Damaged plane to be repaired Bomb blast as seen from plane window

Mogadishu Aircraft Rescue - Not a Regular Aviation Engineering Contract

As an independent aircraft engineer, I never know where in the world a contract could take me. From Europe, South America and the Far East to Africa and the Middle East, almost anywhere. Most recently accepting a contract to work in Mogadishu, in the troubled country of Somalia, was a decision mix of careful consideration in view of well-known security implications and a desire for new challenges. This experience put me in closer contact with some of the cruel realities affecting our world today. A world in turmoil, where many people have to adapt to new challenges and conditions. For my colleagues and I, it was a one off assignment, but for many people this is part of their everyday.

Early in February 2016, an Airbus A321 operated by Daallo Airline was climbing out of Mogadishu airport when a bomb concealed in a laptop was detonated by a suicide bomber from the terrorist group Al Shabaab. The laptop which contained a timer to go off while the aircraft was in the cruise, exploded at about 14000 feet and would have been fatal for all on board if the aircraft had reached 30,000 feet and been fully pressurised. Luckily for all on board, the crew were able to turn the aircraft around and land in Mogadishu airport with a huge hole in the fuselage. This was a situation which could have easily ended up in disaster if the crew hadn't been able to react skilfully in such an extremely dangerous situation. The bomber was killed by the blast and sucked out of the hole in the aircraft while two other passengers were injured. The bomb was apparently intended for a Turkish Airlines flight which was cancelled due to bad weather.

Blast as seen from airplane

Blast as seen from airplane

Since then, the damaged aircraft had been parked on the tarmac at Mogadishu airport with its back to the sea, like an injured giant with limited possibilities of being able to fly again.

Six other engineers/mechanics and myself were part of a team contracted to carry out the repair and maintenance of the damaged aircraft in order to fly it out of Mogadishu on an unpressurised ferry flight. Fixing the big hole in the fuselage plus all the other damage caused by the explosion and 6 months under the elements would be our first challenge. Second, the security involved for this operation was a reminder that the threat of terrorism was real and latent. Then, of course, the merciless weather conditions with July's heat and humidity at their highest and our ability to stay healthy and motivated in such testing circumstances provided us with a background of the task on hand.

Flying the aircraft out of Mogadishu airport to Amman at 10000 feet due to pressurisation issues would be another story, but I wasn't going to worry about that…quite at that point. Broadly speaking, it was clear to me that there would be a number of technical issues we would have to deal with. Additionally having to take off at such low altitude presented another challenge, the presence of terrorist groups in the area eager to hit a low flying target.

There wasn’t anything simple in relation to this contract, even the journey into Somalia had certain complications. This is my brief diary of events…

Friday 14th July

After a long delay and a very sore neck caused by suddenly turning to check the departures board, another colleague (Simon) and I left Manchester airport on a Turkish Airlines (TK) flight to Istanbul on our journey to Somalia. We arrived at Istanbul Airport at about 10pm, with no problems apart from the sore neck which by then was becoming a nuisance.

At about 11:30pm we sat at the departure gate waiting for our TK flight to Mogadishu when we noticed that our flight was delayed. With concern we then noticed that all delayed flights had now been cancelled and passengers at this point were gathering around a TV screen watching intensely at some sort of disruption taking place. We then decided to go back to the business lounge to see whether we could find out what was going on; however the information desk was inundated with passengers trying to get a new flight booked or just eager to find out what was happening. "Information" such a precious word, gained increased importance particularly because of its absence. Later I decided to go downstairs looking for answers; however I came to the conclusion the staff knew as much as we did, nothing.

On the lower level of the business lounge was a bank of televisions with Al Jazeera providing better coverage of the unfolding events, a military coup was apparently taking place and the scenes of the military with tanks taking over the Bosporus Bridge did not look good. The thought of being stuck in a country going into turmoil didn't sound like a good prospect.

We then noticed that crowds of people were gathering outside and coming into the terminal some distance away. Suddenly, as we turned we almost froze with the view of a stampede of terrified passengers running towards us from the other side of the lounge, screaming and looking back. Tables being knocked over, mothers gathering children and generalised chaos with people falling all over the place. It was a scene of real panic. We dived behind a bar fearing that someone was in the lounge with a gun or a bomb. We live in very difficult times these days and those terrifying moments where we had a brief encounter with the horror that many people have faced in recent times were a reminder that unfortunately nobody is exempt or protected from this reality anymore. It is the nature of what's happening in our world today.

