Romanian aviators over Angola: “Sirius” air mission

Romanian aviators over Angola: “Sirius” air mission

The first foreign mission of the Romanian Military Aviation, outside the Warsaw Treaty, was the establishment of a military aviation school in Angola. This external aerial mission in which 150 Romanian military specialists participated was named “Sirius” and took place between 1980-1982.

On June 22, 1978, the Ministry of National Defense (M.Ap.N) of Romania made the first contacts with high Angolan military dignitaries regarding the support that the People’s Republic of Angola was to obtain from the Romanian Military Aviation Command in order to establish a military school of pilotage to train navigational, technical, logistic and staff personnel. The Angolan military delegation was led by General Ciel Da Conçeiçao Cristovao-Gato. He had been a student in Romania, he had graduated from the Oil and Gas Institute in Ploiesti, and at that time he was the Deputy Minister of Defense for Aviation and Territorial Defense.

Initially, the Angolans appealed to the USSR, Portugal and Switzerland, but the conditions offered by the Romanian Air Force Command (C.Av.M) were more advantageous in order to conclude a collaboration contract. General Gato supported Romania to win the tender because the Romanian proposals provided for a lower price, a shorter training period, but with good results, aircraft in three categories: single-engine, twin-engine planes and helicopters.

General Gato, in the uniform of the Angolan air force

General Gato, in the uniform of the Angolan air force

The delegation also included Major General Fellipe Neto, high dignitary from the Ministry of Defense of RP Angola, and three senior officers. Aviation generals Gheorghe Zărnescu, commander of Military Aviation, major general Gheorghe Ionescu, major general av. Dumitru Balaur, first deputy commander of the Romanian Air Force, and colonel (later promoted to the rank of air flotilla general) Eng. Ioan Petroaica, technical deputy of the C.Av.M.

$32 million contract

On November 24, 1979, the Angolan military delegation led by General Ciel Da Conçeiçao Cristovao-Gato returned to Romania, on which occasion the collaboration contract between the two countries worth 32 million US dollars was concluded. The Angolans purchased from our country a squadron of 12 IAR-823 single-engine aircraft, a squadron consisting of six BN 2 “Islander” aircraft each equipped with two engines and six IAR-316 B “Alouette III” helicopters1.

Boboc-Buzau air base.  The first from the left, General Aurel Niculescu, the commander of the mission

Boboc-Buzau air base. The first from the left, General Aurel Niculescu, the commander of the mission

General av. Gheorghe Zărnescu, the commander of the Military Aviation, appointed his deputy, general av. Dumitru Balaur, who contacted the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the enterprise Romconsult, through which Romanian specialists from various fields were sent abroad. Engineer Titus Orădean was appointed to be responsible for the Angolan mission.

Major General av. Aurel Niculescu was appointed the commander of the Angolan mission, considering the great experience gained in the ten years he commanded the Aviation Officers’ School in Boboc-Buzău, as well as in the position of commander of the Military Aviation, which he performed for many years in within the Air Defense Command of the Territory.

“When I was informed that I would take over the command of the mission in Angola, I was tempted by this proposal… I was seeing another country, another world… I also had the feeling that if I go to Angola, I will be quite independent. It seemed to me that there was excessive centralization. Not only in the army, but in Romanian society in general. I there considered myself a kind of minister of the Air. From the beginning I thought that there [înAngola]being independent, I will be able to apply my flight concepts”, noted General Aurel Niculescu2.

Security raises the alarm: Pilots “speak unapproved foreign languages”

On August 1, 1980, according to organizational statute N.18/118, approved by M.Ap.N with no. CL.00375, from April 5, 1980, the group of Romanian military specialists necessary for the organization of the aviation school in the town of Negage in Angola was formed on the Boboc-Buzău air base3.

