forces. Whereas Kenyatta used his personal charisma as his public relations tool and the General Service Unit as his fist — they were called fanya fujo uone (make trouble and you’ll regret it) — Moi seemed to need an all-pervasive political machinery to impress Kenyans. He found it in Kanu. And to flex his political muscle, he used every occasion possible to parade the armed forces.”

When Air Force pilots and other aviation professionals in the service learnt that they would now be providing escort services to their Commander-in-Chief, they were aghast.

The disparities in the specifications of the aircraft to be involved in the formation flights presented substantial safety challenges while leaving out the question of the purpose of it all.

Says a retired fighter pilot: “Formation flying, as all aviators will tell you, is a very military thing. Military pilots are trained to fly in formations under all types of conditions. Civilian pilots are not. Normally, flying in formation is usually done using planes of one type and pilots who have undergone the same training and pre-flight briefing. There is a much greater risk to safety when an assortment of planes of different specifications and capacities is thrown into the air and asked to make a formation.”

This was happening before the government procured a plane specifically for the President’s use. For his travels abroad, the Head of State used Kenya Airways Boeing 707s, routinely throwing the airline’s schedules in disarray, sometimes for up to a week.

The 707 is big plane with a carrying capacity of about 200 passengers. The massive idle space in the aircraft produced a great desire for joyrides among the itinerant President’s many praise-singers and pointmen.

Bitterly opposed

And he seemed all to willing to get as many of them as possible on board. Thus, Presidential delegations were inordinately large, packed with people who had no official business to transact.

Many Kenyans were bitterly opposed to the acquisition of a Presidential jet, mistakenly citing opulence in a country filled with depravity. But few knew of the savings the country was going to make and the headache that Kenya Airways was relieved of. By its very size, the 26-seater presidential jet had locked out hordes of praise-singers and hangers-on.

So the Kenya Air Force had to figure out how its fighters were going to be safely formatting with the 707 while escorting the President.

There were two types of jet fighters in its inventory — the supersonic Northrop F-5 Tiger and the subsonic British Aerospace Hawk.

Says the pilot quoted above: “Cruising at 850km/h at 40,000 feet above sea level, the 707 made the Hawk struggle to keep up because that is also the fighter’s approximate cruise capacity at that altitude. For a formation flight, the 707 was too fast for the Hawk when cruising but alright when it slowed down for landing.

“On the other hand, the supersonic F-was perfectly comfortable for a formation flight with the 707 at altitude. It had an altitude ceiling of more than 50,000ft and its speed exceeded 1,700km/h. It was more than mission capable for this task. But things got complicated when the big plane slowed down for landing. It was too slow for the fighter.”

Thus, Air Force flight planners found themselves coming to the substantial conclusion that to enact a formation like the one done by the Israelis and desired by their political bosses, they would have to use both the F-5 and the Hawk — one for high altitude cruising and the other for landing. But this, too, became impracticable because of operational reasons. In the end, most escort flights were done by the F-5.

Recalls the pilot: “This was a daunting task. Unfortunately, then, and even now I believe, senior people do not have the courage to tell their bosses the truth of certain circumstances. In this case, there were serious issues of safety for a doubtful purpose. Who was threatening President Moi in his own country while flying at 40,000ft? Why would he need F-5s on his plane’s wings?

Passed down

“And when landing, why would he need the Hawks? What protection were they offering him in the environs of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport? Regrettably, problems such as these are passed down to officers who have no say in policy. They just carry it out. So, as a pilot, it is your duty to make the decisions for your safety and those of your plane.”

This was during the single party era when retribution for a slight misstep could come in devastating short order for somebody’s career. Thus, nobody was foolhardy enough to raise the simple point that all this trouble had nothing to do with presidential or national security.

It was all about wasting vast quantities of fuel, endangering people’s lives and needlessly wearing down expensive machines, all for the sake of massaging somebody’s ego.

