The plane that saved 600 lives in two trips crashes in South Sudan

A veteran Boeing 727-200 crashed today at a small airport in South Sudan: Malakal, a city of about 150,000 inhabitants on the banks of the Upper Nile.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
30 March 2024 Saturday 22:22
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The plane that saved 600 lives in two trips crashes in South Sudan

A veteran Boeing 727-200 crashed today at a small airport in South Sudan: Malakal, a city of about 150,000 inhabitants on the banks of the Upper Nile. The plane, configured as a cargo ship, only had seven people on board, including crew and company employees. Everyone has left the aircraft on their own, as it has left the runway and what has made the accident more dramatic is that it has collided with another old reactor, a McDonnell Douglas MD82, whose landing gear collapsed a few weeks ago, the last February 9th.

Due to the lack of resources at the airport, the MD82 of the Kenyan African Express Airways was left on one side of the runway and it was precisely at that point where today, the Boeing 727 of Pace Air, another Kenyan company, ended up leaving and colliding with the other plane.

Although there were no victims in this or the previous accident, the chance of having a similar accident and ending up colliding with the only obstacle on the flight field could be considered unique news. Curious already in a continent that has made great strides in its aeronautical sector, although it still has many leaks in countries such as South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi or the Central African Republic.

However, the most important news comes from the Boeing 727 that suffered the accident today, a device built 45 years ago and that was the protagonist of a very special mission 4,500 kilometers from where it crashed and was so damaged that it will be impossible recover it.

Kabul's Hamid Karzai Airport began to be one of the hottest spots in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, after the entry of the

Taliban to the capital and in parallel to the withdrawal of US troops after 20 years of presence in the country, an invasion in direct response to the September 11 attacks in New York and other parts of the United States.

The fall of Kabul, the flight of President Ashraf Ghani along with several senior officials, followed by the suicide attack in the same airport premises in which 180 people died on August 26, precipitated an exit that had been taking place for days with military planes. C-17, A400M and Hercules. These aircraft were taking NATO and United Kingdom troops out of the country, as well as other United States military and civilians who were leaving behind a failed two-decade project.

Among all the gray military planes that left and returned to the airport evacuating troops, a white Boeing 727 stood out several times. It was a veteran trijet with Kenyan registration: 5Y-IRE, with the logo of the Safe Air company on the tail, a discreet airline born in 2007 as part of a Kenyan and Rwandan holding company, which operates both cargo flights and executive trips.

In the weeks of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States government hired the services of the company Safe. Any air help was little in a situation like this. Flying out of the country was the only way to save one's life and the situation worsened with the attack on the 26th. That day, the veteran 727 gained prominence, both for the bravery of its crew, who returned to the airport from Tajikistan, on the border northern Afghanistan, where Safe Air had temporarily positioned its aircraft and personnel, at the direction of company management.

As aviator Neil Steyl then told Erika Gibson, of the South African newspaper Mail and Guardian, after the attack, they received a desperate call from the American commanders stationed in Afghanistan. The mission of Steyl, commander of the Boeing, had until then been to remove all types of material from Kabul in his cargo plane, although then they asked him for something already exceptional: a massive evacuation taking advantage of the open space inside the fuselage, prepared to carry parcels, containers and all the material that, due to dimensions and maximum weight, could take off from the Kabul runway.

Gibson knew the pilot not only as a compatriot but also because he had been a pilot for Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, president of South Africa between 2009 and 2018, a period in which the presidential flights were constant news due to the state of the planes that served as transport. of personalities.

The request that the South African airman received was clear and extreme: the US needed at all costs to evacuate its Afghan collaborators, soldiers belonging to the special forces whom the Taliban considered enemies to be defeated as traitors. These and some relatives had managed to reach a hangar within the international airport to take refuge while awaiting help from those with whom they had collaborated in recent years.

Finding space on military planes was becoming increasingly difficult and in response to the request that was almost a plea, the South African took off from Kulob airport, the fourth largest city in Tajikistan, heading to the increasingly dangerous Kabul.

Once on the ground, the Boeing was directed next to the hangar where a group of more than 600 people were waiting to be evacuated after a week without leaving the premises. Taking advantage of the space to the millimeter and without losing the perspective that the plane had a 3,500 meter runway to take to the air, it managed to load 308 people in a device that in the passenger version can carry 150 or a maximum of 170.

The boarding and accommodation of the three hundred took no more than 40 minutes and they immediately received permission to taxi and take off. After leaving the relieved passenger in Tajikistan, the South African aviator and the rest of his crew without hesitation undertook a new flight to Kabul, 600 kilometers south of Kulob, a distance similar to that between the airports of Barcelona and Madrid.

Boarding of the second evacuation flight was slightly slower to make it possible for the remaining 329 people to board and no one to be left behind. Once again, with the risk of flying the plane in a very delicate situation, without the defensive capabilities of military devices and flying over a war zone with threats from any point, the old Boeing operation was a complete success. The passengers of the freighter did not initially know where they were, although seeing that they had been able to leave Afghanistan was already an enormous relief.

In Tajikistan they were camped and after a few days an airlift organized by the United States was organized, already with its own resources and that 727 that saved more than 600 lives in just two flights returned to its usual life of flights to cargo demand. through Africa and some Asian airports. Thus its commercial life continued until this morning, when after more than 45 years of service the device has reached the end of its operational life at a small airport in South Sudan and, once again, even in the worst of circumstances it has saved the life of its occupants.