Archive for the ‘Operation Firedump’ Category

Our old friend S9-DAE, Ilyushin-76 serial 83483513, has been scrapped at Fujairah last month.

Now here’s something. Remember British Gulf International? The first, founding mob in the Viktor Bout story. Still, as late as last year, by far the biggest source of dubious aircraft movements through the UAE, almost all going to markets in the War on Trrr. The data speaks for itself; between the Viktorfeed going live and Friday, November 7, 2008, they sent off 1,093 flights from Dubai and Sharjah and none of them were going anywhere even vaguely normal. When I reanalysed the flights with no destination, it was even worse.

A problem with the Viktorfeed is that it’s hard to keep it in mind; it dumps a hundred or so movements into my RSS reader daily, even with improvements to the filtering process. So I’m late to spot that BGIA is gone. Something like this was overdue, after the official Antonov-12 ban; we monitored 150 outbounds and practically no inbound in a very short space of time, but the system kept turning. And BGIA kept going.

We were speculating about where the scene might move to. Where is the Hoxton to the UAE’s Camden? Rather, the UAE was already that. Before that there was Ostend and South Africa. Ajay reckoned Conakry or Asmara were top options. However, the Vitebsk Popular News had already given us a clue.

The crew S9-SAO was pilot of Vitebsk from the same regiment, which Bout.

That might be the 339th. Now, the last ever BGIA flight from the UAE seems to have occurred on the 27th of February, at 2339Z, heading for Kandahar with the callsign BGI1522. Since then, nothing. Nada. But where did they go? The answer seems to be “home”; in particular, Mogilev in Belarus. Here’s a photo; apparently, the sleepy airfield among the birches is suddenly full of An-12s since the UAE ban was announced.

More, when I get a moment to mung some SQL; I have a vague impression that most of the BGIA movements are now under Phoenix/AVE’s new 2E callsign, but I need to run the numbers.

It seems the UAE’s Antonov-12 ban is real. The shortage of inbound flights in the Viktorfeed continues; out of 57 overnight movements, in itself an unusual low, there were 10 inbounds after cleaning up the odd false positive. Here is a list:

South-Airlines STH7002 Erbil Sharjah scheduled 1600Z
Transaviaexport TXC1722 Kabul Sharjah scheduled 1500Z
Safi SFW205 Kabul Sharjah scheduled 1500Z
Sakavia AZG1115 Kandahar Sharjah arrived 0830Z
Beibars BBS1810 Kabul Sharjah arrived 0800Z
Russian Sky ESL9456 Kabul Sharjah arrived 0700Z
South-Airlines STH7006 Baghdad Intl. Sharjah 0300Z
Ababeel Avn BBE200 Riyadh Sharjah yesterday 2115Z

There were also two positioning flights by AVE/Phoenix Aviation 737s between Dubai and Sharjah. The significant thing here is that probably no An-12s were involved. South-Airlines has three, but it also has three Il-76, six An-24s and -26s, and an An-74. TXC has five aircraft, all Il-76s. Safi has one 767 and one 737. Sakavia has two Il-76, one An-26 and one An-12. Beibars and Russian Sky own 2 and 4 Il-76s respectively, and Ababeel has only one aircraft known to be active, an An-24RV.

So, the Antonov-12s have been run out of town. However, there is an interesting paradox here. What about our old friends from British Gulf International? They started all this back in the day, and they operate nothing but An-12s, six of them. At some point there was also an An-26 but this hasn’t been seen for some years.

And somehow, they are still sending off flights. Doing a quick SELECT COUNT(notes), flightno, destination FROM flights WHERE flightno LIKE "%BGI%" AND notes > '1231518600' GROUP BY destination; on the database, I find there have been 68 BGIA movements since 1630 last Friday, of which 62 were outbound, and 6 inbound, all to Sharjah. This is weird.

That’s 8.85 movements a day, which is achievable if half the aircraft made more than one trip a day – as long as they came back, of course. But they haven’t come back; there has been no BGIA inward flight since Friday. So where are the aeroplanes coming from?

