MANPADS vs WWII C-47 Skytrain

The use of man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, against WWII-era aircraft was not totally unique to the 1986 story of the plane below; nor even against the particular plane involved, the C-47 Skytrain.

What sets this incident apart is that the plane and crew survived allowing the event to be fully documented after the fact, and also that another aircraft was able to photograph it in flight.


(The South African C-47 Skytrain which was hit by a SA-7 “Grail” in 1986 making an emergency landing with its tail blown off.)


(South African soldier with a captured SA-7 “Grail” during the 1981 “Protea” operation against SWAPO inside Angola.)

during WWII

There were no MANPADS or even anything close to them during WWII; the technology simply did not exist.

However one early effort towards a weapon which could bring down fast warplanes, yet be small enough for a single soldier to wield, was the WWII German Fliegerfaust (flying fist).



This weapon was designed by the Hugo Schneider company in Leipzig. Fliegerfaust was not a surface-to-air missile and was more akin to an elaborate shotgun. It had nine 20mm barrels which fired caseless projectiles weighing a fifth of a pound each. Each projectile was spin-stabilized by lateral exhaust ports and was essentially a tiny unguided rocket.

Fliegerfaust was intended to be used against low-flying Allied planes making dive-bombing, strafing, or rocket attacks. At 5′ long and weighing 14¼ lbs, it was light enough for a single soldier to use, yet in theory would deliver the effect of a towed 20mm anti-aircraft gun’s burst. It was intended to have a slant range of 656yds (1,968′ altitude at 90° upwards elevation) however past 540yds the dispersion of the projectiles made a hit unlikely – or perhaps, even more unlikely than the weapon’s already poor prospects.

Despite questionable trials results, the Fliegerfaust-B was accepted in 1945 as Germany was desperate for any relief against Allied airpower. The initial order was 10,000 weapons and 4,000,000rds of ammunition. Only a tiny fraction, several hundred at most, were finished before WWII ended.

The USA, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union all recovered Fliegerfausts at WWII’s end but in all cases it was considered a failed idea. However this WWII shoulder-fired weapon might be thought of as the “great grandfather” of MANPADS.

dawn of MANPADS after WWII

After the Korean War, which was fought with WWII-legacy anti-aircraft weapons, the US Army ran project “Octopus” to develop a portable AA system with a 1 mile range and a 1,000′ ceiling, that could engage jets up to 695 kts airspeed. The particulars were intentionally left vague but generally favored a weapon delivering the stopping power of WWII towed AA guns; but a weight and size similar to the M2 .50cal Browning machine gun.

By January 1955 the “Octopus” office’s budget was nearly exhausted so all efforts concentrated on the T220E1, a 20mm autocannon 8′ long in two (74 lbs and 28 lbs) breakdown sections; plus a tripod mount. The belt-fed T220E1 used a complicated system developed by the Matthewson Tool Company. The action had feed pawls which were precisely synchronized with the motion of the barrel in recoil to initiate chambering of a round.


This gun was very prone to jamming; any little thing such as a wobbly mount threw off the precise timing required of all its moving parts.

In 1956 an altogether different solution presented itself. The AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile, which had entered service that year, used infrared (IR) homing. Now the Convair corporation felt confident that this could be scaled down small enough for a bazooka-type rocket. The company had run a self-funded study since January 1956 and in November presented this to the US Army and US Marine Corps. In early 1957 “Octopus” was cancelled and all concepts shifted to a shoulder-fired missile.


(This early developmental version of Redeye had no sights; Convair felt that the soldier should be cued during aiming by aural buzzing alone instead. The production version had an optical sight in addition to a more robust launch tube.)

Convair’s confidence was tested by a lengthy and expensive development. Production of test missiles did not start until 1960, and the FIM-43 Redeye did not enter service until 1967.

Compared to the FIM-92 Stinger which later replaced it, the FIM-43 Redeye had many limitations and problems. None the less, it finally achieved the goal which the Germans had set out during WWII: a cheap disposable weapon allowing a single infantryman to shoot down a multi-million dollar warplane at low altitudes.

Soviet response

During 1960, Soviet intelligence obtained technical data on Redeye. The espionage was apparently directed at Convair at the corporate level rather than against the American military. Either way, the end result was the same. On 25 August 1960 the Kolomna design bureau was tasked with designing a similar weapon. It was designated Strela-2 (“arrow” in Russian) and superseded the Strela-1 effort.

As Convair’s project was nowhere near complete in 1960 when the espionage happened, the eventual SA-7 “Grail” was not a copy and required a lot of in-house development. That said, it was a huge advantage. Instead of starting from scratch, the Kolomna engineers had been given a half-finished jigsaw puzzle by their Convair counterparts and now only had to figure out the remaining pieces.

