Expedition Pelican 16—Waypoint 22°37’49.6“N 13°14’14.4“W
By Burkhard and Sabine Koch
[Normally, I wouldn’t consider posting an article here that I publish in Overland Journal Europe, but I found this particular story written by some good friends of mine worthy of a little extra visibility. Pour yourself your favourite drink, park yourself in a comfortable spot and enjoy the read.]
I am cloaked in darkness in a flat gravel desert some 30 km northwest of the intersection between the 22nd parallel and the 12th degree of longitude. The setting moon took with it the meagre light it shed. A light, warm easterly wind blew silently; it is completely dark and peaceful. I want to sense the desert in the darkness, just as it was on July 13th 1994, when the moon set at precisely 22:14—a little earlier than today.
That night, I would have heard the spooky hum of a heavy propellor-engined plane as it neared from the south. Suddenly, a bright yellow fire trail would have ignited in the pitch dark sky.
There were 19 South Africans on board—aircraft mechanics, engineers, technicians. Together, they had restored the four-prop Avro Shackleton MK3 military plane flying under the call sign Pelican 16 and were on their way from Cape Town to a military air tatoo in England.
Just about here, where I am now standing, they would have looked through the window and seen flames streaming from engine number four. A leak in the coolant system was the cause.
At this point everything was calm and routine in the cockpit. The co-pilot, Peter Dagg, would have read the checklist aloud as they shut the engine down. To extinguish the flames, the flight engineer would have cut the fuel supply to stop the engine, and then set the propellor blades to glide. The 39-ton plane was still capable of flying on just three engines. No cause for alarm. Instead of following the planned route north, the pilot changed course toward Layoune, in the Western Sahara, where he could land.
With number four down, the three remaining engines had to compensate for the loss of power. The aircraft may have left its cruising altitude in favour of denser air below to increase the thrust.
To prevent yawing, or turning through its vertical axis, the pilot would have reduced the thrust from the two port engines, but not that of the remaining starboard motor which would have to provide more power.
The Shackleton was equipped with two contra-rotating propellors per engine which were driven through a planetary gear between the props. This concept is just as effective as it is temperamental.
28 minutes after the engine fire a bolt in the planetary gear broke in engine number three and suddenly there was no thrust at all on the starboard side. The plane started to yaw. The only option left, if the pilot wanted to maintain control, was to cut back the revs on the port engines—which also meant he wouldn’t be able to maintain altitude.
Mayday is but a small word, yet it signals catastrophe. Peter Dagg remained calm as he searched the map during the descent for a flat area in preparation for the inevitable crash landing. He was in luck: The border between Mauritania and the Western Sahara cuts through large expanses of flat gravel desert.
At 01:37 on July 13th 1994, Peter Dagg put Pelican 16 down in the remote gravel flats. The plane suffered extensive damage, the undercarriage tore away, the props buckled and snapped, but as if by wonder, the passengers only had to brush the dust from their clothes. Only two of the crew were lightly injured. Talk about luck.
A search party found the plane late the following day. Forty hours after the crash, helicopters landed next to the wreck, gathered up the crew, and flew them to Tindouf in Algeria. All 19 of the blessed team returned to South Africa; the remains of Pelican 16 are still in the gravel flats of the Western Sahara.
We set off the following morning just as the sun rose. The yellow rays spread across the gravel which momentarily resembled golden nuggets. It’s an easy drive through the flat desert and, by reducing the tyre pressures slightly, the Steyr rolled across the firm surface as if it were a carpet.
We were making good progress as we followed a straight line to the coordinates in the satnav without straying from our course to avoid graves, dunes or other hindrances. We reached Pelican 16 at midday. The Polisario, who manage the region of the Western Sahara, maintain a permanent military post here.
We couldn’t make out any fresh tyre tracks and assumed not many travellers came here to visit. I pulled up 50 m from a simple stone house and didn’t have to wait long before two men emerged and ambled over to us. One of them, who would eventually introduce himself as the man in charge, pulled on a green tunic as he walked. Even though we had evidently disturbed their siesta, they were clearly happy about this exciting change to their otherwise bland day.
Communication is awkward. They speak Spanish, we speak English, but we managed to get along with some garbled pantomime. I can’t pronounce his name which sounds a little like Abraham, or maybe not. He eventually gives up, points a finger at himself and exclaims “Abi”. He struggles just as much with Burkhard, so I follow his lead and say “Buki”.
Now that we’ve been formally introduced, he hits the proverbial nerve by asking, “have you got a permit?” Officially, a permit is mandatory and it can be applied for at the Polisario in Fderik. However, we had deliberately given Fderik a wide berth because they usually insist on providing an escort for the journey to Pelican 16, which limits the amount of time available for photography and also means we would have to return with them to Mauritania. But we want to use the best available light to take photographs in our own time and without restrictions—something not even my pantomimic performance is likely to convey. So I answer with an abrupt “No”, and responded with my own question: “Problem?” Abi’s answer is equally brusque: “No, no problem.”
