You cannot be a world-class psychopathic narcissist unless you have your own aircraft. Now, while one man’s ‘strong leader’ is another’s dictator we can be certain that all the human entrants in this list are or were prize bell-ends. Stephen Caulfield chooses 12 infamous aeroplanes that have perfected despot delivery.
12. Fokker F28 Fellowship Kalayaan (Republic of the Philippines)
Autocrat or not, the leader of an archipelago nation has good reason to fly. Hence, the Philippine people find themselves supporting the 250th Presidential Airlift Wing. That unit operated a Fokker F28-3000 Fellowship for state executive purposes starting in the stupidly decadent days of the Marcos family. The Fellowship was replaced only last year with a brand-new Gulfstream G280. This new aircraft lends a much slicker, up-to-the-minute corporate look to the law-and-order strongman presiding over a nation where vast economic inequalities are entrenched in daily life.
Non-political technical point: F28s feature a split tail cone air brake like that on a Blackburn Buccaneer strike aircraft.
11. Hawker-Siddeley HS-121 Trident
People’s Republic of China
Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou-en-lai shared a British-built Trident airliner. The Trident supplemented, and then replaced, an Ilyushin Il-18 Coot. Zhou-en-lai was the first Premier of China and served as Mao Zedong’s right hand. They were among the post-war world’s longest serving leaders, lasting from 1949 until the days of the Sex Pistols. Considering the poverty and turmoil of China in these years the idea of leaders looking down at the put-upon masses from a private jet strikes one now as something Communism would have eradicated. Or at least limited to really, really special occasions. Oh well, plus ca change. Though to be fair, the Trident was used as a domestic aircraft by the state owned airline CAAC who had a fleet of about 35. Having a British-made VVIP plane wasn’t entirely about looking down on the masses as China is a big country and the leadership needed to get around, but the optics were still far from perfect.
Once a common sight flying between the UK and western and southern Europe none remain in service anywhere. China’s VIP transport example bounced around for a time after retiring. Last word, the tired Trident was being dragged off from the shopping mall where it had been on display. It was increasingly found to just be in the way of people parking their BMWs. China’s all-business political elites now have access to Boeing 747s.
Non-political technical point: the Trident began life as a de Havilland design referred to as the DH.121
10. Airbus A319 (Bolivarian State of Venezuela)
Does oil and gas wealth ever bring a country happiness? Ignoring the Black Swan of Norway, consider Venezuela. In 2002 twelve protesters are gunned down by security forces loyal to President Hugo Chavez. Days later, he takes delivery of an Airbus. Apparently he’d seen one owned by an Emirati Sheik at some international conference. One phone call and US$65 million later he has a replacement for the ageing Boeing 737 he’d been putting up with. This and the massacre of his own citizens became twinned unforgivable moments for the majority of Venezuelans. Many of whom live in utter poverty despite the country’s huge fossil fuel reserves. The military then remove Senor Chavez from power. Two days later he’s back in office. He keeps the Airbus and some other privileges until his death from cancer in 2013. George Orwell weeps. So do a few others.
Non-political technical point: the A319/A320 program was a pioneer of commercial fly-by-wire and side stick control systems.
9. Airbus A340 (State of Libya)
Moammar Gadaffi typifies the classical career path of dozens of post-1945 liberationist revolutionaries who morphed into police-state despots. While seemingly an eccentric individual he ruled the masses with the an unimaginative mix of bribery and deep brutality. He relied on a privileged clique of family and close confidants to maintain power for forty-one years. None of this nonsense ever ends well. To wit, his last official plane has been rotting at an airport in southern France for years now. Another thriftless monument to dictatorship in a world littered with them. His choice of such a full on machine capable of transoceanic journeys seems a little off, too. This guy was welcome in fewer and fewer places worth visiting until his death at the hands of angry rivals in 2011. Grey leather sofas, a luxury suite with shower and a flat-screen TV should have made this jetliner a quick sell but post-coup legalities have complicated its disposal.
Non-political technical point: the A340 was the world’s longest airliner until the Boeing 747-8 appeared.
8. Ilyushin Il-62 Classic Chammae-1
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
It’s unclear what level of interior customization Chairman Kim Jong-Un’s official aircraft has been given. A safe bet is something superior to what you experienced on your last flight. Kim Jong-Un’s father used this handsome plane, one of only three designs ever configured with four engines mounted in twin nacelles under a T-tail. It seems everything in North Korea is subsumed into a military- and prison-industrial complex of the harshest kind. So, planning for a new airplane for the dictator of North Korea is probably the least excessive thing on the go there at the moment. North Korea is a hefty importer of cognac, luxury cars and pianos. This suggests an epic hypocrisy by the elites behind an old school Stalinist facade. Until a Prague Spring arrives in Pyongyang we won’t know the truth around this aircraft, it’s VIP passengers or the country employing it. What an unfortunate use for a wonderful plane. Bigger and faster than a Vickers VC-10 the Il-62 continues to impress.
