This is section TMM006 of THE MALONGO MEMOIRS Series.
During the first year I was working in Angola and flying back and forth between West Africa-Europe-U.S. every month, our crew took A LOT of long flights, as well as a bunch of short hops. One of the flights we took on a normal basis was to and from Luanda, Angola and Paris, France, with frequent stops to Brazzaville, next door in the Congo. Some of our routes and stopovers varied, depending on the war situation. But for the most part, at least in this period, our common stop was Brazzaville, mainly just to pick up additional passengers when we were Paris bound, and to drop them off, when we were Luanda bound. Our regular plane that year was a UTA French Airlines DC-10 (UTA was later acquired by Air France).
In the Fall of 1989, we boarded this routine flight to head home, via CDG, Paris from Luanda. As rotating CABGOC crew, we got very familiar with our aircraft equipment and often sat at our desired seat locations, based on the seat assignments we usually chose weeks before. We were able to do this since we booked our flights ourselves, through the ABC airline reservation systems which consisted of several thick books, much like Yellow Pages, but instead of names, addresses, and phone numbers, the books contained Airlines, flight numbers, and flight routes. I gathered that the airlines and CABGOC decided that since we were constantly flying in and out, and since there were so many possible airlines, flights and routes, in order to save overhead it would be both more practical and feasible to show us how it's done, what the rules and restrictions were, and what we were responsible for.
UTA French Airline DC-10 - Shown here at CDG.
Since Chevron was paying premium bucks for unrestricted airfare, in order to allow for sudden changes due to scheduling or emergencies, we should be entitled to some privileges of controlling who we fly with, where and how - to some extent, anyway. Also, it saved the CABGOC travel personnel a lot of work because all they needed to do was input the final selections into the system, and adjust for any changes. This also encouraged everyone to book early and make all inbound/outbound travel arrangements in a timely manner. For the most part, this self-help system of travel booking worked pretty well.
For this reason, we were accustomed to sitting where we were accustomed to sitting - everyone had their favorite sections, and seats. We all flew business class, but to a seasoned crew like ours, we took it for granted and were often both picky and finicky about where we sat. When the first batch of us came through the aisles and onto our cabin sections, we had just started to load up our bags in the overhead compartments, take our seats and adjust our seat belts, when a few of us simultaneously noticed that some things were different in our aircraft cabin configuration - everyone looked around as if bewildered. First we noticed the seat fabric was different, the wall decor was a little off, and a few other subtle anomalies. We inquired with one of the flight attendants if our plane had gotten an interior change or upgrade, and whether this was even the same plane. Not that a decor change mattered to us, but I guess some of us were concerned that the seat cusion felt different (remember, I said we were finicky). We quickly learned that it was in fact, not our original plane, and then somebody gave us a refresh about a terrorist incident that had occurred to one of UTA's West African flights just a couple weeks earlier.
Fate Has a Funny Way
It turns out that one day earlier in the month, which happened to be one of the few days a week none of our Chevron or contract employees were on board, our same plane was making a scheduled flight between Brazzaville (in the Congo) and Paris. Brazzaville was just a short distance from our normal takeoff point, and we often diverted or made connections there, depending on the current threat level to the airports due to the war. We also often traversed via Libreville, the capital of Gabon, just West of the Congo and North of Angola.
On that day, our plane was blown up by terrorists over Northern Africa. All 156 passengers and 14 crew members were killed, including 7 U.S. citizens (obviously, I was not flying that week, because I'm writing about this). Below are excepts of the account as reported by the BBC on August 19, 2003, years after the terrible incident occurred:
UTA 772: The forgotten flight
by Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online World Affairs correspondent
The tragedy of UTA Flight 772, blown up over the Sahara desert in 1989, has often been forgotten amid the attention given to the fate of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie the previous year.
The story of UTA 772
The 53-page document lodged with the federal district court in Washington DC tells the story of UTA 772.
It has remarkable parallels with that of Pan Am 103.
On 19 September 1989, the UTA plane was bound for Paris from Congo Brazzaville in Central Africa.
It exploded over the Sahara desert in southern Niger killing all 170 people on board.
An examination of 15 tons of wreckage sent to France revealed traces of an explosive called pentrite in the forward hold.
Then a dark grey Samsonite suitcase was found covered with a layer of pentrite.
This was determined to be the source of the explosion. It had been loaded at Brazzaville.
Also found was a small piece of a green coloured circuit board which turned out to be a timing device.
It was traced back to Libya though a marketing company which, according to the document, had been asked to provide 100 of them for one of the Libyan defendants named in the lawsuit.
A similar link to Libya was made in the Lockerbie case.
Then, the document says, investigators "obtained confessions from one of the terrorists who took part in the attack."
He was said to be a Congolese opposition figure, who helped another of the Libyan defendants to recruit a fellow dissident to get the suitcase on the plane.
The Libyan motive was said to be revenge on the French government for supporting Chad in a border dispute with Libya.
The wreckage of what was our normally assigned "equipment" was spread all over the Sahara Desert, mostly in Niger. I can only feel for the passengers that perished on that fateful flight, and their families - but thanked God I wasn't on it that day.
(See: UTA Flight 772)
What did this mean to me and my future long distance flights? - By 1989, I had over 3 years worth more of flying yet to do. Well, first of all, it means I was very fortunate and I got real good at counting my blessings from that day on. Second, statistically we all know the chance of being killed in a plane crash whether accidental or terrorist caused, is very, very slim - you have a better chance of winning the Lotto, the last time I checked. So this meant that since the odds of this happening to the plane I was riding was very low to begin with...the chance of it happening again was even lower! For the next few years, I continued to fly, country-to-country, continent-to-continent - and while I can't say each flight was without incident, each one landed safely and intact. :)
What remains of the rear engine.