By KENECHUKWU OKEKE
At a time when the Will of the late Biafran leader, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, is generating controversy, a Portuguese pilot, who flew Biafran war planes during the civil war, has given insight into the air strikes that characterised the war.
According to Mr. Artur Alves, who interacted with Saturday Sun on the Internet, Biafran soldiers converted modified the B26 plane to suit their purpose during the war.
The war pilot, who is based abroad, spoke on this and others.
Could you tell us how you were contacted to work for Biafra?
After I ended my commission with the Portuguese Air Force I got a job working in Angola flying a Piper Aztec to a big coffee corporation and an ex-camaraderie and good friend Capt Gil Pinto de Sousa invited me to join and organise a squadron of Harvard T6G that we would have to fly into Biafra and operate in combat missions. Capt Pinto de Sousa was also an ex-Biafran Air Force pilot. He was contracted to fly a B25 Mitchel, which was destroyed in an accident in Port Harcourt. Landlocked from the early 1968, Biafra was fighting for their very existence, a fight against starvation and a well-armed enemy.
How did you fly the aircraft to Biafra and from where?
Due to diplomatic reasons, we had to dismount and mount again the aircraft in Bissau, Portuguese Guinea at the time. They went by ship and the Portuguese Air Force in Bissau did a great job mounting the aircraft very fast. We had six T6G ready and we were only three pilots. The flight from Bissau to Abidjan was also very complicated. The British Foreign Affairs had a long and powerful arm and convinced the Portuguese government not to authorise Portuguese pilots to fly the aircraft out of Bissau, but we were veterans of the air force and we had a plan. We convinced the Bissau Air Base Commander to let us rob the planes during the night and take them to Abidjan. That was what we did. The flight was in the limits and we carried also an extra tank in the back seat. The fuel smell was intense and I had no courage to light up a cigarette. We had to land before Abidjan in Sassandra, as was already fixed. We had no problems in Sassandra and we continued the flight to Abidjan.
In Bissau, one of the pilots decided not to continue and in Abidjan we had the same problem. But we welcome a new one, José Pignattely, also a veteran from the Portuguese Air Force. Gil Pinto de Sousa returned to Bissau and flew another plane to Abidjan. We had four planes in Abidjan and we were three pilots. Me, Gil and Pignattely. From Abidjan, we had the last leg to fly to Uli. We had decided to be airborne in order to land in Uli by dusk. During the inbound flight, Gil lost the radio and beacon system and in the dark he got lost and didn’t find the course to Uli and had to bailout in enemy territory. He was arrested for five years in Lagos. I landed in Uli and a little later Pignattely did the same. Next day, we took the planes to Uga, an airstrip in Akokwa.
How was it like being in Biafra at the time of the conflict?
I was living with Pignatettely and two Portuguese engineers, in a good house in Akokwa. We had a chef and a guard that was also the driver of our old Peugeot 403. Johny Chukwukadibie was the liaison officer with the headquarters. Everything was camouflaged and we had also a bunker to protect ourselves of the Nigerians air raids. The food had little variety, always chicken, cassava and sweet potatoes. Not bad, considering the situation.
How did you see the behaviour of the Igbo?
Well, on May the 30, 1967, was read the declaration for the creation of the Republic of Biafra. Due to the genocide murder of Eastern Nigerians, civilians, they had to seek a safe place to live; so, they declared independence. The civil war was declared by Nigeria and had the world powers, British and Russians on her side. Some say two million people, mostly Igbo lost their lives. Four countries recognised our independence and others, like Portugal and France, had a very important role in supporting Biafra.
Do you think the Declaration of a sovereign state of Biafra by Ojukwu needful at the time?
Well, I was saying, two million people, mostly Igbo, lost their lives. The world recoiled in horror as images reached news network. It was genocide, no more no less, genocide. For me, Emeka Ojukwu was a legendary freedom fighter. He did the right thing. With very little outside support the Biafrans put up a fierce resistance that lasted for 30 months before collapsing in January 10, 1970. I have with me the Ahiria declaration, still regarded by some as a possible blue print for every modern African country. He will never be forgotten; believe me.