The initial version (9K32 / SA-7 “Grail”) was put into limited production in 1966 and entered full service in 1968, only a year after Redeye entered American service.


(American military veterans of a certain age perhaps recall this photo, the Pentagon distributed it widely during the 1970s and 1980s in recognition guides of Warsaw Pact small arms.) (official US Defense Department photo)

To use a “Grail” was not difficult. With the battery screwed on under the muzzle and the trigger gripstock turned on, it took 5 seconds to warm up. When the soldier had the targeted plane in the gunsight, he squeezed the trigger. If the missile’s seeker found sufficient IR energy a buzzer sounded, and once it started a tracking loop a light illuminated. The soldier then released the trigger and 1.5 seconds later the missile was ejected out of the launcher. At 16′ away from the muzzle the missile’s rocket motor started up.

The seeker operated by constant-correction. The seeker head had a swivel of 40° and the guidance system used small fins to constantly realign the axis of the missile with wherever the seeker was locked onto.

No further action was required of the soldier once the missile departed. If it flew 17 seconds without hitting anything, it self-destructed to preclude it coming down on friendly forces.

The single-use battery only had a 40 second lifespan after the trigger was squeezed, including two seconds needed for the actual firing. If the soldier selected a target with too weak of a IR signature and the missile could not start a tracking loop in 38 seconds, the shot aborted and the battery had to be changed. SA-7s were shipped in a 131 lbs wood crate with two tubed missiles, one trigger gripstock, and four batteries.

generations of Soviet MANPADS


Just like early production Redeyes in the USA, the initial 9K32 Strela-2 had shortcomings. It was a tail-chaser, meaning it could only be fired at opening-range warplanes. The seeker locked onto whatever was the source of the strongest IR differential in its viewing field at the moment the trigger was pulled; for this reason it could not be fired with the sun behind the target. It sometimes locked onto sunlight glistening off the edges of clouds. If the target’s heat signature was not strong enough to begin with, the missile would lose lock and crash. During the Bush War, Rhodesian helicopter crews exploited this via simple sheet metal shrouds that redirected the engine’s exhaust heat upwards into the rotor wash. The SA-7’s guidance system was “dumb” and if a targeted plane dropped flares, the seeker would home in on them instead of the plane itself.

The SA-7 entered combat for the first time during 1969 in Egyptian use, with the first shootdown being an Israeli A-4 Skyhawk. Egyptian results were not altogether amazing. Two-thirds of the missiles fired between 1969 – 1972 missed, and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War (with Israeli pilots now learning to adapt) 99% missed.

Another problem which surprised Soviet observers was how puny the weapon itself was, the majority of Israeli planes made it back to base damaged. The warhead just wasn’t big enough to always finish the job.


(This South African Mirage III fighter was clipped in the extreme rear by a SA-7 “Grail”, but it only damaged the afterburner and sheet metal around it. Later generations of MANPADS had an AI circuit which “center-massed” the airplane just before impact.)

Still, the MANPADS concept was validated. It took little training for an average Egyptian private to use, and the cost of many misses was easily dwarfed by the cost of even a single high-end Israeli jet.

The shortcomings were already realized even as the 9K32 entered service and work on an improved design began. This missile, the 9K32M, entered service in 1970 and immediately replaced the 9K32 in production. When NATO intelligence learned of the improved version, it was retroactively designated SA-7b (the b being lowercase) “Grail”.


(9K32M / SA-7b “Grail” missile and launcher.)

The main improvement was that the SA-7b was not limited to tail-chase only. It could be deflection-fired (aka broadside) to the targeted aircraft; however still not directly head-on. It had a limited ability to be fired at targets against the sun. It offered an extra ½ mile of range and another 2,500′ of ceiling. The launching procedure was simplified by an improved trigger unit. (The SA-7b has a “smooth boxy”-looking trigger unit compared to the SA-7.)

The SA-7b was only intended as a quick fix. At the same time it was being rushed into production, design of a second-generation MANPADS was underway. In 1974 the SA-14 “Gremlin” entered service.


(9K32 Strela-3 / SA-14 “Gremlin”) (photo via website)

The “Gremlin” was a much more lethal weapon. The seeker is cooled to -328°F giving it 100× better resolution against faint heat signatures than the “Grail”. It can be fired from any direction including head-on. The trigger unit has a IFF (identification friend / foe) receiver to alert the soldier if the target is friendly (however it does not prevent a launch). Its speed (778 kts) is supersonic at lower altitudes meaning fast jets could not outrun as easily as the “Grail”.