So the escort flights went on. On a few occasions, the Commander-in-Chief took time off to meet and shake hands with the pilots. He praised them and encouraged them to keep up the good work. After the compliments, the aviators took off for home at Laikipia Air Base having performed their national duty.

The end came on the fateful day of November 26, 1982 when an extraordinary incident occurred — and put a full stop on the escort missions.
Col (Rtd) Seth Shava was a pilot with the F-5 Squadron at Laikipia when orders came through that they were needed for a Presidential escort mission.

Recalls Shava: “We were told that we were going to escort President Moi home from Libya where he had gone to hand over the OAU chairmanship to Col Gaddafi. Problems in handing over had arisen and he was coming back with the chairmanship, but that was none of our business. Our task was to escort him safely home.”

From the beginning, the mission was fraught with uncertainties and glitches. Says Shava: “He was scheduled to come back on a Monday and four F-5 fighter jets were readied and the pilots selected and briefed. The pilots were Michael Gichangi, who was the mission leader, Christopher Kariuki, Geoffrey Okang’a and myself. (Today, Gichangi is director general, National Security Intelligence Service, Kariuki is an airline pilot with Kenya Airways and Okang’a is Kenya’s High Commissioner to Uganda).

“This was all the information that was given to us — that the President would be coming on that Monday. We were not told the time. So we were on stand-by all day awaiting further information and orders. None came. After 6pm, the mission was called off because, after all, we could not escort him in the dark.

“We were back in a state of readiness at 6am the following day awaiting new orders. Again, all day, no information and no orders came. At 6pm, as on the previous day, the mission was again called off. On Wednesday we reported back and still no orders. On Thursday, it was finally confirmed to us that the President would indeed be coming.”

The four pilots then held a final briefing session, went to suit up and boarded their aircraft. Recalls Shava: “It was raining cats and dogs.”

At between 3 and 4pm, the jets took off through the storm one by one. The plan was to make a rendezvous somewhere in the sky and meet the President’s 707 between Lodwar and Eldoret. For then inexplicable reasons, one jet — the one piloted by Captain Okang’a — dropped out of the mission.

However, it made it safely back to base. It transpired later that Okang’a was unable to join up with his colleagues in the bad weather and did the procedural and prudent thing: return to base.

The three remaining planes successfully rendezvoused with the 707 shortly after Lodwar. The weather had by now cleared.

On sighting the President’s plane, mission leader Gichangi contacted the Kenya Airways pilot, Captain Francis Mwangi, and told him that they had orders to escort him and his VVIP passenger home. He requested his permission to fall into escort formation with the 707.

Aviation law makes it mandatory to seek the permission of any pilot, military or civilian, before you can format with him.

Recalls Shava: “Captain Mwangi replied that he was not aware of any such orders and declined to give permission. He did, however, say something like he was going to find out from his higher-ups.”

Obviously, State House had not informed Kenya Airways and so Kenya Airways had not informed their veteran captain to expect military jets as soon as he entered Kenyan airspace.

There was no way Mwangi was going to allow the F-5s near him. He would have to ask his bosses at Kenya Airways who would then ask State House. State House would then tell Kenya Airways the position. Kenya Airways would then transmit that information to their pilot who would communicate it to the fighter jets. It would take a while.

The three military pilots were now in a dilemma: how to fulfil their orders without breaching Captain Mwangi’s authority. And they knew that in his circumstances, he had done the right thing.

What to do? Says Shava: “We resolved to follow the 707 but at a distance — not too near as to form a formation against the wishes of Captain Mwangi, but near enough to be seen by his passengers.” And so they flew.

At 39,000ft above sea level over Nakuru, the 707 began its descent for Nairobi. The three F-5s promptly did the same. But now they entered dense cloud; nobody could see the other. However, using radar, the F-5s could track the blip on their screens that was the 707.

Shortly after Nakuru, the descending airliner made a gentle turn heading for Nairobi. And immediately after this, Captain Mwangi radioed the fighters to tell them that he now had been cleared to let them format with him.

