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Zambia Airways – When we went mad with capitalism and lost a jowel

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Zambia Airways plane

By Brian Mulenga

The names Lazaro, Chama, Mulundika, Mwenda, Lungu, Sakala may seem like ordinary names today. Back in the day, they were famous names. These were names of pilots, captains with Zambia Airways.

Way back in the early 1990s, on Thursday mornings, at Lusaka International Airport, you got to see the whole fleet of Zambia Airways line up and take off within a one hour period.

The ATRs would follow the DC-10 like baby geese following the mother goose then after a short interval the 737s would take to the air before the 757 cargo would also be in the air and then finally the DC-8 would take off.

As early as 0400,the hangar area would be bustling with engineers and technicians doing last minute checks. Tool boxes and electronic calibration instruments everywhere.

Upstairs, the inflight catering kitchens would be working overtime preparing meals for all the planes. Meanwhile in Ndeke House at Longacres the office lights would be on as the back office staff did all the paperwork for flights. The telex and fax machines would be chattering transmitting and receiving information.

In Chelstone, New and Old Brentwood in Longacres, Air Crew residences, Ndeke Hotel crew buses would be picking up people including pilots, aircrew, ground staff and the smoothly oiled machine that was Zambia Airways would be swinging into action.

In the road to the Airport, all kinds of cars would be streaming down the road, One man was known for his beautiful cars and his high speed dashes into the airport. Mr. Jasper Lungu, in his latest sports car would slash through traffic and flash through the police checkpoint at mind numbing speeds.

By 0630 the first flight would be ready. Zambia Airways, Thursday morning, 9 aircraft all in the the white and national flag livery would get read to take to the skies. Nairobi, London. Amsterdam, New York exotic places, places we only see in movies.

To 12 different cities across the world the Zambia Airways communications network would be transmitting instructions to station managers. The working day had started for 2,000 employees of Zambia Airways in Lusaka, New York, London, Harare, Amsterdam, Ndola, Johannesburg, Livingstone, Mumbai, Rome, Addis Ababa and they would be working on manifests, permits, overfly rights, flight plans etc.

At a stroke in a move that affects the Zambian economy to this day, a Zambian government committed in my mind the greatest act of treason and economic sabotage against Zambia in its history.

30 years of hard work, hundreds of millions of dollars in investment all flushed down the drain by a government with no foresight and a blind faith in capitalism. Zambia Airways had assets all over the world including hotels in Lusaka and Mauritius, office blocks in Lusaka,London, Harare, Mumbai. Housing units in Lusaka, Ndola, Livingstone, Harare, London, Mumbai.

The tragedy was horrendous, all of a sudden Lusaka became the international backwater it is today no direct flights from any world capital and the regional network that connected every capital in the sub region snapped.

Zambia Airways was admittedly in need of a cash injection but it was not yet in a terminally ill situation. Government dithering and interference was a particularly bad drag on its performance. Appointment of political hacks as CEO were the worst part of this. One CEO appointed by the MMD governemnt just after it got into power, had no experience at all in the aviation or tourism industry and had never been CEO of any company before. Rescued from humdrum retirement , after having been eased out of his last job at an FMCG company as Sales Manager, the man had been campaign manager for one of the MMD heavyweights and was made Zambia Airways CEO. The man was an unmitigated disaster.

By the time George Lewis came in with a dramatic plan to turn around the airline, he was stabbed in the back, A cabal of ministers and businessmen were waiting to launch their own private airline. The President conveniently disappeared from the country and over the phone ordered the Acting president General Miyanda to close the airline.

The resulting liquidation spanned the world with assets in Asia, Europe, North America, Africa all put under the hammer and sold.

The gleaming Zambia Airways hangar with state of the art equipment for maintatence of Boeing 707s, 737s, 757s, ATR-42s, DC-8, DC-10, HS-748, BAC 111 with electronic test beds, calibration and training equipment, a complete metal fabrication workshop, jigs, lathes, pillar drills, metal forming equipment was sold for a song, Representatives of airlines from all over the world came and helped themselves to spares at low prices.

Aircraft were seized by various banks all over the world, In London, in Israel, in Johannesburg.

2,000 jobs snuffed out just like that. Zambia Airways itself used to make over $80 Million in foreign exchange for Zambia every year,

Zambian Instructor captains, people respected across the aviation world, people who British Airways and British Caledonian before them would pay for to INSTRUCT THEIR PILOTS at BCAL training school in the UK became pilots flying clapped out Boeing 707s for a shoody cargo airline called DAS Air. Aircraft Engineers became taxi drivers. Air hostesses became anything they could do to make a living. Pensions, leave days, bonuses, overtime all just lost by a snap of a finger.

30 years of training pilot, engineers, aircrew, all that time and money just went to waste.

Today Zambia is a regional backwater. Its aviation industry struggling and feeble. One of the Zambia Airways pilots Tony Irwin runs Proflight the largest local airlines. The pilots are scattered all over the world Nigeria, the Gulf, Kenya, the US, one of them even became the personal pilot for a President.One air hostess, is now a famous politician.

I still look back on those Thursday mornings when the whole Zambia Airways fleet would line up and take off within a short span.

I hear the liquidation is now finally over and the final lid nailed into the Zambia Airways coffin after 22 years.

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