Operation Velveta 1 — Part 7

Part 7  –  A blind and stormy flight which ends inverted on a mountainside.

We finally succeeded to take-off at two PM. All three fuel-tanks were full and the airplane was loaded as usual and carried a few extra spare-parts which we were asked to bring to Niksic’. Our cargo did not exceed 1000 kilograms. This was Joe’s turn to fly from the left seat and I sat in the right seat.This was a heavy and critical take-off but we got over the hedge at the end of the field. When we reached the Hungarian border the sky started filling up with more and more clouds. We flew into cloud and continued climbing slowly to 10,000 feet. From time to time we used to get out of cloud into a clear hole which enabled us to see the surface and try to find out where we were by using the map. As long as we flew in visual meteorological conditions we could navigate by the map-reading system, but as our flight was going through more and more clouds it became a blind-flight which required us to fly by using our flight-instruments so that we could not use the map and had to navigate by dead-reckoning which meant flying headings which took into account the wind-drift. The problem was that since at the Kunovice airfield as well as at Niksic’ there was no Weather-Bureau, not even a single weather forecaster, therefore we did not get any information about the wind on our track or about the weather in general during our pre-flight preparations. When we flew in visual conditions we had a notion of the wind force and direction by checking our drift from track during set times but this was not possible when we were flying in cloud.

The weather became stormy. There was heavy rain and sometimes hail as well. I put my earphones on and listened to all the frequencies on our radio receiver hoping to get something like a weather-forecast for our track or close to it in a familiar language but this was not the USA. In this part of the Earth there were no Aeronautical weather broadcasts. All I was able to receive was talk in Russian, Czech, Hungarian and Serbo-Croat (Yugoslav). The Austrians and Germans were not yet allowed to fly in 1948, so I heard nothing in German. Our “Norseman” as well as all our other “Norsemen” did not have a Radio-Compass so that even if there were Non-Directional-Radio-Beacons on our route we could not use them. There was no way for us to navigate by radio-navigation which was indeed the right system, the most efficient and safe system to navigate these flights on this route, between these two points and with this type of airplane. The two only navigation systems which we could use: Map-reading and Dead-reckoning were the two most primitive navigation systems within the Pilot-Navigation regime and did not fit at all this area which was a poor and underdeveloped area in every way and especially for the weather conditions which they had here at the end of the summer season and the start of the autumn season.

Joe transferred the steering wheel to my side (there was only one in the “Norseman” and you could transfer it from side to side) and occupied himself in calculations by means of the Nazi Wehrmacht railroad map and his personal navigation instruments such as a nav.-computer, nav.-ruler, dividers etc’. Actually all these computations were valueless since we had no real-time or actual data. This was just  a game with numbers which expressed time, distance and magnetic headings which were all estimated but not actual. The weather was getting very stormy. We were flying in a Warm-front which bore many cumulonimbus clouds (stormy-clouds). There was lightning and the thunder was so close and loud that it seemed as if it exploded within the cockpit. The rain never stopped and there was frequent heavy hail. The airplane was tossed so badly that it was very difficult to keep a steady altitude.

After four and a half hours Joe decided that  we had no choice but to turn to our alternative route. Phil Marmelstein, who during the two days we spent flying with him gave us many important clues and good advice also told us that if we get into weather such as this and will be unable to see the surface and find Niksic’ we better turn westbound towards the Adriatic coast and once we reach it we would be able to descend below cloudbase and turn south flying along the coast  until we reach the city of Dubrovnik. Phil added that from there is a main road from there, which passes through the city of Trebinyeh and goes all the way to Niksic’. He said there was also a railway line from Dubrovnik to Niksic’ but it is longer than the road for after Trebinyeh it turns North to Bilitsah and then back South then East to Niksic’. Our problem was: Once we get to the coast how shall we know for sure if we are south or north of Dubrovnik when all we have is this miserable railway-line map.

Last time that we encountered a clearance in the cloud this clearance was very foggy. We saw through it a kind of rocky cliff which was very tall and looked like the cliff which dwells north-east of Sarajevo. According to the time this could really be that cliff, therefore Joe told me to turn to a heading which he thought should bring us to Niksic’, but after 45 minutes we found ourselves flying again in very stormy weather so that even if we were right over our destination we would not dare descend in an area which was full of high mountains and given the fact that we were already flying for four and a half hours since we took-off Joe decided to turn West. I moved the steering-wheel to him. 15 minutes later the clouds started dispersing. We flew into an area clear of clouds and we saw 20 miles ahead of us the Adriatic Sea glittering in the Sun which was already quite low over the horizon. When we got close to the coast both of us started looking at the map very closely so as to fix our location. There were several bays along the coast. We did not see any city, neither North or South although we were in the clear and at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Right opposite the coast, right where we crossed it there lay a narrow but long island facing east to west. It looked like 40 miles long! This was a genuine-looking island and there was not another one like it along the whole coast of Yugoslavia. Joe said that he could not believe that this is where we were because it means that we are 100 miles off-track (close to one hour’s flying!) and 60 miles North of Dubrovnik. I did not dare disagree. All of a sudden I became very cold and felt very frightened. In all my 46 years of flying I never again had such a feeling of deep fright. There is no deeper fright from the fright that gets you when you realize that you do not have the faintest idea where you are although you are floating at an altitude of 10,000 feet over land and sea.

