Friday 2 December 2022

Flying History: Zimbabwe’s Proud Aircraft Tradition

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The Air Force of Zimbabwe (AFZ) is known to operate a modest fast jet force comprised of some nine Chengdu F-7NII and FT-7N fighter aircraft and ten Hongdu K-8E jet trainers acquired from China in the late 1980s and mid-2000s respectively. Unbeknownst to many however, older jet aircraft types once thought long retired from operational service continue to see limited use as well, being maintained in operational condition and occasionally flown to ensure their airworthiness in times of need. These consist of the MiG-23UB, the BAe Hawk T.Mk 60 and even the Hawker Hunter FGA.Mk 9 and T.Mk 81 continue to be operated some 60 years after they were originally produced. In doing so, Zimbabwe is the last air force in the world to operationally deploy the Hunter, an absolute unicum!

The ability to maintain these aircraft long after their manufacturers' support has ended is thanks to a service that arguably ranks highest in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of professionality and the ability to adapt and overcome. Faced with a Western-imposed arms embargo since 2002 and seemingly never-ending economic woes, the AFZ had little option but to think outside the box in order to maintain a credible defensive posture. [1] This has so far seen the transformation of Alouette IIIs to attack helicopters fitted with rocket and gun pods, the overhaul of half a dozen AB.412s in cooperation with Iran, and the modernisation of F-7s, enabling them to carry additional weapons types.

In order to maintain its fleet of BAe Hawk T.Mk 60 advanced jet trainers and fighter-bombers after the United Kingdom imposed an arms embargo in 2000 because of Zimbabwe's involvement in the Second Congo War, the AFZ had to get even more creative. [2] Rather than directly procuring the necessary spare parts from the manufacturer, the AFZ instead ordered them through the Kenyan Air Force, which similarly operated a fleet of Hawks. [3] This scheme managed to run on for quite some time, continuing even after Kenya had already retired its Hawks. Still, the volume of spare parts that could be acquired in this manner ultimately proved too little to allow for continued operations with the aircraft, and the seven remaining Hawks were officially placed in storage and replaced by the K-8.

AFZ pilots of No. 6 Squadron 'Tiger' and No. 2 Squadron 'Cobra' in front of their SF.260 and Hawk T.Mk 60 mounts. Note Flight Lieutenant Michael Enslin in front, who would later go on to fly F-7s for the AFZ and Hawks for the RAAF and RSAF and F-5s for the RBAF. In 2014 Enslin was decorated by former President Robert Mugabe for his service during the Second Congo War.

Officially that is, as the AFZ envisaged to keep a part of the fleet in operational condition should the need for them arise. Out of the seven BAe Hawks remaining (601, 604, 605, 606, 610, 611 and 612), at least two were destined for continued use, with enough spare parts still available to occasionally fly them to maintain their airworthiness. The aircraft have also been noted to take part in celebratory flypasts, such as over Gweru-Thornhill air base (the home of the AFZ's jet fleet) in September 2021. [4] Zimbabwe's reasons for sticking to the Hawk are likely not only its ease of use, but also the aircraft's ability to carry a hefty load of unguided bombs and rockets on four hardpoints (compared to two on the K-8E), which enabled the type to play a decisive role during the Second Congo War.

A Zimbabwean Hawker Hunter T.Mk.81 dual-seater (left). BAe Hawk T.Mk.60 (middle) and FGA.Mk. 9 single-seater (right) during a flypast over Gweru-Thornhill/Josiah Tungamirai air base, September 2021.

Squadron Leader Mkhululi Dube in front of an AFZ Hawker Hunter T.Mk 81 dual seater. Dube tragically perished in November 2020 after his SF.260 crashed during a routine training mission.

In contrast, the reason to stick to the 1950s-era Hawker Hunter FGA.Mk 9 and T.Mk 81 even in 2022 might simply have been for reasons of nostalgia. Originally acquired by the Rhodesian Air Force as a batch of twelve in the early 1960s (with fourteen more Hunters delivered from Kenya and the UK during the 1980s), the Hawker Hunters continued to soldier on well after Rhodesia ceased to exist in 1979, with No. 1 Squadron 'Panzer' only deactivating in January 2002. [5] By that time, the Hunters had already been replaced in frontline service by the F-7NII, which can be armed with up to six air-to-air missiles (consisting of the PL-5/PL-7 and the R-60). Though primarily a ground attack aircraft capable of carrying a wide range of unguided bombs and rocket pods (including the domestically designed and produced Alpha and Golf bombs) in addition to its four 30mm ADEN cannons, Zimbabwe's Hunter FGA.Mk 9s were also wired for the carriage of AIM-9 Sidewinder AAMs in South Africa during the 1970s. It is unknown if any usable AIM-9s still exist in the inventory of the AFZ (which were almost exclusively deployed by the Hawks), and the overhaul of at least two Hunters in recent years is unlikely to have been an attempt at bolstering Zimbabwe's air-to-air capabilities.

An Air Force of Zimbabwe Hawker Hunter FGA.Mk 9 in-flight over Zimbabwe in the late 1990s.

An AFZ Hawker Hunter T.Mk 81 dual-seater of No. 1 Squadron 'Panzer' on the ground at Gweru-Thornhill in the late 1990s.

