Being hit by a Russian missile while flying over Mali? The first union of Air France pilots has taken this threat very seriously since the publication, on February 23, of a note from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration, the American agency responsible for civil aviation in the United States) on flight safety in this country. This note indeed revealed the presence near Bamako of a “new SA-22 air defense system (Pantsir)”, controlled by “a foreign military force”, in this case the mercenaries of the Russian company Wagner.
“The Pantsir is a radar-guided surface-to-air missile (SAM) system capable of engaging targets up to 49,000 feet (15,000 meters) with a range of 19.4 nautical miles (36 kilometers)”, specifies Note. However, as Wagner “is known for his unprofessional and brutal tactics during his operations in Libya, the Central African Republic and Mozambique”, there is danger for civilian flights.
“Weapons could pose a potential risk to aircraft at all altitudes, during overflight, landing, takeoff and parking phases of aircraft,” the FAA said. As a result, the agency “advises U.S. civil aviation to exercise caution when flying into, within, or over Malian territory and airspace at all altitudes.” .
Faced with this situation, Air France’s first pilots’ union, the SNPL Air France-Transavia, “invites its members, and the pilots who so wish, to exercise their right of withdrawal in order not to carry out flights to Bamako, in the current state of affairs”.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17
A paranoid scenario? The precedent of Malaysia Airlines commercial flight MH17, shot down in eastern Ukraine in February 2014 by pro-Russian separatists using a Moscow-supplied missile, killing all 298 passengers and crew, calls for caution. For the time being, however, Air France, like all the other airlines, is maintaining its flights, i.e. a daily rotation: “At this stage, service to Bamako is unchanged,” she specified.
To these surface-to-air missiles placed by the Russians near Bamako is added the delivery by Moscow and Ankara, Thursday, March 16, of several combat planes. According to the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Alou Boï Diarra, Mali has been provided by these two countries with around twenty planes and a dozen drones.
Albatross, Bayraktars, Sukhoi and Mi-8s
The batch would contain Albatros L-39, a Czech-designed aircraft initially intended for training but often used as an attack aircraft, and Turkish-made Bayraktar-TB2 drones, capable of carrying out reconnaissance and surveillance missions, adjustment of artillery fire and air strikes, said the Minister of Defense, Colonel Sadio Camara.
On January 19, Mali had already received several war planes and helicopters delivered by Russia: Sukhoi Su-25, ground attack and close support aircraft of Soviet design, and Albatros L-39. And Mi-8 helicopters used for transporting troops and equipment and which can be armed to support soldiers on the ground, of Soviet design.