The rigours of operational deployments in hostile areas were illustrated with pathos by SA Air Force (SAAF) Oryx pilot Captain Mathew Allan when recounting the tragic February day that Sergeant Vusumuzi Mabena was killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In an interview with Ad Astra editor Captain Tebogo August he recalled the events of the 5 February 2023 sortie that resulted in the death of his flight engineer colleague. “I avoid dwelling on that Sunday, it will never be forgotten but I do not want to allow myself to be drawn into the past and dwell on the trauma the day brought,” he said.
“I prefer to focus on the good morning where the crew shared laughs and banter before the flight. I am grateful we were spared to tell the tale but Vusi didn’t deserve to die like that, everybody in the aircraft was traumatised by that attack. It was the first time we lost an aircrew member in that fashion on active duty since the inception of that particular SA National Defence Force (SANDF) mission.”
On what went through his mind when his unarmed Oryx medium transport helicopter was hit by ground fire in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Allan told his interviewer: “Everything flashed through my eyes and I had no choice but to process instantly and apply what any soldier who is well trained by the best in the world would do.
“The thought process, the emotional intelligence that got drilled into us from the beginning at the Flying School in Langebaanweg kept us all alive. The instinct to react as I did wasn’t a conscious thought, but rather a natural reaction to the situation at hand.
“Using my limited and still growing experience as a grounding to react to the evolving situation that was bloody and scary. I wouldn’t say I remained calm, but rather professional as an airman. Analysing the situation and taking control of the cockpit environment was a high priority for me and those that were with me, I had to make my country proud. Taking control of the aircraft at low level, that was heading towards the side of the valley is an image etched into my mind forever. The objective was to keep the rest of the crew as safe as possible and fly the aircraft in such an operational manner that further attacks on us would be ineffective.
“You only realize how close to death we truly live until you have put your foot in the door of death,” Allan is reported as saying.
On what his training as a military helicopter pilot means, he said it prepared one “thoroughly for combat missions of all sorts”.
“It depends on attitude at the time, whether to take in all the valuable information and store it, ready for use the day it’s needed when people are actively trying to kill you and your friends”.
On losing friends in the line of duty, Allan said it “isn’t an enjoyable feeling. It’s tough on the heart, mind, and soul. Keeping strong for others and yourself are equally important. I do find myself with occasional flashbacks when my mind is not distracted, but anchoring myself in the present has helped me to go on and remain professional.”
The bullet that killed Mabena also hit Major Omolemo Matlapeng in the shoulder, but he recovered from his injuries. In addition to the three flight crew aboard the Oryx on that fateful day, Privates Koena and Semamola were also on board. Allan said they served as extra protection for the aircrew in the event of an emergency landing. “They played a key role in performing immediate first aid for Vusi after the shot that took his life right in front of us,” he told Ad Astra.
Although it is not clear who fired the bullet that hit Oryx 821, it is suspected M23 rebels were responsible as the incident occurred over an area controlled by the M23. The Oryx was flying unescorted along a ridge, allowing the bullet to penetrate at a horizontal angle – in the past, SAAF Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters in DRC have been hit by small arms fire from below, not from almost head-on.