Probus Club member, Chris Perkins MVO, a retired RAF Squadron Leader gave an insight into a humanitarian mission in South America in November 1985. 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 all started on a November Friday evening 35 years ago at a supper evening with the ‘Boss’. A short telephone call turned the evening upside down for four of us with an early departure to Bogata in Columbia the following morning. The British Government had been requested to provide search and rescue plus humanitarian aid in the wake of a volcanic eruption. The information was sketchy and our task was to augment helicopters crews flying down from a squadron detachment in the Central American country of Belize. Flying kit gathered we eventually reached the Station Medical Centre. A standby doctor had been called in to administer a plethora of jabs against ‘horrible afflictions’. This he did at one go and very reluctantly, as alcohol had been ‘imbibed’ during the evening!
At Heathrow early the next morning we met with civilian SAR specialists to grasp a fuller appreciation 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 wave of mud and boulders to engulf the town of Armero.
There followed an 18 hour flight via Miami to Bogota arriving late at night. An attack by the M19 guerrilla movement on City’s Palace of Justice had resulted in the enforcement of rigid military control and there was evidence of tanks and armed patrols on the streets. It was quite reminiscent of being back in Northern Ireland! Overnight accommodation was provided by the Defence Attache and an RAF Hercules transport deposited us at the Palenquero Columbian Air Force base the following day.
Our helicopters travelling down from Belize had been refused diplomatic transit clearance by the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime and would not arrive for another 36 hours. That said, within two hours of arrival the helicopters were ready for first sorties. Arriving over Armero, we were stunned with what we saw. A town the size of Hook had all but disappeared under a covering of mud. 23,000 people had been killed or missing, swept away in the mud flow. Human and animal remains were abundant and smaller helicopters were darting about with rescue parties collecting those alive, moving them to aid posts. We made our first approach into one of these for offload, using the rising smoke from a burning mound as a signal giving the wind direction. I don’t think that I will ever forget the smell on opening the door on finals to land. With temperatures in the upper 30 degrees, typhoid had broken out and before effective fumigation, the Columbian Army were initially burning corpses using petrol.
The ever-present dust and layers of volcanic ash covered everything and made approaches to the confined landing sites in mountain villages extremely hazardous. ‘Ample muscle’ was essential to aid the offload of supplies and prevent ‘unwanted passengers’ climbing on board to escape the area. On one particular heavily loaded sortie ‘a man from the BBC’ was enlisted to give a hand. With camera and mike capturing both picture and sound, he unwittingly recorded an ‘interesting arrival’ at the 7500 ft Villahermosa football pitch in 40 degree temperatures. This was shortly aired embarrassingly, with ‘no bleeps’, back home. During the ten days of operations shuttling supplies and personnel into the Armero area we were part of an international relief operation that included the United States Air Force together with French and Columbian Armies. Working from dawn to dusk 76,000lbs of supplies were transported by our two helicopters. During our journey back to Belize via Panama we too were held up by the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua resulting in an overnight stop in Costa Rica. We had covered some 1500 miles with a total flight time of 11 hours and 15 minutes to Belize Airport Camp.
Detachment business carried on as normal supporting the British Army and Belize Defence Force in a deterrent role against possible invasion from Guatemala. The flying logbook always proves to be invaluable against fast-fading memories, often recording places and incidents. I see that there’s a note on an entry for the 23rd December. It involved a re-supply sortie to a remote army post on the Guatemala border. During the flight back to base we ‘clandestinely’ paused on a pine covered ridge to source Christmas trees in aid of ‘seasonal festivities’. 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.