MANPADS into Angola

The USSR supplied early-version SA-7 “Grail”s to the communist insurgency fighting the Portuguese beginning in 1973. This was part of a larger Soviet effort to support the three anti-Portuguese wars being fought in Africa simultaneously; the other two being in Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.


(During WWII the PV-2 Harpoon had been an a naval plane hunting u-boats in the Atlantic. During the 1960s and 1970s in Angola, Portugal used these old aircraft as makeshift counter-insurgency (COIN) planes with light bombs. The introduction of the SA-7 “Grail” made this too dangerous but they continued in use as “target-finders” for more capable jets; the old WWII planes now being protected by simply flying above the “Grail”s ceiling.)

In 1975 Portugal abandoned its African colonies and Angola became independent, with the communist insurgency morphing into FAPLA, the de facto national army which was now fighting its own counter-insurgency against anti-communist rebels of UNITA. FAPLA was aided by the arrival of Cuban forces who not only brought some of their own air defense weapons but facilitated Soviet delivery of more MANPADS to the Angolans, who previously under the Portuguese had to smuggle them in.


(South African soldier with a captured SA-7 “Grail”. The South Africans captured a decent number of these weapons intact.)

A third force was SWAPO. Based in Angola and allied with FAPLA, its goal was to wreak havoc across the border with South-West Africa (SWA). Today the nation of Namibia, SWA was “an accident of history” and the result of the League Of Nations awarding Germany’s Sud-West Afrika colony as a “temporary” mandate to South Africa after World War One. By 1980 the “temporary” control had lasted more than a half-century and many South Africans felt that SWA would likely be a permanent possession.

SWAPO fought the South Africans inside southern Angola and occasionally in raids or infiltration platoons into the northern part of SWA. South Africa fought SWAPO, FAPLA, and the Cubans inside Angola, while UNITA fought FAPLA and occasionally SWAPO in the same.

From 1975 onwards the SA-7b as well as early SA-7 were in Angola, and in 1983 small numbers of SA-14 “Gremlin”s were reported; most likely in Cuban units.


(Angola’s 1980s air defense network was laid out with Cuban and Soviet help and had overlapping radar and SAM coverage, some of which crossed the border into SWA. The three colored areas were South African operational zones, the purple and green being across the border in Angola and the blue being counter-insurgency against SWAPO inside SWA.) (map via Saab Group)

The Soviets provided Angola with a surprisingly comprehensive air defense system. The national-level assets were MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters alongside the SA-3 “Goa”, a good but expensive radar-homing SAM with a 10½ mile range and more suited to medium-altitude engagements. In 1983 these were joined by the SA-6 “Gainful” which performed the same mission.

At the regimental level, Cuban and some Angolan units had the SA-9 “Gaskin”, an IR-homing missile with a 3 mile range carried on a 4×4 armored car. The SA-9s served alongside towed AA guns, of which the Angolans had a lot.


(SA-9 “Gaskin” captured by South African troops in 1983.)

A new wrinkle added in 1982 was the SA-8 “Gecko”, a mobile radar-guided SAM with the range of the bigger “Goa” but the tactical flexibility of the smaller “Gaskin”.


(A SA-8 “Gecko” captured by South Africa in 1987. The intact capture was notable as there were only 15 “Gecko” launch vehicles in all of Angola.)

At the bottom of the pyramid were MANPADS. Between FAPLA, the Cubans, and SWAPO there were a lot of them….South Africa logged 400 firings of MANPADS at their aircraft between 1975 and the end of apartheid. Perhaps some were imaginations by wary pilots, but even a 15% exaggeration rate would leave 340 true firings and assuming about a third of the missiles delivered by the Soviets were expended in combat, that would mean there were over a thousand MANPADS in Angola in a 15-year span.

Why this “pyramid” mattered, was because it eliminated altitude alone as an effective safeguard. If South African planes flew above the ceiling of MANPADS, they risked the larger radar-guided SAMs. If they flew treetop level to duck radars, they risked getting bushwhacked by a “Grail”.

In the lingo of the arms trade, “blowback” is an unintended negative consequence of a weapons sale. Considering the terrorist threat MANPADS pose today, it is often referenced in the sale of shoulder-fired missiles. The communists in Angola got an early taste of blowback in 1976. After a 1975 proposal to ship Redeyes to UNITA was nixed on the grounds of that missile being “blatantly American”, the CIA instead routed fifty Soviet-made SA-7 “Grail”s to UNITA.

These fifty SA-7s had been provided to Egypt and Syria by the USSR and captured intact during the Yom Kippur War by Israel.