Can you remember war songs that Biafrans soldiers sang to ginger themselves on?
I remember the songs, usually war songs. Near Christmas in 1969, I was only with one T6G operational; Pignatelly went to Abidjan to bring the other one we left there. Gen Godwin Ezeillo sent for me. Federal troops, more than one division and heavily armed, were about to cross the Imo River and Owerri will be in danger. We had to try to stop them. To attack a concentration of troops with a single airplane was not an easy task. I knew they were south of the river but not their exact position. I did the approach early in the morning leaving the River in my right wing, flying 500 feet above the ground and nobody opened fire against me. I made a large turn by the left, over flying our Army and made another approach to the river. This time, they started shooting from the south side of the river, thousand of tracers were flying in my direction, but now I knew where my target was. I just dive to the target, gaining speed. I heard some lucky shots hitting the airplane and as close as I was to the ground I was able to see trucks and armoured cars below the trees and plenty soldiers running around, looking for cover. I fired every thing I had and escape at a very low altitude to our side, that I overflew again, waving good-bye to our Army.
In the other day, lunch time, Johny Chukwukadibie came to my place with a young Captain that was in the frontline during the attack at the Imo River. He said the attack was terrific and a success. They heard the federal troops weeping a lot on the radio. Next day, we went with him to frontline to cheer up his men. It was here, near the enemy line, in the Imo River that I heard war songs from the Biafran soldiers.
What about the Port Harcourt attack in 1969?
I still remember this very well. It was my 5th mission and we had been expecting anxiously information that MIGs landed and parked in Port Harcourt. I was with Pignattely flying the T6s. We got the order in the afternoon before and at sun rise the airplanes were fully armed with the usual four machine guns and 12, 68mm rockets. There was some light fog touching the ground when we were airborne. There were no reports of MIGs in the air. We knew that we were going to face the strongest anti-aircraft fire, south of Ecuador. The surprise factor was essential and will be a hit and run attack. We only could afford one pass. I was flying a little higher than Pignattely that was at treetop level. Flying higher, I was safer from the light machine guns because my plane was far and more difficult to be hit. I had better visibility ahead and I was able to gain speed during the dive to the target. This was the strategy used by us before.
Port Harcourt was very close and we were approaching the air base with the very shy sun in our back. I saw the huge runway, four MIGs in the parking area, the terminal, hangars, control tower and another plane also parked near the terminal. I shouted to Pignattely, ‘MIGs in the tarmac’ and I started the diving to the target. At this time, tracers and explosions were every where. By instinct, I curled up inside the cockpit, full boost in the engine, nose down gaining speed, MIGs well centred, wings levelled and I start firing the rockets and machine guns burst at the same time. I was seeing my rockets hit around the parked MIGs. It seems nothing was happening and suddenly flames and black smoke erupted from the aircraft. I made the flight straight ahead to the sea, took a better sitting position, reduced the boost of the aircraft and looked back to Port Harcourt and behind me trying to spot Pignatelly. Port Harcourt was on fire and smoke and the Pignatelly T6 was surrounded by anti-aircraft explosions. I thought to my self he was in deep trouble. It was time to relax and return. I did a long turn by sea, eyes wide open looking for MIGs in the sky; did the course inbound by the Niger Delta, followed the river for a while ad landed in Uga. Pignattely airplane was already landed and camouflaged. Result, three MIGs destroyed, a four-engine aircraft also damaged, including fuel station, terminal building and control tower.
Two or three months ago, I received via Facebook a very interesting article from a veteran Russian pilot in Afghanistan. The article was from a Veteran Russia Air Force Magazine and was about the MIG17 in the Nigeria-Biafra war. These MIG17 in Port Harcourt were flown by British pilots and confirmed the destruction of two and severely damaged of other one. The fourth in line was not a MIG-17 but a Ylushin that was also hit. They decided to paint the MIGs in camouflaged colours and build defensive rackets to protect the planes on ground. There is also a book named Shadows, by Michel I. Drapper, with very interesting articles, real ones, about the air war and airlift in Biafra from 1967/1970.