Nobody could see

Mission leader Gichangi acknowledged the communication. But they were all flying in dense cloud and the fighters could only track the 707 through their radar screens. Nobody could physically see the other. It was all instrument flying.

It was a mission which opened a whole new meaning to the idea of escort where neither the escort nor the escorted can see each other save through electronic gadgetry.

Says Shava: “Before Naivasha, we broke cloud. I was on the right side of Gichangi and we saw the 707 turn left. Gichangi turned left too, and just as I began joining them, we all plunged into the clouds again! And that is when my problems began. We were making rapid turns in the clouds when I experienced a loss of power in my aircraft.

Perish the thought

“Immediately, I told my colleagues I was in trouble and asked for my altitude and my heading. They gave it to me. I planned to do some flips in the clouds but knowing that we were in the vicinity of the Aberdares, I perished the thought: recovery when on such high ground would be difficult. I was losing altitude in high terrain. I rapidly went through all the checks and could not see any change in the status of the plane.”

He had now fallen below and behind his colleagues. Over his radio, Shava could hear Gichangi and Kariuki asking: “Where is Shava? Where is Shava?” But he was so busy trying to nurse his stricken jet back to life that he could not answer them.

This is the moment when one dies or lives: it’s all a matter of seconds. A decision has to be made — to eject or to continue cajoling the plane and give it one more chance to recover.

Says Shava: “The decision to give the plane one more chance is the decision that kills you.”

And that is because it often comes too late. The ejection seat has minimum operational parameters in speed and altitude: in some modern planes, the envelope is 0-0 meaning that one can eject when the plane is at standstill and the parachute will safely deploy. But in the case of the F-5, the craft must be doing a minimum of 70 knots (approximately 130kph).

Captain Shava’s moment of reckoning had come. The plane had failed to respond to all commands and he decided to eject. This is what happens when a pilot decides to abandon his stricken F-5: He pulls the ejection handle, which automatically exposes the triggers. He then squeezes the triggers, which fire the cartridge below the seat. Automatically, that action blows away the canopy of the plane. The rockets below the seat fire it away from the plane.

If this action takes place when the pilot is above 14,000ft, he starts falling free like a stone. When he gets below 14,000ft, the seat separates and the parachute deploys.

Shava explains: “It takes 1.9 seconds from pushing the triggers to parachute deployment. The brain goes into hyperactive mode. When I pulled the ejection handle and squeezed the triggers, I watched as if in slow motion as the canopy of the plane blew off. I saw the seat separating from the aircraft. I saw the seat separating from me as the parachute deployed. I saw so many people that I knew in my life. I saw family members, friends and many other people. There seemed to be so much time for me to absorb all this. And yet it all took place in the space of only 1.9 seconds.”

He emerged through a heavy cloud in the Kinangop area and landed in the backyard of some humble peasant farmer’s homestead. There was a sizeable group of people in the vicinity. He heard the loud bang of his crashing jet in the distance.

Then the drama began. A fighter pilot’s attire includes a flying suit, a helmet and a survival kit in addition to his brightly coloured parachute designed to attract people who would help in distress. It also includes a life jacket should he land in water.

The Kinangop area has given Kenyans some famously religious people of not always the orthodox kind. In 1992, they produced an MP who was christened Prophetess by fellow members because of her penchant to communicate “messages from God” to them.

In 2006, the area was in the news for a long time when members of the House of Yahweh sect prophesied nuclear war, donned gas masks and dug themselves into mud bunkers in readiness for the world’s end.

Shava had come face to face with this religious intensity much earlier. When the humble peasants of the area he landed in saw who had happened upon them from the heavy clouds, they immediately went down on their knees to pray.

“I understand the language and I could tell they were praying to me,” he remembers.

They were sure this was the Messiah whom they had been told over and over again would descend from the clouds and come to them. They beseeched Shava to forgive them all their trespasses as the shaken pilot struggled to come to terms with his fate.