After two decades, UAQ's mystery plane is finally headed to the scrap heap of aviation history

A landmark in the emirate is being dismantled, wing by wing, bolt by bolt



KT Photo: Mazhar Farooqui
KT Photo: Mazhar Farooqui
by

Mazhar Farooqui

Published: Fri 27 May 2022, 6:44 PM

Last updated: Mon 30 May 2022, 5:26 PM

For over two decades an abandoned aircraft has been a familiar yet mysterious landmark in Umm Al Quwain (UAQ) emirate. But it won’t be there for long. The Soviet-era cargo plane that sits near the Baracuda Beach Resort along E11 is being dismantled, Khaleej Times has learnt.

Demolition machines are tearing apart the 153-foot Ilyushin Il-76 on a hot day. Some workers are seen on the roof of the aircraft, working under the scorching sun. The four turbofan engines that powered the once majestic plane lie scattered on the ground and the wings are broken, hanging limply by the side of the aircraft.

“The plane is being dismantled. The demolition began a few days ago,” a security guard near the site said. He refused to provide details when pressed.

It’s not immediately known how long it will take to completely turn the giant commercial freighter into scrap.

Aeronautical experts said the process of breaking down the aircraft could take 10 weeks or more. The remaining engine oil and fuel have to be drained from the fuselage as they could be hazardous to the environment, they said.

KT Photo: Neeraj Murali
KT Photo: Neeraj Murali

Bolts and fasteners that join the parts go next. The body of the aircraft is then stripped using a digger.

The IL-76 abandoned in UAQ was once part of the Soviet Union's large fleet of Ilyushins. These massive cargo aircraft were originally built for the USSR military in 1971. They replaced the Antonov 12 which was being used by the Soviet armed forces since 1959.

KT Graphic: Samlal
KT Graphic: Samlal

According to some accounts, the IL-76 in UAQ flew the USSR flag colours until 1991. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was flown by the Russian air force but was decommissioned in the mid-nineties.

The plane was allegedly sold by the Russians to Air Cess, an airline that operated in Sharjah. It was last registered to Centrafrican Airlines. Both Air Cess and Centralafrican were connected to Viktor Bout, a notorious international arms dealer who allegedly used his airline companies to smuggle weapons.

The UAE banned Bout from entering the country in the early 2000s. He was arrested in 2008 in the US and a federal judge later sentenced him to 25 years in jail for conspiring to kill Americans.

Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, who wrote Merchant of Death, a book on Viktor Bout, said the arms trafficker "sold the aircraft to an advertising firm in the UAE, promising to turn it into a roadside billboard along the bleak highway".

So a pilot was hired to fly the plane to the UAE. But when the veteran aviator examined the plane, he found only three engines (out of the four) were working. "The pilot was about to say 'no', but Bout offered him $20,000 to fly it," they wrote. It was an offer he could not refuse.

A Youtube video posted about nine years ago shows the plane flying over the power lines along the old coast road and then kicking up a cloud of dust as it touches down on the tarmac.

In the background, people can be heard cheering as the aircraft screeches to a halt.

"The plane shuddered aloft, engines sputtering, but the veteran airman managed to coax the old Ilyushin down to a soft landing in the sand along the highway," wrote Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun in their book.

It is believed that the video was shot in early 2000 because that’s around the time when the Umm Al Quwain airfield was being re-paved with tarmac. The place was a popular skydiving location at the time but was later closed following a string of accidents.

KT Photo: Neeraj Murali
KT Photo: Neeraj Murali

Residents driving along the coast of Umm Al Quwain could never miss the large plane on the sandy patch. It stood out in the barrenness. "A red-nosed aircraft in the middle of nowhere is certainly an unusual sight that sparks curiosity,” said a long-time British expat. “I remember it had the name of a hotel emblazoned on its side. I thought it was clever advertising,” he said.

“The plane had become an unlikely tourist attraction. It will be sorely missed," said Ashfaq, a Pakistani expat who works at a resort in Umm Al Quwain.

For old-timers, the IL-76 was a piece of aircraft nostalgia. They didn't know where it came from. It was a lingering mystery that added to the charm of the deserted area. But they now know where it's going - to the scrap heap of aviation history. -


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