x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 December 2017

Shrouded in mystery: the Russian cargo plane abandoned in Umm Al Quwain

Why is a Russian cargo plane currently rusting at a derelict airstrip in UAQ? There are many contradictory accounts of its unhappy landing.

The Ilyushin IL 76 cargo plane, now apparently being used as an advertising billboard, at the old Umm Al Quwain airfield. John Dennehy / The National
The Ilyushin IL 76 cargo plane, now apparently being used as an advertising billboard, at the old Umm Al Quwain airfield. John Dennehy / The National
Sand, wind and the searing heat have not been kind to this old aircraft - the engines have long gone, its tyres and landing gear sink into the dunes and birds nest in the wings.

The abandoned plane, with adverts for the Palma Beach Hotel emblazoned on its sides, is a familiar and odd sight for many people as it sits beside the Barracuda Beach Resort in Umm Al Quwain (UAQ).

But like many strange and unexplained landmarks across the country, it has a story to tell.

The plane is an Ilyushin IL 76, a Soviet era aircraft. It was designed as a strategic airlifter, particularly useful for more remote areas as it had the ability to operate on unpaved ­runways.

It is a fixed wing, four engine turbofan, serial number 053403072, was built for the Soviet air force in 1975 and, according to a number of online aircraft registration databases, entered service at some point in the late 1970s or early 1980s with the registration CCCP-86715.

The airfield it sits on is in an equally bad condition - the runway, hangars and offices lie in disrepair, while another rusting biplane sits on the apron.

However, during the 1990s and 2000s it was a popular, unofficial airfield. UAQ Aerodrome, as it became known, was also the site of a sky-diving and parachuting club.

"It was a small airfield. There were some gliders, microlights and then a few Cessnas in later years. I bought a microlight and used to fly it between UAQ, Fujairah and RAK," says Mohammed Badrnejad, who flew there during the 1990s and now works in ­Fujairah.

"I also liked hang-gliding and parachuting and jumped many times at the UAQ airfield. It was a hobby. Most who used it were the same - mainly Europeans and Emiratis. It was for enjoyment. It was not ­official."

Badrnejad remembers the Russian aircraft - it being a particularly striking landmark when parachuting to the ground.

The plane, he says, arrived unexpectedly one morning but no one seemed to know why it was there.

"The Russian plane was there for a long time - it landed at the airfield in 1999. It was strange as nothing like that ever landed there. I often saw it on the ground when parachuting.

"But officials eventually closed the airfield four or five years ago. There were a number of accidents and people from Dubai stopped it because everything was unofficial. Some of the instructors moved to Skydive Dubai and a flying school was later established in Ras Al ­Khaimah."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the plane was operated by the Russian air force until the mid-1990s under the registration RA-86715.

But this is where the story becomes more uncertain. The plane was then re-registered as EL-RDT to Air Cess in 1997 and then 3D-RTT to AirPass until 1998. It was last registered to Centrafrican Airlines from 1998 to 2000, an airline nominally headquartered in the Central African Republic with the registration number TL-ACN. The vague outline of this last registration is still visible on the plane, along with the make and model.

It's also worth noting that two of these airlines, Air Cess and Centrafrican, were connected to Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer who, for a time in the 1990s, is believed to have operated from Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah. His planes transported cargo and arms from eastern Europe via the Middle East to Africa. The UAE banned Bout from entering in the early 2000s and he is currently serving a 25-year sentence in a US jail.

Confusion surrounds the plane's final journey to UAQ in 1999.

One unlikely theory is that the landing was an accident and the pilots mistook the small airfield for another.

A second is that it was bought with the idea of converting it into a restaurant or cafe and a third is that the plane was headed for another airport in the Northern Emirates, was refused permission to approach and then was forced to make an emergency landing because it was running out of fuel.

Another is that it was purchased for scrap metal by someone in the area. This is the most likely reason, says Alan Peaford, the editor of Arabian Aerospace. "I believe it flew in from another UAE airport and was then stripped of anything valuable," he says.

"Then it was used as a gate guard - common at many airfields, where a shell of a plane is used as advertising effectively."

To this day, the Ilyushin remains as a giant billboard for the Palma Beach Hotel, with the telephone number still ringing through to the hotel reception.

However, when contacted, no one at the hotel knew anything about the plane, or why the hotel's name was on its sides.

Today the airports of Sharjah, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah are leading the Northern Emirates to a bright new era of travel and tourism.

But the forgotten airfield and the Russian cargo plane, still brooding over the UAQ coast road, are a nod to a particularly freewheeling time in the country's aviation history.

jdennehy@thenational.ae

John Dennehy is deputy editor of The Review.