Air Transportation: May 13, 2003



A 170 ton Ilyushin IL-76 chartered by the Congolese army to fly from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi on May 9, lost hydraulic power and it's doors opened in flight, allowing passengers to be sucked out to their deaths. An unnamed Russian aviation official in Kinshasa said he believed there were 129 people on board, although other estimates ran as high as 200. Members of DRC's rapid intervention police force and their families were among the flight's passengers. 

The accident occurred on the night of the 8th, when the Soviet-era cargo plane was en route from the capital Kinshasa to the southeastern city of Lubumbashi at an altitude of 7,200 feet. The Russian crew was able to turn the Ilyushin 76 around and land at Kinshasa airport following the accident. An investigation has been started to determine the causes of the accident. 

With a disintegrating infrastructure and increasingly impassable roads, many of the cities in Africa's poorer nations can only be reached by air travel. Considering that the same countries are often at war and that armies are equally restricted, a market for cheap air transportation has flourished. This demand has been mostly filled by Eastern European pilots with sometimes questionable skills flying Soviet-era transports of dubious mechanical reliability. They fly passengers, general cargo, livestock and anything else they can fit in their holds. They have been hired by mining and drilling companies, cargo brokers and non-Government aid agencies. 

Some of these outfits only have a few planes, like the Israel-based BE-IN Ltd. airline company. They own two aircraft and used to carry Ugandans on the route between Beni, Bunia, Mahagi, Isiro, Duba, Aru and Goma towns in the eastern Congo.

In addition to civilian and overt military traffic, Africa's mostly-unregulated airspace also allows covert operations and smuggling to be carried out without interference. While these lucrative but illegal activities attract smaller companies to varying degrees, this black market also sees occasional evil genius and his global network. 

International bad-boy and arms smuggler Victor Bout was one such shady airline owner. When he was a resident of the United Arab Emirates, many of his airline companies were based there and provided charter services to companies in more than ten countries, but Bout's 50 to 60 planes were registered in countries like Equatorial Guinea or the Central African Republic. His fleet included the largest private fleet of Antonov cargo planes in the world. Combined with cargo charter companies and freight-forwarding companies, Bout was able to run hundreds of tons of weaponry into places like Sierre Leone.

As an example of how Bout ran his shell game, the Santa Cruz Imperial/Flying Dolphin airline was based in the United Arab Emirates with its aircraft registered in Liberia (although apparently unknown to Liberian authorities until 1998). They also used the Swaziland registry until the Government of Swaziland de-registered a total of 43 aircraft in 1999. The planes were operated by Air Cess, Air Pass, Southern Cross Airlines, Flying Dolphin and Southern Gateway Corporation. According to the Government of Swaziland, most of these companies were simply branches of the same organization. Oddly enough, Air Cess, for example, once carried United Nations peacekeepers from Pakistan to East Timor. 

The web of irregularities extends over nearly all of Africa and is usually chronicled with more mundane mysteries. For instance, a Ukrainian plane violated Kenyan airspace and overflew sensitive military installations on December 6, 2002 and yet the pilot was released after writing an apology. On September 26, 2002, a Belgian Boeing 747-400 freighter leased from an American company secretly entered Kenyan airspace and without clearance, leaving with a "cargo of flowers" destined for Amsterdam.

If these aircraft could just steer clear of disasters worthy of Hollywood, far fewer people would notice what they were up to. However, aircraft disasters are a reoccurring problem in Africa. In mid-1997, the Congo's private airlines were told that they could no longer use old Soviet-made aircraft nor hire Russian pilots. Transport Minister Henri Mova complained that the Russians spoke neither French nor English, so the Congolese couldn't determine the condition of their aircraft nor the pilots' qualifications.

That ban stemmed from a problem in January, 1996, when a Russian cargo plane leased to a then-Zairian company plowed into a crowded market (illegally set up just off the runway). The Russian crew had to abort because the aircraft was overloaded and at high speed, the plane went off the runway. Official figures say 365 people were killed in the accident but unofficial sources put the number of dead at over 800, some of them reportedly sliced death by the plane's propellers or crushed by the aircraft.

Obviously, someone in Kinshasa forgot about that ban. - Adam Geibel

For additional reading on Viktor Bout and his shady airlines, see:


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