Francis Sintema: Forgotten flight engineer

FORMER ZAF sergeant and Zambia Airways chief flight engineer Francis Sintema.

FRANCIS Sintema looks back over the years with pride and glee at how he has contributed to Zambia’s aviation history.
The former Zambia Air Force (ZAF) sergeant emerged from humble beginnings in Mulobezi district to become an accomplished flight engineer.
He grew up around Sichili Mission for 15 years before attending primary school starting in 1964.
“Zambia’s independence found me at the school when I was in Standard Five and in 1965 I completed my primary education,” Mr Sintema shares.
His secondary school years were spent at St John’s College, Mongu, in what was then called Barotseland, from 1966 to 1970 when he completed Form Five or grade 12.
After secondary school, he joined ZAF in December 1970 as an officer cadet, but just when he was about to go to ZAF in Livingstone, the Royal Air Force, under whose command ZAF fell, announced that those interested in working on aircraft would be non-commissioned officers while those wishing to work desk jobs as engineering officers would not work on aircraft.
Mr Sintema opted to go and work on aircraft as an engineering technician, and by doing so, became a non-commissioned officer.
He was then trained by the Italian Air Force in Livingstone for an engineering technician course lasting three years. When he finished in 1973, he was deployed at ZAF Lusaka as an engineering technician.
“Shortly after that, I was promoted as a flight mechanic on the Caribou while working on the Chipmunk, Beaver, Dakota and Dornier aircraft,” Mr Sintema shares.
In May 1975, the Zambian government ordered Buffalo aircraft and Mr Sintema went for training in Toronto, Canada.
When he returned, he was a fully-fledged flight engineer on the Buffalo and was promoted to instructor on the aircraft in June 1976.
He flew on the Buffalo in both military flights and VIP flights which carried former President Kenneth Kaunda.
“Most of my flying on the Buffalo was during the southern African liberation wars. I served in Mozambique with former President Mugabe and ZANU forces spearheading the independence of Zimbabwe,” Mr Sintema shared. “We flew them from coastal towns to the war front near the Rhodesian border.”
Notably is an experience he had in Mapai, Mozambique where he was part of a crew that was almost bombed on the Buffalo. Were it not for intelligence information from General Malimba Masheke, who was at the time Zambia’s head of Military Intelligence, Mr Sintema may not have lived to tell the tale.
He has other memorable experiences like flying supplies to Sinjembela aboard the Caribou as part of Operation Goose. During this operation, a Dornier aircraft crashed because of enemy fire on the Angolan side. Although the aircraft he was on did not get shot at, it landed with tail wind after avoiding the Cuando river before crashing.
In August 1976, he was part of a Buffalo crew that flew President Kaunda on a secret mission to Tete, Mozambique to meet the late Mozambican leader, Samora Machel.
He was also part of a crew flying liberation war food supplies from Gaborone and Francistown to Lusaka and Livingstone as part of Operation Citrus. Because crossing at Kazungula was becoming dangerous, the operation was abandoned at the end of October 1976.
In 1978, officers who wished to leave the Air Force were granted permission to do so. It was around the same time that Zimbabwe was about to become independent of British colonial rule.
And so after eight years in the air force, Mr Sintema left to join Zambia Airways straight on the Boeing 707 as a flight instructor.
When he joined Zambia Airways in 1979, he did his training in Dublin, Ireland with Air Lingus, which was running Zambia Airways.
There were two Boeing 707s for cargo and two for passengers at the time before the Zambian government decided to purchase the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 (The Nkwazi) in 1984.
Along with the likes of the late Captain Godfrey Mulundika, who became Zambia Airways’ chief pilot, Mr Sintema went to train in Los Angeles on the DC-10 before it was officially handed over to Zambia Airways.
Up until the time of the liquidation of Zambia Airways in 1994, Mr Sintema was managing flight engineer of the national carrier.
“You can imagine a situation where you wake up and there is no national airline,” he says. “Where do you go?”
Luckily for him there was a company called DAS Air Cargo operating from London, Gatwick in England, and when its owner heard there was crew lounging in Lusaka who were DC-10-rated, Mr Sintema was approached.
He did not need to apply to the company for a job and was recruited along with other former Zambia Airways crew members who were left unemployed following the liquidation.
“I just received a phone call from the owner of the company and I was given the same responsibility that I had at Zambia Airways as chief flight engineer,” he says.
He worked for DAS Air Cargo from 1995 to 2007 when the company was sold because of the price of fuel which rose from US$25 on the international market to US$147.
Mr Sintema returned home and was jobless again before joining Zambezi Airlines as flight operations technical officer for three years.
In this job, he was not flying like he had become accustomed to, so he found the experience mundane.
Zambezi Airlines shut down in 2012 but he worked for the company until 2013.
Presently, he is employed at the Zambia Air Services Training Institute (ZASTI) as a consultant in training documentation where he is lending his expertise after flying for over three decades.
He refers to himself as the “Forgotten Aviator” but is happy to have contributed to Zambia’s aviation history and to have been a part of the country’s first national airline.

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