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Russians in Africa

All the talk at the moment is of the Russia/Ukraine war. There are several reasons why the Russians are doing so badly against a smaller force, but one of those is poor logistics. I have several experiences of Russian logistics, a couple of which follow, but first some background.

I diverted my career in 1998 from being a full time helicopter pilot and safety manager to working internationally as an aviation safety auditor for the oil and mining industries.

It’s a mixed blessing that oil and minerals are so often produced in the less developed parts of the world. The standard of aviation safety in these countries tends to be significantly below that of technologically advanced nations. These industries, in trying to ensure the safety of their employees who have to travel to remote jungle or desert sites or to offshore oil rigs, employ aviation consultants to try to enforce improved safety standards in their aviation contractors. This includes regional airlines.

Whatever the rumours of a poor safety record, the Russians overhauled their aviation sector and brought their standards up to match those of Europe. This drove a number of bad and corrupt operators, who were not prepared to go to the expense of improvement, out of the country. They set up operations as cheaply as they could in countries such as some in West Africa, where regulations were inadequate, or the aviation inspectors were ignorant. Old, ex-military aircraft were used: Antonov 24 and 26 types, early models of Mil 8 helicopters, and even western built commercial jets, previously consigned to be scrapped. The owner of one such operator in Guinea had a Russian Air Force colonel’s jacket hanging in his office. He also refused to answer any questions I put to him.

One particular regional airline in the Democratic Republic of the Congo provides a good example of my point. The normal aviation standard for storing spare parts is a strictly controlled environment where every component is labelled and certified, its history is known, its life is recorded and the place is as clean and neat as a hospital. This airline’s stores contained a heap of components without any identification. There were heavy generators thrown on top of delicate fuel controls and governors. Hydraulic pumps, hoses, seals and ignitors lay scattered amongst the pile at the end of the room. Not a single record of these things lay anywhere. My guess is that these components were listed as scrap in Russia and bought for a song to put on a commercial aircraft for moving passengers across the country.

This meant that if you wanted to fly from Kinshasa to, say, Goma in the east and you took a local airline, you could be setting yourself up for an accident due to the failure of a used or scrapped component. Not to mention the likelihood of overloading or too many passengers for the number of seats (Yes, truly).

The accident record in the DRC is horrendous, so much so that one company would use South African Airways to fly its people from Kinshasa to Johannesburg (almost 3000kms) and then back up to Lubumbashi in the Congo rather than use a Congolese airline for the 1700kms trip across the country.
Personally, I see parallels with this attitude to the logistical support and lack of spares and supplies experienced by the Russian army in Ukraine. It’s an attitude: use any cheap part, doesn’t matter if it’s past its expiry date – make it work.

Here’s another unrelated example of corruption in aviation: I was inspecting a number of operators in Khartoum, Sudan. One of them was a Russian company who were expecting a visit from their own aviation authority, the purpose of which was to ensure that their aircraft upheld modern standards, because of the poor reputation Russian owned companies were gaining overseas.

I found a lot of faults with this operator and told them so in the final debrief. Their sales/publicity guy gave me a lift back to the hotel. Somewhere on a busy, dusty street his car broke down. It was hot, over 40C, and unpleasant under a harsh sun. Amongst humble apologies, he organised a rescue. While we waited, he tried to press a bottle of whisky on me. He said it was for the inconvenience, but it was really for a favourable report. I refused, of course, but he persevered including actually putting the bottle in my bag. Like a fool, I eventually gave in.

Sudan is a dry country. Alcohol is strictly forbidden. At the airport on my way out, customs inspected my bag and found the Scotch. Lacking a sense of humour from birth, the officials became even more serious. I had to go with one of them to the toilets. There, under eagle-eyed supervision, I was ordered to pour the whisky into the urinal. This I did, but thought the whole thing was funny and started to laugh. After all, I hadn’t paid for the bottle and I didn’t really want it anyway. The official remained grim faced, until the bottle was drained and I grinned at him. He broke down and cracked a smile.

To be fair. I want to emphasise that I am talking about rogue operators who happen to be Russian in these examples. I have audited several companies in Russia itself and found them to be no better or worse than their Western counterparts. I also enjoyed the limited time I spent in the country. While some people were suspicious, most were friendly and hospitable. That was in the early 2000s, though.

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With regard to my current work, the title of which I haven’t decided, progress was being made, albeit slowly. Then I realised that two aspects of the plot were not realistic and therefore should be changed. I strive to make sure that everything that happens in my stories is possible, with the exception of the main theme running through Thirty-Four. But that doesn’t matter. So at the moment I’m re-plotting and progress has stalled.

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