Sunday, 14 July 2013



 I do get myself into a few pickles!

Some years ago….well five or so but seems so much longer, seeing how in this time I have since had contracts in the UK, Sweden, Italy, Iraq and Azerbaijan…..I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to fly the fabulous DC10-30 freighter for a recently defunct airline called Avient. However, my time with this company was cut short due to various reasons, which are tales for another time….so don’t ask!

Briefly, a little insight into this company, which I am sure most people have never heard of. Avient was founded by a larger than life character who was an ex-British army Captain in the Royal Engineers, operating from a barn in a Wiltshire village in England with aircraft based in France. Its head office was registered in Harare, Zimbabwe as were the two DC10 aircraft……are you still following this? France yes, England yes, but I hoped that my future schedules would not be taking me to the country of one of the world’s greatest despots, especially after this well publicized little incident……

Mugabe spokesman and body-guard, George Charamba, and the then deputy Information Minister, Bright Matonga, boasted that despite the efforts of the South African workers, the three million rounds of assault rifle ammunition, 3 000 mortar rounds and 1500 rocket-propelled grenades ordered from the Chinese government had arrived in Harare. A Mozambican online publication reported that the arms were finally flown to Harare in an Ilyushin Il-76 belonging to Avient Aviation, a freight charter airline based in Zimbabwe but registered in the UK.” Although this has yet to be proven.
To understand further a little of the history of the company then I suggest reading the following article from the British newspaper, The Observer……..I did read it, but this was after I had finished my DC10 base training and only caused myself to consider that I was in for a bigger adventure than I had at first contemplated! So read on………

To people in the peaceful Wiltshire village of Brigmerston, their new neighbour seems like a perfect English gentleman: a tall, wealthy, bespectacled former Army officer.

But an Observer investigation has uncovered evidence that behind the doors of a luxury house on the edge of the village, Andrew Smith runs a business empire which has made a fortune from a bloody African civil war that has claimed millions of lives.

Smith, 49, a former captain of the Royal Engineers, who runs his firm Avient from his home, faces claims that one of his companies was involved in mercenary-style operations deep in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He also faces allegations that he has been trading with a notorious arms dealer, Ukrainian-born Leonid Minin.

A United Nations report has accused Smith of organizing bombing raids in the DRC on behalf of President Joseph Kabila to suppress rebel forces. It is alleged that three years ago Avient received $30,000 a month for recruiting crew from Ukraine to fly in Russian-made Antonovs behind enemy lines in 1999 and 2000.

One Avient contract signed by Kabila stated: 'The crew will be advised that they will be operating along and behind the enemy lines in support of ground troops and against invading forces. It is specifically agreed that the crew...will undertake airdropping missions.'

The affair has clear overtones of dogs-of-war style mercenary activity. Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb has asked the British authorities to investigate the claims to see if there are grounds for a criminal prosecution. 'I want to know how a British citizen with a company operating from Wiltshire can be involved in such military activities without breaking any law,' he said.

Smith, who is contesting the UN claims, ran his African business through his Avient Company registered in Zimbabwe. In this way Smith would have been able to avoid breaching the European Union arms embargo against the DRC put in place in 1993.

Any investigation is likely to study closely UN claims that Smith has a relationship with Minin, a senior member of a Russian organized crime syndicate, who is under investigation in five countries for crimes from gun running to art theft. Two years ago Minin was arrested in an Italian police raid on a hotel in northern Italy where he was found with 58 grams of cocaine, four prostitutes and $500,000 worth of African diamonds. Police also discovered a green briefcase stuffed with 1,500 pages of documents detailing numerous arms deals, including illegal sales to Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The Observer has obtained bank records found in Minin's briefcase which detail payments made by one of Minin's associate companies. These documents reveal that on 22 June 1999 Avient received a $100,500 payment from Engineering & Technical, a British Virgin Islands firm run by Minin's business associate Valery Cherny.

The UN also accuses Smith of brokering the sale of six attack helicopters to the DRC government in April this year. Smith strongly denies this allegation. However, he did admit in an interview with The Observer to shipping military cargo to the Congolese government on behalf of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe three years ago. Smith said: 'We have worked with the governments of Zimbabwe and the DRC who are official organized governments of countries. We certainly don't work for any rebel groups or any terrorists.'

Smith played down his role in the alleged bombing raids, saying the Congo 'military hierarchy' controlled the air crews and directed operations. He denied his company was a private military company involved in any bombing raids, stressing that it was principally a cargo-carrying business dealing mainly with commodities like food and computers. But Smith has admitted to 'ferrying troops and people from place to place' and leasing Russian-made transport aircraft to the Zimbabwean government for use in Congo.

He said: 'I am not denying that we carried military equipment for the end-user governments, which is a perfectly legal operation to do. We are talking about three years ago. I did check everything with the British High Commissioner at the time. We have never been involved in the sale of goods at all, nor have we carried any military hardware out of the EC, so we have not broken any UN or EU embargoes.' Smith also denied any relationship with Minin. He said: 'I have never met the guy, spoken to him or communicated with him.'