Scared passengers at Istanbul Airport

Scared passengers at Istanbul Airport

Later on we found out that the crowd of people were frightened by the noise of a mob from the terminal below who had been seen running into the building chanting and screaming.

We were on the upper floor of the business lounge with a view of the back of the terminal. From there we could see crowds of people leaving the terminal and then we heard with worry that apparently someone had been shot. One of the most worrying aspects was that from our position we were not able to see what was happening as the business lounge was a very large area with a big central spiral stairs leading down to the two lower floors and big columns and structures isolating us from the unfolding events.

Later on we understood that the crowd who were running through the terminal building were government supporters chanting in protest against the military coup. This scared the people in the lounges who thought they were a dangerous mob, an understandable reaction from airport passengers particularly following the attack at Istanbul airport two weeks earlier which killed over forty people, injuring more than two hundred.

Amidst the chaos, there is suddenly a loud boom like a heavy explosion which shook the building. Not knowing what was happening was terrifying and all we could do was to run to a more central point away from the high windows in case of falling glass - none of us knew the cause of the loud boom - We only feared the worse!

Panic has no nationality or language. We were defenceless and vulnerable human beings. We could hear people outside chanting and running in groups and the noise of gunfire and explosions in the distance. I have never experienced tension like this before, not even when my family and I had a close encounter with paramilitary near the Colombian amazon years ago.

During this whole time we tried to phone the British Embassy and Consulate for advice and contacted our families to assure them we were safe. However, the British authorities were never accessible and speaking to relatives was difficult at times with the internet and phone system being disrupted or stopped by the coup forces. Not being able to communicate with the outside world only added further stress.

Business lounge at Istanbul Airport during the coup

Business lounge at Istanbul Airport during the coup

Every now and then a small panic or stampede would take place and subside quickly. After a while, there was a "calmed tension" in the air, particularly after the TK staff have explained to us that the boom sound was an air force F16 flying low and fast over the terminal building. The front desk of the lounge was still full of people trying to find out what was happening, and we kept an eye on Al Jazeera for any updates. This was a very long and uncomfortable night and the occasional nap on a chair didn't help my neck problem.

A calmer atmosphere arrived as the passengers had a better understanding of the situation. However as we start to wander about the building, we came to the conclusion that we were locked into the terminal. We learnt that in the early hours of Saturday morning the coup soldiers had blocked the entrance to the airport with tanks and had taken over the control tower and nobody could go in or out of the airport. There were only drinks available but no food and all the cafes and shops were closed which was frustrating for us, but for other passengers with children or the elderly this must have been much more difficult. By then my neck and shoulders were frozen and we could not see any airport or TK staff for medical assistance. Many of the staff who had been with us all night had gone home probably concerned about their own families!

Stoicism I discovered is not a quality exclusive of the British I found out. While these events are taking place we happened to notice a small scaffolding tower inside the lounge with two workmen on it changing a window. This was business as usual as far as they were concerned, only leaving until the work had been completed and hopefully in receipt of the "employees of the month" award, I would like to believe!

At about 6am pictures appeared on the TV of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan giving reassurance to the nation that the coup was over, praising the citizens for their loyalty and promising severe punishment for the traitors who had perpetrated these actions.

At about 9am staff arrived and we were informed that we wouldn't be able to get a flight out of Istanbul until the next day and therefore we would need a visa to stay in Istanbul. Everyone despite presidential re-assurance wanted to leave as soon as possible and therefore the queue of desperate passengers looking to obtain the visa was long. Then luck, elusive luck was on our side when a passenger told us of another area within the airport where we could get the visa avoiding the large queue.

Visas sorted out, we got a taxi to the hotel which my colleague managed to arrange, relieved with the knowledge that our contracting company had arranged our flights back to Manchester the next day. We had no choice as the Mogadishu flights had been cancelled possibly for the next few days. After about 16 hours, we could finally have our first meal and some sleep. Only some, as celebrations outside were in full swing with car horns and motor bikes revving up and gun shots as people celebrated and swore loyalty to their president, at the end of the coup. We left the next day on a TK flight to Manchester – without knowing at that point what had happened to our luggage - We would need to try to make it to Mogadishu a few days later.

