By Dibussi Tande
In Part I of this two-part article, we focused on the narrative of the Investigating Judge in charge of the Albatross case, along with the sworn testimony of the Albatross flight crew and members of the President’s personal military staff to disprove repeated claims that the Albatross had a catastrophic technical breakdown during its maiden flight to Paris, and that this may have been the handiwork of individuals intent on harming the President and his family.
Homeward bound! The "Albatros" taxis from the Delta facility in Atlanta on her delivery flight to Cameroon (April 22, 2004). (c) R.W. Whitlock.
In this second and last part, we will look at the actual condition of the Albatross at the time of its delivery to Cameroonian officials. Was this “second hand” aircraft safe and airworthy, or was it really an “old bucket,” a “flying coffin” leased by corrupt or negligent government officials who wanted to get rich off the deal? To answer this question, we will refer to the reports of the team of Cameroonian experts, including members of the President’s personal military staff, who performed the technical inspection of the Albatross in the US before it left for Cameroon. We will also get Boeing's official position about the airworthiness of the aircraft.
The First Technical Mission to the US
When President Biya finally decided to suspend the purchase of a brand new presidential aircraft and instead lease an aircraft from Boeing as a temporary measure, the aircraft manufacturer proposed a 767 aircraft previously owned by Madagascar air.
The late General Benae Mpecke who was the Presidential Chief of Staff at the time, dispatched a technical mission to Victorville in California to determine if the aircraft was safe and up to the standards of a presidential aircraft. The team comprised of:
- Jean Tchuidjeu, aeronautic engineer, Camair;
- Jean Claude Armand Ngangue, aircraft technician, Camair;
- Flight Captain Bakoa Manfred, pilot, Presidency of the Republic;
- Colonel Mitlassou Justin, Director of the Department of Presidential Travels, aircraft technician;
- Louis Taniform, Civil Aviation Authority.
The team stayed in Victorville from August 9-19, 2003. Its mission was threefold:
- Review of regulatory documents of the aircraft (certificate of airworthiness, ETOPS certification, noise certificate, certificate of exploitation of radio electric installation, aircraft registration, TCAS II (Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System, etc.).
- Review of Technical Documentation (Airworthiness Directives, Controlled & Life Limited Components, Maintenance Program, Service Bulletins, Structural Repair File, APU TSO certification, etc.).
- Physical inspection of aircraft surfaces and interior.
Upon its return to Cameroon, the technical team submitted its report noting that the aircraft’s last major check was on October 14, 2001, and that subsequently scheduled checks had not been carried out because plane was not used since May 2002. It also noted that some parts needed to be replaced, and made recommendations on interior modifications needed to bring the aircraft up to VIP standards.
It concluded that if the government of Cameroon decided to purchase the aircraft, a more exhaustive maintenance check would be required including a “4C inspection” [C checks are much more extensive and they generally require the removal of the entire interior and every access panel in order to inspect everything].
On August 22, 2003, the head of the delegation, Colonel Mitlassou sent a clarifying note to the Secretary-General at the Presidency unequivocally stating that « l'avis technique de ladite commission est favorable à l'acquisition, » that is, the team of experts was in favor of the acquisition of the aircraft.
D-Check in Atlanta
On December 3, 2003, the government of Cameroon and Boeing signed the lease agreement for the Boeing 767 which be called the Albatross. Although it was not due for another two years, the Cameroonian side convinced Boeing that the aircraft go through the more exhaustive D-Check with Cameroon paying a portion of the cost – $165,000, a far cry from the over one million dollars that Boeing originally demanded.
So what exactly is a D-Check?
