By Michael Zoeller / Published January 28, 2015
This article was originally published in Airways magazine in August 2012
International airports in the sixties and early in the seventies were home to arrays of gleaming Boeing 707s and 720s operated by the likes of Pan Am, TWA, Lufthansa and United Airlines. By the mid-seventies many of these aircraft had migrated to secondary carriers, cargo or charter outfits, perhaps no longer working out of a major airport but still plying the skies and making (or trying to make) a profit for their owners.
Former JAT 707-321 N723PA (msn 17601/ln 76, ex YU-AGA) parked
on the south side of London-Heathrow by the Pan Am hangar on a
gloomy day in November 1974. Oddly, the registration is painted
on the nose. A close inspection revealed ‘Afric…’ titles under the
white paint. All Images Courtesy of Michael Zoeller
Toward the latter part of the seventies newer types were introduced, fuel prices had increased, and the once-proud first-generation jetliners were retired from frontline service and offered for sale. Some soldiered on, carrying passengers and cargo on a regular basis until time, literally, ran out. A handful of others ended their days flying for less-than-respectable owners to locations where ordinarily no questions would be asked as to the reason for the aircraft’s visit, its payload, maintenance history, or for whom it was flying.
Pan Am started phasing out its non-turbofan 707s in 1970 when the value of the aircraft would have been around $1.5 million (equivalent to $8.7 million today). Many were sold in the United Kingdom, Turkey, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, and of course the USA. Ten years later one could be acquired for less than $500,000 (now $1.4 million).
One such aircraft was Pan Am’s former Jet Clipper Aurora, 707-300 N725PA. It saw service with THY-Turkish Airlines, followed by a two-year stint with UK-based leasing company Tempair (Templewood Aviation). When the latter firm was liquidated at the end of 1976, the 707 was parked at Ostend, Belgium.
In December 1977 Lieutenant General Maurice F. Casey, trading as Burbank International, acquired the aircraft. At one stage during payment negotiations in Miami, a gun appeared on the table and the buyers tried to pay with Australian black opals. On February 17, 1978, wearing its new registration N725CA, the airplane was ferried from Ostend to Luton, England, for checks. Casey’s intention was to operate livestock flights between Miami and Venezuela, which was always going to be problematic because the aircraft was not equipped with a main cabin cargo door.
A special certificate was issued to ferry the aircraft from Luton to Miami via Gander, and the flight took place on March 8. Freelance navigator Dave Welch (Airways, January 2012, May 2011, July 2003, May 2002 & June 2001), who was on the flight, described the 707 as “a flying heap of sh*t.” Before its departure on March 8, N725CA carried out a test flight from Luton, during which a hydraulic cable broke loose, dumping a load of fluid over new cars parked at the nearby Vauxhall plant. This prompted the national press to refer to the aircraft as ‘The Luton Carwash Bomber’.
Welch adds: “We just managed to get the 707 airborne [on March 8] before a bailiff arrived at Monarch Engineering’s operations intending to slap a writ on it for all the damage. Vauxhall made a million pounds [£4.5 million/$6.8 million] insurance claim against Templewood, plus a large number of the population of Luton claimed that their cars were ruined too. On the way to Gander it developed the worst Dutch roll I ever experienced—twice at least. One problem was that one of the outer engines wasn’t giving full power.”
The aircraft never moved from Miami, although more than $73,000 (worth $220,000 today) of repair work, mainly to wing corrosion, was carried out during most of 1979. Three liens were placed on the 707 between March 1979 and October 1981, and at one stage it came close to being sold to a company in Wyoming. Finally the aircraft was bought by General Air Services in 1981, and broken up at Miami between September 1983 and January 1984.
‘The Bristol Cowboy’: the long-suffering 707-321, wearing the marks 9Q-CRY, at Lasham in
August 1979, shortly before its departure for Bristol.
