Sahara cocaine plane
A Boeing 727 went down in the middle of the Sahara. Why?
By Jan Koppen
Ten years ago, a burnt-out Boeing 727 was discovered abandoned in the Saharan desert of Mali in west Africa. As I'm always interested in the weal and woe of mysterious OldJets, I started to dig a bit deeper in this 'cold case'. It appeared a complex matter with a high shell game factor of registrations and construction numbers. Lets refresh our memory and see what the press had published about this mystery.
BBC News told us the following:
The UN is investigating the crash in the Sahara desert of a cargo plane, which is thought to have been carrying cocaine from Venezuela.
Alexandre Schmidt from the UN drugs agency told the BBC that the plane could have carried up to 10 tonnes of cocaine, which has not been found. West Africa has become a major transit point for Latin American cocaine. But Mr Schmidt said the size of the plane which crashed in Mali, near Gao, came as "a complete surprise".
He said that the engine numbers were being checked to confirm the type of plane and whether it had originated in Venezuela.
The plane, made by Boeing, seems to have encountered problems after taking off from a remote air strip 15km from Gao and was ditched in the desert.
Mr Schmidt said the plane was then burnt, leaving little evidence for investigators. No bodies were found at the crash site and it is not known what happened to the unloaded shipment.
Most cocaine is transported from Latin America to West Africa by small planes or boats, before being trafficked on to Europe.
Sylvia Wrigley's published the following indepth account:
Mystery Mali Boeing
18 Nov. 2016
On the 2nd of November in 2009, a burnt-out Boeing 727 was discovered abandoned in the Saharan desert of Mali in west Africa. The initial reaction was that the Boeing must have crash-landed on this spot but investigators soon discovered that it had landed safely on the make-shift desert airstrip — a dried out lake bed. Afterwards, it had been deliberately set on fire and left there to burn.
The Boeing 727 is a mid-sized three engine airliner which carries 150-189 passengers with a range of 5,000 km (2,700 nautical miles). Almost two thousand 727s were built over the period of 1963 to 1984. The initial aircraft cost $4.25 million (US dollars) but by 1982 they cost $22 million each. In the early 1990s, the two-engine 737 swiftly overtook the 727 in popularity for short haul flights and is now the best-selling jet commercial airliner. By July 2013, only 109 Boeing 727s were in commercial service.
This particular Boeing 727 was flying under a Saudi Arabian registration, HZ-SNE, which had been flagged by Guinea-Bissau for safety and registration violations. The initial investigation was hampered by confusion as to who had the authority over the incident.
The deputy director of the Malian National Civil Aviation Authority stated that although the incident was clearly in his jurisdiction, he was not given authority to investigate until three or four weeks after the 727 had been discovered, as the initial investigation was placed solely with the DGSE, the Malian intelligence service.
In a meeting with PolOff on November 25, the Deputy Director of ANAC, Issa Saley Maiga, stated that notwithstanding statutory jurisdiction for investigating aviation accidents, his agency was not given authority to investigate the incident until November 24, three to four weeks after the event. He said that until late November, responsibility for investigating the crash of the “drug plane” (as it has been called in the press) was placed solely with the DGSE.
On December 17, Deputy Regional Representative of the United Nations Office Against Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Cyriaque Sobtafo explained that because the plane crash occurred in northern Mali, it was considered exclusively a matter for DGSE, and that not even the Drug Brigade of the Malian Judiciary Investigation Police was allowed to make inquiries. Sobtafo added that the Malian government had not shared any information from its investigation with UNODC.
Eventually, some facts were established. The point of the flight was clear: the aircraft was transporting cocaine and “other illegal substances”. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime confirmed that the aircraft carried 10 tonnes of cocaine (22,000 pounds, 10,000 kilograms) to be taken to Europe from Mali, known for its smuggling activity. Nine jeeps, using forged number plates, met the aircraft and carried the cargo away. That’s where the trail was lost.
It soon became clear that the Saudi registration documents were forged. The real HZ-SNE was a Boeing 727-200, serial number 22644, which had been operated by DHL. The aircraft had been destroyed in an accident in Lagos. However, international aviation data is not that easy to keep track of and the burnt-out Boeing had been able to masquerade as the perfectly respectable HZ-SNE for at least one flight.
