The sad fate of Pelican 16

South African Air Force Shackleton – Pelican 16. This iconic image by photographer Dietmar Eckell for his photo book ‘Happy End’ – stories about miracles in aviation history, says it all.  The fate of Pelican 16 carries with it a tale of heroism and sadness.

Restored to flying condition by volunteers in 1994, Pelican 16 was offered to take part in a air show tour in the United Kingdom and departed South Africa for England on July 12th, 1994.

Flown by a group of active SAAF pilots, Pelican 16 was operating over the Sahara desert in temperatures exceeding 38*C on the night of July 13th when her #4 engine began to overheat from a coolant leak and had to be shut down. Moments later, a bolt connecting her two contra-rotating propellers in her #3 engine failed, causing the assembly to overheat and melt and leaving the fuel-laden plane without any functional engines on its right wing. Left with no option but a controlled ditching in the desert below.

Pelican 16’s pilots successfully belly-landed their aircraft on flat sands where it slid to a stop at this location. Though none of the crew were seriously injured by the landing, all 19 men were miles from any assistance and in the middle of an active warzone. The crew of Pelican 16 where quickly located and returned safely to South Africa.


This is the photo taken from the French rescue aircraft “Pelican 16” shortly after the belly landing in the Sahara desert – the ’19’ written on the ground is to inform any rescue aircraft of the number of surviving souls from the crash.

She is still where she landed – located about 2 hours drive from Zouérat in northern Mauritania in contested territory – lying open to the desert elements and subject to decay as there is no means of retrieving this beautiful aircraft.

Image Copyright Dietmar Eckell

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