"We know where your family lives. We are armed and outside your house now."
One standard charter turned into a nightmare for the crew of one long-range jet, when they were told to fly from Venezuela to west Africa.
ON BOARD a Global Express, altitude: 42,000 feet, location: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Venezuela. The satellite phone rings:
“We know where your family lives. We are armed and outside your house now. We are ready to kill your wife and your family. You need to fly to Cotonou,” says the unidentified voice. The phone cuts dead.
The pilot looks back at the cabin which is full of cotton sacks each marked with a red cross. The sacks hold 1.5 tonnes of cocaine, worth more than $500 million. He glances down at the route plan which ends in west Africa. It has become an even worse day. With the ability to land and take off from private airports, business jets have often appealed to smugglers. But this trip, where terrorists forced drugs on to a European jet and tried to force it to fly to west Africa, is one of the most audacious ever attempted.
From Morocco to the Caribbean
The first leg of the trip started like many others. A reputable US charter broker asked the aircraft operator, to bid for a roundtrip charter. The passengers wanted to go from Casablanca in Morocco to Tobago in the Caribbean and then back to Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea. The operator priced it and sent out a proposal. It heard nothing and assumed another operator had won.
In July 2012 the operator was asked to quote for a similar trip again. This time it was successful. The client said three passengers would be travelling on the route in August. A few days before the trip, the broker said the client now wanted to stop in Venezuela, rather than Tobago, and then fly to Equatorial Guinea. The operator updated its flight plans.
A few days before the trip the client called and said that instead of three passengers, the aircraft would now be carrying just one passenger – an Australian woman. The aircraft operator company did some quick checks on her and found nothing suspicious. The 3,540 nautical mile (6,557 km) flight from Marrakesh to Valencia Airport, Venezuela, was uneventful. After landing, the passenger got off the aircraft. She said she was staying the night in Valencia.
The crew of two pilots and one stewardess tidied the aircraft up and were getting ready to head to their hotel for the night. They were working quickly as the airport closes at midnight and it was already late.
To their surprise, there was a knock on the aircraft door. It was the handling agent from the airport. He told the pilot that the customer wanted to load the aircraft.
The captain looked out of the door and saw four army trucks pull up. He was perplexed. He had been expecting the Louis Vuitton-type luggage that most business jet passengers carry. Instead 12 soldiers started loading on sacks marked with red crosses.
The Venezuelan authorities believe they were actually FARC rebels from Colombia who were using drugs to fund their fight against the Colombian government. In an age of globalisation, it is believed that they had sold the drugs to a Middle Eastern terrorist organisation which would then sell them on and use them to fund its own operations.
Several of the soldiers outside the aircraft were holding guns. Others with knives boarded the aircraft. Nothing was said at first. But it was a threatening situation for the crew. The captain quietly called his boss using the aircraft’s satellite telephone.
It was the middle of the night in Europe. The CEO and founder of the aircraft operator clumsily grabbed his mobile phone. He woke up immediately up when the captain explained what was happening to the aircraft.
Although the soldiers did not speak good English, the pilot was told that the aircraft needed to leave straight away. The handling agent supplied a flight plan to Cotonou in Benin, west Africa, and told the pilot to: “Fly, fly, fly.” The soldiers got off the aircraft. The doors of the aircraft were closed. The pilot started one engine.
The CEO was unsure what to do. He asked the pilot to try using the emergency frequency to contact the airport’s air-traffic control tower or fire crew. Nobody answered. “That was when I realised that the aircraft was on its own,” he says. Soldiers in the trucks started pointing their guns at the aircraft. The pilot started taxing down the runway. The trucks followed behind the aircraft. The aircraft’s satellite phone rang and they were told to take off. The pilot and operator considered dumping the bags at the far end of the airport, but decided it was too risky. With no other options the aircraft took off.
The pilot did not know whether the aircraft was being tracked, so decided to start following the flight plan. The CEO hit the phone. The CEO knew anti-terrorist officers at his local airport, so he called them first. They gave him the number for Interpol’s Command and Coordination Centre in Lyon, France. The centre operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year. He was put through quickly, where the operator told him: “Thank you. We have logged your call but cannot do anything immediately.” The operator then hung up.
The operator immediately started enacting its emergency response plan. Both the aircraft’s owner and the bank that financed the aircraft knew about the problem early on into the flight. He also called his civil aviation regulator to alert them. More than one hour later, Interpol called back and said that they now recognised that the flight was a criminal incident.
Things were worse onboard the aircraft. While they guessed the contents of the bag, the crew did not know if anything else had been added or if the aircraft was being tracked or even followed. The drug traffickers also kept the pressure on the pilots by calling on the aircraft’s satellite phone. They called 23 times during the first three hours of the flight. One of the calls was particularly chilling. The caller read out the address for both the pilot and co-pilot and added: “We know where your family lives," he said "we are armed and outside your house now. We are ready to kill your wife and your family. You need to fly to Cotonou.”
The pilots, who both live in Germany, used the phone to quickly call their families. As it was still early in the morning both families were at home but, now, scared.
The German police alerted Germany’s domestic intelligence service, known as the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BFV). Within minutes, armed undercover agents were at both houses. They confirmed that no one was outside and went in to protect the families. “They were really impressive,” says the operator. “They got to the houses really quickly and it made a huge difference to the pilots to know their families were safe.”
Reassured, the pilots changed direction. Rather than heading east to Africa, they now headed to Europe.
Ideally the pilots would have flown back to the aircraft’s home base. However, they did not know how heavy the bags were and were concerned about fuel. The CEO was also worried about the pilots. “They were already tired after flying to Venezuela and had been through unbelievable stress,” he says. “We did not want to push our luck.”
Interpol called to say that they were classifying the pilots and crew as victims of crime so would not prosecute them or the aircraft’s operator. They decided to land the aircraft at Las Palmas Airport on Gran Canaria. They alerted the airport and the Spanish police. In retrospect, landing at Las Palmas was a mistake. Although Interpol agreed there was no case, the local police chief disagreed. No one is sure why, but he decided to arrest the pilots and the cabin attendant. He also took the keys of the aircraft. Despite numerous calls he refused to release the crew. He then declared the file of evidence against them closed so even their lawyers could not see it. The poor crew eventually spent weeks in jail. They were then released.
Venezuelan authorities arrested 18 soldiers, government officials and businessmen soon after the incident. These included nine members of the National Guard, an air-traffic controller, two officials from the National Institute of Civil Aviation, a member of the Venezuelan national intelligence service, four staff from a company that services aircraft and a night guard from the city’s aeronautical club.