Jean Louis M’pele M’pele Flew Congo’s Hot-Rod French Fighter
The ex-fighter pilot died in November 2017
Famous Congolese pilot Col. Jean Louis M’pele M’pele, who flew for the Zairian air force, passed away on Nov. 12, 2017. M’pele was one of the first African pilots to fly the French-made Dassault Mirage 5.
Zaire, now called Democratic Republic of Congo, was only the second country in Africa – after South Africa with the Mirage III – to purchase the Dassault delta-wing fighter jet. But the Mach-two plane wasn’t well-suited to the Central African theater and its weather, and never really met Zaire’s needs.
The history of the Zairean Mirage goes back to May 1974, when France and the Republic of Zaire signed an agreement for 14 single-seat Mirage 5M and three two-seater Mirage 5DMs plus training in Dijon in France for a group of young Zairian officers.
Among them were lieutenants M’pele M’pele and M’Bo.
The first two-seaters — serials M201 and M202 — arrived in Kinshasa just in time for National Day on Oct. 27th, 1975, escorted by three French Mirage 5Fs from squadron EC 3/13. There was a delay in delivery of the Zairean single-seaters, so as collateral Zairean president Mobutu Sese Seko detained the three French jets, but not their pilots, for five months.
Above — Maj. Mpele Mpele, Capt. Max Buyungi and Capt. Engongo Lipemba at the Zairian operation room in N’Djamena in 1983. Author’s personal collection. At top — Mirage 5s at Kamina air base during the second Shaba war. Photo via Jean-Paul Bour
The Mirage 5Ms finally arrived in March 1976. The last group of eight aircraft flew to Zaire on Nov. 27, 1976. These aircraft joined the others in 211th Squadron, based in Kamina in Shaba, no known as Katanga — the southernmost province of Zaire.
Three single-seaters — serials M412, M413 and M414 — were never delivered. Dassault transformed them into Mirage 50EVs for Venezuela.
The Zairian pilots flew their Mirages during the two Shaba wars. The first war began March 8, 1977, when 2,000 fighters from the Front for the National Liberation of the Congo — supported by Angola and probably Cuba — invaded the province.
The conflict turned out to be calamitous for the Mirage pilots. They took off every day at the same time, making it easy for the rebels to anticipate their arrivals. Bombs failed to explode. The jets’ guns jammed.
The Zaireans asked the French for help. Paris sent armaments specialists who apparently solved the problems. In addition, France flew in 1,500 Moroccan soldiers to reinforce Mobutu’s troops. Mirages struck FNLC positions in Dilolo, Kasaji, Sandao and Kisengi. The Zairian and Moroccan forces retook Mutshatsha late April and FNLC troops left Shaba on May 26.
Mirage 5s at Kamina air base during the second Shaba war. Photo via Jean-Paul Bour
A year later on May 11, 1978, as many as 4,000 FNLC fighters invaded Shaba again, from the direction of Zambia. On May 13, a thousand men attacked Kolwezi airport and occupied the city.
During the second Shaba war, the Zairean Mirage 5s were piloted mainly by two French aviators and two or three Zairians. On the first day of the war, M’Bo flew a reconnaissance mission over the city of Kolwezi. The next day, a Mirage attacked Hotel Impala, headquarters of the Katangan Tigers, but missed.
On May 20, three rebel vehicles appeared south of Shaba’s foundry. Bombarded by French mortar teams, the vehicles fled. An Alouette helicopter tracked the survivors — and a Mirage 5 rolled in for a gun-run.
In June 1983 the Government of National Transition union, supported by the Libyans, launched a new offensive in Chad. GUNT forces seized Faya Largeau and Abéché and marched toward N’Djamena. Zaire sent three Aermacchi MB-326Ks, three Mirage 5s and a Puma SA330 to support Chadian president Hissène Habré. M’pele, then a major, flew one of the Mirages.
Lacking range and aerial-refueling capability, the delta-wing fighters had little opportunity to intervene against the GUNT. Single-seater serial M402, with M’pele at the controls, suffered significant damage on takeoff from N’Djamena when a tire burst.
By 1988, there were only seven single-seat Mirage 5Ms and one two-seat Mirage 5DM left in the Zairean inventory. Dassault bought them back and sold them onward to Egypt. Today the Congolese air force operates a pair of MiG-23s and four Su-25s.