The mission was calledoriginally “Siriu”, after the name of a Buzoian mountain town. Since it was considered very secret, in order not to make an analogy between the town of Siriu and Romania, it received the name of “Sirius” given by the general av. Aurel Niculescu. Except it wasn’t really that secret. “When I arrived in Angola, I heard on a radio station from South Africa, a statement that a group of Romanian military aviators had arrived in Angola. This mission was a far-reaching one, it was not difficult to be detected”, noted General Niculescu4.

Romanian IAR-316 B helicopters flying over the airfield of the Boboc-Buzau air base

Romanian IAR-316 B helicopters flying over the airfield of the Boboc-Buzau air base

Courses on navigation, engines, tactics, administration, etc., translated into Portuguese, were developed. All the Romanian navigational, technical, logistic and staff personnel who were going to go to Angola attended courses to learn the Portuguese language. Flights were organized with IAR-823 airplanes, BN 2 “Islander” and IAR-316 B helicopters, which were to equip the Angolan aviation school, and the radio conversations between the pilots and the flight center at Boboc were done in Portuguese.

The MP.AN and Security listening stations intercepted these conversations in a foreign language and raised the alarm: the Romanian airspace was being flown by airplanes that, at best, had not come from outside the country’s borders, but the pilots, flying over the Buzău area, “I speak unapproved foreign languages”5. The mission being considered very secret, the military information bodies and those of the Security were not notified in time of the preparations that were being made in the airspace of Buzău. In the end, the problem was clarified, and the news agencies were informed that the Romanian pilots had received approval to speak in Portuguese in order to carry out a special mission.

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Engineer Titus Orădean, who had been on mission in Angola for several years, taught the students about this country regarding the history, culture and mentality of the Angolans, the way our aviators would behave once they arrived at Negage.

Reconnaissance visits

In parallel with the preparations that were being made in Boboc-Buzău, a military delegation, made up of aviation generals Dumitru Balaur and Aurel Niculescu, traveled by plane to Angola to recognize the place where the future pilot school would operate.

At first, the Angolan military authorities proposed the town of Lobito, located on the Atlantic coast, 200 km south of the country’s capital, Luanda. There, however, there was only a runway, a control tower, and the hangars and housing for the Romanian and Angolan personnel were to be built. The delegation of Romanian aviators was shocked by the climate: high air humidity and terrible heat, very hard to bear. The humidity was seriously affecting the incoming aircraft. In short, at Lobito there were no favorable conditions for the establishment of the flight school.

A partial image of the Negage Air Base

A partial image of the Negage Air Base

And the Angolan commanders realized that they could not quickly build a new barracks in a year, so they proposed to establish the pilot school on an airfield in the town of Negage, where there had been, until 1975, a Portuguese aviation unit. The town was about 120 km northwest of Luanda “and I had to travel to Angola a second time, to see the new location. I also left with General Balaur; we arrived at Luanda and then at Negage”, noted General A. Niculescu.

The former Portuguese airbase had hangars, a 1,200-meter-long concrete runway, a bunker, dormitories – everything needed for the proper functioning of a pilot school. The classrooms were to be set up in the hangar annexes – seven to eight training rooms were needed for pilots, navigators, technicians, services, logistics, staff officers and the command post.

Angolan student-pilots and Romanian instructors, congratulating a student after the first flight

Angolan student-pilots and Romanian instructors, congratulating a student after the first flight

The Romanian navigation and technical staff were to live in the former homes used by the Portuguese military on the outskirts of Negage. There was also a hotel there that was assigned to Romanian specialists; some of them were going to live in the hotel, where the popota was also arranged.

The Romanian aviators received important support in setting up the school from the Romanian ambassador in Luanda, diplomat Ion Moraru, who continuously pushed the Angolans to complete the contract. He had been at the post for many years, he knew the Portuguese language perfectly, he knew the president of the country, Do Santos, well.