(Arms-smuggling Boeing 707 at Ostend, Belgium.) (photo by Paul Van Daame)

St. Lucia Airways was an airline legally incorporated during 1975 to a P.O. Box in the tiny Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia. It flew cargo jets registered in St. Lucia, Turks & Caicos, and the USA and used airport rights as a subsidiary of the Belgian airline Sabena. It was apparently associated with another company called Unitrans International in the American state of Florida which was a freight brokerage or holding company of some sort.

The “Grail”s were shipped to the USA from Israel either on an El Al flight or aboard a ZIM cargo ship (sources differ), sent to Kelly AFB in Texas, and there loaded on St. Lucia Airways Boeings. From there they flew to the small island nation of Cabo Verde and from there, to a disused ex-Belgian airbase in southern Zaire. The SA-7s were unloaded, trucked to the border by UNITA, and then smuggled into Angola.


(UNITA soldier with a SA-7 “Grail” during the 1980s.)

The South Africans themselves captured a number of MANPADS, a few of which were retained but the majority being passed onto UNITA which otherwise lacked air cover of its own. After poor results with the fifty CIA-supplied weapons, UNITA saw better outcomes during the 1980s. UNITA SA-7s shot down Mi-24 “Hind” and Mi-8 “Hip” helicopters and reportedly a MiG-23 “Flogger” jet.


(SA-7 “Grail” captured by the Koevoet. The Koevoet (“crowbar” in Afrikaans) was a paramilitary offshoot of the SWA Police. Its manpower was drawn from the tiny white population of SWA, white South Africans, and black residents of the Ovamboland region of SWA. The Koevoet was a highly effective force.)

MANPADS and piston-engined aircraft

Even today “Can a heat-seeking missile designed for use against jets, also shoot down a piston-engined plane?” is asked surprisingly often in defense discussion forums, and often answered (also surprisingly often) in a vague or wrong way.

For fourth-generation MANPADS in the 21st century, the answer is unequivocally yes. The Chinese Fei Ying-16 for example, seeks in multiple wavelengths of light and could easily shoot down the Wright Brothers Flyer the same as a F-16 Falcon.

In the 1960s, with first-generation MANPADS like the Redeye and early-version SA-7 “Grail”s, the answer was not as clear-cut.


(This 1957 test was for the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile which used an infrared seeker similar to the Redeye and “Grail”. The target is a radio-controlled F6F Hellcat. The US Navy finished WWII with so many of these excellent carrier-based fighters that they were still being expended as target drones more than a decade after WWII.)

In the above photo, the unmanned F6F has a flare pack mounted on the tail as just like on a Skytrain, the Hellcat’s engine’s heat was mostly forward-facing.

As mentioned earlier, the initial (9K32) “Grail” was a tail-chase only and had limited infrared sensitivity. On a radial-engined WWII propeller-driven warplane like the C-47 Skytrain, the IR energy is concentrated on the top faces of the pistons which face forward; presenting an obvious problem to a weapon which can not target a plane head-on. A smaller amount of engine heat comes out of the exhaust, which on a C-47 is (when viewed from the rear) partially masked by the wing.


Problematic is not the same as impossible. The first-ever American warplane shot down by a MANPADS in combat was a piston-engined O-2 Skymaster in May 1972. The North Vietnamese missile which downed it was a “Grail” and quite likely an early-production model. The first airliner shot down by a MANPADS was a WWII-era Air Vietnam DC-4 in 1975, a piston-engined propeller plane, downed by a North Vietnamese SA-7 near Saigon. The first terrorist use of a MANPADS was an early-version SA-7 which shot down an Air Rhodesia Viscount in 1978; a piston-engined airliner.

The C-47 itself was not immune. In 1974 FRELIMO guerillas hit a Portuguese C-47 Skytrain with an early-model SA-7 over Mozambique. It managed to lock onto an engine exhaust and struck the rear of the nacelle. (The C-47 landed safely.) That same year a demilitarized C-47 flying the Phnom Penh ricelift was shot down by a Khmer Rouge SA-7. In 1975 a South Vietnamese C-47 was shot down by a North Vietnamese SA-7. In 1983 a civilianized C-47 was shot down by a Nicaraguan SA-7. It was suspected of smuggling either guns or drugs (DC-3s in 1980s Central America often did both).

The improved 9K32M (SA-7b) had less of an issue as it could be fired broadside to the targeted aircraft. The second-generation SA-14 had no problem at all. It could target a plane head-on and the seeker could sense much lesser infrared differentials, such as heat inside the cabin and cockpit vs cooler air outside.

the Skytrain in South Africa

The C-47 Skytrain was the best transport of WWII. This is not surprising as it was simply the militarized version of the DC-3 airliner; perhaps the best era-adjusted airliner of all time.

