This story first appeared in the Aviation News Journal May/June 2014 (Canada)
(Also posted on Wandering. Not lost.)
The first time I heard Arthur Piercy’s story was in 1987 when I was a 20 year old infantry conscript deep in the Angolan bush. I was part of a force involved in South Africa’s last big invasion of Angola. We’d watched the aging aircraft of our air force singe the tree-tops as they roared overhead before “toss-bombing” the Angolan brigades we were about to attack. At other times we would watch the Angolan MiG 23s as they circled high above the forests searching for our positions. We knew that the Mirage F1, the SAAF’s main fighter aircraft, was no match for the more advanced Soviet MiG 23.
Under the cover of the trees and camouflage nets our commander told the assembled platoons that one of our Mirages had been shot down and the pilot had been badly injured during a crash-landing.
25 years later I met the pilot in a coffee shop in a mall near South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria. I had stumbled across him again on the internet just before I was about to embark on a journey back to the battlefields of Angola to deal with some of my own history. Arthur was unwittingly part of that history and in a way, I was part of his. So I contacted him and arranged a meeting.
We sat opposite each other in a mall, sipping coffee and exchanging war stories as modern South Africa went about its shopping around us, two war veterans from another time and a forgotten war.
I’ve heard many war stories, and I’m no stranger to the intensity and fear of the battlefield, yet as Arthur relates the story of the dogfight that put him in a wheelchair, I find myself breaking out in goose-bumps. It’s clear that as he tells me about engaging with the MiG23 at 1600 kilometres per hour, that he is reliving every second of the fight. The adrenaline surge as he turns his Mirage around to face the Mig that has just screamed through the centre of his formation. Flipping his weapon’s safety switch to “cannons” and then the moment when the MiG fires the heat-seeking missile. “There was a bright orange flash from his left wing and then this incredibly fast telephone pole came hurtling towards me trailing a solid white smoke trail. What’s more is that it was cork screwing so I was never sure where it was going.” He’s been trained to fly directly at the missile. It causes difficulties for the missile’s tracking system. He needs every ounce of his willpower to keep his aircraft on a head on course with the thing that is trying to kill him. But he manages. “I kept breaking towards it and I watched it corkscrew over my right wing and disappear.” There’s a faint explosion behind him and the aircraft shudders slightly.
The way Arthur describes the dogfight I almost feel as though I’m in the cockpit with him; it’s a mixture of excitement and sour old adrenaline, like a bad taste in my mouth, from my own memories of battle. I’m with him heading for the ground at full throttle, I’m with him as he wrestles the aircraft out of the dive and levels off just above the tree-tops l and races towards home-base in Runde, so low that he hopes he isn’t creating a dust cloud for the MiGs to follow.
He goes on to explain the calculations he has to make about fuel consumption to enable him to nurse his stricken Mirage back to the Rundu air base. He is losing fuel due to the damage caused by the missile. Once out of danger from the enemy he climbs to an altitude that will extend his aircraft’s range. In the end he makes it back but with a terrible problem. The tail of the Mirage is damaged. The drag-chute, which will slow him down on landing, has been blown away by the exploding missile. Without the chute the F1 overshoots the runway and eventually comes to a halt after crashing through the perimeter fence. Unfortunately the ejector seat malfunctions, spitting Arthur out of the cockpit and onto the ground where he lies, still attached to the seat.
He’s badly injured and the fire-fighters rush to help him but he tells them to attend to the burning airplane. The flames behind the air intake are dangerously close to the hundred rounds of cannon ammunition. Arthur doesn’t want to be shot by his own aircraft. He wakes up ten days later in hospital. He will never walk again.
The second time I meet Arthur is at the South African Air Force museum near Pretoria. The museum coffee shop looks out at the apron on which stand a selection of geriatric airplanes. Among them is an old Impala trainer and an Avro Shackleton maritime search and rescue aircraft used by the South African Air Force from 1957 until 1984.
I’m meeting Arthur to find out more about his Dreamwings project and, more specifically, to see the specially adapted airplane he is building. To regain his private pilot’s licence he has to demonstrate that he can get behind the controls without assistance. When we drive over to the hangar to see his airplane I notice that it takes some effort, although he’s well practiced, for him to transfer from his wheelchair to the car seat which is at a similar height. How difficult will it be, I wonder, for him to get into an aircraft? The car is specially adapted so that all the controls are operated by hand and the aircraft will be similarly easy for him to operate.
When I see the aircraft, I realise why he has chosen the four-seater Seawind amphibian. The half-finished ‘plane is squeezed into the hanger between old military spotter planes, a transport helicopter and even a more modern Rooivalk attack helicopter. With its high-level wing and the engine mounted on the tail-fin, the Seawind is low to the ground and, as he is building it from a kit, he has modified it with a special door in the side of the cockpit to facilitate easy entry. It seems perfect. Equally important is the fact that the aircraft has a range of over 900 nautical miles, a good long range which will be essential if Arthur is to fly it around the world. The fact that he can land it on water adds an element of versatility
Remarkable as it may seem for a quadriplegic to be restarting his flying career again, what is more remarkable is that Arthur intends to fly the Seawind around the world on a mission to promote peace. And at the risk of sounding like one of those awful shopping channel advertisements: there’s more. Through a third party, Arthur has managed to get in touch with the Cuban pilot who shot him down. His hope is for the pilot, Major Rivas, to fly a leg of the journey with him: a reconciliation of former enemies. Having recently met several former liberation fighters who were active on the same battlefields as me, I understand how such a meeting can help an ex-combatant to put the past to rest. I can tell by the turn our conversation takes that he is itching to discuss the ins and outs of aerial combat with the man who pulled the trigger on that telegraph pole!
As with so many dreams, Arthur needs to raise funds to pay for completing his aircraft and to embark on his around the world flight. This amounts to a substantial sum of money and will, in all likelihood, require the assistance of a large corporate sponsor. Until then, his Dreamwings project will remain just that, a dream.
For more information or to contribute to the funding of Project Dreamwings, visit Arthur’s website: http://www.projectdreamwings.co.za/