Yak Hunting in Liberia

Yak40atROB4

PHOTOS AND STORY BY PATRICK SMITH

 

POSSIBLY THIS IS ONE OF THOSE THINGS only an aerophile can understand, but there’s something so fascinating, even enchanting, about old abandoned airplanes. 
 
Entire books have been written about them — field guides, you could say — chronicling the whereabouts of this or that crashed, abandoned, or otherwise derelict airliner. You find them crashed in forests, mothballed in the desert, and tucked away in weedy corners of third-world airports: antique propliners like Constellations and DC-6s; sun-bleached 707s and DC-8s; retired Soviet Tupolevs. The jetliner boneyards in California and Arizona receive hundreds of requests annually from airliner geeks eager to explore their inventories.

For some of us, poring over some discarded old plane is even more exciting than exploring a still-flying one. 

We see these planes as monuments, perhaps? To the men and women who flew them, to the passengers who rode aboard them — and most extraordinary of all, to the the places these planes have been. The difference between the peculiar grandeur of an old abandoned building, for instance, and that of an old abandoned airplane, is that the building existed only in a fixed location.  Airplanes, they’ve been everywhere.

I remember, during my visit to the boneyard at Mojave a few years back, looking up at a retired Boeing 747, soon destined for the scrapper.  The very same jumbo jet, I later learned, once made London and Honolulu runs for PeopleExpress.  Before that, it wore the name “City of Adelaide” for Qantas. I thought of all the far-flung places this elegant machine must have visited in its nearly three decades of flying, from Newark to New Delhi, Bangkok to Buenos Aires.  With the same sort of melancholy one feels when remembering an elderly relative in younger, happier times, I imagined this same 747, years ago, whirling in over Hong Kong harbor, ascending over Cape Town at dusk. 

Of course, the real stories don’t belong to the planes themselves, but to the people they carried – from sheiks and dignitaries, to millions upon millions of vacationers and tourists.  Looking up at the forlorn hulk of that 747, I realized that with every takeoff the plane made, up 450 people were borne aloft with it.  Over a 30 year-career, that’s about five million stories. Its rows of empty chairs were like the rings of an ancient tree.

This past Christmas I had the chance to visit an abandoned Yak-40 at Roberts Field — the airport near Monrovia, Liberia, in West Africa.

The Yakovlev Yak-40 was a tiny three-engined jet made in the Soviet Union.  It carried about 30 people.  Almost a thousand Yak-40s were built between 1966 and 1978. This was a true “regional jet” some three decades before the term ever existed.  A few are still in service. 

I’d noticed the derelict Yak on earlier visits to Roberts, but never had the opportunity to wander over and explore. This time, in the company of an airport worker and his van, I was able to make the trip.

The plane wears a Russian registration and the markings of something called Weasua Air Transport, a tiny Liberian carrier that, according to Google and the database at Airliner.net, was shut down by regulators in 2006. Apparently Weasua never had more than two or three aircraft at a time — one of which crashed — and was once a member the European Union’s safety blacklist. The blue markings borrow from the old Aeroflot livery, and I imagine the jet once flew for Aeroflot, as most Yak-40s did.  

Exactly how long it’s been sitting here, and other details of its past, are unknown. It’s doubtful this old jet did much “whirling in over Hong Kong harbor.” Trundling through an ice-fog over Smolensk is more like it. Nonetheless, these mysteries make the plane that much more interesting.

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I love the Soviet-style oval doors.

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It was best to tread carefully on the walk from the overwing entry door to the cockpit. The cabin floor is mostly torn up, meaning one slip and you’re up to your knees in metal fuselage ribbing, assorted machinery, and water. Up front, the pilots’ overhead escape hatch is missing, permanently exposing the interior to Liberia’s heat and drenching rains. Thus the cabin has become a sort of tropical terrarium, with about eight inches of stagnant green water between the floorboards and the bottom of the fuselage. I can’t imagine how many mosquitos — and who knows what all else — breed in here.

Yak40atROB7

The NO SMOKING sign features a pipe. Note also the Cyrillic seat designator.

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The cockpit is a baffling array of early-generation engine gauges and instruments. I couldn’t tell you what most of these switches and dials might be for. The placards and labels are in Russian.

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In the weeds nearby are hundreds of barrels of heavy black liquid that appears to be tar — much of which has leaked into ankle-deep slicks.

