Book Extract: Death Flight by Michael Schmidt, Or Aviation Abomination

March 1, 2021

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In the late 1970s, as the apartheid government fought a desperate and dirty battle to stay in power, its security forces devised a chilling new tactic. A shadowy, top-secret unit called Delta 40 was established, tasked with the murder of hundreds of ANC, PAC, and SWAPO members. Victims’ bodies were flung from aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean. Based on the detailed analysis of flight logs and numerous interviews, Death Flight by Michael Schmidt sheds shocking new light on one of apartheid’s darkest chapters. This extract published by permission.


Whatever the truth of Wouter Basson’s involvement, the first strangling victim’s dramatic fightback ensured that Colonel Johan Theron would in future have access to two muscle relaxants used in open-heart surgery to collapse the lungs and still the heart. But Theron testified that the two drugs, Scoline and Tubarine, ‘bring all the muscles of the body to a halt’, causing pain. To prevent this, it was decided that the victims would first be given the anaesthetic Ketalar. Ketalar rendered D40’s victims unconscious before the Tubarine and Scoline were injected, causing death by suffocation as the lungs collapsed, and by cardiac arrest.

Three months after the dramatic death flights via Toscanini, it would be time for Major Neil Kriel to induct his senior NCO, Trevor Floyd, into the dark arts of disappearances. First, however, he had to fly a couple of his old Rhodesian comrades about – and had to complete his conversion qualification test, even though he had been flying the Piper Seneca II for more than a year already. On 7 August 1980, Kriel flew a passenger identified as Birch on a big loop, from Lanseria to the eerie ‘departure point’ at Toscanini, then on to Zeerust in the Northern Transvaal, then to a third destination that is illegible in the logbook, and back to Lanseria. ‘Birch’ was no doubt ex-SAS parachutist turned Operation Departure operative Major Johnny de Gray Birch. The purpose of the flight is not known, nor is it clear whether De Gray Birch stayed behind at one of the landing fields or whether he was on board for the entire trip.

On 13 August, Kriel finally finished his conversion test, flying first as co-pilot to a certain Rawson from Lanseria to Grootfontein and back, then as co-pilot to a certain Spence for his actual test, then as pilot to Rawson’s co-pilot from Lanseria to Grand Central – where he probably dropped Rawson off – and back home. On 15 August, he undertook what appears to be his final conversion flight as co-pilot to his original conversion pilot, a certain Brand, flying from the Air Force Base Louis Trichardt (FALM) to Grootfontein and back to Lanseria. On 19 August 1980, Kriel piloted the aircraft from Lanseria to Messina (FAMS), just south of the Zimbabwean border, with a passenger identified as Branfield, doubtless D40’s Urban Intel chief, Major Gray Branfield, followed by a flight with another Rhodesian on 26 August, D40 signalman Sergeant Dave Scales, from Lanseria to Klerksdorp (FAKD) in the Western Transvaal, then to a destination penned in the logbook as Immelman, which André Diedericks identifies as ‘the Immelman airstrip near Fort Doppies . . .’ in the Caprivi Strip.

There, the two compatriots spent two nights, before Kriel flew them back to Lanseria with a passenger named Kelly, presumably the Australian D40 pseudo-operator Staff Sergeant Blue Kelly. Floyd’s introduction to the secret doctrine occurred on 13 November 1980, ten months after he had resigned from the SADF and become a ‘civilian’. It was a warm, windy, almost cloudless summer’s day, Floyd recalled: ‘The morning of 13 November, I went together with Mr K [Kriel] to Lanseria where we had an aircraft which belonged to the company. It was a Piper Seneca . . . ZS-Kilo Foxtrot Golf were the numbers of the aircraft . . . We took this one person from Barnacle, a black person, with us.’

Floyd had said in his handwritten statement to Basson trial investigators that ‘Major Kriel and myself flew with a Piper Seneca [which] belonged to D40/Barnacle to Kamanjab via Windhoek Eros Airport from Lanseria Airport. Maj Kriel was the pilot of the aircraft and with us was a black ex-Zimbabwean person who was at D40/Barnacle for a short period and who according to Maj Kriel was about to defect back to Zimbabwe and could compromise person[n]el and operations.’

During the flight, the passenger complained about a headache. Kriel apparently took some tablets out of his pocket and gave him one to drink. He subsequently fell asleep, Floyd said. ‘Maj Kriel then told me they were knockout tablets and that this person, whose name I cannot remember, would not wake up for a few hours.’

When the men landed at Kamanjab after refuelling at Eros, he was still sleeping. ‘There was an LDV [light delivery vehicle] waiting. I cannot remember who was with the LDV but there were about six or seven SWAPO terrorists in the back of the vehicle. One of the persons with the vehicle (I think it could have been Maj [sic] Johan Theron or Dave Drew) then gave them all including the Zimbabwean with us an injection which killed them.’ After removing the corpses’ clothing, they ‘took off the aircraft’s rear door and flew these persons to the Atlantic Ocean south of Terrace Bay’, or perhaps Torra Bay,4 according to Kriel’s logbook, a windswept and empty site on the Skeleton Coast well north of Toscanini, ‘where I ditched the bodies into the sea’.

In court Floyd recalled: ‘After the people were, um, thrown out, we flew back again to the [Kamanjab] landing strip, put the door on.’ They got rid of the clothing of the PLAN POWs and the D40 pseudo-operator who were killed, ‘and we flew back to the Republic’. Kriel’s logbook and the fact that Floyd numbers ‘about six or seven SWAPO terrorists’ – in addition to their own member who was the first to be killed – indicate that there must have been more than one death flight on this trip. Kriel’s logbook shows that on the 13th, the flight plan was from Eros to the established departure point at the Toscanini airstrip, with Kriel flying Floyd, Theron, and their victims. They returned via Tsumeb to overnight at Eros.

It was the following day, the 14th, that the flight to Kamanjab and then Torra/Terrace Bay occurred, with Floyd and Theron on board, and Floyd casting the bodies into the sea. Kriel testified that Floyd later stood in for Theron on the death flights when the colonel was detained by his Speskop or D40 counterintelligence duties. Floyd declined to comment further on his involvement in the November 1980 death flights,5 but they are of interest firstly because they represented his introduction to the modus operandi of D40 disappearances, and secondly because it was the first time that one of their own D40 operatives was murdered, a new feature of the operation that was not yet formalised, but which foretold dark deeds to come.

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