Meanwhile, the twilight years of sistership N723PA Jet Clipper Viking were anything but restful, and like Clipper Aurora, it gained national press coverage in the UK. After serving with JAT (Jugoslovenski Aerotransport) it was sold, via brokers, to United Trade International (UTI) and registered N711UT by the end of 1975. The president of UTI was Shirley Adams Soghanalian, wife of Lebanese-Armenian ‘merchant of death’ arms dealer Sarkis G. Soghanalian, and mother of Garabet Soghanalian, who ran Pan Aviation, an outfit that was at the center of a Federal Bureau of Investigation/Drug Enforcement Agency probe in the eighties on suspicion of drug running.
The 707 made an appearance at Stansted early in 1976 wearing an anonymous color scheme; it was in cargo configuration and reportedly had been operating out of Swaziland in 1974 for a company called Air Union, which might have been owned by Soghanalian too.
The airplane was seen at various locations between 1976 and 1979—Miami, San José (Costa Rica), Lisbon, Prague, Budapest, Sofia, and Athens—whence cargo flights to the Middle East were being operated. During this same period Sarkis Soghanalian was known to be selling arms to the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia, and various factions in Ecuador, Mauritania, and Nicaragua. But a blind eye was turned to much of this activity, such is the way of international politics.
A contemporary U.S. government report stated that the USA supplied a 707 plus crew to enable Christian forces in Lebanon to be equipped with arms. During one nocturnal delivery flight from Warsaw to Beirut without a flight plan, the aircraft refueled in Athens. When the 707 was ready to resume its journey, Athens Tower called and asked the crew to pull the airplane aside because two Greek customs officials wanted to inspect the cargo. Soghanalian asked the pilot if they could ignore the request and take off, but it was pointed out to him that the Greeks had an adjacent air force base and could deploy fighters.
The front section of the 707 had seating with the rear cargo area curtained off, where Soghanalian entertained the customs officials with Scotch and attempted to bribe them. But when they proved incorruptible, Soghanalian and the crew pulled guns on the Greeks, locked them in the airplane’s toilet, and took off.
Former TWA 707-331 N762TW (msn 17675/ln 74) in Air Tanzania colors, named
Ngorongoro Crater, at London-Gatwick in May 1980. This replaced an ex-United 720-022
N62215 (msn 18080/ln 284).
Upon arrival at Beirut the officials were released with the help of the Greek ambassador and sent home the next day on a commercial flight. Apparently the officials were not even missed in Athens. Luck ran out for this 707 when it was impounded in Helsinki in February 1979. However the airplane’s fraudulent activities were far from over, and it was about to take seat-of-your-pants flying to new levels. In the summer of 1979 the aircraft was released by the Finnish authorities to Air Union and ferried to Lasham, UK, for checks and a change of registration to 9Q-CRY (a fictitious one)—reportedly with its Yugoslavian registration YU-AGA still visible under a wing—while being readied for operations by ‘Khan Air’, flying livestock between the Arabian Gulf and India. Money for the maintenance work was not forthcoming, and the aircraft departed from Lasham for Bristol-Lulsgate with many defects still unrectified; for example, both compasses were unserviceable as were both HF (high frequency) radio sets.
The 707’s exit from Bristol for Kuwait on October 11 was spectacular, and even raised questions in the British Parliament. Using every inch of the runway upon rotation, it took out two 10ft (3m)-tall marker poles along with a portion of the airport boundary hedge. The crew consisted of a qualified British flight engineer, but the captain and first officer were a father and son team, Richard Khan Sr. and Jr., both with questionable 707 experience.
When the airplane subsequently received a 10-hour inspection in Kuwait with the help of Kuwait Airways, problems were discovered in the pressurization system, and metal bars were found hanging from the fuselage, wings, and landing gear, while gear locks were damaged, mainly by vegetation and undergrowth. Nevertheless it left Kuwait for Bombay (now Mumbai) in non-airworthy condition to complete a livestock charter.
For several months the aircraft operated cattle charters around the Arabian Gulf with the undercarriage locked down. On one occasion, despite being surrounded on the ramp at Sharjah to attempt to stop it from leaving, it managed to evade all of the ground vehicles and took off.
Destination was Luxembourg, but by the time the 707 was over Erzurum, Turkey, an emergency was declared as two engines had been shut down. The ailing airplane arrived at Ankara on January 25, 1980, and was hastily abandoned by the crew, who were unsure as to the true ownership of the aircraft or what to do with it. Eventually, the Turkish ministry of transport scrapped the 707 in 1984. As for the Khans, they were never heard of again.
