Saturday 24 December 2022

Behold The World’s Ugliest Presidential Jet: The Gambia Air Force One

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
''I will develop the areas that vote for me, but if you don't vote for me, don't expect anything.'' (By Yahya Jammeh)
It's no secret that the world's top leaders travel in style. Just look at America's 'Air Force One' or the lavish fleet of VIP aircraft owned by the Qatari royal family. While all these planes come with different levels of luxury, one thing is certain: The world's leaders like to travel in style. That is every world leader except for the Republic of The Gambia's now ousted President Jammeh, who boasted a fleet of VIP aircraft that included an Ilyushin Il-62M with arguably the worst looking airplane interior in the world. A Soviet jet airliner with a 1970s interior, flying for an African despot who purchased it with the State's Pension Fund while being maintained and flown by a crew from Cuba: What's not to like?

Yahya Jammeh, or Commander in Chief of The Armed Forces and Chief Custodian of the Sacred Constitution of The Gambia, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa as he was officially known as, ruled The Gambia from 1994 to 2017, first as chairman of the country's military government and then as President from 1996 until his ousting in 2017. During his tenure, Jammeh gained international notoriety for claiming to be able to cure HIV/AIDS, asthma and infertility, and building up one of the world's largest car luxury collections in one of the poorest countries in the world. Equally significant was Jammeh's fleet of VIP planes, which at one point included one Il-62M, two Boeing 727s and one Bombardier Challenger 601.
While a fleet of four VIP aircraft is already a lot for the government of any country, it is even more extravagant when you consider the fact that the sole benefactor was Yahya Jammeh himself. To make matters worse, the country's national airline Gambia International Airlines had to be shut down because it didn't have any aircraft. Even the Gambian Air Force (although never officially established) operated solely for the benefit of Jammeh, with the one Su-25 close attack aircraft and two AT-602 crop dusters used to fly during parades and to fertilise Jammeh's estates. That is until Jammeh personally fired the Su-25 pilot, after which operations with the plane were abandoned. [1]
As the smallest country in mainland Africa, with a population of just under two million, the four VIP jets could only be flown on official state visits abroad (one at a time, arguably negating the need for four aircraft). In fact, The Gambia is so small that Jammeh didn't even use a helicopter to move around the country, instead preferring to make use of his extensive car collection to get from palace to palace (and private zoo, which he had built in his home town). Nonetheless, as a Muslim leader and President of one of the few countries in the world that recognised Taiwan (at least until 2013), Jammeh made frequent state visits to the Middle East and Taiwan using his long-range Il-62M. The Challenger 601 was acquired with anonymous shopping trips to Europe in mind, though ended up rarely being used.

Jammeh's Il-62M comes in to land at Tokyo - Haneda IAP, Japan in 2013. The exterior of the aircraft arguably looks the part.

Even as President Jammeh spent copious amounts of the state's budget to expand his private car collection with the newest Rolls-Royces, Mercedes, Hummers and Land Rovers available, his aircraft were remarkably old. His two Boeing 727s were produced in 1966 (C5-GAF) and 1971 (C5-GOG) respectively, but were nonetheless maintained in meticulous condition (being frequently overhauled in Perpignan, France), with C5-GOG even receiving a set of new engines in 2016. [2] [3] [4] C5-GAF had previously served as a private aircraft for members of the Saudi Royal Family. The Challenger 601 had been produced in 1985, and was purchased from the German Luftwaffe in 2010. [5]

In stark contrast, Jammeh's first Il-62M (C5-GNM) was acquired with the aid of none other than Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout. How the aircraft eventually ended up as Jammeh's Air Force One is a fascinating story, as often is the case with aircraft used for diamond and arms smuggling in Africa. The aircraft, which was produced for Aeroflot in 1980, was registered with Centrafrican Airlines in 1999, itself an elaborate front for Viktor Bout's smuggling operations. [6] Bout registered several of his aircraft in the Central African Republic, where a corrupt official of the Civil Aviation Authority registered (and thus legalised) any aircraft Bout operated. [7]
Shortly thereafter, the Il-62M was passed on to Gambia New Millennium Air, the CEO of which was Gambian politician Baba Jobe who in essence was another front for Bout's operations. At that time, Viktor Bout was heavily engaged in diamond and arms smuggling from Liberia, where Charles Taylor had just won the elections with the slogan 'He killed my mother, he killed my father, but I will vote for him!'. The UN Security Council soon catched on to the scheme however, and sanctioned both Gambia New Millennium Air and its director Baba Jobe in 2001, who was sentenced to nine years in a Gambian prison cell. [8] This turn of events left the Il-62M stranded in The Gambia without an owner.
And what do you do when a four-engined airliner is left on your airport without an owner? Exactly, you claim it for yourself, which is exactly what Jammeh did. Jammeh was not entirely new to this particular aircraft either, as in December 1999 (when it was still officially owned by Centrafrican Airlines) he chartered the Il-62M to fly him on an official visit to Libreville in Gabon. Here he was complimented on the size of his aircraft (yes – really) by none other than the President of the Central African Republic Ange-Félix Patassé, who appears to have been blitheringly unaware that the aircraft was in fact registred in his country thanks to a corrupt official. [9] The compliment appears to have pleased Jammeh, as he began using the aircraft more regularly in place of his Boeing 727, most notably in a state visit to Taiwan in 2003 and to New York, the United States, for a United Nations General Assembly in 2004. [10] [11]

The first Il-62M (C5-GNM) that was in use with President Jammeh. This aircraft operated in the livery of Gambia New Millennium Air until its decommisioning in the late 2000s, as Jammeh never bothered to have the airline's titles removed.

