By Andre Babaian
On November 25, 1985, an “Aeroflot” Antonov AN-12, cargo airplane in route from Cuito Cuanavale to Luanda was shot down and crashed approximately 43 km of Menongue, the provincial center of the Cuando Cubango province, Angola. The incident took place in the aftermath of FAPLA’s operation “2 Congresso do Partido” conducted against UNITA military formations in the 6th Military Region. The transport was carrying 8 crew members, 13 passengers and 2 tank diesel engines in need of repairs. According to eye witnesses from the local populace and investigative reports the aircraft was shot down by a surface-to-air (SA) missile. All people on board of the airplane died in the crash.
The aircraft involved in the incident was an Antonov AN-12, a large Soviet-built four-engine turboprop transport airplane, tail registration No.11747. It was part of an air-transportation detachment under the direct command of the Soviet Chief Military Advisor (CMA) in Angola. The detachment, part of the 369 Air-Transport Regiment based at that time in the city of Jankoi, Crimea, Ukraine, consisted of several AN-12 transports operating in the interest of the CMA. The airplanes were primarily used at the requests of the Angolan counterparts, particularly in the interests of FAPLA. All of the 8 crew members and 4 passengers were Soviet nationals. 9 other passengers were Angolans.
Previous attempts of attacks
There are no official records or reports indicating that this same airplane was involved in any other accidents, incidents or fired upon during take-off-landing or midair flights. However, there is a claim and evidence that on June 11, 1985, another airplane, a UK-built twin-engine turboprop light utility aircraft, Britten-Norman BN-2 “Islander,” had been shot down in the vicinity of the same area, roughly 80 km from Menongue. The “Islander”, in route from Menongue to Cuito Cuanavale with a crew of 2 and several passengers including one “Aerovia” civil engineer, several FAPLA officers, among them Chief Financial Officer of the 16th Infantry Brigade stationed at that time in Cuito Cuanavale, was shot down by the same crew that operated the SA missile system used to bring down the AN-12 transport. Beside the crew and passengers the “Islander” was also carrying 69 million kwanzas (Angola’s currency), several months of salary for the 16th Brigade’s personnel. When the “Islander” fell to the ground the money was stolen and the remains of the dead passengers had been pillaged by UNITA soldiers attached to protect the SA missile system.
According to the reports and “black box” recordings, the AN-12 transport took off from Cuito Cuanavale at 11:20 am with passengers and cargo. As soon as 15 minutes into the flight at the altitude of approximately 10,000 feet (3,000 m) the pilot reported an explosion on the airplane’s port side next to the wing and engines. Seconds later the pilot also reported that the transport was experiencing problems with engines three and four and stated his intention to turn towards Menongue airport located less than 50 km away for an emergency landing. Due to the explosion 2 massive tank diesel engines got unhitched and moved from the transport’s cargo section center to the port side shifting aircraft’s center of mass and causing the plane to bank to the port side. Per “black box” recordings the crew tried to level the airplane and turn it towards Menongue’s airport for an emergency landing, however 47 seconds after the missile had hit the target the port wing exploded - it separated from the aircraft and fell to the ground. The rest of the plane, all engulfed in flames, continued for almost 2 minutes along the route before crashing into the field in an area 43 km off Menongue, with the main part of the wreckage landing in the close proximity to Menongue-Cuito Cuanavale road. Large pieces of the wreckage spread across an area. The next day several officers from the Soviet Military Mission in Menongue accompanied by Cuban and Angolan troops arrived at crash site where they found at the scene all 21 bodies, 8 of the crew and 13 passengers. The human remains were transported them first to Menongue for identification and later to Luanda. No other human beings or animals were killed at the crash site or nearby.
The civilians from local villages and members of the local people’s defense organization (ODP – Organização de Defesa Popular) who had witnessed the midair explosion and the crash said they had heard and seen what they believed to be a surface-to-air missile being fired immediately before the accident. They described the sound and fume trails that originated from the ground to the point of impact in midair. The recordings of the AN-12 crew’s air traffic conversation with Menongue air-defense radar operators obtained by Angolan authorities and later passed to the Soviet investigators that arrived to conduct on-site investigation of the crash also revealed that the crew had reported a missile explosion on the airplane’s port side. In the Soviet Union a specially designated commission under the direct supervision of the Chief of the Air Military Transportation Command of the Soviet Armed Forces was created to establish the cause of the crash. The commission had conducted a thorough investigation and examination of the plane’s wreckage retrieved from the crash area. The examination of the parts of the airplane’s fuselage had revealed multiple traces of an explosive matter and pieces of shrapnel from the SA missile.
Victims of attack
21 crew members and passengers were killed in the crash. The list below contains the name of the crew members and some of the passengers:
Crew Member – First Pilot – Soviet Air Force Capitan Sergei Lukianov, 29. Buried in Jankoi city, Crimea, Ukraine.
Crew Member – Co-Pilot – Soviet Air Force Capitan Vladimir Zhurkin, 31. Buried in Jankoi city, Crimea, Ukraine.