This is – by far – the most comprehensive and demanding check for an airplane. It is also known as a Heavy Maintenance Visit (HMV). This check occurs approximately every 5–6 years. It is a check that, more or less, takes the entire airplane apart for inspection and overhaul. Also, if required, the paint may need to be completely removed for further inspection on the fuselage metal skin. Such a check will usually demand around 40.000 man-hours and it can generally take up to 2 months to complete, depending on the aircraft and the number of technicians involved. It also requires the most space of all maintenance checks, and as such must be performed at a suitable maintenance base. Given the requirements of this check and the tremendous effort involved in it, it is also the most expensive maintenance check of all, with total costs for a single visit being well within the million-dollar range. [Wikipedia]
Boeing contracted the D-Check to the Delta Technical Operations, (DTO), an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) certified repair facility in Atlanta, Georgia. The contract also stipulated that Cameroonian experts oversee the D-check. To this end, the following technical team travelled to Atlanta:
- Touomi Francois, aeronautic engineer and a Director at Camair;
- Taniform Louis, of the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority;
- Mbi Stephen Enow, technician at CAMAIR.
The team stayed in Atlanta from end of January 2004 to mid April 2004 during which the Albatross went through extensive D-Check at the Delta facility. On March 17, 2004, the team reported to Ambassador Mendouga in Washington that the check was complete and that ground tests were conclusive; all that was pending was the air test. This test, which included a demonstration flight, was successfully performed on April 12, 2004 after which the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued the aircraft a Certificate of Airworthiness. This certificate states that the aircraft
"as of the date of this certificate, is considered airworthy in accordance with a comprehensive and detailed airworthiness code of the United States Government, and is in compliance with those special requirements of the importing country filed with the United States Government, except as noted below."
There are no exceptions noted on the certificate.
It is worth noting that an additional $342, 216.79 USD was paid to Delta Airlines for work outside of D-Check.
Biya “Disowns” Aircraft and Boeing Plays Hardball
On April 22, 2004, the completely overhauled Albatross left the Delta facility in Atlanta for its onward journey to Cameroon with Flight Captain Betham in charge for what would be a smooth and uneventful journey to Yaounde.
On April 24, 2004, it left Nsimalen for its ill-fated trip to Paris. Let’s return to the Judge Magnaguemabé’s Order Instituting Separate Proceedings to find out what happened next:
Once in Paris, the upper hierarchy was instructed to return the "Albatros" to its owner. The instruction was followed, and the Albatros was returned to Atlanta on 06/23/2004.
The President of the Republic and his family returned to their home country after the mission on board a rented Airbus.
When Cameroonian officials informed Boeing wthat it was returning the aircraft, Boeing insisted that the plane was "safe, secure and meets the standards of airworthiness," and threatening to drag Cameroon to court if it was not adequately compensated for what it considered an unjustified breach of contract. Cameroon once again resorted to the services of the Washington-based law firm Zucker, Scoutt and Rasemberger to assist it in its negotiations with Boeing. After five months of wrangling, both parties finally reached a settlement and the government of Cameroon agreed to pay Boeing 2.6 million dollars ($2,656, 000) as compensation for the breach of contract.
The Most Expensive Trip Ever?
So how much did the Albatross, which was used just for a single trip from Yaounde to Paris, cost the Cameroonian taxpayer, that is, in addition to the 2.6 million USD paid to Boeing for breaking what was supposed to be a three-year lease?
in his January 18, 2012 plea before the Mfoundi High Court, Ambassador Mendouga said that expenses linked to the lease of the Albatross amounted to $1,019,126,78 – a sum confirmed by the 2010 Order Instituting Separate Proceedings which provides an itemized list of all Albatross-related expenses between January and April 2004 (including incidental costs such legal counsel, emergency exchange parts ordered by Cameroonian experts, Mission expenses and encouragement bonuses for Cameroonian experts, etc.)
Additional costs resulting from the leasing contract included the following:
- Rent: 203,000 USD/month, which is approximately 157,325,000 CFA francs;
- A monthly reserve set aside for maintenance: 140,000 USD/month, which is 108,500,000 CFA francs;
- A security deposit of 02 monthly rent payments, which is 406,000 USD or the equivalent of 314,650,000 CFA francs.
It is not clear whether Cameroon paid the monthly rents during the period when it was negotiating with Boeing or if these are included in the $2.6 million settlement.