The irony of the smallest country in mainlaind Africa operating the largest VIP aircraft of the continent appears not to have been lost on Jammeh, and undoubtedly with the compliment about his large-sized aircraft in the back of his mind he began his search for a dedicated replacement aircraft in the mid-2000s. Rather than settling on a secondhand Airbus, he actually purchased a replacement Il-62M from Uzbekistan! This aircraft, which received the registration C5-RTG after its arrival to The Gambia in 2005, was one of the last Il-62Ms produced, leaving the assembly line only in 1993. [12] The aircraft was then delivered to the Uzbekistan Government, which used it as a VIP aircraft until the 2000s.

Upon delivery of C5-RTG, the first Il-62M (C5-GNM) was retired to Banjul IAP's dumpyard, where it still survives in a derelict state today. The operation of the newly-delivered C5-RTG was delegated to a contracted Cuban crew that had previously flown Il-62Ms for the country's national airline Cubana de Aviación. In case the aircraft needed servicing, the Il-62M was flown to Cuba for an overhaul at Cubana's maintenance facilities at José Martí International Airport in Havana. But before the aircraft could officially enter service, it first had to be modified to suit the personal needs of His Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor Yahya Jammeh. And did he have one peculiar request!
Amusingly, this didn't include a jacuzzi or conference room to discuss matters of national security, but rather a massage chair that looks to have been lifted straight from an airport terminal. Other additions included new seating areas (in full 1970s drip) and the installation of several TV screens with DVD players. The resulting interior can only be described as distinctly 1970s, a remarkable feat for an aircraft that was produced in 1993, and remained unchanged for the rest of the aircraft's uneventful career. The cockpit of C5-RTG remained largely unmodified from the original design. Whatever your personal taste may be, there's no denying Jammeh's aircraft was distinct!
After the ousting of Jammeh in 2017, the new government of President Adama Barrow immediately put his four VIP aircraft, two AT-602 crop dusters and extensive car collection up for sale, hoping to raise at least $10 million for the cash-stricken country. [13] Already a poor country to begin with, it quickly became apparent that Jammeh had used the last days of his reign to virtually empty the state's treasury. While forced to leave most of his luxury vehicles behind during his exile to Equatorial Guinea, he rented a cargo plane to fly out his favourite vehicles during his last week in power, attempting to drag on his resignation for as long as possible so he could fly out more cars. [14] How Jammeh was able to afford his life of luxury was also quickly unconvered after, with the President getting a cut from most state business and using the money collected by the Jammeh Foundation for Peace to support his extravagant spending.  [15]

One of Jammeh's seven Hummer H2 (SUT) limousines. He was unable to take these with him to Equatorial Guinea and they were put up for sale by the new government.

The target aim of $10 million for four VIP jets, two cropdusters and some 30 luxury cars might not seem like a lot, but arguably was not too unrealistic for two 50-year old Boeings and a Soviet jetliner that isn't in commercial (passenger) service anymore. In fact, the last Il-62 sold went to North Korea in 2012, which procured one ex-Cuban Il-62M to act as a source of spare parts for its own two VIP Il-62Ms. [16] After successfully selling the two AT-602 cropdusters in 2019, the Boeings and Il-62 were sold in the same year for a mere $500.000 to a Gambian entrepreneur who outbid several national and foreign bidders. [17] This sale did little to change the immediate fate of the Il-62M however, as the entrepreneur had purchased them with the intention to quickly sell them on to another interested party. This finally happened in 2021, when the Il-62M was sold to Belarus' Rada Airlines to serve as a cargo aircraft, arriving to Minsk in August 2021. [22] Rada already operates two Il-62Ms and was likely attracted by the aircraft's relatively young age, having only been produced in 1993. The two Boeing 727s remain unsold and are still languishing at Banjul Airport.

Jammeh's dusty Il-62M (C5-RTG) at Banjul IAP in 2018. It would take another three years before she was to finally fly again.

As both Jammeh and his aircraft begin to cross over into the seldomly read annals of obscure history, his legacy as a fraudulent dictator will have to compete with stories of his almost mystical lack of taste. A man of poor judgment in matters of state and fashion alike, the people of The Gambia and decrepit VIP aircraft the world over will heave a sigh of relief knowing that the days over power have gone of this living embodiment of the saying that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder".

The man himsef: Yahya Jammeh

[1] African MiGs Volume 1: Angola to Ivory Coast
[3] Registration Details For C5-GOG (Gambia Republic) 727-1H2
[5] Registration Details For C5-AFT (Gambian Air Force) Challenger-601 
[6] Registration Details For C5-GNM (Gambia New Millenium Air) Il-62-M 
[8] ACCORD – Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation a-7674 (ACC-GMB-7674)
[9] Registration Details For TL-ACL (Centrafrican Airways) Il-62-M 
[12] Registration Details For UK-86569 (Uzbekistan Gvmt) Ilyushin Il-62M
[13] Gambia to sell off presidential planes
[14] Gambia Got Robbed: Jammeh’s Cars Being Loaded Into An Awaiting Cargo Plane - Photos,323209.0.html
[15] Exclusive: How money flowed to Gambia's ex president