TWA took longer than most other major carriers to phase out its 707s. Initially, some of the Dash 100 models were sold to Israel in 1971, but the later 707-300s did not leave the carrier until 1979 when they were almost at the end of their useful lives. One such aircraft was N762TW.
In March 1980 it was sold to Caledonian Airlines of Pennsylvania and flown to Miami for repainting in Air Tanzania colors before lease. Strangely, no color drawings of Air Tanzania’s complicated livery were available, so photos of one of the airline’s 737s were used for reference. The aircraft was delivered to Air Tanzania the following May.
No relation to the British airline with a similar name, this Caledonian was owned by George Hallak (aka George Khallaq), who also had an office in Beirut. Hallak was infamous among international law enforcement agencies for issuing illegal airline tickets and forged travel documents. As is well documented in a report by the U.S. Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, Hallak had helped the Palestine Liberation Organization form Caledonian Airlines and was involved in the PLO’s ‘investment strategy’ (he also facilitated the PLO’s purchase of part-equity in Transportes Aéreos da Guiné-Bissau). The former TWA 707-300 was seized by the Tanzanian authorities in July 1981 after Caledonian had defaulted on its contract with Air Tanzania; at the time it was the highest-time 707, with a total of 66,681 hours.
Air Tanzania’s earlier experience with Caledonian had also not been a happy one. A former United 720, N62215, was leased from December 21, 1979, arriving the following day in Dar es Salaam. Immediately upon arrival in ‘Dar’ it was pressed into service—not on the London-Gatwick route as the US flight crew expected, but flying troops from Mtwara, a Tanzanian coastal city, to Beira and Maputo in Mozambique, in connection with the transition of Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. When ‘conventional’ passenger services finally started, it became apparent that operating out of Kilimanjaro destined for Gatwick the 720 could carry only 29 passengers because of hot-and-high conditions at the Tanzanian departure point; an operational technicality that Caledonian had failed to mention to Air Tanzania. Consequently, the 720 operated only a handful of services before being replaced by the 707-300. Like the 707, the 720 ended its days rotting away in the African sun.
Although United started to dispose of its fleet of 29 ‘straight-pipe’ 720s in 1973, the majority served for many more years. One such aircraft was N7216U Jet Mainliner George R. Mann, which was sold to Aero Specialties in August 1973. The seats were removed, so ostensibly it became a freighter, but little happened in the way of flying until late in 1975, when it was sold to Dolphin Aviation of Sarasota, Florida, and was seen operating around the Arabian Gulf with ‘Pionair’ titles, the trading name of a small Ghanaian outfit called Pioneer Air Transport. The aircraft was returned to Dolphin at Bombay in March 1976 and was soon sold, via an agent, to Dick Wellman/Airmania, who operated ad hoc freight flights around the Middle East with two Douglas DC-7s, mainly for Air India. The agent took the money ($250,000, equivalent to $1 million today) and disappeared, never paying Dolphin.
But an agreement was somehow struck between Dolphin and Wellman, and although the 720 continued to fly in the region, it never returned to the USA. From 1976 onward the aircraft was seen at Abu Dhabi, Bombay, Dhahran, and Bangkok in a constantly deteriorating condition. But in April 1979 the Federal Aviation Administration, having inspected the 720 at Hong Kong, issued an emergency suspension of airworthiness because of its poor state. Since leaving the care of United, it had received only minimal attention. The 720 ended its days at Hong Kong-Kai Tak, with the question as to who the legal owner was remaining unanswered while the airframe’s value depreciated daily; it was finally broken up in April 1981.