Had Joe been convinced that this was indeed the island of Hvar we would have found Dubrovnik but he came to the conclusion that he did not know where we were and decided to turn East so as to find a field fit for an emergency-landing and finding out our location. About 5  kilometers east of the coast we found a green field.When we landed we found out that it was a corn-field ready for harvest. The corn was almost 2 meters tall. We plunged into it and the corn heads hit the airplane like a shower of stones. The airplane stopped. Joe stopped the engine and we got out. Within minutes we had several villagers around us.Joe asked me to find out from these villagers where we were and how could we get to Niksic’.I got the map out, pointed at the adult men and asked: “Partizan? Ti Partizan?” Two of the men moved their heads affirmatively and said they were Partizans. I opened the map at them and asked where we were gesturing with my hands and uttering words in German and Italian. I soon found out that nobody here knew how to read a map. I could not understand from what they said what was the name of our location. I started saying: “Niksic’, Niksic’!” and gesturing at ourselves as if we want to board the plane and get to Niksic’. The name Niksic’ was familiar to them. They started moving their heads positively and saying: “Da, da, Niksic’!” and pointing their arms eastward. Towards the east one could see high hills. I pointed towards the hills and raising my shoulders and eyebrows as if saying “Where?” But they insisted: Threw their arms eastbound and said, “Niksic’, Niksic’.” I turned towards the one who looked most understanding and serious and asked him in Russian, “Skolko Kilometer?” (How many kilometers?) The man started saying a number in Serbo-Croat and when he realized that I did not understand him he took a twig and with it drew in the soft earth the number 35. Joe was very satisfied. It suited his theory that we must be very close to our destination and apparently within a distance of 30-50 kilometers, just over the hills we shall find the large meadow with the river east of which lay our airfield. The sun started setting and Joe was in a hurry and said: “Lets take-off from here so as to be able to land before dark.” He then added: “Do you take-off from here?” Although this was indeed my leg I thought that it would be wiser if the more experienced pilot between us two would take-off from this field and terminate the flight. We gestured to the villagers to move away.

The take-off, despite the fact that we weighed less, having used 5 hours of fuel getting here, was frightening: The propeller harvested the corn  and the cobs hit our windshield and the sides of the airplane in a deafening noise. Close to lift-off we sank into a ditch but our speed was fast enough and Joe pulled the steering wheel and we took-off. We turned east and started looking for Niksic’ but found nothing even after flying for 15 minutes. The surface we were flying over was getting higher and Joe started climbing quickly. We entered heavy clouds again and found ourselves in the same situation in which we were before we turned west towards the coast. Joe said: “This is not good, we shall soon remain without fuel. It is getting dark. Look at our windshield – we have an oil leak!” And indeed our windshield was covered by a thick layer of oil which started squirting from the engine after our take-off from the corn-field. This windshield was originally narrow, and now nothing could be seen through it. “We must land as soon as possible and wait till morning!” Joe said. I was told during my flying course that one does not land on an unidentified surface at night with a plane that has a fixed undercarriage (which does not raise up). So as to see the flying-instruments I switched on the instrument panel light but it did not light-up. I switched on the map-reading light and it did not light up as well. I looked outside through the large side-windows so as to see the reflection of the navigation lights in the clouds and did not see any although we switched them on before we took-off from the corn field. I remembered that when we started the engine it turned lazily but finally, since the engine was still warm it caught-up and started. Now that I realized that no lighting system functioned in the airplane and that the radio was dead-silent I understood that we have no electrical power which means that our battery was dead.

Both of us were wearing pilot-type parachutes and so I said to Joe: “One does not land at night with a fixed-undercarriage airplane out of a regular airfield. Let’s abandon the airplane and bale-out!” And Joe replied: “How do you know that in these parachute packs there are regular parachutes and not a pack of rags? When were these parachutes packed and when were they checked? I am not bailing-out – bale-out by yourself!” “I will not bale-out without you!” I replied. Meantime Joe started descending at a rate of descent of 500 feet per minute without us being able to see anything outside. I stretched my left hand up and started lowering the wing-flaps quickly all the way down. This drove Joe to slow down from 150 to 100 mph. Since I could see nothing through the front windshield I lowered the right window which was in the upper part of the right cockpit-door(The “Norseman” had two cockpit-doors at the side of the pilot-seats. The doors were tall and each had a large window which one could open by lowering it into the lower part of the door by means of a strap.)and started looking outside by putting my head partly outside. All I could see was complete black darkness. As I moved my eyes higher I saw more darkness until my eyes were at an angle of 30 degrees up when I suddenly saw a faint line which looked like a skyline. It hit me immediately that we were flying towards rising ground. I stretched my left hand and caught the upper right end of the steering wheel which was manned by Joe, turned it forcibly all the way left shouting at Joe: “We are flying straight into a mountainside!”. The airplane performed a 90 degree turn to the left with the wing banked at 30 degrees or more and as the turn reached 90 degrees and I left the steering wheel we landed heavily on a hard surface and continued rolling forward while jumping up and down. Joe started pressing the toe-breaks in order to slow-down and though he did it gently every time he pressed on the breaks the airplane bowed-down its front-end dangerously and I screamed: “Easy on the brakes!” The airplane continued jumping heavily and every time it jumped a large flame broke-out of the short exhaust-pipe of the engine on the right-side of the airplane’s fuselage. The flames almost reached my open window. It woke up a recent memory: Buzz Buerling and Leonard Cohen burning to death while flying a “Norseman” over Urbe airfield in Italy! All of a sudden, as our airspeed instrument with its phosphorous digits  showed a speed of 40 mph – the airplane stopped, its tail was thrown up and its nose down, hit the ground and the plane stood up on its crushed propeller and front engine-cowling for several seconds as if it did not know which way to fall  – and then fell on its back. I had already laid my right arm on the narrow padded line which ran above the instrument board. There was no full harness for the pilots in the “Norseman”–only seat-belts–and I knew that my head would be thrown forward.

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