Departure to Angola. Security trains the military

Before the departure, senior officers from the Romanian Security made a briefing with the Romanian specialists, regarding the preservation of military secrecy, but specified that they should make intense propaganda in favor of Romania. The Commander of the “Sirius” Mission, General Av. Aurel Niculescu, was ordered to talk with the Angolan military and civil authorities only through an interpreter, although our military dignitary had learned the Portuguese language. He was ordered not to talk to other military from communist countries in Angola as advisers, especially Soviet, Bulgarian or Cuban officers6.

Angolan officers and student pilots pictured with the commanding officer of the Angola Aviation School

Angolan officers and student pilots pictured with the commanding officer of the Angola Aviation School

In December 1980, the ship “Firiza” transported furniture and numerous materials, as well as the aircraft purchased from Romania by the Angolans, which were to be used in the pilot school. Responsible for this movement were the chief engineer of the group, colonel Gheorghe Tănase, and the head of logistics, colonel Aurel Macri. They traveled by ship to Angola, which arrived at its destination after a two-week journey.

The 150 specialists from the Romanian military aviation, including 20 pilot-instructors, 20 foremen and non-commissioned officers and 10 translators traveled to Negage with a Boeing 707 of the Angolan airline company.

“We only took part of the luggage with us, most of it had been sent by ship. We left in civilian clothes, we sent the military clothes to Angola by ship, we equipped ourselves with them at the barracks… It was an eight-hour flight, non-stop. I left at ten in the evening and arrived at six in the morning. It was winter in Bucharest, and a suffocating air hit us in the Angolan capital. It was summer there, dry weather. Ambassador Ion Moraru was waiting for us, who knew that we were going to continue our flight with (a twin-engine plane) Antonov 26 at Negage. The plane did not belong to the Soviets and our ambassador had not been able to arrange this flight. So I stayed a day and a night at the embassy…”, noted the mission commander.

Our accredited diplomat in Luanda had to procure numerous mattresses which he installed everywhere in the embassy: in the corridor, in the offices, through yard. The next day, several buses provided by the Angolan authorities arrived in front of the Romanian embassy, ​​which took the Romanian specialists to the airfield, and from here, with an AN-26 plane that made two flights, our airmen arrived at Negage and , in this way, the group was reconstituted. Two lorries and six tankers had also arrived from Romania by ship and made their way to the airfield in Negage via detour routes.

The Romanian aircraft packed in special boxes arrived by ship were assembled at Luanda airport, where a technical team assembled them, then the IAR-823, BN 2 “Islander” and IAR-316B helicopters took off and landed at Deny.

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“When we got there we found we had been sent into the mouth of the wolf”

The Romanian specialists turned into painters, masons and decorators, as the allocated housing was in a deplorable state. At first, they had no light, our aviators used petromaxes. Part of the homes had been occupied by locals, who did not maintain them properly, they were evacuated with the arrival of our specialists. Through sustained work, they became elegant villas and the Angolans were impressed by what the members of the Romanian mission had achieved.

There were also serious problems with water. The tank at the plant that supplied the air base was used as a laundry by the locals. Following the interventions of the commander Aurel Niculescu, the mayor of the city of Negage forbade the tenants access to that reservoir. The bakery was also checked, where workers with visible wounds on their hands were working. The Romanian military doctor took strict measures and those workers were replaced; the production of the bread needed by the members of the mission was continuously monitored by our specialist military foremen.

Romanian student pilots and instructors after the flight with the IAR-316 B helicopter

Romanian student pilots and instructors after the flight with the IAR-316 B helicopter

The Angolans were to provide security for the airbase, but this left much to be desired, especially since the country was in a state of civil war. “When we got there, we found that we had been sent into the mouth of the wolf,” noted the commander of the “Sirius” Mission. Angolan nationalists fighting against the communist government of President Do Santos, constituted in the UNITA group, were operating in the area. Soviet military advisers informed General Aurel Niculescu about their actions, which were supported materially by the West.