Smith's claims that he received the approval of the British High Commission could be embarrassing for the Government as there has been an arms embargo against the DRC since 1993. Lamb is to raise the matter in the House of Commons. 'If it's true that the High Commission OK'd such deals, I want to know why,' said Lamb.

The disclosures that a former British soldier is helping military operations in central Africa will embarrass the Government.

In the 1998 'arms for Africa' affair it emerged that Sandline International, run by former British colonel Tim Spicer, had supplied weapons to Sierra Leone despite a UN arms embargo. Spicer avoided prosecution after it was revealed the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone had approved Sandline's plans.

Smith's involvement in military operations in Congo is also likely to be a setback for government plans to license mercenary companies. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw claims such firms could be used in UN peace-keeping operations and other government-sponsored activities in trouble spots.”

I know most airlines have their own history….for example two British airlines that I flew with, firstly Dan Air Services Ltd started out as part of a ship broking firm with a solitary DC3 aircraft, and Thomsonfly in the early 1960’s with Lockheed Constellations.  Though that was ‘good’ history, Avient’s as you have read belonged in a totally different category!

For the previous two years prior to joining Avient I had been flying for said Thomsonfly as a Boeing 737 captain carrying holidaymakers around Europe. I felt my new position would definitely be different and I was looking forward to the challenge…but not the type rating course.

The DC10 being an almost ‘vintage’ aircraft, I was sure would be technically complicated and boy I was not to be disappointed! No computer based training aids to assist me, instead old fashioned photographic slides and a projector system which overheated constantly, and smoked more than the flight engineer who was under training with me did. I started to think that we would be sent off to the Science Museum in London to finish trying to learn all of this aircraft’s idiosyncrasies’.

The ex- British Caledonian Airlines ‘full flight’ simulator which we were to hone our flying and operational skills on had the handling characteristics of a washing machine on the spin cycle…..but brilliant fun. To add realism to the age of all this, one of my simulator instructors, an absolute gentleman, flew Avro Lancaster bombers at the end of the Second World War, whilst another had the record for the most carrier launches flying the Mirage in the French Navy and then there was the Chief Pilot another of life’s true gentlemen…..even if he had once been a British policeman! I was most definitely in good hands.

For the record the only reason I left ‘Tommyfly’ was due to their merger with First Choice, though it was widely known in the industry at the time that this airline was actually their second choice! With my position on the rigid Thomsonfly seniority list………virtually at the bottom and just above the office cleaners and the automated phone operators; meant that after the merger I was either going to be made redundant or demoted, neither was an option I was looking forward to adding to my CV, so I decided to resign!

So Andrew Smith’s kind offer to join him at Avient was eagerly accepted, even though I was sad to leave Tommyfly as it was a fabulous job, flying with very competent and delightful colleagues; both my cockpit and cabin-crew colleagues. I would add that the B737 was looked at as being an inferior aircraft by some of the Thomsonfly Gods that flew the mighty Boeing 757/767s which was a daft attitude.

As an example, I remember one day I was on a turn-around at the Cypriot airport of Paphos, parked next to my, well mine for the day I couldn’t afford a whole one, Boeing 737-800 was a company Boeing767. So whilst we re-fuelled, I thought I would go and say ‘Hi’ to my company colleagues. After being escorted into the B767 cockpit by a member of their cabin-crew, I introduced myself……the co-pilot ignored me and the Captain turned around and said and I quote…

“Where’s your aircraft, I can’t see it?” I replied…….”On your left-hand side?” My aircraft was parked right next to them and clearly visible. “Oh, I think I see a light twin hiding behind that fuel bowser.” And then continued with his pre-flight preparations, I realised that my audience was already over and bid my farewell…..but just before I left I asked “What is your maximum take-off weight?” The co-pilot looked up for the first time and proudly stated “159 tonnes.” I paused and replied as I was exiting…..”My last aircraft type which I skippered, we used to load more than that in fuel!” To which they both looked up, I smiled and left!

I digress, as I so often do; being employed by Avient I very quickly learnt that you had to stretch the meaning of the word ‘flexible’ to its maximum extent but in turn this enhanced the fun of the operation……..frequently!

There was no timetable or schedule as such to follow, often your next flight’s destination would be changed just hours before departure as we would have to chase the freight…..well making money was obviously the name of the game, Andrew’s game, though on this rotation I can’t help but feel that in Lagos I lost 65 tonnes of cash…….!


Right then, my apologies, back to my last rotation, though I didn’t know it was to be so at the time, started from Vatry an ex-military airfield about seventy miles due east of Paris near the town of Chalons.

Our crew comprised two pilots a flight engineer and a loadmaster, great guys and we were to embark on the first leg of our adventure which would see us flying from Vatry to Tripoli Libya to uplift cheap fuel. This would be my first visit to Libya and I would not return for another three years when on an Iraqi evacuation flight during the civil war which culminated in Gadhafi’s overthrow and death, originating from Baghdad in a Boeing 747-400 for the Government of Iraq…….happy days!

Once on-board, I checked the maintenance log and noted that it was almost totally clear of defects…….however, it quickly became apparent that it was a legal requirement to complete the deferred defect section using invisible ink!

I was advised by the flight engineer that there were actually a ‘few unpublished’ defects, which were………