The luxury jet given to Swazi king Mswati III as a “birthday present” last week appears to have been subjected to “aircraft laundering” to conceal its origins, an amaBhungane investigation indicates.
The investigation also strongly suggests that the price of the refitted aircraft is likely to have been much higher than the maximum $2-million estimated by experts last week.
One knowledgeable aeroplane spotter believed it could have cost up to $20-million.
Mswati’s jet is an MD-87, a longer-range, more modern and considerably more expensive version of the first-generation MacDonnell Douglas DC-9, which ceased production in the early 1980s.
Last week, Swazi Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini misleadingly announced that a DC-9 had been donated to Mswati by “a development partner”.
In addition, the aeroplane’s interior appears to have undergone a major VIP conversion before delivery to Swaziland.
It has been established that, in March 2010, it was flown to Goderich Aircraft in Ontario, Canada, which specialises in custom luxury conversions of midsize business jets.
It is possible that the aircraft had already been sold or pledged to Swaziland when the upgrade took place.
A converted MD-87 shown on Goderich’s website accommodates 36 passengers.
“The elegantly designed interior encompasses a stunning combination of earth tone, soft-good finishes and rich red maple burl high-gloss woodwork,” the website says.
The refit included a private stateroom with access en suite, a luxury VIP lounge with an executive work station and a SkyPro in-flight entertainment system, including telephone, fax, WiFi, Blu-ray DVD and moving map display, “fully featured VIP seating for premium comfort, and forward and aft gourmet galleys — for a refined dining experience”.
Aviation expert Linden Birns, managing director of Plane Talking, estimated that equipping the aircraft for presidential use would have doubled its price.
The aeroplane spotter, who asked not to be named, said: “The VIP interior of a jet is a very costly exercise, because it requires specialist cabinetry work and also additional certification for airworthiness due to the non-standard [that is, non-airline] interior of the jet.”
“Some of these VIP jets have extremely luxurious interiors.
It is specialised work, so there are few bespoke interior completion centres worldwide. Most of them are in the United States or Europe.”
He estimated the total cost of the converted aircraft at between $15-million and $20-million.
If Mswati’s jet includes such VIP features — and the king is not renowned for his frugality —it is likely to fuel the controversy sparked by the Swazi government’s announcement that he had received the plane as a 44th birthday present.
The mass of Swazis have sunk more deeply into poverty as a consequence of the fiscal crisis triggered by sharply falling Southern African Customs Union receipts.
The price tag raises further doubts about Dlamini’s claims that it was donated by a private well-wisher.
There has been speculation that an Indian firm with iron mining interests in Swaziland, Salgaocar, might have given the plane to the king.
The Mail & Guardian once again tried to obtain comment from Salgaocar in Goa, India, this week, but was told that although Mbabane-based Salgaocar Swaziland was “a member of the same family”, the India-based company was an independent operation.
The chief executive of Salgaocar Swaziland, Sivarama Petla, could not be reached for comment.
A company official, Nomcebo Dlamini, was said to be on a trip to China.
Asked about the refurbishment of the jet and whether it was for Mswati, Goderich marketing director Andy Orr said: “Sorry, we don’t comment on that.”
From the jet’s tail number — N871SG — it proved possible to track its delivery flight in April this year from London International Airport to Ontario’s Centralia Airport, then to Gander in far eastern Canada, south to Miami, Florida, in the United States and then to Guararapes Airport in the Brazilian coastal town of Recife.
It made one further stop in Africa en route to Swaziland — in Windhoek.
On April 27 the aircraft’s US registration was cancelled with a note that it had been “exported to Swaziland”.
Built in 1991 and originally used by Japan Airlines, the MD-87 was sold in about 2007 and then transferred via two unknown companies, Richard Trudell and Engine and Aircraft Support, to an opaque US company, Aircraft Guaranty Corporation.
Aircraft Guaranty specialises in offering US registration to foreign-owned aircraft, but with ownership details often hidden behind a series of trust accounts, notably in the Cayman Islands.
On its website, it boasts that it provides clients, whether US-based or international, with “ownership entities and structures that offer maximum anonymity of ownership, protection from liability claims and tax-reduction benefits”.
The Houston firm, founded in 1997 by retired US Army officer Connie Woods, has been linked as the purported owner to a number of aeroplanes identified as allegedly belonging to the Central Intelligence Agency and used in “extraordinary renditions” of suspected terrorists.
They include the Gulfstream business jet used to transfer Pakistani national Khalid Rashid from South Africa to Pakistan in 2005.
After its conversion by Goderich, which the aeroplane spotter said was likely to have taken 18 months depending on the complexity of the refit, the plane was transferred to Wells Fargo Bank trustees, another opaque ownership vehicle.
The MD-87’s earlier history is also tinged with controversy.
It appears to have been sold to the Grandmax Group, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands and owned and controlled by Nina Tantiprasongchai.
Nina is the wife of Udom Tantiprasongchai, who runs Thailand’s low-cost Orient Thai airline.
Controversial for its safety record, Orient Thai’s One-Two-Go OG269 crashed in Phuket, Thailand, on September 16 2007, killing 88 passengers.
Online registration records show that in early December 2007 the aircraft was ferried from Tokyo to Hong Kong and Bangkok.
Grandmax appears to have been an intermediary, because the same records show that the aircraft was bought by Aircraft and Engine Support on February 19 2008.
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. All views are the centre’s. www.amabhungane.co.za.