Try again

Wednesday 20th July

Once the repercussions of the Istanbul incident on our journey were taken care of, we got re-organised for our second attempt to get to our work. After having assessed the possibility of flying to Mogadishu via different countries other than Turkey, the options were limited and therefore we were again scheduled to flight to Mogadishu via Istanbul. I re-assured my worried family that I would be a very unlucky man if another incident was to happen at Istanbul airport on this occasion. However I kept to myself the fact that some passengers involved in the incident on the day of the failed military coup, had also been at the same airport two weeks earlier when many had lost their lives.

Another colleague and I left from Heathrow airport on a TK flight to Istanbul. A few hours later the whole team meet up in the infamous business lounge.

Thursday 21st July

We travelled to Mogadishu airport via Djibouti and on arrival we were met by a representative from the security company responsible for our safety. Once outside the airport and into the bullet proof Land Cruisers we start to get a feeling for the place. Rough and dusty roads with what looked like a mix of war zone and building site. Dust overpowered any hint of colour. Many vehicles carried machine guns mounted on a tripod at the back or a smaller tripod mounted on the cab with the operator standing on the flat bed of the truck. Other vehicles had the UN logo on the side. It took some time for the eyes to get used to the tough landscape.

Passengers at Mogadishu Airport

Passengers at Mogadishu Airport

Once in the compound we got a better understanding of the high level of security with the whole area being made up of shipping containers converted into living accommodation, offices and many other functions. The security staff were mainly Ugandans wearing pistols and/or AK47 assault rifles and armoured Toyota Land Cruisers. A sub-real working environment!

Parked at the opposite end of the runway in a small area for turning and parking was our aircraft we could see the extent of the damage. A large tear hole on the right hand side in the centre of the fuselage adjacent to the wing leading edge, two windows with frames blown out and two internal frames with sections missing. That day was mainly dedicated to a general look around and discussions in preparation for the following day.

External view of the damaged aircraft

External view of the damaged aircraft

Friday 22nd July

The drive to the aircraft parking area from the compound was about 5 to 10 minutes, with many high speed bumps, and a tarmac road in desperate need for repairs. We assessed internal and external damage, and formulated a work plan in conjunction with the repair drawings supplied by the aircraft manufacturer. Spares and tooling were sorted out and we got the mobile generator and compressor running. At 30degrees heat, it was unbearable after midday and endless supplies of water were available to us as dehydration could happen quickly and quietly.

Close-up of the damaged plane

Close-up of the damaged plane

Arrangements for our accommodation and security were of the highest standards, considering the difficult circumstances. Like me, the rest of team started to look forward to meal times with anticipation as the food prepared on site was excellent together with the "nothing is too much trouble" attitude from the people taking care of us. Those evenings and the excellent food were a perfect treat to days of hard and challenging work. There was a sense of normality within our facility which contrasted remarkably with the outside world.

Our accommodation consisted of converted shipping containers

Our accommodation consisted of converted shipping containers

Sunday 24th July

We arrived at the security gate to enter the area where the aircraft was parked. However, we found the gate locked and no airport guard. Many of the guards within the airport compound were ex Somali military who were getting on in years and who interestingly, wore various insignia and stars which made them look more like generals who didn't quite make it to the decoration ceremony. Our personal security guards were all very good people who left their native Uganda and had served in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and had left their countries mainly for economic reasons. Majority of them didn't see their families for most of the year.

Our guard made a phone call and informed us that the security guard would return in about twenty minutes, so we decided to go for a drive around in the meantime. Our compound was within the denominated UN "green zone" controlled area, so it was reasonably safe for us. However, we needed to have security personnel with us at all times. The area encompasses ours and other security organisations, aircraft fuel companies, the airport and most of the embassies. The embassies were fortresses with barb wire, bomb proof structures and towers with armed guards.

The "green zone" was a large area of land which ran from the city encompassing the airport and down to the sea. It had understandably many security controlled facilities including families of local militia, UN soldiers, a local market and various other businesses related to the area. We drove around to the coast on a very bumpy and dusty road with the land to one side and the sea on the other side. There was no beach and the shore line was made up of very sharp coral type rock which would cut bare feet to bits. The road we travelled on was used by foreign joggers based within the "green zone", who would otherwise couldn't venture into the city of Mogadishu.