What does a Biafran airstrip look like and what were the dangers of flying?
The Biafran airstrips were not new to me. Comparing with the Minicons I needed more length for take off and land with the T6Gs. Uga was an ex-asphalt road in pretty good conditions. We had lights, goose necks, for landing at night. We also had a bush in the top of the runway, where we hide the planes. The danger of flying was like David against Golias. The planes were old but well restored to flight conditions. We made the test-flights in Portugal and later in Bissau. We all had large experience in Africa and the big problem were the radio and navigation aids, starting with a simple compass. When we started the operations, our primary targets were federal troop concentration in the northern front, north of Onitsha road and the southern front, south of Owerri and in support of Biafran Army. Air bases and oil installations also become the focus of several attacks. But we were always expecting information from our Army Intelligence in order to know for sure where the MIG17 were. We could reach them in Port Harcourt, Benin and Enugu. Lagos was out of range and also Kano.
When did you leave Biafra and how?
Gen Godwin Ezeillo visited me after lunch time in January 8, 1970 and very quietly announced the imminent departure of our Biafran leader and said that was the right time for me to leave Biafra as well. There was a government flight to Sao Tome at night and a place for me was arranged. I was at the time with the other Igbo pilots and we tried to reach Uli but gave up. The road was so overcrowded that we decided to turn back and prepare the only operational T6 to escape early in the morning to Libreville. I had the black seat available and the other pilots decided that Larry Obiechi was the guy to escape with me. Larry was not Igbo, so they decided it was not safe for him to stay. The others were willing to remain inside Biafra and take a chance on being captured by federal forces. We were airborne very early with the tanks full. We made a fantastic flight to Libreville, Gabon, keeping the shoreline always in sight. After we landed in Libreville, we were very welcomed, but I had with me a very dip sense of loss.
What do you think of Nigeria today?
Living outside I’m used only to bad news from Nigeria, about old politicians and corruption. They must bury their heads in shame and allow the younger generation to take the driver’s seat. For example: they created Boko Haram and now the same people want to sit down and found solutions to the problem. Who gives a damn for what they think? They should quietly retire to their homes and wait for their turn to die giving a chance to a younger generation to take the leadership. I would love to have written something like this, but I didn’t. I want to live to hug all my mates in Biafra Air Force wishing they are in good health and I pray to God to take care of them. Rest in peace Ibi Brown and Alex Agbafuna, killed in combat fighting for his people. Thanks Gil Pinto de Sousa for the five years you gave, for supporting a cause in which you believe. My thanks to Sammy, Willy Bruce, August Opke and Larry Obiechi for the support you gave me in the last days of our dream.
During the Nigerian war, there was the feat of converting the B26 aircraft into a fighter jet or bomber. Were you part of this feat?
I did not fly the B26
How were you able to manipulate the aircraft, knowing that it wasn’t originally meant for what it was converted to?
In October 1967, we had two B25 Mitchel in Port Harcourt and both were effectively lost during one night sortie some two months later. The B26 started service at the end of June 1967 and was in Enugu for repainting, in camouflage colours. The Biafran national flag was on both sides of the rudder. At the same time of repainting our mechanics began to instal rather crude weapons. They modified the nose cone of the aircraft and mounted a single tripod-mounted machine gun inside. The gun was never linked to the electrical wiring system and was operated blindly by the pilot and the gunner.
We operated it thus: One tug meant start fire. Two tugs meant stop. Another gun was fitted to the rear of the bomb bay, which fired downwards through open bay-bomb doors.
What was your relationship with air force officers, like Gibson Nwosu and the late Chudi Sokei?
I only remember Gen Godwin Ezeilo, my Biafran Air Force Commander. After the war, he was with Capt Manuel Reis, Biafran Airlift Capt in Angola. We have been together a few times.