Since the members of the “Sirius” Mission were not equipped with individual defense weapons, at the request of the Romanians, the Soviets provided our airmen with some AK.47 type automatic pistols. Only our informants notified the embassy and a categorical order was received that the individual armaments given by the Soviets be immediately returned. However, the UNITA military group did not create problems for our specialists.

„National School of Aviaçao Militar”

The Romanian aviators from the “Sirius” Mission had a special outfit, which did not resemble either the outfit of the Romanian Army or that of the Angolan military. The uniform was made of a thin, sand-colored dock material, complete with a Saharan hat and tall boots.

Our aviators did not wear military ranks, but had a special badge attached to their uniform that represented two horizontal wings and on which was written ENAM; the initials meant: “Ecole Nationale d’Aviaçao Militar” (National School of Military Aviation). General av. Aurel Niculescu wore a badge on the left side of his chest that had a wide yellow stripe and a thin one, somewhat resembling the hand ranks of the Romanian Military Air Force, the other Romanian officers had some rectangles on their badges.

The commander of the Romanian mission in Angola, general av. Aurel Niculescu had two deputies, the colonel av. Constantin Croitoru, who was in charge of the IAR-823 single-engine aircraft squadron and helicopters, and the colonel av. Alexe Rusen, who was responsible for the training of the Angolan pilots who trained on the twin-engine BN 2 “Islander”, a plane built in Romania under a British license.

Opening of courses: January 15, 1981

The selection of the trainees was done by the Angolans – they were young people with good understanding, but they had a bit more difficulty adjusting to the military discipline imposed by the Romanians. Some of them were behind schedule.

The courses of the Negage Military Pilot School were officially opened on January 15, 1981. The Minister of Defense and the Deputy Prime Minister, General Gato, attended the ceremony. Our aviators made a demonstration flight with BN 2 “Islander” planes, with the Minister of Defense and other Angolan dignitaries as passengers; General Gato flew as a passenger with Aurel Niculescu in command of the plane.

Negage Air Base.  A group photo

Negage Air Base. A group photo

From an organizational point of view, the commander of the air base at Negage was appointed Captain Bonga d’Açao, a non-flying staff officer, with a flight deputy and a chief engineer, who was Portuguese, under him.

“He was a trained officer, modest, eager to learn as much as possible. I collaborated very well with him…”, notes the commander of the “Sirius” Mission. The command of the school and the barracks were Angolan, General Aurel Niculescu was only the commander of the group of Romanian specialists included in the piloting school. The Romanian specialists were supplied with food and materials from the country by plane, on a monthly basis. There is a reserve stock for ten days.

Regarding the established salary, General Av. Aurel Niculescu, in theory, received 8,200 US dollars monthly, “but I only received 420 dollars in my hand. The rest was taken from his country…”.

“We fought with these young learners to get them to love flying”

In the first year, 50 student pilots were trained, “who were not too demanding, we fought with these young trainees to make them love flying and show up for classes at the set time. But in order to fly a plane or helicopter, they had to study many courses in navigation, physics, meteorology, mechanics, aeronautical tactics and many other specialized subjects, the aviation school having a polytechnic profile.

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With a lot of tact, we managed to persuade those young Angolans to start studying seriously, Commander Bonga supported us a lot and the subordinate officers had no feelings of inferiority towards us”, noted Major Av. Valentin Buiculescu, navigation teacher and flight instructor on the IAR-316 B helicopter7.

A student pilot photographed next to the IAR-316 B helicopter

A student pilot photographed next to the IAR-316 B helicopter

After completing the theoretical courses, the flight with the student pilots began on April 1, 1981, using the Romanian methodology: runway turns, aerobatics and, even from the first year, the student pilots learned from the Romanian instructors how to use the plane and the helicopter in combat. Duty shifts were established at the command point, and towards the end of the year, the alarm service with the IAR-823 aircraft was introduced. It should be noted that the IAR-823 airplanes and the IAR-316 B helicopters could be armed with rockets, bombs, cannons and on-board machine guns.

