BIAFRA: How To Build An Instant Airforce

Time Magazine Friday, June 06, 1969

Unventuresome Swedes spend their vacations at the seashore with wives and children. Count Carl Gustaf von Rosen, on the other hand, has left the family home this year and with four other men has gone off to Biafra on a big-game hunt of sorts. The weapon they chose is an odd one: a Swedish single-engine aircraft known as the MFI-9B trainer, equipped to hold twelve rockets in pods under its wing. The bag claimed so far has been equally unusual: it includes four MIGs, one Ilyushin 28, two Canberras, a Heron and a control tower, all belonging to the federal government of Nigeria.

Psychological Lift. Von Rosen, 59, is a Swedish nobleman with a passion for airplanes and a penchant for underdogs. "Once I get into a plane," he says, "I feel that I can do just about anything as long as I believe in it." As a young man he flew a Heinkel air ambulance in Ethiopia, helping victims of Italian aggression. When Russia attacked Finland, he signed up as a lieutenant in the Finnish air force. In the Congo in 1960, Von Rosen flew supplies for Swedish troops on United Nations peace-keeping duty. Now a senior pilot for a charter flight service called Transair Sweden, Von Rosen last summer hauled relief supplies to Biafra.

The plight of the Biafrans rekindled his sympathies for the outgunned and inspired an improbable, wildly romantic scheme: to marshal pilots and planes and create an instant air force for the planeless Biafrans. Last week, as the Biafran rebellion against Nigeria neared its second anniversary, Von Rosen and his flyers attacked the Nigerian airport at Benin, reported damage to one MIG and several civilian planes sitting on the ground. That raid and two earlier forays, which damaged British- and Russian-made Nigerian planes at Enugu and Port Harcourt, eased the pressure on Biafra's landing strip at Uli. With no Nigerian bombers overhead for a change, transports were shuttling in.

Von Rosen's air corps, which includes two Biafran pilots, has also given a psychological lift to Biafran troops fighting on despite the loss of their capital. Soon after Umuahia fell in April, Biafrans retaliated by recapturing the junction town of Owerri following a lengthy siege. Last week Biafran units were moving slowly southward from Owerri toward the oilfields around Port Harcourt. The Biafran strategy is not so much to regain lost territory as to prolong the standoff and inflict federal casualties until the Nigerians agree to peace talks and grant them independence. Toward such a goal, Count von Rosen's air force, however Lilliputian, is a significant help. As soon as his squadron has effectively disabled Nigerian airpower on the ground, Von Rosen intends to use his planes in close-up tactical air support of the Biafran troops.

After he returned home from Biafra last year, Von Rosen continued to worry about the underdog. Resuming routine hauls for Transair Sweden, the count commenced secret military planning on the side. Since he will be 60 years old this summer and can no longer fly commercially as a captain, Von Rosen talked about opening a flight school; on this premise, he approached Malmö Flygindustri, builders of the MFI-9B, and received permission to take up one of the trainers for familiarization flights. He searched quietly for pilots and demanded, with reason, that they be experienced. Studying press photographs of their planes in Africa last week, a Malmö Flygindustri executive pointed out with a shudder that the trainers were so overloaded with extra fuel tanks, rockets and radio compass that they were "technically" unable to leave the ground.

The Biafran government put up $60,000 for the purchase of five secondhand MFl-9Bs in a third-party transaction handled through a Zurich bank. Biafran Leader Odumegwu Ojukwu appointed Von Rosen an air force colonel and approved an additional $140,000 for refitting the planes in friendly Gabon and for the pilots' salaries. Finally Von Rosen told his wife Gunvor of his plans—up to a point. "He told me he was going to Biafra," Countess von Rosen said last week, "but he didn't say he would be bombing MIGs."

Without Permission. Von Rosen, in addition to idealism, is guided by a shrewd sense of publicity. This time his exploits have been photographed and tape-recorded from the start. They were being played back at home last week by the Stockholm newspaper Expressen. The report of sneak transactions and flamboyant attacks embarrassed the neutral Swedish government, which set lawyers digging for statutes under which Von Rosen could be prosecuted.

The count's employer at first treated his exploits with extraordinary cool: Von Rosen was not due on the job until next week, said a Transair Sweden spokesman, and what he did on his own time was not the company's business. Eventually, afraid that some African states who side with Nigeria might revoke the firm's air privileges, Transair reversed that position. Von Rosen was being grounded, the firm said, because he had violated a company rule. The rule specifies that vacationing employees cannot fly planes without permission from Transair. In any case, it looked as if the count would have other flying business to keep him in the cockpit for some time.

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