The aircraft was a “ghost ship”, history and provenance unknown. This makes the deliberate torching of the aircraft even stranger, having successfully “fallen off the radar” of aviation authorities.
But investigators had successfully traced its route. It had been seen under the false registration departing Venezuela, possibly stopping in Colombia, and then next seen passing through Cape Verde airspace before stopping in Guinea-Bissau.
It was already known that South American drug cartels had discovered European drug market was more lucrative and less secure than the North American market. At least three drug cartels were known to have organised drugs to be flown into West Africa and then transported to Europe. One of the drug traffickers claimed that he had six aircraft flying.
In 2008, many arrests were made related to large aircraft carrying drugs from Bolivia to Africa. The pilots and fuel had been paid by wire transfer and suitcases filled with cash. A bag containing €260,000 (£220,000) was discovered at a hotel bar, apparently to pay a Russian crew to move a newly acquired aircraft from Moldova to Romania. A Gulfsteam II carrying large amounts of contraband was seized in Guinea Bissau. In Sierra Leone, an aircraft carrying 600 kg (1,300 pounds) of cocaine was seized. In recorded conversations related to the case, the trafficker stated that the gang had access to a private airfield in Guinea and were considering buying its own airport.
However, this only gave context to the contraband which had been flown into the Malian desert. It didn’t explain where the 727 came from.
The only real evidence remaining was the burnt Boeing 727 and the fact that only drug trade profits could be high enough to be worth destroying the aircraft. Within a month, much of the aircraft was missing, scavenged by locals for aluminium, which they could sell for 1,500 CFA francs per kilo, about $2.50 US dollars or £2.00.
A 2008 United Nations report on the import of weapons found that the Democratic Republic of the Congo had twenty aircraft with obviously incorrect registration numbers and 89 aircraft whose manufacturing number (serial number) was missing or incorrect. Many aircraft “disappeared” from Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The AeroTransport Data Bank, which tracks aircraft capable of carrying 30 passengers or more, has a special status for aircraft which appear neither to be flying nor stored: UFO, or ultimate fate obscure. Many of these have probably been scrapped but there’s no question that some have been disappeared from the public records in order to use them for criminal activities.
My (Sylvia Wrigley) first thought was that the stolen Boeing could be the Boeing 727-223 (N844AA) which disappeared from Luanda in 2003 but this was quickly proven to be impossible.
The Civil Aviation Agency in Guinea-Bissau definitely had their eye on the aircraft flying as HZ-SNE, having flagged it for safety and registration issues at the time of its last flight.
They were also investigating an aircraft registered with them as J5-GCU. In November, within days of the crash, they had declared J5-GCU as no longer airworthy and contacted the owner demanding the location of the aircraft within twenty four hours. At the same time, they contacted the aviation authorities in Nigeria and Venezuela to say that they believed that J5-GCU was operating illegally in Venezuela with Nigerian crews and asked them to ground the 727 if it was identified. In December, they contacted the aviation authority in Mali to say that they had information that J5-GCU was operating flights from Colombia to Mali and asked the Malian ANAC for assistance in grounding the aircraft.
J5-GCU is currently shown as destroyed on an illegal desert airstrip 200km north of Gao in Mali. However, there’s no proof that J5-GCU is the correct aircraft.
Another likely candidate is a Boeing 727-230F with serial number 21619. That aircraft was sold to a company called Africa Aviation Assistance, after having been transferred across three entities in four countries (and assigned four registrations in the process). Africa Aviation Assistance placed the aircraft in storage in Dakar in June, six months before the fraudulent HZ-SNE’s flight.
Africa Aviation Assistance was shut down in July when it was discovered to be operating without an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC), which is required for any company which uses aircraft for commercial purposes. This was about the same time as DHL’s Saudi registered Boeing was destroyed in an accident. The timing was perfect for setting up an abandoned aircraft from a defunct company with the HZ-SNE registration from the DHL aircraft.
In June 2011, L’Agence France-Presse reported that three businessmen, one French, one Spanish and one Malian, had been arrested and charged with international trafficking in cocaine. There’s a reference to having found the pilot of the aircraft, a Frenchman. Then in January 2012, the final update of the story, the Malian businessman had been freed.
Malian authorities have launched an investigation into whether a Boeing 727 cargo plane, thought to have been carrying a large amount of cocaine, had crashed or was torched by drug traffickers, a military source said.