It’s possible that BGIA has been sending other An-12 operators’ aircraft out of the UAE using its call sign. But it’s still quite a lot. I put together a chart to visualise the whole strange phenomenon…

89cddf02-e3d1-11dd-b8f6-000255111976 Blog_this_caption

As always, click on it to interrogate the data. Meanwhile, reader Ajay, who desperately needs his own blog, has a suggestion for where the scene might reconvene – Guinea, where the longstanding French-sponsored dictator died over Christmas, leading immediately to a military coup, and where there is a huge airfield with a 10,826 foot runway (that’s longer than Heathrow), which the Soviet air force used in the 70s and 80s as a staging post and a base for Tu-95 maritime patrol planes.

It’s an idea; but West Africa is not quite as crazy as it was ten years ago. There’s the option of getting into the cocaine trade, but if Viktor Bout can get in trouble dealing with FARC, you have to wonder if the small fry will be up for it.

I’m getting reports that the UAE authorities have revoked permission to fly for all Antonov-12s, and the substantial fleet based on Dubai and Sharjah has been given notice to quit last night. Apparently the proximate cause was a spate of embarrassing and perilous runway excursions, as well as the recent loss of an Antonov-12 with BGIA in Iraq, working for DHL.

Of course I’m monitoring all movements through the Viktorfeed. So far, I’ve noticed a spike of activity overnight followed by a very quiet day; which is roughly what you’d expect if all the Antonovs just left, like the dolphins in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Last night saw over 150 movements, and tellingly they were almost all outward bound. But so far I’ve not detected any pattern in their destinations; they seem to have flown their usual routes and not returned, so the total fleet has scattered across South-Western Asia.

If this is so, a lot will be in Afghanistan (Kabul, Bagram, Herat and Kandahar) and Djibouti tonight, with a few in Kurdistan. This is going to be a serious problem for quite a few people, notably the coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much passenger activity is now carried in old 737s by AVE/Phoenix Aviation and KAMAir, but with the exception of the Ilyushin 76s, every significant airfield in Afghanistan gets several An-12 runs a day.

It’s going to be interesting to see where they end up, especially the BGIA Boyz, what with being an all-Antonov 12 operation and all. Back to Ostend? Surely not. West Africa gets kinda slow these days, and it’s a long slow haul to Colombia for an An-12. Moldova cleaned up its act. Perhaps Beirut, or somewhere in the Caucasus – which would be off the trade routes a bit. Or maybe they’ll set up a completely new operation somewhere with a long runway and no government, a pirate state?

Remind me to have a look at the airfields of Somalia. However, a search of the logs shows something I hadn’t spotted; “Star Air Aviation” has sent off a whole string of flights from Dubai since Thursday, some eleven, all of them to Karachi. And none have come back. Needless to say, the nearest operator in the UAE to that name doesn’t officially have any Antonovs and has a radically different ICAO call sign…

But if anyone’s wondering where all the old Russian crates came from, get in touch. You can consider this an Operation Firedump alert.

Information is filtering through that an Antonov-12 has been lost on take-off from Al-Asad airbase in Iraq on Thursday. So far there is very little available, but we do have a few facts. The ASN is currently describing it as operated by “Falcon Aviation” and states that the entire crew of 7 died. We’re getting a lot of Google traffic searching for the registration S9-SAO, which is with British Gulf International Airlines (BGI rather than BGK), an An-12BP with the serial number 346908. The aircraft seems to have been sold by the Russian air force directly to BGIA during its Kyrgyz phase.

Falcon probably refers to Falcon Express, the local affiliate of FedEx that has repeatedly showed up chartering dodgy An-12 and Il-76 operators into Iraq. (This is why the Viktorfeed shows their movements.) There’s an interesting thread on PPRuNe in which it’s said that new hires on their own fleet of Beech 1900s and Fokker 27s were told to watch Air America. (This one’s pretty good too.) Interestingly, searchers are coming from both * and hostnames.