The C-47 Skytrain was 63’9″ long with a 95’6″ wingspan. It was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp air-cooled radial piston engines with three-bladed propellers. The maximum speed was 195 kts.


A total of 607 “true” DC-3s were made, compared to 10,167 C-47 Skytrains. Of civilian “DC-3s” after WWII, the majority were actually civilianized ex-military Skytrains.

C-47s lend-leased to the RAF were designated as Dakota. About a quarter of the WWII production went to Commonwealth nations via lend-lease, including South Africa. South Africa continued to use the Dakota nickname after WWII. On the African continent overall, Dakota or “Dak” is now common shorthand for a DC-3 / C-47 whatever its WWII origin had been.


(official SAAF photo)

During WWII, the Dakota’s South African transport career briefly overlapped the SAAF’s Junkers Ju-86 transports, which had been bought from Germany in happier times. After WWII the Dakota became the standard military transport in its weight class.

The South African air force planned to phase out the C-47 in the 1970s and beginning in 1969 the fleet was whittled down by transferring Dakotas to South African Airways for airliner use. The planned replacement was the Nord Transall, of which only nine were imported prior to the embargo halting the project.

In 1963 the U.N. issued a non-binding and limited arms embargo against South Africa. This was widely ignored. In 1977 the U.N. made this mandatory on all member nations. However South Africa exploited loopholes; for example existing contracts (which could be filled) had their schedules readjusted, and various weapons systems were imported as parts of their whole – for example tires, radiators, engines, fasteners and the such which were “dual use” to unrelated civilian things. The balance of the weapon was then made locally. In other cases, the underlying technology was imported and then the whole article made locally.

In 1986 a third embargo was issued, this one covering spare parts and “dual use” items. In theory this should have shut down much of South Africa’s military, but it didn’t. South Africa now had little reason not to try “busting the sanctions” through front companies and smuggling. Furthermore it caused a perverse incentive for South Africa to expand domestic weapons research. In many cases this caught up with what would have been imported and in some cases, took the country past that level.


(As an example, the British QF 25-Pounder howitzer of WWII was still in South African use during the sanctions period and was used in combat in Angola. With imports of replacement artillery blocked, South Africa designed and built the G5 which was actually superior to what the country could have bought abroad.)

The most extreme examples of this were the RSA-series ballistic missiles and the six 10kT atomic bombs.

Regarding the WWII Dakotas, with no new transports available for import, the ones in service remained in use while those in South African Airways civil service were transferred back to the military in 1971.


(For the same reason, the T-6 Texan of WWII remained South Africa’s primary trainer during the apartheid era. Like the Dakota, it was called by its WWII lend-lease name, Harvard.) (photo by Jarryd Sinovich)

The C-47 was about as tailor-made for flying under an arms embargo as can be imagined. In the late 1970s this was still a tremendously popular plane in civilian use everywhere. It was impossible to police the sale and resale of Skytrains worldwide. After WWII, Douglas had licensed several foreign companies, including HAL in India and Canadair in Canada, to make and sell DC-3 parts. In turn they set up their own webs of subcontractors over the years. For South African Dakotas, such widespread parts availability made the embargo meaningless.


(During the Border War period, South Africa used the C-47 for many non-transport roles including maritime patrol, photo-reconnaissance, and as seen here paratrooper training.)

avoiding MANPADS in a C-47

Only ten MANPADS are known to have been fired at Dakotas during the Border War, of which all but the one described below missed.

Flying over 10,000′ simply put the plane out of reach of a “Grail”. Because of the interleaved SAM layers in southern Angola described earlier, this wasn’t always possible near SWA’s northern border.

A vulnerable time was approaching or leaving an airbase. For departures, C-47s took off on no regular schedule to make planning a guerilla MANPADS ambush harder. After takeoff, C-47s would climb rapidly and turn hard upon leaving the runway, so as to deny a “Grail” firer parallel to the runway a clean tail shot.

For landings, one option was a very tight downwards corkscrew onto the runway, which would force a SA-7-armed guerilla to infiltrate dangerously close to the airbase’s security. Another option was to make final approach on a heading parallel to, but not of, the runway; then fly past it, turn 180° hard, and land. This had 50/50 odds of putting a MANPADS shooter on the wrong side.

the 1986 incident

controlling the C-47

An airplane has three axis of movements. In layman’s terms, pitch is if the nose is pointing up or down. Yaw is if the nose is pointing left or right. Roll is if one wing is higher than the other.


The C-47’s movable rudder and movable elevators were doped fabric for reasons described later.