Even as Zimbabwe is unlikely to engage in conventional conflict with any of its neighbouring countries that would necessitate the use of the Hawks, Hunters and the MiG-23UB, the operations of these aircraft have the added (or perhaps main) benefit of performing Memorial Flights that keep the rich history of the Zimbabwean Air Force alive. Indeed, even aircraft types like the de Havilland Vampire fighter-bomber and English Electric Canberra medium bomber that were retired in the early 1980s continue to serve as gate guards at AFZ air bases. Three Vampires and one Canberra are also on display in the Gweru Aircraft Museum alongside a Hawker Hunter and even a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.22. One Canberra, a Hunter and a Percival Provost trainer have also been donated to China, where they are on display at the Chinese Aviation Museum in Beijing. Interestingly, the Hunter received faux British markings.
The survival of this many aircraft in an intact condition is a notable feat, as a South African sabotage raid on Gweru-Thornhill air base in July 1982 sought to prevent just exactly that. In an operation still shrouded in mystery even today, several infiltrators planted bombs on four BAe Hawks which had been delivered from the UK just twelve days prior, and on four Hunter FGA.Mk. 9s. The result was a severe blow to the fledgling Zimbabwean Air Force, with one Hawk destroyed, two extensively damaged (which both had to be returned to the UK for repairs), and three Hunters completely destroyed. The explosion that struck one of the ill-fated Hawks was sufficient to trigger one of its Mark 10B ejection seats, which shot through the hangar roof and was found some distance away from the hangar.

The sad remains of a brand-new BAe Hawk that was destroyed by a South African sabotage raid in 1982. Note the hole in roof caused by the triggering of one of the Hawk's two ejection seats.

The AFZ would soldier on through this event however, and its rich history would not remain confined to Western aircraft. The way in which Zimbabwe acquired its MiG-23UB is arguably just as interesting as their continued use by the country in 2022. Two versions of their origin story exist, with one theory stipulating that the MiG-23UB was one of up to five aircraft received by the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a gift from Muammar Gaddafi from Libya in late 1998, with the aircraft taken over by the AFZ after the Zimbabweans made an ambitious yet fruitless attempt at instructing Congolese pilots on their operations, while the other theory asserts the AFZ received two MiG-23s from Libya directly (one of which was damaged beyond ecomical repair after a botched landing shortly after its delivery).
In an effort to boost his bid to establish the African Union, Muammar Gaddafi attemped to motivate countries to join the AU by offering them (read: bribing them with) generous loans and defence equipment. Rather than providing these countries with equipment they were actually capable of operating, Gaddafi showered the continent with donations like fighter aircraft and helicopters, with Sudan, Uganda, and DR Congo (and by extent Zimbabwe) all receiving MiG-23MS fighter aircraft. Ironically, no instructors, training or spare parts were provided along with the aircraft, with both Uganda and DR Congo immediately storing the MiG-23s without them ever seeing operational use.

Though never having operated MiG-23s before, the ingenuity of AFZ pilots appeared to have been sufficient to master the complicated MiG-23 design (the MiG-23MS and MiG-23UB are prone to accidents because of their delicate variable-sweep wing design, a feature all other AFZ jet aircraft lack). The single MiG-23UB is known to have been operational with the AFZ since the late 1990s, seeing almost 25 years of use in Zimbabwe! Though rarely flying these days as a result of a lack of spare parts, the aircraft still occasionally performs takeoff runs on full afterburner, a true sight to behold. [5] [6] In AFZ service, the MiG-23UB is armed with (O)FAB bombs and 57mm UB-16/32 rocket pods.
In the mid-2010s Sudan similarly attempted to overhaul three of its Libyan donated MiG-23MS' and a single MiG-23UB with the help of Ethiopia's Dejen Aviation Industry. Unfortunately for the SuAF, one of the four overhauled MiG-23s made a crash-landing at Wadi Sayyidna shortly after a test-flight. The aircraft caught fire and was subsequently dumped into a corner of the air base, which appears to have put an end to the project. [7] As a result, Zimbabwe is the second last operator of the MiG-23 in sub-Saharan Africa, and its third last operator on the African continent, with only Ethiopia and Libya still flying the type (Angola recently retired its MiG-23s).

Zimbabwe's sole MiG-23UB seen in 2005 at Gweru-Thornhill (since renamed to Josiah Tungamirai) air base.

The continued use of the Hawker Hunters, BAe Hawks and MiG-23UB by Zimbabwe is a fascinating chapter in the history of military aviation. Though the haydays of their careers have long gone, there's no telling how many years they are likely to continue to fly on as proud reminders of the AFZ's rich past thanks to Zimbabwe's skilled aircraft engineers. Eyeing the acquisition of JF-17s for at least a decade, and with the country also believed to be looking at purchasing unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) from Pakistan or China, these blasts from the past might soon be outclassed and outmoded beyond reprieve. Nevertheless, this might not spell their doom, as the AFZ appears intent on maintaining their airworthiness for Memorial Flights, keeping alive a tradition that has withstood the test of time.

The AFZ's Hawker Hunters, Hawks and the MiG-23UB can regularly be spotted on satellite imagery of Gweru-Thornhill air base.

[1] EU arms embargo on Zimbabwe
[2] Zimbabwe: Kenya Helps Zimbabwe Bust UK Arms Embargo
[3] UK inquiry into jet parts for Mugabe  
[4] Air Force of Zimbabwe. 2 Hunters & 1 Hawk. September 2021
[5] Mig-23 Zimbabwe