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I was able to unearth this shot of the very same plane — note the registration, RA-87260 — in happier times, seen in Sierra Leone in 2004. (Photo courtesy of Ali Hammoud.)

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Roberts Airport was built by the United States government during World War Two. Later the field was managed by Pan Am, which operated something of a mini-hub at ROB, with flights from New York continuing on to Accra, Lagos, Johannesburg and Nairobi, among other places. Pan Am crews would layover at a hotel directly across the street from the terminal. Pan Am left Africa in 1991, and both the hotel and the terminal were destroyed during Liberia’s brutal civil war, which ended only recently. Until a replacement is funded and built, this ramshackle arrival and departures hall serves as a terminal.

ROBterminal

Lastly here’s a picture of one of the United Nations posts at the airport. At the moment most of the U.N. soldiers at ROB are from Nigeria. The airport is home to several Ukrainian-crewed U.N. helicopters, and a Russian-crewed 737 shuttles regularly between ROB and Accra, Ghana, carrying soldiers, staff and Liberian citizens returning home.

ROBU.N.

 

RELATED STORY: LETTER FROM MOJAVE. THE DEEPER MEANINGS OF AN AIRPORT GRAVEYARD.

FOR ADDITIONAL PHOTOS FROM LIBERIA, PLEASE VISIT THE AUTHOR’S FLICKR ARCHIVES.

 

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21 Responses to “Yak Hunting in Liberia”
  1. Cam Lind says:

    Really interesting post. Thanks I love looking up the rego numbers of planes I fly on. Here in Asia they are often 2nd or 3rd hand and it really is fascinating to image the plane I’m on from SIN to CGK was doing runs across Europe or the U.S.

  2. chris dinvb says:

    Old airliners and old pilots. Used to watch a man, now deceased, take his Cessna 140 out to tool around. He’d been with Pan American in the Halaby days and had been one of the first captains to get a 747. Guys at the nearby flight school would come to him to get tailwheel endorsement and get a good dose of flight principles as well. The 140 is in new paint and still not far from here. And it, too, probably has tales it could tell.

  3. Randall says:

    I will never forget my one flight ten years ago on a Yak-40 from Kyiv to Uzhgorod. It is about the size of a KingAir, and has gotta be the slowest pure jet in the world. It took two hours, so we could not have cruised much more than 250 KTAS (Are we there yet?). A SAAB 209 could outrun it. Like a lot of post-Soviet infrastructure, it was substantial and well maintained, but felt like it was from another era.

    Those who complain about domestic air service in the US should try domestic flights in Eastern Europe…

  4. Albert says:

    Very interesting story Patrick. Like you, I enjoy the poetry of these flying machines laid at rest, which trigger the imagination. I actually flew in a Yak 40, in Syria in 2010, before the civil war, on a Syrian Arab Airlines domestic flight between Damascus and Lattakia. It was a short flight, which was quite as well because comfort is pointedly absent in these planes, a mark of the Soviet era. Seats are hardly better than padded kitchen chairs, it may have been designed for 30 passengers but feels cramped with 12, and with the three jet engines it is quite noisy. Why they would need three engines on such a small plane anyway, I don’t know. Thinking back about it, it was a fun experience, but thankfully an isolated one.

  5. Tom Henderson says:

    Excellent story, very well written, wonderful photos. Shows planning and effort, like all your columns.

  6. […] Join me on a photo essay from Roberts Field, Liberia, where we visit a decomposing Yak-40…. http://www.askthepilot.com/yak-hunting-in-liberia/ "…We see these planes as monuments, perhaps? To the men and women who flew them, to the […]

  7. Lee says:

    I’m not an airline maintenance director and never played one on TV, but at what point does an airline executive point to a perfectly operable and maintained aircraft and say, “Park it in the weeds and let it rot”? This is never done with antique cars, and as anyone who watches Hollywood movies can tell you, it’s never done with antique trucks, buses, streetcars, etc. You can go to airshows and see aircraft from every era lovingly restored and maintained. So why park one and leave it? Because it needs an engine overhaul? Why not overhaul the engine?

    • freqflyer says:

      Lee, if an airplane and/or its engines are due for a major overhaul there comes a time when that task costs more than the airplane is worth. Actual value or depreciated value – whatever

      The airline will try to sell it, but if no one wants it then it will be ferried to a boneyard and sold for its scrap value. The airframe will be stripped for usable res and then cut up for scrap.

