By frica Review’s Somalia Correspondent Abdulkadir Khalif
Last month, Transport minister Sa’eed Jama Mohamed Qorsheel said that Somalia was committed to reviving Somali Airlines, the country’s defunct flag carrier that vanished when the central government collapsed in January 1991.
As I listened to him on state-run Mogadishu Radio, my mind was transported back four decades to the first time I boarded a Somali Airlines plane. My memory is not what it used to be, but I would say this was in August 1974.
Together with nearly 100 other Somali students, I walked up the stairway into the waiting Boeing 707 at the Mogadishu International Airport (since renamed Aden Abdulle International Airport in honour of the country’s first democratically elected president).
We were destined for Havana, Cuba, having been selected for varied trainings on the Caribbean island, at the time firmly under Fidel Castro Ruz.
The plane made stopovers at Cairo, Rome, Reykjavik, Iceland and Ottawa, Canada before rolling up at the palm tree-ringed Jose Marti International Airport at Havana.
Somali Airlines has had a history that goes hand in hand with the rest of Somalia. It was especially closely intertwined with the history of the Horn of African country’s military aviation.
Established in 1964, it went under with the dramatic demise of the regime of Siad Barre, the late dictator.
To piece together the history of the carrier that few Somalis remember, I went in search of Captain Osman Aden Ibrahim Burale, a former pilot with the defunct carrier.
He willingly shared his experiences with me, dishing up an intriguing lesson in the airline’s history.
Alitalia, the Italian flag carrier, was the first international airline to land in Mogadishu, the capital, in 1958.
The Somali Air Force was then set up in 1960, the year the two Somalia regions of British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland gained independence from Britain and Italy before uniting as the Republic of Somalia.
“Though the Air Force was under the command of an Italian officer, in 1961 the first group of Somalis were chosen to be trained as pilots for the force,” Capt Burale said.
“In 1962, the first cohort were picked to be trained as civilian pilots in West Germany and USA. One of the conditions was that the individuals speak the English language.”
Retrained military pilots
Capt Burale gave the names of the first four civilian pilots as Awil, Ina Rodol, Ahmed Ismael and Oofle. They were the first in Somalia to fly the DC3 and Dakota aircraft bearing the insignia of Somali Airlines.
Somalia’s military had always fed the carrier with pilots. “The military pilots were to be retrained and given a civilian certificate to fly Somali Airline planes,” said Capt Burale.
In the 1960s, the airline’s planes served local routes, and also flew to Aden, the capital of South Yemen that was then under British rule.
In the 1970s and 1980s, during the military regime in Somalia, both the Air Force and Somali Airlines made fleet improvements.
The latter purchased DC9s while the military bought MiG 15 and MiG 17 fighter jets as well as Antonov 24 and Antonov 26 transport planes from the former Soviet Union.
Capt Burale recalled that the Air Force also added MiG 21 fighter jets and well as Ilyushin-made bombers, and continued to supply Somali Airlines with pilots on a need-basis.
The state-run carrier’s fortunes were further boosted by the decision in 1974 to purchase a Boeing 707 for international routes, while also taking delivery of the smaller Fokker F27 planes for local flights.
“In the 1970s, Somali Airlines got a second Boeing plane for its routes to Cairo, Rome, and Frankfurt in Germany,” added Capt Burale. Other routes served included Jeddah, Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam and Djibouti city.
Following a thaw in Cold War relations, capitalist West Germany in 1977-79 trained eight young Somalia pilots. Somalia had before then been sympathetic to communist Russia.
Their new found relations were strengthened when a Lufthansa Boeing aircraft was in October 1977 hijacked to Somalia by four militants who called themselves Commando Martyr Halime.
The group commandeered the plane and headed for Mogadishu, demanding the liberation of imprisoned leaders of the Red Army Faction, a cell considered by West Germany as terrorist.
Following permission from the Somali government, a West-German counter-terrorism squad known as GSG stormed Mogadishu’s airport, freeing all 86 passengers.
In 1988, the robustly-performing airline took delivery of an Airbus A310, further boosting its international flight offerings.
Local Somali Airlines flights linked Mogadishu to major towns like Bossaso in the northeast, Kismayu in the far south while Berbera at the Gulf of Aden coast was used as a transit hub for international flights.
The airline also provided charter flights, both for domestic and international destinations.
Capt Burale recalled he like many other Somali pilots was first trained as an Air Force pilot between 1974-1977. He served with the military for nearly ten years, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Through a transfer, he joined Somali Airlines at the beginning of 1984, serving until 1990, a year before the company collapsed.
The veteran pilot, who appears to have an inside lane on the revival effort will be Chinese driven, letting on that he expects the delivery of four planes by China, but would not specify when.
Former Somalia Transport minister Abdullahi Ilmoge Hersi in August last year revealed that Somalia had signed an agreement with China focusing on the revitalisation of the flag carrier.
“In a few months, we are going to revive Somali Airlines,” said Minister Hersi, rather obliquely.
In April 2012, former airline pilots Abikar Nur and Ahmed Elmi Gure, the current webmaster of Hiiraan Online, a largely Somali news website, met with aviation officials at the Lufthansa Flight Training Centre in Phoenix, United States, to discuss the possibility of resuming the historic working relationship between Somali Airlines and Lufthansa, the German carrier.
After four nostalgic decades, I long to again board a Somali Airline plane, not necessarily destined for Havana but bound for Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Djibouti or Kampala.
These eastern African capital cities are presumed to be the immediate flight routes the revived Somali flag carrier would target.