Non-political technical point: the Il-62’s first Aeroflot passenger run was in 1967 with a non-stop trip from Moscow to Montreal.
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7. Boeing 707
Socialist Republic of Romania
A dictator’s aircraft you could actually go online and buy this year! You’d have had to outbid a private aerial refuelling contractor to get it. In storage for years, this 707 was bought by Omega Air and converted to approximate a Boeing KC-135 aerial refuelling tanker. The opportunity for this was, ahem, dictated by the underperformance of USAF programmes intended to replace their fast-ageing KC-135s. Where to start with the ironies? A long-time Marxist leader travelling about in a symbol of western privilege and consumerism from the heyday of mid-century air travel? Now it’s a privately-owned gas truck for the Pentagon in its so-called ‘Forever Wars’. As Ceausescu’s nepotistic regime became unpopular he imposed a ferocious austerity with a cruel rationing of daily essentials for the masses. His cult of personality falters and collapses. His own country is left an economic cripple and international pariah. Even Moscow starts to find Ceausescu repellent and before long a coup sweeps him from power and into the next world with a bullet. Unlike the Shah of Iran, Ceausescu, and his equally detested wife, were not able to flee in their luxury, long range airliner with a custom interior said to be equal to America’s Air Force One.
Non-political technical point: the tube protruding forward from the top of the 707’s vertical tail is an HF radio antenna.
6. Boeing 747
Imperial State of Iran
From 1953 until 1978 Iran was perhaps America’s single most important client state. Washington took its management of the oil-rich, strategically-placed nation with extreme seriousness. Braced by US patronage and unchecked police brutality, Shah Reza Pahlavi ruled Iran for a quarter century.
Oil and gas export revenue let Iran spend lavishly on infrastructure and imported food and weapons from the west. In such a reality a wide-bodied, twin-aisle, two-deck passenger jet would have seemed like a natural platform for conversion into a super-luxury air yacht for the Shah.
By 1978, he had done so much harm he managed to trigger an unstoppable Muslim fundamentalist counter attack. The collapse of US-Iranian relations sent shock waves through the Middle East. Indeed the world felt them and continues to watch the Persian Gulf with a weary geopolitical eye. How bad had it all gone by 1978? Well, the man who modelled his governance on the great Persian emperors had to flee for his life in that personal Jumbo Jet. The one with gold toilet fittings.
Non-political technical point: maximum takeoff weight for -200 and -300 series 747s is equal to about 378 Jaguar E-type FHC sports cars.
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5. Ilyushin Il-96-300PU
Oil and gas revenue mixing with nationalist oligarchy results in some interesting privileges for the ones in charge. Post-Communist Russia is no exception. Rappers, Saudi Princes, upper echelon athletes, tech billionaires, hedge fund managers and even Donald Trump may have something to envy in Vladimir Putin’s executive airplane. With its sheer size, long range and very shiny interiors this aircraft embodies concentrated political and economic power in the age of a fractious global economy gone hog wild. Where a western lottery winner or mid-level celebrity gets an Embraer EMB-500 Phenom Vlad gets a flying five-star-plus hotel and command post. Naturally enough, the top dog in a nuclear-armed country physically larger than all others should have a hot, thoroughly modern aircraft at his disposal. This is absolutely what that looks like. Mr. Putin was elected, yes, but Russia’s recent backsliding on democracy and the fact he embodies the deeply historical Russian preference for ultra-strong leaders earns this ex-KGB officer and his ride a place on our list.
Non-political technical point: the long dorsal fairing on the 300PU model is not found on the commercial versions of the Il-96 and suggests an allocation of communications and protective electronic warfare systems deemed appropriate to Mr. Putin.
4. Mil Mi-8 Hip EW-001DA
Republic of Belarus
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head! So goes the nursery rhyme in 1984, George Orwell’s chilling novel of totalitarian life. Official news clips from Belarus this summer show us that novel will probably never be irrelevant. In them, we see President Victor Lukashenko flying back to Minsk in a Mil Mi-8, AKS-74U at his knee. Clad in a tactical vest we see the unsmiling leader of a nation in turmoil barking orders into a phone. He surveys a highway jammed with protestors he has earlier that day referred to as vermin. On the ground to oversee forceful countermeasures to a sustained democracy movement, Lukashenko stops to hail a squad of black-clad riot police. Having rigged his country’s last election to appear to have given him an 80% majority the autocratic and corrupt Lukashenko must now cope with a massive populist backlash. Delivering Eastern Europe’s equivalent of Tony Montana that day in August was an absolute classic of Soviet era helicopter development, a Mil Mi-8. The one-time workhorse of the Warsaw Pact is a wonderful platform and in the case of Belarus case probably highly effective in all the wrong jobs.