Security in Green Zone

Security in Green Zone

After our sightseeing tour, we returned to the aircraft to carry on with the repair and maintenance work which was starting to show good progress.

Tuesday 26th July

We started working at about 8.30am this morning. The temperature felt more comfortable than the days before and the merciful breeze from the Indian Ocean cooled us all down under the magnificent blue sky. It was our fifth day in Mogadishu and we were starting to feel a sense that all arrangements to carry out the critical repairs on the Airbus A321 were falling into place. The mood was good and positive and even from inside the aircraft I could every now and then smell the sea.

The massive explosion shook the aircraft. I ran and looked out of the main passenger door back behind the left hand wing tip as I knew that two of the team were outside getting ready to change a main wheel, and was concerned for their safety. It was a relief to see that the explosion had not been in our close proximity but close enough for the shockwave to shake the aircraft. Then I saw a large menacing cloud starting to rise up in the distance near the terminal building and about one kilometre away from our location on the tarmac.

First car bomb

First car bomb

It would be very difficult to describe what my thoughts or feelings were as these events developed. It must have been the adrenaline probably still keen to run fast following the incident at Istanbul airport, but certainly we did promptly follow the instructions from our Ugandan security guard. Within seconds we were rushed out of the aircraft and into the shipping container parked near the nose of the aircraft and were asked to wait there. We were told by the security guard that this had been a terrorist attack and we would need to hide there and wait as often the first blast is followed by a second bombing or gunfire. There was nothing we could do other than waiting. Shortly after, we were informed via radio that a suicide bomber had detonated a bomb inside a car and later on we learnt that the man was an ex Somali MP who had joined Al Shabaab.

Remains of car used in airport bombing

Remains of car used in airport bombing

After approximately 15 minutes we were instructed to return to the bomb proof bunker within the compound and stay there until it was thought to be safe. It was then decided that for our safety we should remain for the rest of the day within the security facility as it was not considered safe for us to return to the aircraft due to its exposed location and the possibility of gunfire.

Airport entrance after the bombing

Airport entrance after the bombing

Now the reality of being in a country like Somalia started to hit home with us and there was no doubt that the strict rules and high level of security were an absolute necessity. Speaking to my colleagues within the team I was quite impressed and encouraged that despite the honesty of their expressed concerns, no one would suggest the possibility of giving up on the contract and returning to the UK.

The Somali National News Agency (SONNA) reported that at least 13 people had been killed and 19 wounded in the attack that day, and that security forces and private security guards were among the dead.

The force of the explosion was such that an old HS748 turbo prop cargo aircraft had been damaged when part of the car used for the bomb flew over the terminal building, damaging one engine cowling, then bouncing over the fuselage to the other side and damaging the other engine cowling, and then landing on the grass behind the aircraft.

Wednesday 27th July

This was a quieter day after the events of the previous 24 hours. The repair was progressing well and I was in touch with Airbus to try and overcome a number of issues. We sat at about 7pm to have our meal and inevitably our conversation was dominated by the incident of the day before and our reflections about the general state of affairs in this part of the world. Apart from work, life in the compound was limited to eating, resting in living quarters or going to the bar on site which sold two kinds of beer and had a pool table. Living under these limited conditions would be hard on any one and credit needs to be given to the security company and their personnel who understood the importance of providing the best possible living conditions to facilitate our work. Even the chocolate birthday cake that suddenly appeared one evening was a special touch and one of the best cakes I have had for a long time.

Bird on plane wing

Our daily visitor - local bird on plane wing

Sunday 31st July

Everyone in the team worked very positively and determined to have the aircraft ready to fly and today it felt that we were getting really close to achieving that goal. Throughout this contract, our ability to think out of the box and produce creative solutions to the various technical problems was tested. Not having the correct equipment and having to improvise using the resources available, plus the tension caused by our environment and working conditions was something that probably none of us thought or reflected too much about while being in the middle of that situation. We had available a scaffolding tower to carry out the repair and the only other piece of equipment was a drivable baggage belt to get into the aircraft and to use for maintenance.