The movable rudder swung on an axle mounted to the fixed metal vertical stabilizer. Contrary to what is sometimes thought, it wasn’t the primary method of turning the Skytrain in yaw; that being normally by opposed use of the left and right aileron to bank the plane. In normal C-47 flight the rudder was gently used to trim yaw (keep the plane flying straight ahead) and to counter crosswinds; it could also be used if a drastic heading change was required.

The moveable elevators, hinged onto the fixed metal horizontal tailplanes, were critically important. They controlled the aircraft’s pitch. Without them the C-47 was basically a “teeter-toter” balancing on an imaginary point of lift, with no way to regulate the up/down attitude of the nose.

the MANPADS attack

In August 1986 a South African C-47 Skytrain was flying high-ranking officers (including a senior general) to Ondangwa airbase in SWA. This was a very northern airbase, about 35 miles south of the Angolan border. While at 8,000′ and normal cruising speed, the plane was rocked by a large explosion to the rear and the pilot began to lose control of pitch.

The C-47’s loadmaster looked out and reported that much of the tail appeared to be gone, with the fabric of the elevators flapping in the slipstream. The pilot declared an emergency to Ondangwa. At the airbase, an Alouette III helicopter took off to meet the plane.


Availability of the helicopter and its observations were a great benefit to the plane’s safe recovery. The helicopter radioed the C-47 that the rudder was entirely gone, as was most of both the left and right elevators. He also let him know that the tailwheel was still intact and the rear fuselage was structurally sound, meaning a normal landing could still be attempted.

At this point there were still portions of the elevators near the outboard hinges partially intact, but rapidly disintegrating. Having already descended to low altitude, the pilot slowed to 100 kts to delay their continuing shredding by the slipstream.


The plane faced several serious dangers. The most serious was that without elevators, there was no way to control the up/down pitch of the nose. The pilot had to keep a stout backforce on the yoke to keep the C-47 level as the elevators continued to disintegrate.

While the damage to the movable rudder was more visually gruesome, it was less of an immediate concern. The plane could still be controlled in yaw by differential gentle aileron use, and by differing the power outputs of the left and right engines.


A much less serious concern, but still one present, was that the disintegrating fabric of the elevators and the debris of the rudder’s axle and ribs were an aerodynamic disturbance causing a rearward “tug” on the plane.

The most pressing concern was pitch control with no elevators. The loadmaster instructed the VIP passengers to move around the cabin. While the idea of top brass running around the inside of a plane is possibly humorous, it was effective. Shifting weight front/rear moved the plane’s imaginary lifting point around, which had the effect of the nose either rising or falling. This (very crudely) imitated the role the elevators would normally do.


With the mainwheels now lowered, landing would be the next challenge. The normal procedure, to land by using flaps and throttling down power until the tailwheel touched down, was impossible as any flap use pitched the nose down. Normally this was easily countered by the elevators, but this was not an option. Throttling down the engines would cause a similar problem.


Instead, the pilot “flew the airplane onto the runway” as if it were a continued gentle descent, until the rolling C-47 slowed enough that it had no lift and the tailwheel plopped down.

The landing went with no problems and the aircraft was safely recovered with no injuries.


(Left to right: loadmaster Pvt. Walsh, pilot Cpt. Walsh, copilot Lt. Moses.) (photo via William Good)

Upon inspection the C-47 had clearly been hit by a MANPADS. It was impossible to ascertain the specific model but a SA-7b seems most likely. The early-model SA-7 might have had a hard time locking onto the C-47 at 8,000′ while a SA-14 would have likely destroyed the plane.

Based on slight denting of the rear fuselage, it was estimated that the missile struck the extreme rear of the rudder on the left side on an upwards diagonal angle. The “Grail” used a 9E22 graze fuze which was sensitive enough to be set off by stiff doped fabric. Almost all of the damage was caused by perforation of the fabric surfaces by shrapnel causing them to rip apart in the slipstream. The aluminum portions of the plane’s rear had only insignificant shrapnel damage.


One thing discovered was that a protective coating which the South Africans put into the leading edges of the WWII Dakotas to extend their service lives under sanctions, tended to magnify the IR signature of the plane. This was rectified. Otherwise there was little that could be done to safeguard a WWII airplane against this 1980s threat.

The origin of the firing was never identified but in all likelihood was a SWAPO infiltration team. It is almost impossible to consider that it was a planned event, and was probably just dumb luck of the guerillas on the ground crossing paths with the C-47 at the right time.

fabric surfaces

For persons not familiar with DC-3s, perhaps it is surprising that this plane still used fabric-covered flying surfaces.


During World War One, everything in a warplane but the engine and cockpit was doped fabric stretched over wood or metal spars. Between the world wars, wood and then aluminum replaced fabric in the fuselage, and then in wing and tail sections, and finally most or all of the whole plane was aluminum.