In other news, something weird in the feed got my attention. What on earth was “Deutsches Rettungsflugwacht” doing around the region? It seems that someone has been using their IATA two-letter code as if it was a three-letter ICAO code, or rather that Dubai Airport doesn’t know the difference. IATA DV is SCAT, a Kazakh-based operator started in 1997. What did we find there, then? Well, Yak-42 serial 4520422306016, which is an old friend. As 3C-LLL at Air Bas, then UN-42428 at Irbis, this aircraft is a Bout veteran; operating for Sudan Airways and Air West, it made regular trips to Iraq and Somalia in 2004-2005. At the time, the DXB Web site gave aircraft types as well as times, destinations, flight numbers etc, so it was the first individual plane I was able to identify – they only had the one Yak-42. Like the rest of the Irbis fleet, it’s been keeping a low profile since the company shut down in a hurry in June 2006.

The registration is now UP-Y4210. SCAT also used to have Tu-134B serial 63285, then UN-65695, which belonged to long-blacklisted and shutdown Boutco GST Aero, and interestingly, also to UTAGE in Equatorial Guinea, a company involved in the Christmas Day 2003 3X-GDM crash.

Update: JACDEC confirms it as S9-SAO.

So, if World President Brown was to ask me what to do about the headless Viktor Bout empire, and the operators like it, what would I say?

Here’s what I’d do: Let’s draw up a big list of dodgy airlines. Better, let’s use rules; ex-Soviet aircraft, or old 737s, based in the UAE, registration in certain West African, Balkan, or Central Asian states, routes mostly to Middle Eastern and African destinations, and (especially) aircraft bought from or sold to other airlines in the list. We could implement it in software quite easily, at least to provide a filtered list for humans to review.

And then, whenever they land anywhere with trustworthy civil authorities, let’s invoke the long-standing right of any landside state under the Chicago Convention to do an immediate safety inspection, a ramp check as they say in the trade. Naturally, quite apart from crawling over the plane with feeler gauges, that will involve checking all the documents; the manifest, the tech log, the ops manual, the QRH, the pilots’ licences and log books, the air waybills for everything on the manifest, the aircraft registration documents… And, of course, whilst we’re at it there’s no reason why Customs and Immigration shouldn’t search the hold.

If anything is out of order, we’ll ground the plane; if anything is really bad, we’ll seize it; if anything is outright criminal…yes. It may sound a bit hopeful, but consider some of the blog’s back pages. We’ve seen UN-11007 hurtle off the runway in Riyan, officially full of fish but they burned all too well; the An-12 was registered in Kazakhstan to Air Bas, operating from Sharjah, but was working under yet a third and unknown AOC, that of “RPK” – a company which doesn’t seem to exist. In Sudan, an Ilyushin-76 crashed working for Jet Line International, registered to Aerocom, on lease to East-West Cargo. One of the old Irbis Il-18s was grounded in Pakistan after a terrifying flight, several times overloaded with passengers, during which one of the pilots passed out with hypoxia.

It seems to be a defining condition of arms traffickers in the air that the aircraft make sense from one angle, usually that of the UAE authorities; as soon as you look at the details the whole picture dissolves. Here’s another example:

During a ramp check in Beirut, it was discovered that the aircraft’s operating documentation was split among all these firms; the insurance policy applied to a different plane, the tech log was from Ariana, the MEL (the list of the minimum equipment required for safe operation) was the American Airlines one, later replaced by a Swazi one that hadn’t been approved by the Swazi authorities. These institutional flaws complemented a long list of physical ones. None of this should be surprising; UTA’s chief pilot wasn’t qualified on the B727 and neither was anyone else there. The tech manager was trained on the Lockheed Tristar and DC8, and the strong impression is given that literally no management structure for 727 operations existed…

So, I’m delighted to see this report from SIPRI, always sound on the issue right back to the 90s, which suggests exactly that. You can get it here. Of course, being a bunch of Swedes or at least in Sweden, they’re a lot more serious than me – they’ve got studies an stuff and tables and data. But don’t take my word for it. Read the whole thing

Now, the same people are trying to get a change in European Union regs through the European Parliament to make this job easier. You might want to tell your MEP about it, especially if they’re a member of ALDE – the European Liberals.

Update: Here’s a specific talking point.

