Captain David Omita’s near brush with death started with innocent and unrelated events more than 300km away from the Uganda Air Force Base in Entebbe where the Russian-trained fighter pilot often spent his day running combat exercises or just taking care of his gleaming jet – a newly acquired MiG21 attack and interceptor aircraft.
It all started on Independence Day (October 9, 1978) when a Ugandan soldier that evening sneaked past the Tanzania border post to have a drink and perhaps to meet his Tanzanian lover that evening. Unfortunately, while there, he was roughed up by the Tanzanian security personnel, who briefly detained him. And when he was released early in the morning, the incensed soldier, whose name has not been established, ran back to his military detachment inside Uganda, picked his gun and went back to revenge against the Tanzanians security officers who had humiliated him.
Luckily, he fired at the sentry, but from a distance, and they escaped in a stampede that followed.
Now with his temper relieved, the soldier went back to his detachment and reported his action to the detachment commander only known as Lt Byansi. In his report, he deceived the commander that he had been kidnapped and assaulted by the Tanzanian security personnel while he had gone to bathe in a nearby stream close to the Uganda-Tanzania border.
Lt Byansi immediately radioed his commander, Colonel Juma Ali Oka aka Juma Butabika, who was the commander of the Malire Mechanised Reconnaissance Regiment (MMRR) at Lubiri in Kampala. Without informing any of his senior officers, not even the commander-in-chief [Idi Amin], Col Butabika as he was popularly known, ordered the forces stationed in Lake Victoria to go and reinforce Lt Byansi’s detach and attack Tanzania.
“I was the first tank commander to enter Tanzania. We were ordered to attack Tanzania as we waited for reinforcement. We stayed in Tanzania for about two weeks before we were told to withdraw,” Lt Muzamir Amule, a former Uganda Army soldier, told this reporter in Koboko District, West-Nile two years ago.
Lt Amule said Col Butabika’s blunder caused the army and Uganda to fight a war which was unnecessary. “How do you move soldiers from Malire [in Kampala] to Mutukula [Uganda-Tanzania] border without informing the commander-in-chief or any other commanders?” Lt Amule ponders.
In the bizarre circumstance, Uganda opened war on Tanzania. President Idi Amin now found himself in the middle of a war that would have far-reaching consequences for him personally, and many of his soldiers. Col Butabika had already put Uganda in trouble; there was no option but to defend the territorial integrity, as well as the sovereignty of Uganda. The war had to be fought!
When the Ugandan troops withdrew after two weeks, they camped at the Mutukula Prison, not far from the common border in anticipation of retaliation from Tanzania. Indeed, Uganda got intelligence, according to Lt Amule that Tanzania was moving troops, and assembling them at Kapwepwe, which was now their Field Tactical headquarters.
From the “Uganda War-Room”, planners resolved to bomb Kapwepwe, which was more than 10km inside Tanzania.
Mission to bomb Tanzania
From the Uganda MiG-21 Squadron, three of the best fighter-bomber pilots were selected for the mission. They were Lt David Omita, Lt Atiku and Lt Abusala. Some records indicate that there was another called Walugembe. These had in 1977 returned from the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), now Russia, where they excelled as MiG-21 fighter-bomber pilots.
The three MiG-21 fighter-bombers were some of the more than 20 jets Uganda had in mid-1977 bought from Russia to replace those destroyed on July 4, 1976 when Israeli commandos attacked Entebbe airport to rescue their hijacked fellow countrymen.
Thus the bully Amin had bought the brand new MiG-21, one of the best fighter-bombers at the time, to replace old version MiG-15 and replenish his air force. In the Sub-Saharan Africa, the Uganda Air Force was the only one that had the MiG-21.
The Uganda Air Force MiG-21 fighter-bombers were sole-manned aircrafts, according to Lt Amule. The pilot was the loader, gunner and bomber. There were, however, two-manned versions as well.
Jumps out of burning jet
On a date and time the Sunday Monitor was unable to establish, the trio in a given formation took off from Entebbe military base to bomb Tanzania’s Field Tactical Headquarters at Kapwepwe.
In minutes, the three fighter-bomber jets were above their target and as ordered, bombed the area. But as they were returning to Uganda, Lt Omita’s jet was hit by the enemy’s land-to-air (LTA) anti-aircraft missile. The missile hit the right wing of the jet. It takes about 20 seconds for the impact of the blast to ignite. So within less than 20 seconds, Lt Omita had jumped out of the jet before it exploded in a fireball mid-air.
Lt Omita had many good things going for him: he was as one of Uganda’s best fighter-bomber pilots flying the fastest jet in the squad at the time, and was the youngest pilot in the country (in his early 20s), according to Lt Amule. This was corroborated by Staff Sergeant Taban Ali and Sergeant Steven Sempagala aka Kifulugunyu, all who knew him.
“The last thing a fighter pilot wants to do is eject, and it’s not just because they’re abandoning the ship to a fiery demise. The turbulent process of ejecting puts pilots at serious risk of injury. Once those rockets fire under the seat, they blow a person up and out of the cockpit with enough force to seriously bruise both shoulders on the harness straps and possibly break collarbones. And you better tuck in your knees and elbows, because if anything hits the side of the cockpit on the way out, it’s coming off,” writes Jay Bennette at www.popularmechanics.com.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, statistics on fighter aircrafts ejection show that survival rate is greater than 92 per cent. Thus a small number of ejections are fatal, mostly because the pilot has left it to the last minute to eject, or the seat is damaged in a midair collision for instance. It adds that about one in three will get a spinal fracture due to the force when the seat is ejected.
Naturally, if one lands in enemy hands, they could get killed after surviving the jump.
Well, Lt Omita successfully ejected and lived to tell his story. An enchanted Idi Amin took him to the troops at the front line so he could share with fellow soldiers how he made it.
According to reports, he said when his jet was hit by the missile, he literally saw death. He acted fast; pressed the cock-pit eject button and he was out of the aircraft. The parachute was automatically activated and he floated to safety, landing in a swamp in Tanzanian territory. Here, he hid for hours until it was dark at night then he walked back into Uganda, entering near Mutukula.
At home, the Ugandan troops had already counted him dead after the narration they got from his colleagues Lt Atiku and Lt Abusala, who successfully flew back to base after the bombing mission.
From Mutukula, Lt Omita was taken to Entebbe to meet Amin.
The wreckage of the MiG-21 fighter-bomber still exists inside Tanzania. In the early 2000s, a Ugandan journalist was arrested by the Tanzanian security agents while taking its photographs and he spent about a month in jail. He had been mistaken for a spy.
Amin promotes Omita
On October 19, 1978, according to the Voice of Uganda of October, 20, 1978, Amin promoted air force lieutenants David Omita, Atiku, Walugembe and Abusala to Captain. Another MiG-21 fighter-bomber pilot, Lt Amunya, was promoted to Major, skipping the rank of Captain. The function was held at Entebbe Air Force Base. Meanwhile, as Amin was decorating promoted air force officers, the Tanzania People’s Defence Force (TPDF) made its first attack onto Uganda at Kikagati and entered about five miles inside Uganda without meeting any resistance from the Ugandan army.
The Tanzanian army was flanked by the small Ugandan exile force of Kikoosi-Maalum and Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) – collectively under the umbrella of Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). The war would end in victory for the Tanzanian forces and Ugandan exiles five months later when Kampala fell on April 11, 1979.