One holdout was the flying surfaces, such as the elevators, ailerons, and rudder. In some designs of the 1930s (and even a few of the 1940s) these continued to be doped fabric stretched over metal ribs.

The main reason was weight – not the overall airplane, but the actual component itself. On modern aircraft, flying surfaces are either moved by small electric motors or hydraulically-boosted. In the DC-3’s generation, they moved by cables assisted by pulleys. Fabric-covered elevators and rudders were much lighter and simply easier to move.

A secondary reason was cost. When the DC-3 was designed during the Great Depression, aerospace-grade aluminum was expensive. Labor was not. After WWII, this inverted dramatically and the man-hours required to stretch and dope a fabric rudder became way more costly than flush-riveting sheet metal on the assembly line.

The base fabric was cotton. It was stretched over ribs and sewn into place. The chemical, or “dope”, was applied first in two coats with a paintbrush, and allowed to dry in a room kept around 90°F. This “set the nap” or established proper snugness of the fabric.


The dope varied by era and manufacturer. When the DC-3 / C-47 Skytrain was in production it was normally cellulose butyrate, sometimes with a powdered aluminum emulsion mixed in.

Next successive coats of dope were air-sprayed on. Strips of fabric were soaked in dope, laid atop stress-bearing areas, and then adhered with heavy brushings of more dope.


Finally a finishing coat of dope was applied and then buffed with an ultra-fine grit sandpaper with the fabric being wetted by clean water during sanding. This left it almost “polished”. The finished item, be it a rudder, elevator, or whatever; was then painted and installed. It was stiff and rigid, with a feel to the touch similar to waxed cardboard.

The DC-3 / C-47 Skytrain was in the final generation to use doped fabric surfaces. Another famous WWII plane in this category, perhaps surprisingly, was the B-29 Superfortress bomber.


(B-29 Superfortress fabric components being assembled by Fisher Auto Body in Detroit, MI during WWII.) (photo via General Motors Corporation)

With fighters having already long since moved on to all-metal flying surfaces years before, bigger multi-engine warplanes like the C-47 or B-29 were now also at the upper end of the envelope where fabric rudders, elevators, etc would still work. Anything faster, fabric flying surfaces would bulge and distort.

the Dak in South Africa after apartheid

Even after the arms embargo ended in the 1990s, the C-47 Skytrain remained in South African use. This WWII airplane was simply still effective at its job and still economical to run.

During the late 1990s a significant number were rebuilt into “Turbo Daks” with the WWII piston engines replaced by modern turboprops turning new five-bladed airscrews, new avionics installed, the airframe overhauled, and other improvements. One option for this rebuild was to replace the doped fabric flying surfaces with solid carbon-fibre copies.


(Turbo Dak and its eventual replacement, the C-130 Hercules, in the air force’s new insignia.)

By the late 2010s these were largely being withdrawn but some remained in niche roles.


(South African C-47TP-EW Dakota electronic warfare rebuild.)

the enduring MANPADS problem

I debated ending with this as it drifts too far from the theme of wwiiafterwwii; that being the use of WWII weapons after 1945.

On the other hand, in another sense it is the overall theme; in that weapons do not “go away” when the war they were designed to fight ends. In 1945, nobody could have predicted that T-34s meant to stop the German advance into the USSR would be rumbling across the 1960s Sinai desert, or that C-46 Commandos which dropped paratroopers on D-Day would be smuggling cocaine for Colombian cartels in the 1980s, or that a StG-44 made for the Waffen-SS would be fighting in downtown Damascus in the 21st century.

As WWII fades further into history, this phenomenon will likely repeat itself with today’s weapons for future generations.

In 2021, the estimate of total MANPADS existing worldwide ranged from 749,000 to 900,000+. Even one is sufficient to shoot down a big civilian airliner.


(This 2015 photo shows old SA-7 “Grail”s prepared for demolition along with another scourge on modern Africa, leftover land mines.) (US State Department photo)

The media myth of the MANPADS “expiration date” probably started with the first batch delivered to the Afghan mujahideen in the CIA’s 1980s “Whirlwind” operation. This first batch was old British Blowpipe MANPADS and black-market “Grail”s, many of which had been poorly stored and performed poorly. Subsequent deliveries of new FIM-92 Stingers performed well, leading to the false causality that “older = unusable”.

In truth, absent wanton abuse a MANPADS remains usable for a very long time.

