Uli and Uga Airstrips: The ingenuity of Republic of Biafra

The Biafra’s two main airfields were at Enugu and Port Harcourt. Three other landing grounds existed at Calabar, Owerri and Ogoja, but with little (if any) landing facilities, such as landing aids, etc. The loss of Enugu, Biafra Capital in 04 October 1967 and two weeks later Calabar in the South East helped the Federal troops to control the Biafra-Cameroon border and seal off the Biafran coastal ports. We were forced to transfer international communications, including valuable arms flights to Port Harcourt which became Biafra’s main outlet to the world till May 1968. Tt was the loss of Enugu which prompted the concept to establishing a series of secret airstrips in the Biafran bush and a team of Biafran engineers began to select the possible sites. So the effort concentrated upon the site, codenamed “Annabelle”, just to the South of the village at Uli. By far the largest of the projected new airstrips. Uli became synonymous with the entire Biafra effort to survive, next to the “Rising Sun” National insignia, it undoubtedly became the best known symbol of Biafra. The strip was converted from a stretch of the main Owerri to Ihiala road. Nevertheless it was commented by one airlift pilot much later, “a nice wide road, but a damned narrow runway”. For inbound flights Uli operated only between the hours of darkness officially from 17:00 to 05:00 UTC or GMT at the time. Landing was only permissible after the crew had transmitted the correct landing-code for the night. The coded phases changed regularly. Towards the end of January 1969 the Biafran Air Force introduced a new frequency shift system for the final approach and landing phase. With this new arrangement, pilots initially contact Biafra Air Control Center (ACC) using the normal code format. As soon the contact with an inbound aircraft was established and confirmed. then, depending of weather, enemy activity, traffic, ACC would then clear the aircraft to Uli tower in plain language to until touchdown. Ihala, is just off the road along the approach to Uli. The Church with its two tall spires, was visible on approach to Uli. Landing planes passed just over it as I remember. Many aviators were buried there. By the end of war 35 airmen were buried there. Nigeria bulldozed the graves. Uga was only 27 kilometers to the North-east of Uli. Like Uli the strip at Uga was converted from a stretch of the main Orlu to Awka road. By the end of 1968 was declared operational but only as a secondary stip to Uli and strictly for Government and Military usage only. The first known landing of a regular Military flight to Uga came on the night of 10/11 May 1969 when Jack Malock and crew, flew one of his own DC-7CFs, into Uga. None relished the idea of using Uga airstrip again. The landing surface was not so good as Uli with considerable amounts of lose stone and shingle. The surface proved to be a major hazard especially when putting heavenly-laden DC-7CF into reverse pitch after landing. Contrary to popular belief, very few flights were made by DC-7s or L-1049Gs into Uga. Uga was the T-6Gs base, From here we took off for targets in the front line, Air Bases and in the back of enemy lines. The Head Quarters chose the targets, we execute them. If necessary in emergency or with the Migs 17, overflying our Base, we had South of Umuahia another airstrip at Mbawsi. The Migs 17 locate the airstrip and several retaliation attacks were carried out against the strip on 26 November and 1 December in the hope of either hitting the aircraft or rendering the strip sufficiently deniable for use. The NAF bombed and strafed Uga, many times but never hit a plane or one of us. There is God. The bombs are not for us, O di naka Chukwu.
Artur Alves Pereira

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