During summer 1976, Lufthansa retired its Rolls-Royce Conway-powered 707-400s. Of the five the airline owned, four went on to work either directly or indirectly with infamous Biafra war mercenary pilot, Henry (Hank) Warton (aka Wharton). Born Heinrich Wartski in Germany in 1916, Warton emigrated to the USA in 1937. Postwar, he flew for or ran numerous freight airlines throughout Europe and beyond. During the Biafran conflict he operated a fleet of elderly and illegally registered Lockheed Constellations. Early in the seventies, he operated DC-7C freighters under the names North American Aircraft Trading and ARCO (Bermuda); the latter maintained bases at São Tomé and Príncipe, Basle, and Stockholm. Warton used his connections at Lufthansa to acquire, in association with M Marshall Landy, four of the former Lufthansa aircraft between September 1976 and August 1977 at scrap value prices.
The first was D-ABOG Bonn, which became N9985F. It had probably the most colorful career of all the ex-Lufthansa 707-400s. Upon delivery to Miami the 707 was converted to cargo configuration—or at least it was divested of its seats. Soon afterward Landy’s and Warton’s Air-Trans (a Bahamian corporation) leased the aircraft to International Aircraft Leases, which in turn subleased it to livestock specialists J D Smith Inter-Ocean of New York, which organized cattle charters to Central and Latin America, mainly out of Newburgh, New York. Occasionally the 707 flew for Lanica (Nicaragua). Some trans-Atlantic services were also operated to Ireland and France.
In August 1977 the aircraft was seized at Newburgh by the FAA for violations of Federal Aviation Regulations through poor maintenance procedures and inadequate safety equipment (with many safety placards still in German). But equally seriously in the view of the FAA, despite contracts stipulating that the aircraft would be operated under Part 121 rules, it was barely meeting Part 91 requirements. A hefty fine was paid by Landy, Warton, and J D Smith Inter-Ocean, and by the end of September Warton had the aircraft flown to Miami. (The FAA subsequently brought an action against Landy, IAL, Air-Trans, and the freight forwarder for operating without a certificate.)
By this time one of the other Lufthansa 707s had been written off. D-ABOB Hamburg had become 9Q-CRT and leased by Air-Trans to Pearl Air (Grenada), for which it carried out livestock flights around the Middle East (although there was speculation that other loads of dubious provenance were carried) until a hard landing at Sana’a, Yemen in August 1977 ended its flying days.
Meanwhile, Hank Warton had recruited a number of crews for a ‘secret’ arms flying operation out of central Europe to the Middle East and East Africa. A deal was struck for the US to clandestinely supply Soviet ammunition and guns to Somalia for its fight against the Ethiopians, with the USA’s aim of acquiring a bit of strategic real estate in the Straits of Hormuz. At the time Somalia had Soviet weapons but only US ammunition, while Ethiopia had US weapons with East Bloc ammunition. One of the recruits was John Lear, son of Learjet creator Bill Lear. He arrived at Frankfurt on October 22, 1977, and flew his first trip in N9985F on October 25, routing Budapest–Mogadishu; this was repeated three days later.
Flights to and from Budapest used the name ‘Fragtflug’, a defunct Icelandic operator owned by Loftur Jóhannesson, a billionaire arms dealer and friend of Hank Warton who had provided aircraft during the Biafran conflict. Over Yugoslavia, Air-Trans Miami became the operator. Flying over the Mediterranean the 707’s registration became the call-sign, and on contact with Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Lear was instructed to use a Somali Airlines call-sign. The final leg from Jeddah to Mogadishu was flown under radio silence. If the crewmembers were questioned, they had been told to explain that were carrying ‘agricultural materials’ from Budapest to Jeddah.
Some 580 tonnes of arms were flown from Budapest to Somalia, and there is anecdotal evidence that N711UT was also involved in this operation. In October 1977, N64739, the former D-ABOC Berlin, which had been ‘converted’ to a freighter in a similar way to N9985F, joined the operation and was a regular visitor to Mogadishu for a month until November 4, when Lear flew it from Budapest to Stansted via Salzburg.
Evidently about this time the Somali operation ceased, as Lear collected another 707-400 at Stansted a few days later. It was 9G-ACK (formerly D-ABOF München), which was registered to Geminair in Ghana but flying mainly for Nigeria Airways with crews supplied by Air-Trans. From Stansted, Lear flew the 707 to Heathrow for a regular Nigeria Airways passenger service to Lagos.