In 1997, Tamil rebels shot down a Sri Lankan Mi-24 “Hind” with a FIM-92 Stinger. It had been provided to the Afghan mujahideen over a decade earlier and had been smuggled across multiple national borders. In 1998, UNITA in Angola (which continued fighting the communists after the Border War ended) shot down a U.A.E. cargo plane with a SA-7 “Grail” which had been captured by apartheid-era South Africa and passed on as described earlier. In 2000, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan shot down several Taliban MiG-21 “Fishbed” supersonic fighters with SA-14 “Gremlin”s which had been left behind by the Soviets during the 1980s. In 2022, Germany donated 500 SA-7b “Grail”s to Ukraine. These had been inherited from the defunct East German army in 1990 and were a third of a century old. A fifth of the missiles were discovered to be unusable due to mold growing inside them. The ridicule which that received masked the fact that four-fifths were still perfectly fine after decades of apparently neglectful storage.

The overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in 2011 opened another pandora’s box in Africa with an estimated 1,200 – 2,500 of Libya’s 4,000+ MANPADS going missing. In the 1990s, black market MANPADS were not cheap due to the extreme legal risk of possessing one; prices were usually in the high five digits. By 2015 the flood from Libya pushed the black market price of a SA-14 “Gremlin” below $3,700.

This was exacerbated by a tendency of nomadic tribes in the Sahara to use weapons as a makeshift barter currency, rapidly spreading them south and east across the desert.


(This “nomad load” was recovered by Mauritanian police in July 2017. Along with the expected civilian shotguns and AK- and AR-platform rifles was a Steyr AUG, and in the center a WWII German MG-34 machine gun.)

By 2019 looted Libyan MANPADS had been spread as far south as Nigeria and as far east as Yemen.

The 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War is another negative development. For those concerned with MANPADS proliferation it is feared that this may become a “BC / AD moment”, a turning point which will be regretted. As of May 2022 there were ten known types of MANPADS (SA-7b “Grail”, PPZR Grom, SA-14 “Gremlin”, FIM-92 Stinger, SA-16 “Gimlet”, SA-18 “Grouse”, Starstreak, SA-24 “Grinch”, PPZR Piorun, and Verba) in-theatre with either Ukrainian or Russian Federation forces (some are used by both sides).


(Russian Federation paratroopers with captured Ukrainian weapons in March 2022. Next to the assault rifles are two SA-16 “Gimlet” MANPADS. The other weapons are German-made Pzf-3T bazookas, a British-made NLAW rocket, and American-made FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles.)

The process by which MANPADS are being supplied to Ukraine is not well-known to the public. They are typically flown aboard NATO military aircraft to NATO bases in Poland, Slovakia, or Romania. From there they trasnload onto chartered civilian airplanes or civilian railroad cars for delivery to Ukrainian airports or civilian railyards in the western or southwestern part of the nation. From there they transload again onto civilian railroad cars or hired civilian semi trucks to the battle zones in the east and south of Ukraine, where they are distributed (often on the spot, with no cataloging of serial numbers) to frontline units.

Common sense dictates that at multiple points in this chain, there are any number of opportunities for theft. Weapons theft in Ukraine was already a big problem before the war. The non-profit Small Arms Survey group estimated in 2017 that during the 2010s 300,000 military-grade weapons went missing in Ukraine of which 87% were never recovered. While this encompassed anything from pistols to guided missiles, it is still a huge number.

Regardless of which side eventually wins the war and when it ends, a significant number of the MANPADS being rushed into Ukraine will still exist. Thus far it appears that no thought has been given to how they will be recovered or secured.



8 thoughts on “MANPADS vs WWII C-47 Skytrain

  1. Really enjoyed this one, well done! Honesty I am surprised there have not been more uses of man portable surface to air missiles against civilian airliners.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Speaking of the Fliegerfaust, the madmen at Wild Arms Research and Development are building a reproduction of one for…the hell of it, I suppose, and documenting the process. They have an active Youtube account and post updates on Instagram as well. It’s fun to watch. They’ve also made a new, civilian legal Panzerfaust, and fired it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting article. I wouldn’t be so worried about stray Ukrainian MANPADS falling into the wrong hands. it’s usually the Russian military shooting down civilian airliners.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A good article, I do have one question/ quibble:
    The SA-7 could only be fired at an airplane’s rear because that is where the exhaust and heat is – normally.
    On a prop airliner, such as the Dakota discussed here, the exhaust and heat are on the top or front, so I don’t see a reason why the missile couldn’t acquire from the front.
    The main issue there would be the high closing speed and potentially high change of aspect ratio that could overwhelm the missile sensor and make the airplane quickly leave it’s field of view (this isn’t an issue with the slow speed of the Dakota).

    Liked by 1 person

    • The way the guidance system worked on the early model only allowed for a rearwards overtake, which (initially) they thought would not really be an issue as the IR seeker’s sensitivity would more or less require the heat of a direct exhaust.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s