As an Air Traffic Controller, one of the things that always interested me, was the arrival of an unusual aircraft, at Cape Town. We used to look at its flight plans, its point of departure and its route. It was more out of curiosity than anything else, but it was always fun to see where these various aircraft came from and try and guess what they were doing at Cape Town.
I remember, in the late 1990s, after the fall of Communist Russia, there was suddenly this growth in aircraft, that were manufactured in the old Soviet Block. Some looked in pristine condition, whilst others we often wondered how they flew and what the past history of those aircraft was. Even SAA Cargo used to use some of these aircraft. I remember all the fuss that SAAPA had to say about them and their pilots. And even the CAA tried to somewhat get involved in it, but there was never a determined effort to do anything.
Pilots that flew them were also a breed to themselves! Their R/T was never the best, but they somehow managed to understand us, arrive more or less safely and their departures were often quite spectacular, to say the least. They looked like legendary revolutionists, battle hardened, but often the nicest people to speak to. We noticed some of the crews never seem to leave their aircraft – did they sleep on them all the time? Others clearly shot into town and bought much needed supplies. Some of them used Vodka as a cheaper alternative to mouthwash!
There were so many questions and not many answers. We used to go down to the apron – you could in those days, before ACSA made it so hard for us to do and look around those aircraft. From the smallest Antonov 12 freighters, up to the large Illusion 76’s. All shapes and sizes and not the most airworthy aircraft either. It was a miracle how some of them managed to fly! But they did. One thing we did all agree on, was that the Soviets built solid aircraft. We used to ask the handling agents what was on the aircraft and where they were going to – I’m pretty sure half those jets going to Brazzaville, Entebbe or Luanda, stopped along the way. I remember once seeing some strange freight being loaded onto an IL76 one evening, whilst working night shift. I was on break and went to look at the freight, the next morning, that was being loaded and the inside of the aircraft was empty. Where had the previous freight gone to? I was flummoxed, to say the least. I saw that freight go on, yet there was nothing in the back! Once or twice the SAPS or Customs people used to come and look at us and ask us questions and then we knew to beat a retreat back to the tower!!
But what the hell – they got airborne (sometimes just), flew the route to our FIR boundary and then we said good bye and good luck and have a safe flight!!!! We wondered if they were actually going to the destination on their flight plan. I recall the standing joke was, that prior to departure off runway 19 of the IL76, going down to Antarctica, we had to phone the traffic department, to make sure there were no double-decker buses on the N2, lest one of them get hit by the departing aircraft!
Those were the days!
It was the same era when there was an exponential increase in aircraft crashes of ex Soviet Block aircraft. It was almost a monthly thing and eventually it did not even make the news. But it always bugged me – so many questions, no answers. One wondered exactly what these aircraft were doing all over Africa and what they carried and who owned them? Remember those days – all the various wars around Africa? One thing we did manage to conclude was that these aircraft were somehow involved in all these wars, but you could never prove it. I remember reading Simon Mann’s Cry Havoc and he mentioned that they could obtain an Antonov 12 and an Illuysin 76 for his wars in Africa, where they came from he did not know, but you could find them at a drop of a hat. In one incident, the crew were not told what was going on, so they simply fuelled and flew off – in an IL76 – where to he did not know, but they were never seen again.
So many questions and no answers.
Until a few weeks ago when a book called Outlaws Inc popped up on my Kindle at some silly price of a few dollars. It caught my attention and I thought, what the hell, lets buy it. What a great buy. One of the finest books I have ever bought from Amazon and a riveting book. 20 odd years later and all my questions were answered!
Outlaws is one of the most riveting books I have ever read. Brilliantly written by Matt Potter, who took to one of the ex Russian Air force pilots, and befriended him and his fellow crew member, and he writes in detail about what he did flying around the world and how he survived.
He deals in detail about the collapse of the USSR and what happened to all those literally hundreds of transport aircraft that “went missing”. He goes on to deal with the wars in Africa in the late 1990s and how these planes were used by various military and militia men to serve their needs. He tells of how they “stole” radio call signs and made false reports to navigate over Africa! For those of you, that had scary incidents involving Russian aircraft, especially in Angola, read this book and see how they bucked the system to make it work for them. It was mind blowing what they did and how they did it.
Moving on to Afghanistan, one realises how much money they Americans wasted in that part of the world and how utterly reliant they were on other forces to do the majority of their work. How much money was wasted to support their cause and how these ex-Russian Air Force pilots did the most amazing things there and without them, the Americans would have lost the war.
He goes on to deal with how these aircraft started appearing in Central America, in support of the drug barons and smuggling arms around the various countries. Some daring missions there too. How they managed to smuggle drugs into Europe. In fact the finest you could get and no-one suspected these aircraft of carrying them.
He did clear up one thing for me – the Illuyshin 76 has a freight compartment under the main floor that can hold 18 tonnes of freight, And unless you knew about it, you would never known it existed. No wonder we could never find the freight they loaded and no wonder they always struggled to get airborne. They were always 18 tonnes over take off weight!
It’s a truly epic book and there are some amazing stories – anyone with any interest in aviation will be fascinated by this book. The characters, the old and bold pilots and the daring stories they have to tell. For anyone that has read Air America, you aint read anything yet! These guys take mercenary flying – well was it, or was it just survival of the fittest? – to a new level. These pilots are the genuine characters of aviation. The legendary cigar smoking. Vodka drinking characters, one thought you only read about or see in the movies. How wrong!
Matt Potter has experienced this book, he has written it brilliantly and has made stealing and operating old aircraft an art.
Buy it and read it – you won’t regret it