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Insight into the world of ex-Soviet pilots delivering food aid — and guns, drugs, gold

Weekend Review

 

Post-invasion Afghanistan. A group of US occupation forces find themselves in the middle of nowhere, urgently in need of a colossal generator at an airstrip they are trying to build. Word goes out about the contract, estimated at $60,000 (Dh220,200) to $70,000. But no firm is willing to supply it as there is the small matter of refuelling the large plane for takeoff once the delivery has been done — there is no refuelling station for hundreds of miles. They get a call from a bunch of Russian aviators who are willing to do the job, but for $2 million. By this time, the US forces have no choice but to go ahead and the contract is awarded.

Later, a rickety old Ilyushin-76 appears on the horizon and makes an impossible landing. Sure enough, it brings in the generator and its Russian crew of five settles down for a smoke. Just as the Americans begin wondering how the crewmen are going to take off, a small van driven by an Afghan arrives at the strip, and the crew jump in. The Americans ask, ‘Hey, how will you get the plane back?' The crew replies: "We won't. It's an old one — we only bought it for this job and we are ditching it here." It cost them $500,000, and they drive away with a cool profit of $1.5 million. The plane is still lying somewhere in Afghanistan, collecting dust.

It is a peppering of such anecdotes that makes Matt Potter's book Outlaws Inc: Flying with the World's Most Dangerous Smugglers such an interesting read. The author, a British freelance journalist and broadcaster, has spent months travelling with these ex-Soviet types in the ancient Il-76s — and has lived to tell the tale.

No jobs

With the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, hundreds of trained air force pilots and all other ex-military men found themselves without jobs. Most servicemen were paid in — or made away with — equipment from the massive Soviet armoury. Entire depots were opened up for soldiers to take whatever they could get their hands on. The looting that followed will go down as the biggest in the history of the arms trade.

From AK-47s to heavy aircraft, all types of hardware were suddenly available on the open market at dirt cheap prices. And this meant that these goods needed to be transported. Enter the pilots and their Il-76s.

This huge plane was the former Soviet Union's favourite warhorse, and has seen extensive action, especially during the brutal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. As Potter informs us, "Between 1979 and 1991, Il-76 pilots made more than 14,700 flights into Afghanistan, transporting 786,200 service personnel and 315,800 tonnes of freight." According to him, the aircraft is capable of carrying more than 60 tonnes of hardware halfway across the globe. It is more than 46 metres long and 40 metres wide.

And the Il-76 has a secret. Its Soviet manufacturers created extra spaces and chambers to store classified payloads. And goods hidden in these spaces — 15 tonnes worth — do not appear on cargo manifests; in fact they don't officially exist. Customs officials never check inside these secret holds of the aircraft, thereby enabling crews to bring in weapons alongside food aid and drugs alongside legitimate cargo, for their personal, illicit profit.

They swoop down on potholed roads that pass for runways in some African bolt-holes, with only the headlights of the local warlords' 4x4s to guide them. They drop bales of cocaine along the coasts of Caribbean islands, which are then duly ‘caught' by local fishermen.

Simple economics

In the numerous conflicts across Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia and Latin America, arms, fuel and medicines are delivered by freelance, no-questions-asked pilots in their Il-76s. As is the millions of dollars in ransom money delivered to Somali pirates through parachuted airdrops on the high seas. Even respectable aid organisations sometimes resort to using the services of these aviators, for reasons of simple economics — these men get the job done for less than a third of the price charged by air charter firms registered in the EU. Since most aid organisations tend to be cash-strapped and get their money mainly from governments, they have no choice but to go for the lowest quotation.

However, one troubling aspect of Potter's book is his excessive romanticisation of these pilots and what they do. The author sometimes seems to lose track of the fact that these men are delivering death — weapons and narcotics — to some of the poorest and most violent places on earth. These pilots are helped by the fact that the radar systems in most sub-Saharan African countries are barely functional. Add to all this the toll this trade is taking on their own lives — with dozens of ex-Soviet pilots dying as their ancient planes crash with frightening regularity across Africa and Central Asia.

But through good research and by following these pilots around the globe, Potter tells their action-packed story excessively well.

Outlaws Inc: Flying with the World's Most Dangerous Smugglers
By Matt Potter, Sidgwick & Jackson,
320 pages,
£11.99

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