Oscar Hermansson, right, and crew members Brian Norden, left, and John Murphy at Gorongosa in Mozambique. PHOTO: Ernst Schade
“The lower you fly, the more difficult it is for them to fire at you”.
So said Oscar Hermansson, the founder of charter airline Scan Air which flew food aid in war-torn Mozambique in the 1990s.
Ernst Schade, a photographer and former aid worker, has written a moving story called Oscar and Felicity, the story of Oscar Hermansson, a larger-than-life Swede who flew Dakotas carrying food aid to the scared and hungry people of war-shattered Mozambique.
Ernst, who took some amazing photographs , flew a few times on these relief missions, carried out by Scan Air and another operator called Interocean Airways. Low flying was the rule because it seemed that almost anyone with a gun took a shot at any aircraft flying overhead. and of these tough missions where they had to fly low because almost everyone with gun seemed to take a shot at any aircraft they saw.
Ernst continues his tale.
For years the air charter company Scan Air Charter provided flights for the aid organisation that I worked for. This was in the early nineties. Mozambique had been plagued by civil war for decades. Transport by road was often difficult – if not impossible – because of the many attacks by the anti-government rebels. And we really needed transport, because for years we had been responsible for keeping more than 100 000 refugees alive. Waiting for better times, or rather, peace.
Scan Air got its name from Scandinavia, and in particular from Sweden, where Oscar Hermansson was born. Oscar was a huge guy and as blond as a Scandinavian can be, with a skin which turned bright red in the first ray of sun. He was also an exceptional aircraft engineer and a remarkable pilot.
Compared to the risks of travelling overland, air travel seemed relatively safe, even though there were times that some aeroplanes simply crashed because of poor maintenance or because they had lost their way and had to make an emergency landing somewhere in the immense bush.
But this was not the case with Scan Air. Oscar had two mechanics – and a fully-manned maintenance repair station in Swaziland – who worked for his rapidly expanding, reliable fleet of Cessnas, Beechcrafts and three DC-3s or Dakotas, both impressive machines which proved the old airman’s saying “if it looks good, it flies good”.
Felicity, Oscar’s wife, was the airline’s managing director, and with her strong, Zimbabwean, farm-girl accent, she rang up all southern Africa looking for new clients.
A Dakota in its hanger, Mozambique. PHOTO: Ernst Schade
In 1991, Felicity and Oscar bought the oldest flying Dakota fleet of three machines from Ethiopian Airlines. The aircraft were powered by two Pratt & Whitney engines which made that deep and resonant sound that the Dutch war generation still remembers so well from the time when the food was dropped around the time of the liberation.
Dakota spare parts were still available and Oscar and his mechanics overhauled the ‘new’ acquisition to the highest standard.
Scan Air carried out hundreds of flights, with cargos of maize, oil, flour and sugar, tents and medicine, spare parts for machinery, petrol and generators.
Every day before sunrise, the Dakota would be loaded up at Chimoio airport with about three tonnes of cargo, and at the first reddish-blue rays of daybreak, Oscar, his co-pilot John Tristan and loadmaster John Murphy would taxi to the runway, take-off and disappear in a steep curve in the direction of Espungabera, Machaze, Gorongosa or Mungari.
The word airstrip could hardly apply to those places. They were more open spaces, just long enough to come to a standstill before a row of huts. First, they flew a low circle to scatter the people and the goats who were constantly walking around, and then they landed, bumping over holes, trenches, and rubbish.
Food supplies are unloaded at a strip in the bush. PHOTO: Ernst Schade
With the right hand engine still running to ensure a re-start, the cargo would be unloaded in 15 minutes by the local people. The last bag had not been taken out when Oscar was starting up, the door still open, eager to get on the way to the home base for a new load.
Without any lunch they flew on till the daylight was gone. With luck they were able to make four or five trips a day.
