Algeria's missing flight AH5017
Operation Serval's final mission
Jul 24th 2014, 19:38 by C.B. | BAMAKO
Update: The wreckage of airliner AH5017 has been found in Mali. The Burkinabe army has said that the plane crashed about 50km from the border with Burkina Faso.
TWO French fighter jets screamed across northern Mali on Thursday not in pursuit of terrorists, but on a far more tragic sortie. At 1.50am Air Algeria AH5017 disappeared, possibly over the country. The plane was an MD-83, carrying 116 people from Oaugadougou, Burkina Faso to Algiers. Onboard were passengers from France, Burkina Faso, Lebanon and elsewhere, and a Spanish crew. Its pilots were apparently told to alter course to avoid bad weather before contact with the flight was lost. Algeria has sent a C-130 aircraft and Mali is also looking, but the French military lead the search.
Operation Serval was launched in Mali in 2013 to drive terrorists from its northern cities. This month François Hollande, France's president, declared the mission victorious, revised the mandate and changed its name, with effect from August 1st. Although the French use Malian sky freely, they do not control it. "Malian air space is not our business", says Captain Alyssa Houdria. So they did not track the incoming plane.
The military dismisses the idea that AH5017 could have been shot down. "It's very difficult to shoot an anti-air missile in such [weather] conditions," said Captain Houdria, and "terrorists in Mali do not have that kind of capacity." In fact, there have been no surface-to-air strikes since the conflict began in 2012, though one helicopter was downed by rifle fire.
A better explanation may worry frequent air travellers. Large passenger aircraft can cope with bad weather, up to a point. An experienced commercial pilot described the unique conditions over the region. Pilots usually try to avoid cumulonimbus, or thunder clouds, by flying around or above them. In this region, however, "you get much bigger cumulonimbus than anywhere else in the world…while in Europe they're only 25,000 feet tall, over Africa, they are monsters". Squall lines can stretch hundreds of kilometers during the rainy season, and thick dust was reported in northern Mali throughout the night. A combination of awful weather, equipment failure, isolation and late-night flying may have contributed to what is expected to be a terrible outcome.
As dusk fell, amid the blows of another storm, AH5017 is still officially missing. With 51 French citizens lost, Mr Hollande has committed fully to the investigation, and Serval may deploy its drones to search overnight. MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, has several hospitals, Apache helicopters and hundreds of troops across the north. Its members usually worry about bullets and bombs, not wreckage and recovery. But should the plane be found, they "are the entity with the biggest presence", and are prepared to help. Kind words to describe mournful work in some of the most difficult terrain in the world.