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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

In a quiet corner of Fujairah, rusting Soviet-era planes are carefully dismantled 

Scores of Soviet-era workhorses remain rusting away in one corner of the airport complex

They once ruled the skies. From Afghanistan to the Iraq wars, these Soviet-era workhorses ferried cargo and passengers across the world.

But scores of them are now rusting away in a quiet corner of Fujairah airport.

About 30 planes are abandoned at Fujairah - aircraft such as turbo-propeller Antonov AN 12s, 26s and 34s along with a few Ilyushin IL 76s. Some date from the 1970s, landed there in the late 1980s and never flew again.

Time and weather have not been kind to these once proud aircraft and they will never soar into the skies again.

In 2012, Fujairah airport authorities sought to address the issue and since then, one company has been trying to decommission some of the aircraft, clearing space for redevelopment.

Howard Tonks is chief commercial officer of Falcon Aircraft Recycling. A veteran of the global aviation industry, Mr Tonks worked for the United Nations in Africa for many years in logistics and aircraft operations.

On a visit to Fujairah in 2009 he spotted the aircraft and in 2012 his company was granted a trade licence to recycle such planes.

Falcon is the only company licensed for this type of work in the UAE.

“There is masses of history behind these aircraft,” said Mr Tonks, who was born in the UK. “Especially what they did during the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts.”

More abandoned aircraft sit at Ras Al Khaimah airport, while an article in The National from 2014 looked at the hidden history of a Soviet-era Ilyushin 76 languishing beside the Barracuda Beach Resort in Umm Al Quwain.

These aircraft were primarily used by people who had contracts in conflict zones but when the work ran out, the planes stopped flying.

“People walked away as they’d made lots and lots of money out of ferrying supplies for the [likes of the] United States and NATO. The airplane had made its money many times over.”

Before a plane is decommissioned, an effort is made to untangle who actually owns it. But it’s a labyrinthine world of court hearings, aircraft registrations, holding companies, shell companies and trust funds. Some of the planes have a murky past. Usually the search goes nowhere as whoever owns it owes the airport millions of dirhams in parking fees.

“Are they going to come back for his wreck?” asked Mr Tonks. If all attempts to trace the owners fail, then ownership is awarded through the courts.

The issue of abandoned planes is a global one. Mr Tonks points to an example in Malaysia, where several 747s were parked for a number of years at Kuala Lumpur.

They couldn’t trace the owners and they advertised for two weeks in the international press, In the end, they were sold by public auction and they were gone swiftly, he said.

Ten planes have been decommissioned at Fujairah since Falcon started operating in 2012 and all have been acquired by the company independently. It also operates at Ras Al Khaimah.

“It’s [a] very slow process,” said Mr Tonks. “All those planes are abandoned. There is no trace for the owners and no-one is paying the parking fees. That lot is producing no income. But some people perceive that they are valuable.”

Falcon recently decommissioned an Antonov 12 and Ilyushin 76 in tandem which took about eight weeks: the parts are removed with spanners, the metal cut up and then sent for recycling. All parts from these registered and non-airworthy planes are destroyed and cannot be reused in another plane. The engine cores from one Antonov were repurposed for power generation in the oilfields of Kyrgyzstan. “Without that there is no income from taking planes to pieces,” said Mr Tonks. A separate aircraft shell was trucked to Doha in 2016 where it’s now sitting in a shopping centre.

But forget trying to fly them out. “It would take a miracle to get these airborne,” said Mr Tonks. “You wouldn’t even try. Once you put an airplane on the ground, it needs to be maintained. They are getting old and they are leaking engine and hydraulic oil into the ground. They also have fuel onboard.”

Mr Tonks plans to wrap up his involvement with the recycling effort this year.

“With the progress we’ve made, it will be another ten years before all the planes disappear.”

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Read more:

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

Fujairah aims to be international centre for recycling planes

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