The incident in Mali’s remote eastern region underscores the country’s place among West Africa’s favoured pitstops for South American drug traffickers seeking proximity to European markets and relatively low risk of government surveillance.
"At the moment we can’t be certain the plane was carrying drugs, but if it were it wouldn’t be a surprise. The area has become a haven for trafficking of all sorts’ drugs, weapons," said the military source who did not want to be identified.
He said a commission of inquiry had been set up and was examining whether the plane had been deliberately set on fire, or had crashed.
Drug traffickers seeking to cover their tracks sometimes buy old aircraft to use for deliveries and then destroy them.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime said earlier this month the plane was transporting as much as 10 tonnes of cocaine from Venezuela to West Africa, making it one of several significant trafficking incidents in Mali reported in recent years.
In February, Malian customs officials said they intercepted a large stash of weapons destined for al Qaeda’s North African wing. Two months earlier, nine Malian government troops and 11 Tuareg rebel fighters were killed when a rebel column attacked an army post in a raid linked to drug trafficking.
In January 2008, Malian border guards seized two trucks attempting to carry 750 kg of cocaine across the border to Algeria.
Boeing 727-230 D-ABKP, was manufactured in 1978 and enjoyed a long and various career. Her construction number was 21442. After 14 year of faithful service with first owner Lufthansa, she was sold in April 1992 to Istanbul Airlines. They were just one of half a dozen employers this 727 worked for. After Istanbul she operated respectively for Finova Capital Corp. who converted her into a freighter and Emery Worldwide Airlines. In May 2005 she was sold to Swiftair in Spain. During these years she flew the again European skyways. In February 2007 she was operated for the Spanish operator Plaza Servicios Aereos. In March 2006 she was registrated HZ-SNE and her new owner became DHL-SNAS. In June 2009 she changed hands again and African Air Assistance became the new owner.
Keep in mind; - Several sources have published that c/n. 21442 was the ill-fated J5-GCU, but also c/n. 21619 and c/n. 22644 has also been suggested!
EuropaJet D-ABKM, a Boeing B727-230, of Lufthansa was delivered new to German Airline in 1978. Her construction number was 21619. After 14 year of faithful service she was sold to Istanbul Airlines as TC-AFP in 1992 where she stayed till '99. Next owner was the First Security Bank of Utah who registrated her N302FV. During their ownership she operated for Emery Worldwide Airlines on their inter-america cargo schedules. In 2005 she was imported into Spain and saw service with Swiftair. During 2008 Swiftair began operations within the Gulf region and re-registrated their Boeing A9C-SWA. In 2012 her adventure with the Spanish airline was over and she was sold to Link Air Charter as N727BM. After a couple of years she showed-up at Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta, where she is parked eversince as N727YK. Her owner seems to be Fayaka Airways.
Several sources have published that c/n. 21619 was the ill-fated J5-GCU instead of c/n. 21442 but was photographed with registration N727BM at Mogadishu in 2009!
The first flight of ZS-DPF was on July 08, 1981. She was build for Ansett Australia and got registration VH-ANF. Her construction number was 22644. Ansett had Boeing customer code ‘77’ so she became a 727-277. After she was sold to DHL Micronesia she was converted to a 727-277F (freighter) and registrated N626DH. DHL transfered this freighter to Swiftair in Spain and became a hush-kitted ‘workhorse’ for the spanish cargo carrier as EC-HHU. They operated the 727 in DHL colors of the mid 90's. After being sold by Swiftair this 727 did operate this time for DHL Aviation Pty. in South-Africa as ZS-DPF. Operating for DHL she sustained substantial damage in a runway excursion accident at Lagos-Murtala Muhammed Airport, Nigeria on September 07, 2006.
Boeing 727-277 ZS-DPF, operating for DHL sustained substantial damage in a runway excursion accident at Lagos-Murtala Muhammed Airport (LOS), Nigeria on September 07, 2006. The three crew members were not injured. Her construction number was 22644.
Flight DV110 departed Abidjan, Ivory Coast on a cargo flight to Accra, Ghana and Lagos, Nigeria. The aircraft departed Accra at 11:45 with a total declared cargo weight of 50014 lb (22733 kg).