We noticed that security had been heightened due to a possible attack by Al Shabaab and the presence of more soldiers, militia and police became evident. At about 9:30am, we were shaken by another explosion which was closer to us this time and towards the rear of our compound. Once again we were returned to the compound where Simon and another engineer from our team were staying to sort out some spares and they related with concern how a bullet had passed close to them at the front of the compound. It was lucky that no one was injured.

External temporary plane repair

External view of temporary aircraft repair

Later on we were informed that this latest incident had been an attack on the Mogadishu CID headquarters, involving a car bomb which rammed into the gates at high speed causing a huge blast followed by shooting. Gun men had entered the building killing at least ten people and wounding others. Some of the dead included a soldier, five civilians and four militants, with about 15 others being injured.

Somalia is a country torn apart by a savage civil conflict which has led to the collapse of the state and their economy. Extreme Islamist groups such as Al Shabaab have therefore found a perfect environment amidst the country's lawlessness, contributing to more than two millions of people it's having to leave their homes and become displaced. It is therefore extraordinary to find that some travel companies such as Untamed Borders will give you a 48 hour tour of Mogadishu for about £900 (airfare not included). This is considered one of the most dangerous travel tours in the world with the potential of a bombing or terrorist attack at any time. Not the kind holiday I will be making a booking for.

Monday 1st August

The next five days were uneventful with the main news being that the repair was completed. We then discussed and agreed on the flying path that would enable the aircraft to fly out of Mogadishu and it was agreed that I should fly with the aircraft to Amman in Jordan. The route would be Mogadishu to Djibouti to Jeddah to Sharm el Sheikh then to Amman. As the repair carried out was temporary, the aircraft would only fly at 10000ft. Additionally as the retraction and extension of the gears was untested, the aircraft would need to fly with the landing gear down. Furthermore, flying with the gear down would cause a massive drag, giving a fuel burn of about 6000kg an hour. With the aircraft fuel capacity being of 18000kg the maximum flying time between refuelling was about two and a half hours. This explains the number of refuelling stops we would have had to make on our journey to Amman.

Internal plane repair

Internal view of plane repair

7th and 8th of August

As I was expected to travel in uniform, an urgent trip to the local market in the UN controlled compound had to be arranged to find the necessary gear. It was quite a unique experience finding ourselves in a local market in Somalia trying to put together some respectful aviation attire, surrounded by security personnel armed with AK47's on their shoulders. We felt different and odd amongst the locals, apart from our faithful Ugandan guard who was with us at all times and kept us in tune with the local culture and etiquette. We tried all the stalls and not-surprisingly nobody had what I required, black shoes, black trousers with a belt and a white shirt. About to give up, we asked a woman whether she could source these items and she said that she would bring them in the following day.

We returned to the market the following day at about midday and as promised she had the entire items for us, including the shoes. Whether or not they would fit well considering my bigger left foot was a discomfort I was prepared to endure given the circumstances. Finally, we paid a visit to the local tailor in the market to have the black trousers shortened and the white shirt transformed into a short sleeved shirt. The local tailor was a man with an ancient foot-operated sewing machine and who had everything done on record time of 15 minutes for $8.

With the dress code formalities taken care of, I was ready for the departure. Over the last couple of days a number of checks were carried out and the aircraft refuelled and repositioned for departure.

Tuesday 9th August – Departure Day

I was on board of the aircraft for final preparations at about 08.00am and the crew arrived from Djibouti at about 09:45am. I guess it was of great re-assurance to know that the man responsible for the repair of the aircraft would be flying with them! Then a seven hour wait started with requests for the relevant departure permissions complicated further by the various authorities, politics and bureaucrats involved. After countless bottles of water we took off and started our long slow flight to Amman.

The taking off generated quite a lot of interest amongst the people within our compound who gathered to watch the departure. However, bureaucracy defeated their curiosity and forced them to give in after hours of waiting. Days later, once I have returned home, I was made aware that one of my team colleagues had filmed the take-off on his mobile phone.

Sitting at home while I watch my dogs chase each other in the garden, I looked at the image of the aircraft taking off, and slowly climbing then disappearing in the distance and it was almost an emotional moment, the right kind of end for an exceptional month at work.

Further Information:
+44 (0)7966288724
Further Information:
+44 (0)7966288724

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