by Hannes Wessels
This year saw Nigel Lamb become the Red Bull Air Race World Champion. He has been a professional display pilot for 34 years and flown over 1,800 public displays in over 32 countries worldwide. He is the only pilot to have won the British National Unlimited Aerobatic Championship 8 times consecutively, was a member of the British team in three World Aerobatic Championships and two European championships and British Freestyle Champion on four occasions. He also featured in some major movie productions as an aerial display pilot flying a variety of historical aircraft including Spitfires, P-51 Mustangs and a P-40 Kittyhawk. For someone who once seriously doubted he had the skills necessary to be a pilot this is an extraordinary story.
His father Deryck was born in Newcastle in the UK and entered the RAF in 1939 to commence pilot training aged 18.The following year he began operational flying and would see action in Hurricanes, Spitfires and Mustangs. In September 1944, by this time a Squadron Leader and days before the ‘D Day’ landings, he was shot down leading his squadron of Mustangs by a flak-barge near Arnhem and rescued by members of the Dutch resistance. Particularly helpful was a Dutch policeman by the name of Gerhardus van den Boomen who helped steer him to safety after he recovered from his burns. He then made contact with the Americans and made his way back to his lines. Having lost touch with his squadron he re-entered service and saw out the war as a Spitfire test-pilot. He was awarded the DFC.
At the end of hostilities, being a good golfer Deryck found employment entertaining clients on a golf course but quickly bored of this. Having met and liked many Rhodesians during the war he decided on a farming life in Africa and travelled to Mombassa in Kenya but ended up on a tobacco farm outside Salisbury. On a blind date he met Barbara, a former WREN who had also shipped out to Rhodesia as part of the Empire Development scheme and soon they were married. In 1949 the couple moved to a timber plantation near Cashel in the Eastern Highlands and put their roots down there.
“I went to Cashel Junior as a boarder aged six,” remembers Nigel. “There were only 25 kids there. We had a wonderful life on the farm with good friends in the district and lots of time spent outdoors. They said Cashel was like a tea-cloth because it was so full of ‘Steyns’!
“After junior school I went to Umtali Boys High where I was average academically and did not shine on the sports-field. I wanted to join the air force but never rated my chances very highly. The Rhodesian Air Force had high standards and most of the people I knew of who tried to get entry failed. Then in my last year at school I went to a Careers Day at the Queens Hall in Umtali and the Air Force had a display. I remember a newly commissioned Norman Maasdorp was on the stand and I grabbed his attention and hung onto his every word. He was hugely supportive and encouraging. I went back to the school hostel full of hope and posted my application off to the recruiting office. Tuesday was postal delivery day on the farm so every Tuesday night I went to the hostel call-box with my coins and dialled home to hear if there had been any response. Eventually the reply arrived and my dad told me I had been accepted. I’d never been so excited in my life.
“End of 1975 I arrived at Thornhill Air Force Base in Gwelo and we were put through rigorous medical, mental and physical tests along with interviews which I managed to get through. I will always be indebted to the interviewers because I think they recognised my passion for flying early on and that is why I got the thumbs-up. After a week we were put on a Dakota and flown to Pretoria for further tests involving aptitude, co-ordination and reflexes. I passed and we returned to Thornhill to start our training. After going solo on the Percival Provost I and my fellow cadets were the first to be sent to Langebaan in South Africa for seven months to complete our jet-training on the ‘Impalas’. On completion of this phase we returned to Rhodesia and received our ‘Wings’. Initially I was sent to 2 Squadron to complete the Vampire Weapons course and then on the 7 Squadron to fly the Alouettes which was exactly where I wanted to be.
“It was not long before I was being shot at and we were in the thick of the war. On many occasions I thought I would not be going home from sorties but I was one of the lucky ones who made it through.
“A particularly sad and memorable experience was a mission from Mt Darwin on 28th July ‘78 into Mozambique with Francois du Toit flying the other chopper to uplift a four-man Selous Scout reconnaissance team. As we homed in on the call sign’s smoke flare, we overflew an unmarked enemy camp and came under heavy fire which downed Francois. We were too heavy to uplift all four soldiers but managed to get two of them as close as I could to the downed chopper while Lynx pilot Chris Abrams put down as much covering fire as he could. As his aircraft plummeted I could see the smoke flares of the troops running toward us for pick-up so I had to negotiate heavy incoming fire while getting to them mindful Francois was missing and knowing, for weight reasons I could not uplift all four soldiers. Sadly, the Scouts on the ground could not get close to Francois and the light was fading fast so we had to extract them. I managed to pick up two of them and took them to a point behind a hill then returned for the other two and went looking again for Francois. I was unsuccessful but as it turned out he and his gunner had died before impact.
“Over a year later, it was the evening of the 11th September 1979, I was at an evening braai at the Thornhill Sports Club when I received an urgent message telling me to call my sister Sue who then told me my father had been abducted and was missing. That was the beginning of six months of awful mental anguish. The Cashel area, being so close to the Mozambique border was particularly hard hit during the war with many of the farmers murdered by ZANLA terrorists. I was flown to Umtali the next day and we discovered that my father and his tractor driver had been taken from the mill in broad daylight while my mother was in the house. A tracking team went after the group but returned empty handed. From that point we lived on in the hope he was safe and would be released but after the war ended the driver returned with the news that my dad was actually killed soon after he was taken away.”
On 30th December 1979 Nigel was awarded the Bronze Cross of Rhodesia. His citation reads:
Air Lieutenant Lamb has been involved in 65 contacts during two years of helicopter flying. He has earned the highest regard of his colleagues and other security force members for his skill, his gallant conduct in hazardous conditions and his ability when necessary to command the battle from the air. Throughout his service on operations, he has displayed dedication to duty and bravery under fire.
“I stayed in the air force until the end of 1980 when I moved to the UK and began life as a civilian and a commercial pilot performing at air-shows flying Pitts Special bi-planes in a team sponsored by Marlboro. In 1987 my wife Hilary and I bought the team and ran it ourselves. We’ve never really looked back and winning the championship this year has really been the cherry on the cake! Life has turned out incredibly well and I will always be grateful to the Rhodesian Air Force for giving me the best beginning anyone wanting to be a professional aviator could have asked for.