I should really think of an Ali Farka Toure lyric title for this post

OK, so there’s a recently wrecked aircraft on an airstrip in northeastern Mali and the UN reckons it brought over 10 tons of cocaine into the new West Africa-Southern Europe smuggling route. However, no-one seems to know what type of aircraft it is or what the registration was. All sources I can find – which amount to AFP wire service bulletins in the main – describe it as a Boeing 727. Rumour claims it was J5-CGU, but J5-CGU is a Boeing 707…which might also be registered J5-GGU. And sources of mine are talking about a 707 as well.

Anyway, that particular airframe (serial number 19372/655) is the sort of aeroplane you’d expect to be mixed up in this; it was one of Peak Aviation’s aircraft at the time when this name was used for shipments of arms to the northern side in the Yemeni civil war, apparently on behalf of Saudi Arabia. One of the 707 captains involved was none other than coke smuggler Chris Barrett-Jolley, who recalled in a TV interview seeing Saudi AWACS operating on his route into Riyan Mukalla.

There’s only one problem; this photo, which both identifies J5-CGU and J5-GGU as being one and the same, and also attracted a comment which places the plane in Mombasa on the 25th of November, 2009. AFP reports that the wreck was discovered on the 2nd of November, and UNODC official Alexandre Schmidt made public the details, such as they are, on the 16th.

This is interesting; supposedly, J5-CGU/GGU travelled from Panama to Maracaibo, Venezuela, arriving there on the 16th October, and there refuelled and filed a flight plan for Bamako, Mali, where (in this account) she never arrived. But, it seems, the plane reached Mombasa on or before the 25th of November. Even if the commenter was wrong, and meant the 25th October, this version still won’t hold together.

According to a source who follows the official view, the aircraft routed outbound from Sharjah via Mombasa and Conakry to Panama. It seems unlikely that the aircraft would have gone to Panama to load, and backtracked to Venezuela, rather than loading in one of the producer countries further south. But in fact, it’s impossible for a standard 727 to have routed as described at all.

With a range in still air of 2,700 nautical miles, it could certainly have got to Mombasa, but Conakry is roughly a thousand miles out of range from there. And Conakry to Panama City is two thousand miles further than the range of a 727-200. Maracaibo to Bamako is similarly impossible. And the crash-site is even further.

Now, the 707-320 might have made it; 10 tons is one sixth of the possible total load, leaving the rest for fuel. Doing a rough calculation, that would leave enough fuel for well over 4,500 miles. But we know it wasn’t the 707, or at least not that one. It shouldn’t be difficult to clear this up, because all you need to know to distinguish a 727 from a 707 is that one has three engines and one has four.

Of course, the Venezuelan government reckons the Americans are making it up. Well. Another aircraft had a bad landing in Mali recently – AFP again.

A US aircraft that was in trouble had made a “difficult landing” in Mali, causing slight injuries among some people aboard, the US embassy in the west African country said on Friday. “An aircraft made a difficult landing yesterday (Thursday) at around 100 kilometres from Bamako. The plane was carrying six passengers and three crew members. Cases of slight injury were reported,” the embassy said in a statement.

“The Malian air force immediately sent its aircraft to help find the plane in difficulty and to co-ordinate the ground movements of rescue teams and ambulances with medical personnel.”

According to a source close to the Malian army, the US plane “came from a neighbouring country”. “It had serious problems near a place called Kolokani,” the source added. “It was in Mali for reasons related to security and it made more than one forced landing.” Neither the kind of plane nor its mission in Mali were disclosed.

I bet they weren’t. It’s probably worth pointing out that this place is nowhere near the other crash site, which is located near Gao. To my surprise, this place turns out to be a substantial city (58,000 people); there is an airport with an 8,200 foot runway, which would be too short for a laden 707 of any type and especially a -320 but adequate for a 727 unless operating at absolute maximum take-off weight.

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