Whilst he makes note of our passports in his book, the questions become less hostile: “Tea?” I give him the thumbs up and Abi smiles. “Biscuits?”, I say. Abi launches his thumbs in approval. We understand each other.
His colleague strolls back to their little stone box and returns with firewood and all the necessary utensils for a tea ceremony, and I serve biscuits, dates, chocolate, and oranges from our pantry. As we sit in the shadow cast by our truck drinking tea and eating chocolate, I ponder how I was going to bring up the subject of our drone without upsetting anyone. Having not found any information before we left, I am oblivious as to whether or not photo-drones are permitted here.
I very cautiously speak to the soldiers and drop words like Germany and camera whilst making my hands fly to a buzzing sound. “Ah, camera fly—no problem.”—“No problem?”, I ask again. Abi slaps my shoulder with his hand and repeats: “ No problem, Sahara is free.”
As I assemble the propellors and let this piece of high tech take to the skies, they are clearly bored. They don’t even offer a glance, not even to squint at the live feed on the monitor. It is just about as exciting for them as listening to a muesli jingle on the radio is for us. As if they had seen it all before. I was certainly more surprised by their indifference than they were by my plastic bird.
This was just what I wanted: to be able to fly in good light, without any wind, and to circle above the Avro Shackleton just as it was when it crashed here 24 years ago. The plane was first supplied to the South African airforce (SAAF) on August 18th 1957. It was the first of a total of eight. During its 33 years of service it mostly flew missions out to sea and patrolled the coast around Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope. As a direct consequence of the embargo against the apartheid regime and a lack of spare parts, the Pelican 16 was taken out of service in 1990 and put into dry storage.
Four years later, in 1994, volunteers took on the task of a full restoration and gaining a new certificate of air-worthiness. At the time, Pelican 16 was the only Avro Shackleton in the sky which was why she was invited to attend the Fairford show in England. The crew prepared themselves and departed on July 12th 1994.
The battery charging alert on my Phantom urges me to land. In order not to put it through the dust storm created by the propellers when it gets close to the ground, I put it down on the roof rack.
Shortly thereafter, I climb into the fuselage through the loading bay door. As I expected, the only things left are those that cannot be easily removed as a souvenir. All the instruments, fuses, levers and switchers have disappeared. “Stolen”, says Abi. I opted to keep my mouth shut lest I ask him how that can happen when the plane is guarded 24/7. The explanation can be found in old travel guides where they say the instruments were offered for sale by the guards themselves.
Abi takes my hand, leads me to a small concrete post and opens a metal door the size of a letterbox. Inside is a brass plaque inscribed with the names of the crew. But Abi is more proud of the lines offering thanks to the Sahrawi Republic. He proudly reads the quote aloud several times before forcing me to photograph it. “Sahrawi Republic”, an unmistakable statement for Abi that, despite the disagreements that spanned decades, their independence was recognised by the Pelican 16 crew. The crew couldn’t have given them a more powerful sign of their gratitude as these engraved words if they tried.
A brief summary of the Western Sahara conflict
The Western Sahara region stretches along the Atlantic coast from the south of Morocco to Mauritania, and is bordered by Algeria in the North East. Up until 1976, the population (predominantly Saharaui nomads) was run as a Spanish colony. Due to historical plans, Morocco staked a claim to the Western Sahara with the so-called Green March from November 6th to 10th, 1975. The Moroccan king had organised 350,000 moroccans to cross the Moroccan-Western Sahara border.
On February 26th 1976, and after talks with Morocco and Mauritania, Spain transferred the sovereignty of the colony and the region was divided between the two countries. At the same time, a resistance group, the Polisario Front, was formed and they founded the Democratic Arabian Republic Sahara (DARS) just one day later. A bitter war ensued with the Polisario being supported financially and militarily by Algeria. As a result of the conflict, Mauritania passed its claim to the Western Sahara to Morocco.
Morocco asserted its annexation of the region, forced the Polisario rebels to retreat to the east, and secured its territorial gains by building border walls—which were partially mined.
Some 180,000 Saharauis fled to Algeria during the fighting and are still living in refugee camps near Tindouf. A ceasefire was agreed in 1991, and since then Morocco controls approximately two thirds of the Western Sahara, including the coastal areas. The DARS controls a small strip of land between Morocco and Mauritania and is only recognised by 50 countries world-wide. The conflict remains unresolved and the ceasefire is monitored by the UN mission Minurso.
Pelican 16’s crash site lies in DARS territory, approximately 60 km west of Fderik, 15 km beyond the Mauritanian border. Due to the Moroccan wall, which extends north to south for more than 2,500 km through the Sahara, access to the Pelican 16 site is only possible by entering Mauritania, driving from Atar or Choum in the direction of Zouerate, leaving the westward-bound road, and heading towards the crash site coordinates. The Mauritanian border isn’t marked in this area and there aren’t any border formalities. The authorities allow the Saharauis to wander undisturbed between Algeria (Tindouf) and their area—there are no border checks. Tourists can apply for a permit to visit the crashed plane from the army in Fderik.
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