Of all the ex-Lufthansa 707s, 9G-ACK was the most ‘above board’. Operating for established carrier Geminair it flew numerous leases and charters for DETA Mozambique, Sabena, Dan-Air, Monarch Airlines, British Airtours, and Britannia Airways between 1977 and 1980.
However, it was often called upon to operate for Warton during this period too, and for most of 1980 it flew on behalf of Nefertiti Aviation, a company heavily reliant upon Warton for aircraft and crews.
By July 1981, 9G-ACK had been returned to Air-Trans (if indeed it had ever really left in the first place) and was wearing the illegal registration N90498, earlier allocated to N64739, by then semi-derelict at Tripoli, Libya. Air-Trans applied for a special permit to ferry ‘N90498’ from Manston to Miami, but after leaving Manston the 707 never reached its purported destination; instead, it flew to Kano in Nigeria and was painted as ‘3C-ABH’ on one side and ‘3C-ABI’ on the other, under the control of another Warton company, Bata International Airways of Equatorial Guinea (a country familiar to Warton during his flights to and from Biafra).
John Lear returned to work with Air-Trans in October 1981 and flew this 707 Athens–Johannesburg–Cairo during the month, carrying arms and ammunition, and later Khartoum–Sana’a with cattle. Finally, as EL-AJC, the aircraft arrived at Bournemouth from Cairo in July 1983 in an anonymous all-white scheme, and was broken up at its final destination shortly afterward.
Meanwhile, N9985F had spent much of 1978 and 1979 one step ahead of the law, visiting Bucharest, Lisbon, Angola, and Ireland, all locations well known to Warton and in which he had contacts. Maintenance, such as it was, was carried out at Manston by Invicta Aircraft Engineering, whose Michael Harradine was the agent for Equatorial Guinea’s ‘flag of convenience’ register. Finally, the FAA caught up with the 707 at Manston in October 1979, when an inspection revealed numerous points of corrosion, including at the over-wing exits, a vertical stabilizer leading edge strip loose, and neither airworthiness certificate nor FAA-approved operating manual in sight. Unsurprisingly, the airframe was declared non-airworthy. Somehow the 707-400 was able to fly away from Manston and was noted early in 1980 flying cargo at Sana’a for Warton’s Anderson.
In August 1980 N9985F returned to Manston, where Anderson Aviation notified the FAA that the aircraft was being sold to Bata International—as 3C-ABH. From December 1980 the aircraft was painted in the same markings and registration as the other ‘3C-ABH’, even wearing two different registrations. The aircraft’s activities in its final days are difficult to trace, but what is known is that livestock flights were flown around the Middle East in 1982, and that by 1984 it was withdrawn from use at Tel Aviv in poor condition. By 1989 the remains were being used as a training aid by the Ben Gurion Airport fire service.
So, what of N64739, which had returned to the USA in November 1977 after its stint as a gun runner? It was registered in Ireland in August 1978 as EI-BFN with Intercon Air of Dublin, which already owned a Bristol Britannia and intended to use the 707 on long-haul livestock and general charters (N9985F had Intercon Air titles applied but never entered service); however, there were certification difficulties, and the aircraft returned to the US register with Landy at Manston as N90498 in January 1979.
That April it left Manson for Tripoli as 5A-CVA with STAC (Société de Transports Aériens Centrafricain), a company formed by Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, to carry ivory for resale abroad.
Bokassa was overthrown in a September 1979 coup, and the aircraft was nominally transferred to United African Airlines, successor to STAC. The aircraft officially reverted to N90498 with Anderson Aviation in January 1980, but never left Tripoli, where it was broken up in 1988.
All these events took place three decades ago. After September 11, 2001, security around the aviation world was increased dramatically, but flights of a similar nature and dubious character are likely still taking place on a regular basis in less-regulated countries of the world.
Cover Image Courtesy of Michael Zoeller
Editor’s note: Our readers now have access to our weekly eNewsletter, which includes a recap of our top stories of the week, along with the subscriber-only exclusive Weekend Reads column and Photo of the Week from our extensive archives. The newsletter comes out every Friday night. Stay in the know; click here to subscribe today!
Contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org