Guro was a village which had – within a short time – seen 25 000 refugees stream in as the war front became closer. Guro needed provisions and so we decided to sound out the situation with Oscar and his Cessna. But the runway turned out to be in bad repair and Oscar decided to land on the tarmac road which ran quite steeply up towards the centre of the village and turned out to be just long enough to come to a halt right in front of the local government offices.
The look of panic on the face of the mayor was one in a thousand. It was decided to pay the villagers to repair the airstrip. They did not want any money – what would they do with it anyway? What they really wanted was food. And so Guro airport was ready for the Dakota within two weeks.
Departing with the Cessna was more precarious, because at the end of the tarmac there was a bridge with railings on both sides which were higher than the wings. At full throttle we stormed up to the bridge but our flying Swede had calculated correctly and a few metres from the railing he lifted his machine off the ground.
The demand for transport for aid materials kept increasing as the war continued to spread and Scan Air did excellent business. More flights, more aeroplanes. The tempo increased and to save time there was more and more cargo loaded on to one flight.
Then, one day, the director of the Chimoio airport called me – the Dakota had not come back from a flight in the northern province of Tete. Two days, three days … no sign of the Dakota. On the third day the news came.
That day, after walking several kilometres through the bush with a broken arm and leg, John Murphy, the loadmaster, staggered into a village near the Zambezi River. The villagers took him to a nearby HF radio set and a call was made to Chimoio.
Lyndon Hermansson, Oscar’s son, takes up the story. “The Dakota had been loaded to maximum capacity and on route to Mutarrawa, they lost an engine, a common occurrence that plagued their fleet. Being in love with his aircraft and not wishing to ditch his aircraft on a short field in the middle of nowhere, Oscar made the fateful decision to turn back and try to make it back home. In the swelteringly hot weather and fully loaded, the Dak lost valuable altitude minute by minute.
“With three tonnes of maize, those aircraft do not maintain altitude. John Murphy tried in vain to reduce the load, but moving the 50kg bags was a tall order for one man. He realized that it was too late when through the open door he saw the tops of the baobab trees zooming past.
There was a huge bang and the crash had lasted for ever, but Murphy was protected by the sacks of maize.
“My father was killed on the spot but John Tristan lived for two more days, the reason John Murphy stayed with them. On the second day he passed away and Murphy was compelled to leave the pilots to go and look for help and save himself,” Lyndon writes.
The army sent a helicopter to the scene which they found quite quickly from John Murphy’s directions, and the bodies of the pilots were taken back to Chimoio.
Ernst continues. “On the fourth day I was rung by the hospital director. Did I know the pilots, and if so, could I identify them? The hospital mortuary was itself awful. The air-conditioning had not been working for years and the mosquito netting on the windows was rusted and broken, so that inside it was not only stifling hot and swarming with flies.
“The two men lay in a little room lit by a solitary bulb. It was impossible for me to distinguish between them – their wounds were so numerous that I could give no definite answer. All at once it came to me how I could tell them apart: Oscar always wore long safari trousers and John was always dressed in khaki shorts. And so was I able to do what was expected of me.
“The same day Oscar’s wife, Felicity, and son, Lyndon, arrived in their Cessna 402, along with two undertakers from a South African funeral parlour. The next day, after a short but emotional ceremony we drove to the airport with the two coffins on a truck and gently slid Oscar and John into their own Cessna.” – Ernst Schade – email@example.com. With thanks to Jenny de Sonneville
For more Dakota photos, see The Dakota Years slideshow.
Thanks for the comment and the link to your article. Yes, the Scan Air story is a very interesting one but also full of heartbreak, not only for the Hermansson family but also for the people of Mozambique. Sad too.
I hope to meet Lyndon in Swaziland one of these days.
My Dad was a good friend of Oscar and Filly, and worked for them on a contract basis from time to time. I visited Lynden in hospital here in Midrand after his prang, and attended the Funeral for Oscar and John Tristan… I really would like to get hold of Ernst so I can purchase the book he wrote, please respont to me by e-mail or phone,
firstname.lastname@example.org or +2796320577