I guess, as aircrew on an RAF Odiham Puma helicopter squadron, we were used to being caught on the hop during those uncertain days of the 1980s! It was a Friday evening on the 15 November 1985, 35 years ago, and a number of us were enjoying a convivial supper evening hosted by “The Boss” in his married quarter. The fare for the evening was delicious and copious glasses of alcohol most certainly adding to the cordiality. I remember the Wing Commander receiving a lengthy phone call, looking very serious indeed and enquiring if anyone knew who might be on the next squadron detachment out to Belize. At that time 33 Squadron at Odiham provided crews for a permanent helicopter detachment based in the Central American country. It so transpired that there were four of us present that were due to go, but not for another month. Well, that was all about to change then and there.
If one remembers in the days before computer driven, live media coverage, reporting of events came via telex and the BBC World Service. In this case the British Government had been requested to provide search and rescue plus humanitarian aid in the wake of a volcanic eruption in Columbia. RAF helicopter support would be provided from a permanent Puma helicopter flight in Belize, augmented with extra crews from the UK. The information was sketchy indeed: we were to get all of our flying kit together that evening, have various inoculations and be prepared to fly out to Bogota via Miami from Heathrow the next morning of 16 November!
Driven by disgruntled wives and girlfriends our evening’s enjoyment came to an early close as we were transported around the station finally ending up at the Station Medical Centre. The standby doctor, a civilian GP had been called in to administer a whole host of jabs against a range of ‘horrible afflictions’. This he did, at one go and very reluctantly I might add, especially as we all had ‘imbibed’ a fair modicum of alcohol during the evening!
At Heathrow Terminal 4 early the next morning we teamed up with a multitude of civilian emergency SAR and medical specialists and were able to elicit a much fuller picture of the unravelling situation on the other side of the world. An 18,000ft high volcano, the Navado del Riuz, had erupted three nights previously, melting the ice cap and sending down a tidal wave of mud, water and boulders to engulf the town of Armero. Roads and bridges had been destroyed making rescue efforts impossible. With limited internal resources, the Columbian government had urgently requested aid to tackle the situation.
After an 18 hour flight via Miami to Bogota we arrived very late at night. The only hitch was almost losing all of our flying equipment and personal baggage whilst changing flights at Miami. Assured by BA Heathrow that our kit would automatically be transferred, we were very surprised to see everything forlornly ‘circulating’ around a baggage carousel in the arrival hall. As the aircrew adage goes – “never assume always check”!
Arriving in the ‘menacing atmosphere’ of a crowded, darkened terminal building, we were met by the British Army Defence Attache for an overnight stay. During the previous week an attack had been made by the M19 guerilla movement on the city’s Palace of Justice. As a consequence, rigid military control had been enforced and there was evidence of tanks and armed patrols on the streets. It was quite reminiscent of being back in Northern Ireland!
The next day saw us back at the main airport to meet an RAF Hercules crew who would transport us forward to our operating base at Palenquero, a Columbian Air Force jet fighter airfield. Part of Bogota airport was to function as the focal hub for incoming humanitarian supplies and we spent most of that day helping with the development of a ‘safe and cohesive system of aircraft loading’. A Spanish speaking British Army Warrant Officer flown down from Belize was left in charge to minimise damage.
In the heat of the evening dusk, clouds of mosquitoes and piles of freight unloaded from the departing Hercules we were abandoned on the edge of the aircraft pan. Eventually, a liaison officer arrived with jeeps to take us to our accommodation again with our own 24 hour armed guard positioned close by.
Unbeknown to us, our Puma helicopters travelling 1500 miles down from Belize had encountered problems involving the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime and had been refused diplomatic clearance to stop for refuel or even overfly. An unscheduled overnight stop, grounded in Honduras whilst authorisation was eventually granted, meant that arrival at Palenquero did not occur until Monday afternoon. That said, within two hours of arrival we had the aircraft made ready with freight aboard for the first sorties with our crews from Odiham.
We were absolutely stunned with what we saw on that first trip. A town the size of Hook with its two storied buildings had all but disappeared under a covering of mud. 23,000 people had been killed or were missing, swept away in the mud flow along a flat open plain. There were bodies both of humans and livestock everywhere and smaller helicopters were darting about with rescue parties collecting live casualties, moving them to designated first aid posts on higher ground.
It was into one of these that we made our first approach for offload. I assumed that the smoke from a burning mound was a signal giving the wind direction. However, on opening the door on finals to land, the stench from the burning flesh, I don’t think, I will ever forget. With daytime temperatures in the mid upper 30s, typhoid fever had broken out and before the area could be effectively fumigated, the initial action by the Columbian Army was to burn the corpses using petrol. Besides staple foodstuffs, huge amounts of fresh bottled water supplies were desperately needed in the area both for the medical centres and villages. On one particular trip I also transported 10 chainsaws into the Armero area. This had been in response for a request from medical teams trying to free survivors still trapped in buildings by arms or legs in the most appalling conditions.
The town of Armero before and after the mud slide that killed 23,000 people
Other operating conditions included the ever present dust and layers of volcanic ash that covered everything and made approaches to the confined, ad hoc landing sites in mountain villages extremely hazardous with reduced visibility at crucial moments. We always carried one of the Columbian Air Force fighter pilots in the cockpit for navigation and radio assistance with the Spanish language. ‘Down the back’, I made sure that I had ‘ample muscle’ to aid me move the supplies out of the doors and prevent ‘unwanted passengers’ climbing on board to escape the area.
On one particular heavily loaded sortie, I enlisted a man from the BBC, cameraman/reporter Bernard Hesketh to give me a hand. With camera and mike capturing both picture and sound, he unwittingly captured an ‘interesting arrival’ at the 7500 ft Villahermosa football pitch in temperatures of nearly 40 deg. This went on air, with ‘no bleeps’ back home a few days later.
During the ten days of operations shuttling supplies and personnel into the area from Palenquero we most certainly extended the capabilities of our helicopters. We were part of an international relief operation that included Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters from the United States Air Force in Panama, French Puma and Columbian UH1 ‘Huey” machines. In the 10 days working from dawn to dusk 76,000lbs of supplies were transported by our two aircraft in Columbia. Needless to say, when making our way back to Belize we too were held up by the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua. We were placed under armed guard by the side of our helicopters, all day and without relief until eventual diplomatic intervention by the embassies through the military.
From my flying logbook I can see that the date of arrival back at Belize Airport Camp was 26th November 1985. We had covered some 1500 miles from Palenquero, Columbia with a total flight time of 11 hours and 15 minutes. With our aircraft and crews back at base and part of 1563 Flight, business carried on as normal throughout December and into January supporting the British Army and Belize Defence Force in its deterrent role against possible invasion from Guatemala. It’s extremely useful to still have the possession of one’s ‘logbook/diaries’ as, after 35 years, they help trigger fast fading memories of places, people and incidents. I see a note at the end of an entry for the 23rd December that, once again, I’m crewed with Flt Lt Doug Finlay Maxwell on a re-supply sortie to an army post on the Guatemala border. In a bracketed entry, it would appear that we had clandestinely paused on our return to source Christmas trees for both the Officers’ and Sergeants’ Messes and help the festivities along! Operating over the jungles and pine covered ridges of Belize in all weathers was an incredible experience and the subject, maybe, of further record before permanently forgotten.