The Associated Press reports today that an eroding Ilyushin-76 cargo plane once owned by Viktor Bout and flown into an Emirati sand dune for use as a roadside billboard for more than two decades is being dismantled and destined for a scrapyard.
According to Jon Gambrell, AP’s News Director for the Gulf and Iran, the massive four-engine cargo plane is surrounded by wrecking cranes and disassembled. Gambrell reports that
“instead of a missile or gunfire finally taking out this Ilyushin Il-76 tied to arms smuggler Viktor Bout, the plane appears to be doomed, destined for scrap to make way for a force more powerful in this federation of seven sheikhdoms: Luxury real estate.”
The emirate of Umm al-Quwain is building a $675 million development on a island across a lagoon from the deactivated airport where the old Ilyushin sits, idled, broken and unable to fly.
Bout’s old Ilyushin is being dismantled even as rumors swirl that the imprisoned Russian arms trafficker might be freed as part of a prisoner swap and sent back to Moscow in exchange for one or several Americans imprisoned in Russia.
Bout was nabbed by a U.S. sting operation in 2008 and extradited to New York, where he was convicted in a federal trial on conspiracy charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He has served more than 10 years in a medium-security prison in Marion, Ill.
Gambrell interviewed “Merchant of Death” co-author Stephen Braun for the report and cited a passage in the book describing Bout’s decision to order one of his pilots to risk a dangerous flight on the decrepit Ilyushin, nosing the aircraft into a sand dune along a highway for use as a roadside billboard. According to an account provided by a Russian air executive in the book, “the plane shuddered aloft, engines sputtering, but the veteran airman managed to coax the Ilyushin down to a soft landing.” The pilot was paid $20,000 for the stunt, the book reported.
Since then, Gambrell reports, “for imbibers coming from Dubai, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest along the curving coast of the Persian Gulf, the iconic bulging nose of the Ilyushin Il-76 represented a landmark for the low-cost liquor store at the emirate’s Barracuda Beach Resort. That’s even with large green letters painted on the Ilyushin for the last 20-odd years as an aviatic billboard for another hotel.”
The Ilyushin sat, exposed to the desert sun and climate, until Umm al-Quwain began preparing to build a bridge connecting the mainland “to its planned development on Siniyah Island. Satellite photos from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by the AP show that the work began in earnest in April.”
Gambrell reports that a growing demand for real estate in the tiny emirate has officials there hoping the new development replacing Bout’s plane “could spur new life into the otherwise-sleepy sheikhdom.”
In the end, he quotes Braun, a former editor and investigative reporter for the AP in Washington as noting that the old plane had outlived Bout’s two-decade empire of the air.
Braun also commented on growing reports that Bout might be freed as part of a prisoner exchange with Russia. “The Russians want him back and the Biden administration obviously would like to get Paul Whelan back. They’d like to get Brittney Griner back. But again, this is the problem,” Braun said. “The armaments that he transported, you know, were partly and certainly indirectly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people in Africa, Afghanistan. … So do you want to reward that?”
New: Yahoo News followed AP’s lead with an expansive narrative piece exploring the background and uncertainties of a prisoner exchange potentially swapping Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner — with expert analysis by “Merchant of Death” co-author Douglas Farah