In any case, the total cost of the lease is over four million US dollars – a mind-boggling sum for an aircraft that was used just once by the Head of State. Add this to the roughly 52 Billion Franc CFA lost in the purchase of a brand new luxury Boeing Business Jet 2 (BBJ2) that was never delivered, and we begin to appreciate the magnitude of what this presidential folie de grandeur has cost the Cameroonian taxpayer.
End Note: This was No flying Coffin!
Thus, Contrary to information peddled by some regime officials and strategically placed in certain national and international media outlets, then repeated ad nauseam by uncritical local journalists who cannot be bothered with investigative journalism, the Albatross was not a beat-up plane, much less a flying coffin. In fact, it was a relatively “young” plane by aviation standards. It was returned to Boeing not because of any catastrophic technical failure but because of the whims and caprices of the President of the Republic.
Let us give the last word to Scott Scherer, Vice President of Boeing Capital Corporation, the financing arm of Boeing, who in a June 4, 2008 letter to Ambassador Mendouga clearly stated Boeing's official and definitive position on the whole Albatross saga – one that conspiracy theorists should do well to read carefully:
Vice President/General Manager
Aircraft Financial Services
Boeing Capital Corporation (BCC)
Thank you inquiring about the 767-200 aircraft leased by The Republic of Cameroon from Boeing Capital Corporation in 2004 and subsequently returned early, leading to a contract termination and settlement. We are pleased to address your questions to help set the record straight in this matter.
The aircraft (SN 23624) has been owned by Boeing Capital since late 2000. Before joining our aircraft portfolio, it operated in regular passenger service for three airlines under the ownership of another major leasing company. It first entered service in 1986.
Prior to its delivery to your government, the aircraft underwent scheduled heavy maintenance at Delta Technical Operations, a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration certified repair facility in Atlanta, Georgia, and checks were performed of all required systems to ensure they were functioning properly. At least two representatives from your government were present as observers during the work. A pre-delivery demonstration flight was also conducted for your government's benefit.
Before the aircraft departed for Cameroon, it received a U.S. Export Certificate of Airworthiness issued by the FAA stating that, as of that date, the aircraft was considered airworthy without exception in accordance with the comprehensive U.S. airworthiness code and any special requirements of the importing country.
We were pleased to recount the pre-delivery details and include a copy of the Export Certificate in a recent letter to Mr. Jean Marie Atangana Mebara, who had executed the lease on behalf of your government. Copies of both documents are enclosed.
From your role in working closely with Boeing in the lease negotiations, you are aware that we regarded the unfortunate in-flight incident of Spring 2004 with great concern. As we understand, an indicator in the cockpit came on, signaling a difference in the position of the symmetrical flaps on the wing. The flight crew took the proper corrective action by retracting the flaps and the flight continued without further incident. Upon landing in Paris, inspections were performed using all listed procedures for such an indication. No fault was found, nor could the inspectors repeat the discrepancy. The Cameroon civil aviation authority official involved in the inspections expressed full confidence in the aircraft. To our knowledge, the condition experienced at that time never reappeared.
Upon its return to Boeing, the aircraft was taken to Delta Technical Operation where it was inspected without incident and given routine maintenance before being remarketed and placed with another BCC lease customer. It has continued in regular passenger operations and remains in airworthy condition to this date.
Boeing has produced more than 947 wide-body 767s in both passenger and freighter versions and continues to receive orders from the model. It remains the most popular aircraft for North Atlantic crossings and the 767 fleet has carried some two billion passengers while amassing an exceptional safety record.
As with Any of our Boeing airplanes, the 767 was designed for long service life under the demanding conditions of the commercial transport environment. Airplane life is measured by the number of takeoff and landing cycles and by observation of proper maintenance as opposed to calendar years. Properly maintained and operated, a 767 can safely operate for decades. In fact, more than 98 percent of all 767s delivered since 1981 remain in active service.
I hope this information will be valuable in your effort to address unwarranted criticism of the 767's record. If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.