Lobby for, and support amendments and mechanisms by the relevant EU actors: European Commission DGs, the European Council, the European Parliament and concerned member states “to formulate and implement effective measures using existing EU instruments and regulations that will further reduce the number of air cargo and maritime companies involved in destabilising or illicit small arms shipments to Africa”.

I’ve been reading the oohing and aahing about the Obama web operation (for example, here at the Linux Journal); all those individual pages and RSS feeds and iCals for every event. It strikes me that some of this can be generalised, and that we can probably improve on it. After all, as LJ points out, the difference between this and the Republican view of the Internet (Talk radio! With porn!), which also happens to be the Government view, is that it’s amenable to individual activists and groups of activists doing things other than sending shitty chain e-mail to their relatives and shouting a lot.

But it still doesn’t really allow for them to participate in the direction of the campaign; and it’s a one-off tailormade job. If you want to change something with design and engineering, you’ve got to think mass production – or better, lean production, being able to quickly change the product and still rip them out as if they were standard stampings, and mass customisation, designing to let the users alter the product before and after they get it. Perhaps the crucial factor in this is modularity; you break it down into lumps subject to old-fashioned mass production and configure them as desired.

Further, it’s quite common to have an Internet-enabled campaign that sends messages down from headquarters to the mob; not just the organisational model of the 20th century mass party, as originally invented by the Tories in the late 19th century, but even more so, as the party members always had a significant influence on policy and personnel, whether formally (like the Labour and Liberal parties) or informally (like the Tories pre-1965 and pre-1998). However, the “Labour Supporters’ Network” (copyright – Zack Ecksley) and the world of nicely on-message duckspeakers around Iain Dale’s blog have about as much influence on their party headquarters as a passing slug. Donal Blaney, for all he’s the most contemptible arsewit (copy-pasting early 90s Clinton-murder smears? changing the world, Don!) on the Internet, has got the right end of the stick there. But he’s still just a one-way blowhard.

What do you need to campaign? You need to know what is happening at the top level, in your rough region, and in your locality. You need to have a locality – to join a group or form one. You need to tell others when and where things will happen. And, I think, you need to be able to escalate things up the organisation. We already have functions like this for various rather crappy geek newssites, but what is important is that the members of the N19 group or the Fisheries special-interest group can break the point out into the London or the Economic or the Environment group, and they can break it out into the main broadcast to everyone – completing the loop.

If this reminds you of Stafford Beer, it’s entirely deliberate. Information should percolate up as the members want it to, and “perk” ought to be a better word than “digg”.


We have pretty good standards for all the information exchange involved; RSS for the various local, regional, thematic, and main broadcast messages, iCal for calendar events, GeoRSS for messages with location content. SMS or MMS for mobile alerts. And the relationships involved are all ones that can go in a database schema. Members are subsets of the campaign (the campaign, better, is a superset of the membership); they are also part of groups. Messages and events are held in their originating table, until escalated into the next one up or across. By default, each member page has the local, regional and main broadcast feeds, and all the links you need to join or create other groups, start events, subscribe to them, set up alerts, and recommend anything for escalation. All groups, locations, etc create public and password-protected feeds. GeoRSS, with iCal enclosures, should be as MVC as it gets.

Whilst working on the Viktorfeed, I never quite grokked what the various Python Web frameworks (y’know – django, zope, cherrypy, webpy) were for. Now, however, I’ve actually bothered to read the Django documentation and it looks like the perfect solution. Essentially, it lets you build all your database tables in Python classes, set up all the views of the data you might want, and fit them in whatever HTML chrome you like, as well as creating RSS feeds of any view you can create of the shared data. (*I know I’m years behind the kool kidz here, but, well.)

I think it would be a cracking idea to have a deployable, pythonic, hackable platform for weird political action; with options for resource control, you might be able to use it to run almost anything.

So, what if there was an airline that uses the Zimbabwean registry in order to get around most people’s idea of aviation safety, is almost certainly in cahoots with the Zimbabwean government, and was involved not just with running guns into the DRC in the late 90s but also with actual combat air missions, dropping napalm out of the back of Antonovs and operating Mi-24 gunships in support of the Zimbabwean army there?

