Once upon a time

12th August 2022

By: Terry Mackenzie-hoy


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Many years ago when I was a young engineer, I had finished my national service, got married and started work. The work that I found was to be employed by GEC Engineering Services. It was an interesting job because GEC employed relatively young qualified and experienced engineering staff and, since business was booming, there was a lot of electrical work, particularly in the construction of new electrical projects, which by their nature required competent electrical firms such as GEC to do the installation work.

We worked very long hours. So it was that when I was called at 02:00 and asked if I could assist with a problem on a mine some 200 km away. The problem was that the power to the mine had tripped. There were three employees who were in a mine cage, about 700 ft below the surface. They couldn’t be hoisted to the surface because of the lack of power.

Unfortunately, the mine was filling up with water and, if they were not hauled out, they would drown within a few hours. So, I boarded an aircraft with a recently wakened pilot, and off we flew into the darkness. It was fascinating and scary and wildly beautiful, since there was no moon, and we were surrounded by bright stars on a black background. After about one-and-a-half hours, the aircraft reached the airstrip of the mine where the cage was located. It turned out there was no lighting for the airstrip, so an arrangement had been made for the strip to be lit up by mine staff using torches and headlamps. The pilot lined up and we came in to land. The aircraft touched down, but it seemed to be travelling very fast. It was. We went the entire length of the runway and off into the bush in a short period. Finally, we stopped. I was shaken up. The pilot was furious. “They made us land in the wrong direction,” he spat out.

As fast as we could, we walked to the location of the mine. The situation was quite clear: the three men were trapped, and they could be brought out if the electrics of their cage were energised. We could energise it using a diesel generator, but the diesel generator was half the size that it had to be to supply sufficient power. It was also too far away from the connection to the cage.

I thought about it quite carefully and then came up with the following idea. We lifted the diesel generator into a very large container and found that we could partially fill the container with water to cool the generator, even if it was overloaded. To supply power to the mine shaft, we took what electrical cables we had and connected them all together and threaded the whole lot into a water pipe, which we filled up. This whole arrangement was then connected to the electrical system which fed the cage. We could keep the cables to the mine shaft cold by spraying water on them. This whole jerry-rigged arrangement provided enough energy to hoist out the mine cage and save the occupants. They were suitably happy.

I wanted to have a few drinks to celebrate but the pilot was anxious to get back because there was a morning storm brewing. We took off. The pilot was right to be apprehensive, because a massive storm broke and we had to fly back to the airstrip in sheeting rain. When we got above the airstrip, it was obvious that all the lighting for the runway had shorted out. We could have waited until there was enough light from the dawn to land, but then we would have run out of fuel. At the airstrip, they managed to get two runway lights working and, in a high crosswind, we managed to land between the two of these.

My wife, who had watched us land, thought her new marriage had come to an abrupt end, but this was not so. Whatever anyone thought, it was a huge adventure.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor




The Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy
The Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy

The SAIMM started as a learned society in 1894 after the invention of the cyanide process that saved the South African gold mining industry of the...


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