REVEALED: Story of derelict Soviet plane in the desert
by Matthew Pomroy
The plane is a Soviet Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane. Currently it has an advert on the side for the Palma Beach Hotel, but its past is far more interesting.
According to the Aero Transport Data Bank the aircraft was built in 1975 in part of the Soviet Union that is now Uzbekistan. In the early Eighties it flew as a Soviet military transport plane (under the registration CCCP-86715).
After the collapse of the Soviet Union it flew for the Russian air force (with registration RA-86715) and then in the early Nineties it was sold to the Sharjah-based airline Air Cess.
Air Cess was a company formed by Sergei Bout, the brother of notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was the inspiration for an arms dealer character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film Lord of War.
Originally set up in Belgium, Air Cess moved to Sharjah in 1997. The cargo plane was then transferred to a company called Air Pass. This company was disbanded when South Africa’s Civil Aviation Authority charged Air Cess with 146 breaches of civil aviation law.
The airline, just as Bout himself was apt to do, simply reorganised and changed name once again. This time, in 1998, to Centrafrican Airlines. At present, the plane is listed as “derelict” but Centrafrican Airlines is its last registered owner.
The company finally ended operations in 2001 while the UAE laudably banned Bout from entering the country in the early 2000s.
The UN has firmly stated that Centrafrican was owned by Viktor Bout: “While he is not involved in the day-to-day management of the firm, UN investigators found that Bout signs the contracts for sale and purchase of aircraft, as well as leasing documents, for the company. The firm has been tied to numerous illicit arms shipments to conflict zones.”
The UN lists three addresses for the airline. One in Bangui, Central African Republic, as well as “PO Box 2190, Ajman, UAE” and “c/o Transavia Travel Agency, P.O. Box 3962, Sharjah, UAE”. Transavia is one of Bout’s oldest companies and provided cover for other Bout-controlled firms.
In November 2005, the UN Security Council Committee (under resolution 1521) concerning Liberia and the regime of Charles Taylor, decided to add individuals and entities to the Assets Freeze List. On the list was Centrafrican Airlines.
The report stated: “Centrafrican’s role in the Liberian arms trade was uncovered when UN investigators found film footage of Liberian rebels handling nine Strela surface-to-air missiles. These missiles appear to match an illegal shipment of weapons organised by [arms dealer and Bout associate] Sanjivan Ruprah and delivered to Liberia in May 2000 by an Ilyushin IL-76 belonging to Centrafrican Airlines. Centrafrican was also involved in other arms shipments, including the attempted sale of two refurbished Mi-24 attack helicopters to Liberia.”
So how did this plane finally end up abandoned in Umm Al Quwain? According to 'Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible', the book by Doug Farah on Bout’s life: “In one celebrated case, his operation boldly spirited away a decrepit Ilyushin plane that had been consigned for use as a Soviet war monument. Former Russian aviation official Valery Spurnov recounted a tale of Bout offering one of his pilots $20,000 to fly a shuddering wreck out to a desert landing in the Emirates, where it was promptly turned into a highway-side billboard.”
The airfield at Umm Al Quwain closed down around five years ago. In 2012 Viktor Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison,
Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Now the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane slowly rots in the sun, a fadingreminder of the arms dealer once referred to as “the merchant of death”.
* This article was originally published by Esquire Middle East.