Airports, Airlines, Aviation

Airplane in the Sahara Desert

While I don’t usually write about obscure human interest stories, this one caught my attention. I first read about it from a friend’s Facebook post several months back, and was so intrigued that I thought it would be worth researching and sharing with our tripchi readers. For all you #avgeeks out there, read on – this is an amazing story.

This story starts with a visit to Google Maps. In particular: 16°51′53.748″N 11°57′13.362″E. If you’re wondering why there is a shape that looks like the outline of an airplane in the middle of the Niger desert, then read on (it actually can be seen like this from space). It becomes even more surreal.

Google Maps Marker in Niger - Airplane in the Sahara Desert
Google Maps Marker in Niger – Airplane in the Sahara Desert

If you keep zooming in, you’re given a little more of a clue what’s here….and the mystery starts to unfold on the UTA Flight 772 Memorial – the airplane in the Sahara Desert.

UTA Flight 772 Memorial, Niger - Airplane in the Sahara Desert
UTA Flight 772 Memorial, Niger – Airplane in the Sahara Desert

So now we know that this airplane in the Sahara Desert is a memorial for UTA Flight 772.

What happened here, and why is  there an airplane in the Sahara Desert?

First of all, what’s UTA? Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) was the largest privately owned airline in France, founded in 1963 in a merger of Union Aéromaritime de Transport(UAT) and Transports Aériens Intercontinentaux (TAI). UTA had a share in Air Afrique, the former multinational airline for French colonized West Africa. UTA was ultimately absorbed into Air France between 1990 and 1992.

UTA Flight 772 was a UTA flight departing Brazzaville in the People’s Republic of the Congo, via N’Djamena in Chad, to Paris CDG airport in France. It took off on September 19, 1989  at 13:13. The aircraft was a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 registered N54629. 45 minutes and 35,000 feet later, a bomb blast went off in-flight from within the aircraft. All 156 passengers and 14 flights attendants were killed, and the debris was scattered across Niger and that’s why there’s an airplane in a Sahara desert. 18 different nationalities were represented in the victims, mostly French and Congolese.

UTA Airplane in the Sahara Desert
UTA Flight 772 – Airplane in the Sahara Desert

The airplane in the Sahara Desert – why did this bombing happen?

An investigation uncovered that the bomb was placed in the forward cargo hold of the aircraft, probably at the Brazzaville airport. Both the Islamic Jihad and the “Secret Chadian Resistance” rebel group both claimed responsibility for the attack. In the end, it was 6 Libyans that actually conducted the attack:

  • Abdullah Senussi, brother-in-law of Muammar Gaddafi, and deputy head of the Libyan intelligence service;
  • Abdelsalam Hammouda, Senussi’s right-hand man, who coordinated the attack;
  • Abdullah Elazragh, Counsellor at the Libyan embassy in Brazzaville;
  • Ibrahim Naeli and Arbas Musbah, explosives experts in the Libyan secret service;
  • Issa Shibani (purchased the timer that allegedly triggered the bomb);

Some seriously bad guys….and linked to crazy Libyan former dictator Muammar Gaddafi – who by the way wouldn’t allow their extradition to France to face trial, so they were tried in absentia and were convicted.

Motive? Revenge against the French for supporting Chad against the expansionist projects of Libya toward Chad.

In October 2008 Libya paid $1.5 billion into a fund to compensate relatives of:

  1. Lockerbie bombing victims;
  2. American victims of the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing;
  3. American victims of the 1989 UTA Flight 772 bombing (sucks if you’re not American);
  4. Libyan victims of the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi.

That’s all highly depressing.

But here’s the uplifting, silver-lining of the airplane in the Sahara Desert.

In 2007 a memorial was created by Les Familles de l’Attentat du DC-10 d’UTA, an association of the victims’ families, coupled with local families. The memorial was created of the airplane in the Sahara desert (in Niger), nearby to where the plane crashed (10 km away). Constructed of black rock in the shape and dimensions of the DC10 airplane inside a compass (one of the plane’s wings was actually used as a compass point), the memorial used over 170 broken mirrors to reflect the victims of the crash.

Airplane in the Sahara Desert - Completed Memorial
Airplane in the Sahara Desert – Completed Memorial (courtesy of Imgur)

And the airplane in the Sahara Desert can be seen from Google’s aerial imagery. This is pretty amazing.

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