On February 28, 2002, with most of the passenger seats removed and the 10 fuel tanks loaded, 844AA, still in the livery of American Airlines, with a blue stripe down the side and an AA logo fading on its tail, took off for Africa.
Because Irwin’s partners had not arranged a landing permit, it took two weeks for the crew to make their way to Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport, where they arrived on March 14. Irwin, who had not worked in Angola before, realized immediately that the deal was in trouble. The company hiring his partners for deliveries, Kuwachi Dundo, was supposed to pay $220,000 when the airplane and crew landed, but instead the company’s representative made excuses. (Irwin lost almost $140,000 in the first deal and had burned through the rest of the $450,000 by March.)
The crew endured accommodations in a dismal apartment without electricity or drinkable water, near an open sewer. (Gabriel and Irwin didn’t stay with the crew; they had rented an apartment in the back of a house owned by an Angolan air force general.) The only one of the men not troubled by the circumstances they found in Angola was Mike Gabriel. Gabriel, a dealer in aircraft parts and engines, had spent a considerable amount of time in West Africa, and was accustomed to the AK-47s the men saw everywhere, including stacked up behind the bar of a club they frequented. Most worrisome to the crew was that they were required to surrender their passports on arrival. Irwin explains that Kuwachi needed the passports to obtain Angolan licenses for the pilots and flight engineers.
“I was scared to death. I really thought I was going to die,” says Art Powell, one of the flight engineers with the project. Powell had been to Angola before and had spent a year working in Nairobi, Kenya, but this experience was different. He felt intimidated by the people who had hired the crew for the fuel-delivery job. His anxiety was intensified by the presence of a local “helper” who toted an AK-47. The helper was a guard whom Mike Gabriel says he hired because the crew repeatedly voiced concerns about safety.
When Kuwachi got wind of the crews’ unrest (several crew members have admitted that they were planning to steal the aircraft to escape to South Africa or return to the States), the company refused to return the passports. Irwin and members of the crew went to the U.S. Embassy; only then were the passports returned.
By Angolan regulations, Irwin says, 844AA was controlled by the clients who hired it. Prohibited from flying the aircraft out of the country, Irwin booked airline seats and flew the crew members to South Africa. From there, two of the men immediately flew home to the United States. One says he is still owed $17,000. The other four crewmen, still hoping for the money they’d been promised, stayed on.
By April, Irwin was extricating himself from the deal made by Cargo Air Transport Systems and had found a new backer, an Angolan who arranged deliveries for a different client. Irwin and the remaining crew returned to Luanda and began flying the shipments for the new company. Mike Gabriel placed the total number of flights made at 17.
“It’s the most dangerous flying in the world,” says a crewman who asked that his name be withheld because he fears for his career. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he likened the deliveries to flying into a combat zone. When they approached the airfields, the crew tried to stay at an altitude above small-arms fire for as long as possible, then spiraled down to land.
“I’ve been a [flight deck crew member] for 30 years,” he says. “For me, it was an opportunity to make a couple of bucks... and when everything started falling apart, I probably hung on twice as long as common sense dictated. But I had too much invested at that point to bail out.”
Many of the runways, says Mike Gabriel, aren’t paved and aren’t like the ones U.S. crews are accustomed to. “On some, you land uphill, then go downhill, then uphill again,” he says.