The aircraft contacted Lagos Area Control at 12:42, while maintaining FL210 and was given an in-bound clearance to Lagos VOR (LAG) for an ILS approach on runway 18L. At 12:52, Lagos Approach cleared it to FL50 and at 12NM, it was further cleared down to 3500ft on QNH 1013 hpa, and finally to 2200ft and to report established on the ILS.
At 4NM to the runway, the aircraft reported fully established on the ILS and was handed over to the Control Tower for landing instructions. At 13:03 and 2NM to the runway, the aircraft was cleared to land on runway 18L but to exercise caution, as the runway surface was wet because of heavy rain associated with a thunderstorm.
The cloud base was about 100 ft above minimum and visibility was 600 m. The co-pilot was pilot flying and continued the approach and landing. The airplane touched down approx 4680 feet past the threshold at a speed of 167 knots, which was 30 knots higher than the maximum landing speed.
The captain observed that it was impossible to stop on the runway and he called for a go-around. The procedure was not properly executed and thus the aircraft overshot the runway 400 m into the grass area and collided with nav aids. The aircraft was written-off and donated to the Lagos airport fire-brigade.
The following are extracs from Wikileaks cables:
US embassy cables: Three-week delay for Mali 'drug plane' crash investigation
SUBJECT: NEW INFORMATION ON CRASHED DRUG PLANE
Classified By: Political Counselor Peter Newman, Embassy Bamako, for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).
1. (S) On January 12, [name redacted], provided PolCouns with copies of documents from the civil aviation authorities of Saudi Arabia and Guinea-Bissau he believed pertained to the Boeing 727 that crashed on take-off near the town of Tarkint in Northern Mali at the beginning of November 2009. The first document is an Aircraft Air Worthiness Certificate issued by the Saudi Arabian General Authority of Civil Aviation. The document identifies the aircraft as a Boeing B727-200 categorized as a transport aircraft with the registration mark HZ-SNE. The certificate is dated November 12, 2008 and has an expiration date of March 11, 2009.
2. (S) The second through fifth documents are letters in the name of the Civil Aviation Agency in Guinea-Bissau (AACGB). One letter is addressed to Mr. Ibrahima Gueye, identified as the Administrator of "Africa Air Assistance." A Google search Post conducted identified Africa Air Assistance as a Dakar, Senegal-based subsidiary of Malaga, Spain-based West African Aviation, an agent and distributor &for major worldwide aviation maintenance and security companies.The letter informs Mr. Gueye that the Boeing B727-200F under Guinea-Bissau registration J5-GCU is no longer considered airworthy, and requests information concerning the location of the identified aircraft within 24 hours. The letter is dated November 5, 2009. On the same date, AACGB sent two letters to its counterpart civil aviation authorities in Nigeria and Venezuela. AACGB stated that it had information that the aircraft J5-GCU was operating under a leasing agreement in Venezuela with Nigerian crews. The letters requested that the Nigerian and Venezuelan civil aviation authorities ground the 727 should the opportunity arise. The final letter is from AACGB to the Malian National Civil Aviation Authority (ANAC) and is dated December 1, 2009. In this letter, AACGB informs ANAC that it has learned aircraft J5-GCU was operating flights from Colombia to Mali. AACGB requests ANAC's assistance in grounding the aircraft due to the expired airworthiness certification.
3. (S) In a meeting with PolOff on November 25, the Deputy Director of ANAC, Issa Saley Maiga, stated that notwithstanding statutory jurisdiction for investigating aviation accidents, his agency was not given authority to investigate the incident until November 24, three to four weeks after the event. He said that until late November, responsibility for investigating the crash of the "drug plane" ) as it has been called in the press ) was placed solely with the DGSE. On December 17, Deputy Regional Representative of the United Nations Office Against Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Cyriaque Sobtafo explained that because the plane crash occurred in northern Mali, it was considered exclusively a matter for DGSE, and that not even the Drug Brigade of the Malian Judiciary Investigation Police was allowed to make inquiries. Sobtafo added that the Malian government had not shared any information from its investigation with UNODC.
After this research I come to the conclusion that the Boeing 727 with the construction number 21442 is the ill-fated one. '22644' is a hulk at Lagos airport and number and number 21619 seems to be stored at Nairobi.
The remains of a Boeing 727 used by drug smugglers before being abandoned and burned in a remote area of Mali some 10 years ago.