You’d think it would be numero uno on the EU blacklist. But, incredibly, Avient Aviation (ICAO code SMJ) isn’t; even though it is widely suspected that some of the Chinese weapons shipment blacked by South African dockers was flown to Zimbabwe in their Il-76, Z-WTV, from a port in Angola. (The Il-76 is the last surviving T-model, and is therefore on its last legs; it came from a firm based in Sao Tome, using the 3C- Equatorial Guinea registry at the same time as Viktor Bout’s CET Aviation was.) You might be even more surprised to learn that Avient is actually allowed to base aircraft in the European Union – its pair of ancient DC-10s are regularly seen at Chalons-Vatry airfield in France.

What’s going on? Well, part of the answer may be the Gabonese angle to the whole thing. Avient had, for some time, a contract to handle cargo on behalf of Gabon Airlines. They took over, with the contract, an aged DC-8 imported from the Sudanese firm United Arabian Airlines, which is now registered Z-ALB with Avient. Now, it seems that Gabon doesn’t want Zimbabwe-registry aircraft, and neither does it want Avient bossAndrew Smith (“one of the most thoroughly despicable & unlikeable characters it’s ever been my displeasure to meet”). Fair enough, but you have to say that it probably had something to do with the French government threatening to put Gabon Airlines on a blacklist (President Bongo threatened to ban Air France from Libreville, but he was never likely to go through with it).

I can see the point in the French action, but what I don’t understand is why Avient are tolerated in their back yard, when they are apparently enough to warrant a diplomatic row with the darling of French African policy for the last forty years. And wipe that smirk off; Avient have done the Baghdad trail quite frequently, too.

I don’t know about you, but it strikes me that if you were looking for an economic sanction against Zimbabwe that was only likely to affect the elite, seizing the Avient DC10s on the ground at Vatry would be a cracker. Given their age and suspected condition, it could probably be put in effect just by having them ramp-checked by the safety inspectors.

The ViktorFeed is now operational! The map’s permanent link is here (aren’t Google URLs snappy?); the raw data is available as an RSS 2.0 feed with Simple GeoRSS tags here, at least until I decide on a permanent URL. It is updated every 5 minutes. Huge thanks to all at MySociety.

Here is the presentation I delivered at OpenTech 2008:

I’d publish the text, but I didn’t prepare a text:-)

Anyway, the ViktorFeed is a development of basic python scripts I’ve been using for some time to collect data on certain aircraft movements through Sharjah and Dubai Airports. Both of these place all movements on the Web, but neither of them provide anything like an RSS feed, which is why I began scripting, in order to save checking them myself. (You can read about this phase in the Political Pathetic Python posts on this blog.)

The current version works as follows: the web pages involved are loaded and BeautifulSoup instances created for each one. If a page fails to load and an IOError occurs, this stage is skipped for that one and a default message added. Data is extracted using BeautifulSoup’s find method in list comprehensions. Each flight is represented by a tuple of values in a list. For each flight, the tuple is unpacked and each item in it assigned to a standard variable. If the airline name is found in a whitelist, the tuple is discarded. Otherwise, various standard items – for example, the name of the airport the flight arrived at or departed from – are added, the time variable is processed to provide both a readable time and a time in seconds since the epoch, and a database is queried to provide the geographical locations of the source and destination.

In the event that a location is not given or not found, a default value is specified and a message added. The default location is in the Bermuda Triangle, thanks to Soizick. The values are reassembled as a dictionary and appended to a list. When all pages have been processed, the content of this list is decorated with the time values in seconds since the origin, and sorted into reverse chronological order. This version is then undecorated, and the individual flights are used to create a Simple GeoRSS file through Python string formatting, which is encoded as Unicode and written out to disk.

Items in the file consist of the time and data group, in the title field, the source, destination, airline, and flight number in the description field, a GeoRSS Line tag with the source and destination geocodes, and the current time and date in the pubDate field. This data can be visualised in Google Maps more than simply. The test version was served from my laptop, using the SimpleHTTPRequestHandler and ForkingTCPServer methods and port forwarding.

Things to do: get it going on a permanent Web presence, refactor the code into a slightly less ugly mess, keep all the flights in a database, make it possible to query past movements.