      Some airlines will just scrap the airplane at their own facility. It ain’t pretty but so it goes.

      • freqflyer says:

        oops – “spares” not “res”

      • UncleStu says:

        “Actual value or depreciated value” is an important number if you want to sell something or do your taxes. It is the way accountants see things. However, if you don’t want to sell something, and just need whatever function the item performs, it is not too important.

        What I do is simple. I compare the price of repairs to the price of replacement.

        For example: if a repair costs $500 and the monthly cost of a replacement is $500, all you need is one month of use to break even. Every future month is $500 extra in your pocket. The monthly cost of the replacement goes on and on.

        The same kind of thinking should be applied to “gas mileage”. To buy a new car ONLY because it gets better MPGs than your old one is throwing money away.

        There will be more repairs needed on old equipment, and new gear has new features, but you can get an awful lot of use, for an awful lot less money, by fixing – until you no longer have a reasonable option. As Scott says below, “There comes a time when older, less-efficient aircraft cannot make money.”

        Maybe that’s one of the reasons that the Douglas DC-3, the DeHaviland Beaver, the Norseman, and other old birds, are still flying and producing profits.

  8. John says:

    Patrick, just loved this story because I’m more fascinated by old derelict planes than brand spanking new ones. My favorite picture of my very young son is one taken at Burbank Airport years ago in a very old, deserted DC3. He’s in the pilot seat and looks like an old pro!

    Wish I could send it to you but there’s no place here to attach photos that I can find. If you’d like to see this picture of old and new, give me an email and I’ll forward it on to you! Thanks,

    John

  9. […] was a travel day, I figured an article about airplanes was appropriate… and so, here’s an article about Yak Hunting. Specifically, an article about hunting down the remains of a Yakovlev Yak-40 in Liberia and […]

  10. Ramapriya says:

    Great story! Reminded me of my days in ’05 in the boonies of Sudan. I’d seen a few disused YAK 42s in Khartoum Airport and upon inquiries was astonished by the measly selling price quoted, of USD 50k. I’m sure they had no entrails or other useful parts. Those were the days when I made inquiries about aviation and particular models on a public group and got reported to the FBI by a retired USAF pilot. I thought that paranoid and OTT but such is life for a colored cove with a strange name!

  11. Scott Hawthorn says:

    Fantastic article! @ Lee: it’s not about bad engines (they can be rebuilt or replaced ad infinitum), it’s about “number of cycles” (takeoffs/landings). After a certain number of times of being pressurized/depressurized, metal fatigue sets in, and the aircraft is no longer safe. Also, outdated economics play a part. There comes a time when older, less-efficient aircraft cannot make money.

  12. JS says:

    Just a heads up: the Flickr link at the end of the post is misdirected. (I found the right page by searching flickr, but I wasn’t sure if I should provide the URL here—basically, tho, it should be forward slash-’photos’-forward slash-’globetrodden’-forward slash-’sets’.)

    Oh, and: awesome photos!

  13. Vinny Noggin says:

    Patrick,

    Were you able to recover the cockpit voice recorder and flight recorder from the Yak? If so, what did they reveal?

    Generally, what happens to them when planes are boneyarded in the US? Are they boneyarded separately? Is the data and voice recordings archived? Can I buy one on ebay?

  14. sparkchaser says:

    Weasua Air Transport has been implicated in arms transport and may have had ties to international arms dealer Viktor Bout.

    Very interesting article.

  15. PETER KUCHNICKI says:

    Love the article and finding old planes. My two faves are:
    –finding a B25 on a Michigan airfield. Bottom hatch was open so we high-schoolers boosted ourselves up, played a bit and grabbed a manual before escaping to our car.

    –Much later, on way to honeymoon on St Barts, the plane stops at St Martins, before catching a de Havilland Dash 7 to our destination.

    Waiting for that flight, I found a de Havilland Dragon Rapide rotting in the weeds near the terminal.

    Would have been cool to track down its papers… but I had other things on me mind at the time.

    Best!

  16. Jennifer says:

    Patrick, have you seen the increasingly less decrepit 747 RA001 in Seattle? It’s the first 747. It sat neglected for a long time, but it’s now being restored.

  17. […] stories: YAK HUNTING IN LIBERIA DEEPER MEANINGS OF AN AIRPORT […]

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