The blackened tail of the unfortunate 727 in the middle of the Mali desert.
Only a small proportion of the once proud 727 remained after she was set on fire.
It is so sad to see her this way.
A lovely eighties scene at London. Lufthansa Boeing 727-230 taxing out for departure with a pair of PanAm jets in the background. Did she ended her working life as a mysterious cocaine plane? (cn. 21442)
Heathrow, a very long time ago! Photo credit: Richard Parkhouse
1978 built TC-AFN of Istanbul Airlines is seen here gleaming on Bologna Bongo Panigale's apron in August 1992. (cn. 21442)
Photo credit: Donato Bolelli.
Powerful take off for this Swiftair 727 EC-JHC flying from Zaragoza, Spain, on a beautiful day in September 2006. (cn. 21442)
Photo credit: Vidal Mendez
EC-JHC of Plaza Servicios Aereos arrives back atTenerife Los Rodeos airport on a chilly day in December 2006. (cn. 21442)
Photo credit: J. Castillo
HZ-SNE of DHL/SNAS is seen here on final at Bahrain airport in January 2008. This once pristine example of the most elegant airliner built, sadly shows advanced signs of decay. Did she flew from Venezuela to Mali with a load of cocaine during the first days of November 2009? (cn. 21442)
Photo credit: SkyPhotography
Serial number 21619 should be 21442. Fraud or a mix-up?
Volcanic gasses hurtle rearward as the sleek Boeing lifts-off from Stuttgart-Echterdingen airport in 1985. Did her career ended in desert of Mali? (cn. 21619)
Photo credit: Holger Frank
An exceedingly large, bright red tulip is well and truly emblazoned on the tail of Instanbul Airlines Boeing 727 TC-AFP. (cn. 21619)
Photo credit: Werner Lehman, Berlin Tegel airport, mid 90's.
Emery Worldwide Boeing 727-230F N302FV seconds before making contact with one of Seattle Tacoma runways during the year 2003. (cn. 21619)
Photo credit: Andreas Mowinckel
A superb shot of Swiftair's EC-JHU, on short finals to land at Tenerife Los Rodeos airport in the early morning of July 2003. (cn. 21619)
Photo credit: G.B. Carlos
The scruffy and weathered Swiftair's Boeing 727-230F A9C-SWA flew the Middle-eastern skies for a couple of years and is seen here at Bahrain in March 2010. (cn. 21619)
Photo credit: Mr. Freightdog.
N727BM is seen here departing Mogadishu, Somalia for Fujairah with a load of fresh goat meat on a hot August day in 2013. She was operating for Jubba Airways and leased from Link Air Charter. How could she be the Sahara cocaine plane which was set on fire in November 2009! - False registration or a mix-up? (cn. 21619)
Photo credit: Sean Mendis aug 2013
Crying out for some cosmetic attention is this Link Air Charter Boeing 727-230F in a deserted corner of Nairobi Jatto Kenyatta airport. (cn. 21619)
Photo credit: Kenneth Meegan, Nairobi, September, 2016.
View of Ansett's Fourth B727-277 VH-ANF boarding passengers at the Brisbane (Domestic) Terminal in 1982. No airbridges then, requiring pax to wander across the hot apron. VH-ANF was delivered to Ansett on July 22, 1981. An Ansett B737-277 is visible at rear. (cn. 22644)
Brisbane, March 10, 1982. Photo credit: Wolodymir Nelowkin.
1978 build EC-HHU gleaming on Brussel-Zavemtem's apron in August 2002. (cn. 22644)
Photo credit: Eduard Brantjes, Brussel, August 2002.
Boeing 727-277 ZS-DPF, operating for DHL sustained substantial damage in a runway (18L) excursion accident at Lagos-Murtala Muhammed Airport, Nigeria on September 07, 2006. (cn. 22644)
Photo credit: Captain Akinwale Makinde. Lagos Murtala airport.
Boeing 727 ZS-DPF still manages to look majestic despite her missing nose wheel undercarriage and wingtip! (cn. 22644)
Photo credit: AIB Nigeria, Lagos, September 2006.
DHL cargo jet ZS-DPF was damaged in a landing accident in 2006, then donated to local authorities, initially for fire fighter training. (cn. 22644)
Photo credit: Ken Iwelumo, Lagos April 2009.