Crew Member – Navigator – Soviet Air Force Sr. Lieutenant Alexei Nikitin, 29. Buried in Jankoi city, Crimea, Ukraine.
Crew Member – Radio operator – Soviet Air Force Sr. Lieutenant Viktor Osadchuk, 29. Buried in Jankoi city, Crimea, Ukraine.
Crew Member – On-board Technician – Soviet Air Force Sr. Lieutenant Vitali Psheniuk, 25. Buried in Senkevichenka village, Ukraine.
Crew Member – Senior load attendant – Soviet Air Force Warrant Officer Sergei Grishenkov, 23. Buried in Jankoi city, Crimea, Ukraine.
Crew Member – Load attendant – Soviet Air Force Warrant Officer Vladimir Shibanov, 26. Buried in Jankoi city, Crimea, Ukraine.
Crew Member, On-board Translator – Military Institute of Foreign Languages 3rd Year Cadet Sergei Sholmov, 22. Buried in Ulianovsk city, Russia.
Passenger – Soviet Army Colonel Evgeniy Kandidatov, 47, FAPLA’s 6th Military Region. Armaments and Material Department Chief’s Advisor. Buried in Strelna village, near St. Petersburg, Russia.
Passenger – Soviet Army Lt. Colonel Alexander Martynov, 35, FAPLA’s 25th Motorized Infantry Brigade, Battalion Commander’s Advisor. Buried in Ulianovsk city, Russia.
Passenger – Soviet Army Major Mikhail Zhernosek, 32, FAPLA’s 16th Infantry Brigade, Brigade Logistics Chief’s Advisor
Passenger – Soviet Army Lt. Colonel, Anatoly Perevertov, 33, FAPLA’s 8th Infantry Brigade. Brigade Logistics Chief’s Advisor
Other Passengers - 9 FAPLA officers – names, age and ranks unknown
In 1987, in the city of Jankoi, Crimea, Ukraine, where most of the AN-12’s crew members were stationed and lived, a commemorative monument was erected featuring their photos and names.
Reactions and aftermath
Within 12 hours after the crash, the after-midnight news reports issued by BBC, Voice of America (African Service) and UNITA’s radio station “Galo Negro” made almost identical announcements giving the credit to UNITA rebels for having allegedly shot down a Cuban military cargo airplane with Cuban personnel onboard in the same area that the AN-12 was shot down, and confirmed the suspicions that the airplane had been brought down by an SA missile. Next day, on November 26, 1985, UNITA officially claimed responsibility for shooting down the aircraft. However, several months later the information obtained through various intelligence sources indicated that the AN-12 transport was shot down with the missile launched from a Soviet-made BRDM-2-based 9K31 “Strela-1”, a vehicle-mounted, highly mobile, short-range, low altitude infra-red guided surface-to-air missile system. The system was manned and operated by a South African Recce group which at that time was secretly deployed around Menongue area with the task of shooting down Cuban and Angolan transport airplanes and other military gunships. Several 9K31 “Strela-1” had been captured by SADF during prior incursions into Angola. Further confirmation of that information was obtained from the book “Journey Without Boundaries” by SADF Colonel Andre Diedericks, a former South African Special Forces member who had given the order to fire and shot down the airplane.
The aftermath of this tragedy had an additional toll in a loss of human lives. On December 5, 1985, a Mi-8/17 helicopter gunship was shot down in midair presumably with RPG-7 anti-tank grenades; however, there is also an assumption that by the time of the incident SADF/UNITA had possession of the SA-7 “Strela-2” man-portable, shoulder-fired, low-altitude SAM system which could have been used to shoot down the helicopter.
2 Mi-8/17 crews were tasked to provide air support to a Cuban reinforced infantry battalion which had orders to secure the area for the arrival of an investigation team to conduct on-site investigation and help remove the remains of the airplane from the area for further investigation. As the battalion had approached the designated area it got ambushed by far superior combined SADF/UNITA force entrenched along the Menongue-Cuito Cuanavale road. A fierce fight ensued resulting in a high number of dead and wounded from both sides. The 2 Mi-8/17 gunships, both manned by Soviet Air Force crews, were called upon from Menongue to conduct the fly-bys over SADF/UNITA positions and provide cover fire for the Cuban battalion. Despite heavy AA ground fire the gunships performed the first fly-by, fired upon the combined SADF/UNITA force and managed to escape unscathed. However, one of the gunships with the crew consisting of Soviet Air Force Major Dmitri Kutonov, pilot; Soviet Air Force Captain, Yuri Neverov, navigator; and Soviet Air Force Senior Lieutenant Alexander Degtiar, on-board technician, made a fatal mistake when followed the same, as the first time, flying pattern for the second fly-by – SADF/UNITA units capitalized on that by presumably firing several RPG-7 anti-tank grenades against the target and striking it with 2 grenades, one into the gunship’s body and the second one into the tail rotor. The helicopter crashed and burst into the flames killing the crew. There were also 2 Angolan soldiers, helicopter door-gun operators, from the newly formed 29th Airborne Assault Brigade on board of the helicopter who had also died in the crash.