Non-political technical point: the ‘Hip’ series made its first flight in 1961 and is still in production making it the most-produced helicopter in history.
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3. Dassault Aviation Falcon 900
Syrian Arab Republic
The brutal news from Syria’s civil war, amplified at every turn by foreign intervention, makes the presence of any luxury jet a bit of a mind-bender. And what a toy for the man residing over such a heartbreaking mess, Bashar al-Assad. At the factory gate in France a Falcon 900 is worth over US$40 million. Adding a luxury master suite with full bathroom and then communications and security gear for someone with a serious penchant for control and this aircraft comes to symbolise high privilege wrapped in a cloak of evil. Fast moving and capable of unrefuelled trips of many thousands of kilometres the Falcon is perfect for the diplomatic pouch and other high-level errands. Fleeing from disaster should also be easy in a Falcon. As long as you had a place to go and could trust the crew and your security detail, that is. Soon enough, neither may be a reasonable expectation for Mr. Assad.
Non-political technical point: the 900 series Falcons feed air to the centre engine via an S-duct like the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar did.
2. Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor Immelman I
Hitler didn’t like flying. As an aspiring European land emperor he would have been fine with luxurious working trips on a well-protected private train. Before his ascension to power, Hitler overcame his fear to tap the time-saving economics of flying to rallies and appointments. Nazi propaganda made strong use of imagery of Hitler rushing about the country in planes or coming down from the clouds to Nuremberg. His rich sponsors supported his air travel at first. Then official aircraft were available after 1933. The Junkers Ju-52/3m, sensible and rugged with its corrugated metal skin and three engines, was just right for the hectic early days. Later, the speed and altitude performance of a four-engined aircraft was recommended by his personal pilot, an SS officer named Hans Bauer. Remembered for an early period of success in the Battle of the Atlantic, the elegant Condor was a natural choice of transport for Hitler. Bauer was an important part of a retinue that catered to the führer. He carried the registration numbers two-six-zero-zero over to the Condor in deference to Hitler’s superstitiousness, for example. He also saw to the aircraft’s meticulous inspections including Hitler’s comfy chair which had an armoured back plate half an inch thick. Extreme secrecy and a flight of single-engine fighters usually saw to the Condor’s protection.
Non-political technical point: in 1938 a Condor prototype was the first aeroplane to fly from Berlin to New York City non-stop and did so fitted with two-bladed propellers. It was fitted with a fuselage full of temporary fuel tanks so wasn’t a standard flight. With passengers and baggage a more normal range would be Berlin to Athens, which was still quite good for the era.
1. Savoia-Marchetti S.M. 81 Pipistrello Tataruga
Of all the murderous idiots upending the world in the last century Mussolini is perhaps the one who most embodies the inextricable relationship between Fascism and aviation. As a young journalist he was thrilled by the speed and dynamism of this new, new thing. The conquest of the air meant a radical new world. In power after 1922 Mussolini invested heavily in Italy’s civil and military aviation.
Il Duce, thanks to Allied wartime propaganda, is remembered as a nasty clown with a case of Hitler envy. He was a qualified pilot in his younger days, however. Later, Mussolini’s personal enthusiasm for aviation informed his choice of executive aircraft. For flights from Rome to Italy’s regions or countries neighbouring his own the Pipistrello was perfect. A militarised version of an airliner of moderate performance it was given a special white paint job, too. Mussolini’s Pipistrello was camouflage painted as the war ground on and notably it managed to survive Italy’s defeat.
In service until the 1950s, the Pipistrello had an easier fate than its most privileged passenger. When he was deposed and waiting for his execution by Communist partisans Mussolini must have looked back on his Pipistrello and so many life moments in the air with fondness, even gratitude. The hour he spent at the controls of Hitler’s Kondor perhaps cheered Il Duce a little before he was shot then hung up and mutilated in public. Hitler had invited his ally to tour their diabolical handiwork in Russia and Ukraine. On the way back, Mussolini asked to fly the big Condor. Intra-dictator etiquette being what it was nobody could refuse. Accounts of the flight record an increase in cabin tension as Mussolini adjusted his seat straps and took the controls. Hans Bauer remained in the cockpit as co-pilot. Mussolini flew steadily westward asking Bauer to work the throttles as the Itailan dictator gently completed a half dozen wide banking turns because he could. How many perished in the greatest war in human history during that single hour of airborne indulgence?
Non-political technical point: the Pipistrello entered service before the S.M. 79 Sparviero the much more powerful bomber/torpedo bomber it closely resembles.
(Dishonourable mention: Erich Honecker’s An-26)