The training of the student pilots proceeded at a brisk pace, the Angolan trainees “understood that military aviation was more than an air ride. Although we had no radars on the airfield, we also made interceptions. Parachuting was also done with student pilots, the parachuting instructors were captain Dobrin and military foreman Ionescu. At the end of the training year, we also organized an air rally with the IAR-823 airplanes and the IAR-316 B helicopters”, noted the commander av. Valentin Buiculescu.

Unfortunately, in the summer of 1981, a Romanian pilot-instructor, major av. Gheorghe Preda, and the Angolan student. The plane IAR-823 had taken off normally, but at 50 meters altitude the engine of the aircraft stopped and the pilot tried to land, without changing the direction of the plane. As the terrain was rough, Major Preda turned right, then took another direction, but when he got close to the ground he engaged and struck the plane (wing) straight into the ground; the plane flipped over and they both died. In memory of those who fell in the line of duty “Captain Commander (Lt. Colonel) av. Liviu Tomi created a beautiful monument that I saw again at Negage, in 1991, when I went to Angola again, on a new mission”, noted the commander av. Valentin Buiculescu.

At the end of November 1981, the group of Romanian specialists returned to the country in three series; at the beginning of January 1982 they returned to Angola. The new series of student pilots was trained by Angolan pilot-instructors after being certified by our specialists, the flight lessons were conducted under the direct supervision of Romanian pilots. A group of 10 student pilots from the second year, although they had not finished their training, went to the front.

Aerial missions in unknown territory

There were other unforeseen problems. In September 1982, at the request of the Angolans, a crew consisting of a Romanian and an Angolan airman, piloting a BN 2 “Islander” and carrying East German intelligence officers, carrying radio equipment to the northern border of Angola , they never reached their destination. Because of the clouds, the ceiling being several tens of meters from the ground and the plane not having a radar installed on board, the crew and passengers were forced to land in Zaire, a country that did not have good relations with Angola.

An IAR-823 single-engine plane on the ground

An IAR-823 single-engine plane on the ground

All the passengers and the crew were arrested, the diplomatic conflict worsened, as the authorities in Zaire refused to release the Romanian pilot, although our country had, at that time, good relations with Zaire. In the end, as a result of interventions at the highest level in Romania, the Romanian pilot and the Angolan airman were released, not the East German officers, but the BN 2 “Islander” plane was seized by the Zaires.

At the beginning of December 1982, the 50 Angolan student pilots of the second series were certified, and on December 15, 1982, the last flight of our aviators took place in the skies of Angola. At 11:00, local time, General Av. Aurel Niculescu on board an IAR-823 plane:

“I knew it was my last flight in this country. It was the crowning of 40 years, 6 months and 15 days as an aviator… From Roșiorii de Vede, where I started piloting, to Negage… sounds beautiful. Then I came to the country. No festivity, no one said anything to me. Neither that I was good, nor anything else… The Angolans were communicative and friendly people with us. I also found Angolans who spoke Romanian, they had studied with us. When we arrived at Negage, some greeted us with “Welcome, Romanian comrades. We’ve been waiting for you for a long time!”

Top photo: IAR-823 aircraft squadron at Negage airfield, September 1981 (photo: Valeriu Avram Collection)

This article was published in Historia magazine, no. 217, available digitally

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1 Archives of the General Staff of the Romanian Air Force, historical record,vol. II.

2Leave the airmen alonefly!A dialogue between general av.(r) Aurel Niculescu and Sorin TurturicăAnima Publishing House Bucharest, 2008, p. 94.

3 Archive of the General Staff of the Air Force, historical record,vol. II.

4 Valeriu Avram, Aviation history Romanian military 1910-2010Scri Publishing House b, Bucharest, 2010, p. 508.

5Igive,p. 510.

6 Sorin Turturica,op.cit.,p. 99.

7 Interview conducted by the author with Mr. commander av. Valentin Buiculescu in March 1993.

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