British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by John Ainley
A Brief Encounter with Vultures
A 1961 'Blackburn Beverley' Food Drop
Blackburn Beverley in Nairobi
A few memories were stirred when reading an article in our provincial newspaper, the Yorkshire Post. This piece described the plight of a last remaining Blackburn Beverley cargo aircraft which, after many years as an exhibit at the Army Transport Museum in Beverley, East Yorkshire was having to find a new home due to the Museum's closure. It is a valuable piece of aircraft history, being built during the 1950s by the then Blackburn and General Aircraft Co (now BAE Systems Pic). For a time these aircraft were the cargo workhorses and troop carriers of the army.

My involvement with this cavernous aircraft was in 1961 when I was, amongst other things, editor of a Swahili farming magazine, Ukulima wa Kisasa (Modern Farming) and was stationed in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika. Both the short and long rains had failed that year and there was a serious food shortage over a wide area in the Rufiji delta of Eastern Province. Many African farmers were on the verge of starvation and to make matters worse, torrential late rains had destroyed bridges and flooded the only murram earth road into the district.

There was no question of trying to supply foodstuffs by road and there seemed little that the Government could do to ease the situation. But one individual in the Department of Agriculture had the idea of doing a first ever food airdrop in the country. He knew that the army, who in those days had troops in the British Protectorate of Aden, had the use of a Beverley aircraft. Contact was made, not an easy task in those days when communications were poor, limited radio facilities, erratic telephones, mobile phones still a dream! But eventually contact was made and the powers that be were persuaded to send one of two aircraft stationed there. When it landed at the small airport of Dar es Salaam the sight of this enormous plane caused much excitement, especially as aircraft travel in this part of Africa was still much in its infancy, limited mainly to Britannias and Dakotas.

A Brief Encounter with Vultures
A 1961 'Blackburn Beverley' Food Drop
Blackburn Beverley
As preparations were hurriedly made to carry out the first of several airdrops, I thought that it would make a good story for my farming magazine and sought permission to accompany the crew on the first mercy flight of this then unusual operation. On arrival at the airfield, I was introduced to the four crew - two pilots, a navigator and a wireless operator. As we were loading the last pallets of maize into the aircraft I could see that the captain was not entirely happy. The problem was that the heavy hessian sacks of maize had varying weights and he was concerned that the maximum payload of 11,350 kilos was being exceeded. He was assured that this was not the case and the remainder of the maize was loaded. That done the enormous rear doors clanged shut.

We climbed aboard and with a splutter the four Bristol Centaurus 2850 hp engines kicked into action, the four-blade hollow steel propellers idling slowly in the tropical heat. The pilot opened the throttle and we moved down the runway with an ever increasing vibration as he increased the revs. We reached the end of the tarmac strip and were bumping along the uneven grass surface with still no sign of lift-off. In the near distance in front of us was a line of coconut palms getting rapidly closer. Seriously worried, I thought the pilot would abort the flight when with a lumbering gait we left the ground, clearing the trees with only a few feet to spare. The sense of relief amongst the crew, and me(!) was palpable. "We will have a little less weight next time" dryly remarked the captain.

A Brief Encounter with Vultures
A 1961 'Blackburn Beverley' Food Drop
Rufiji Delta
Flying at 174 mph, the recommended cruising speed for the Blackburn, a two hour flight brought us in sight of the vast flooded area of the Rufiji river. We could see several villages with typical beehive-shaped mud and wattle huts on the higher ground, many entirely surrounded by flood waters. These were the fortunate ones as further on only the roof tops of huts were showing above the water. Most of the African cultivators seemed to have made their way to the higher ground where they were waving frantically to what must have been a most unusual sight of this giant aircraft.

As we came lower, looking for a suitable area of dry land on which we could safely drop the maize we had to take violent avoiding action as a flock of vultures suddenly appeared in front of us. We had seen many of these scrawny-necked birds on the ground feeding off the carcasses of drowned cattle. An impact with one or more of these birds could have had disastrous results on our overloaded aircraft. Having selected two dropping zones, we unhitched the pallets secured to rings set in the fuselage and opened the rear doors, causing an inrush of air which, had it not been for the safety harness we were wearing, could have sucked us towards the rear such was the pressure. We pushed the pallets, running smoothly on rails, out of the aircraft, in itself a hazardous operation as were the bags hurtling down to the waiting people. But nobody was injured as far as we could see, the bags splitting on impact and people waving in relief as they gathered up the maize.

A Brief Encounter with Vultures
A 1961 'Blackburn Beverley' Food Drop
Fort Paull
A little known episode of many years ago but certainly then a new and life-saving effort, perhaps commonplace these days but not in the early 1960s. Without the Blackburn Beverley and assistance from the Army many people could have died. Perhaps the description I wrote in Swahili still resides in the archives of the magazine Ukulima wa Kisasa' and, hopefully, had the full flavour of this pioneering event with its suspense and finally competent achievement.


The last surviving Blackburn Beverley was sold to Fort Paull just outside of Hull where it can be seen and enjoyed still.

1944 Map of Nguna Island
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 87: April 2004


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