THERE IS NO WARNING, just a sickening lurch upward as we abandon our flight path. A red light goes on in the cockpit. The instruments say we’re over Kabul, Afghanistan, where we’re supposed to be landing, only now we’re climbing—and we’re doing it too fast and too steep. “What’s going on?” I ask in Russian.
“Missiles,” shouts a crew member, Sergei, over the scream of the battered Ilyushin-Il-76—the Soviet-era cargo plane they’ve flown since their Red Army days. Under my feet, the gaffer-taped, 20-year-old jet groans and pops. “Here’s where they start shooting.”
For the first time, I notice he stinks, not just of sweat and oil but of booze.
“Jesus! Who?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Mujahideen. Rebels. Soldiers. Mikhail is a top pilot. He knows the airstrip from the war. He’s got this method where he lands by climbing up high over the airport, then dive-bombing the runway, like a corkscrew. You don’t get shot down that way. His trick is knowing when to pull up out of the dive. Incredible! You watch.”
Suddenly the plane levels off. The engines are almost hushed now, and an odd feeling of weightlessness washes up from the soles of my feet. It takes a moment for me to register the sudden downward tilt. Then we plummet earthward, and my stomach passes up through the top of my skull.
Against my better judgment, I lean so that I can look over the pilot’s shoulder. Mikhail is hunched forward like a man reading on the toilet or praying. Either way, I’m with him. The ground is more than very close now; it’s just yards from the nose. Pull up. For God’s sake, pull up!
The giant Ilyushin-Il-76 was the USSR’s ultimate warhorse. A monstrous cargo jet first built in the early 1970s, it saw action on every front, in every capacity. It can carry 55 tons of guns, soldiers, tanks, bombs, or anything else halfway around the world. And these days, for half a million dollars, anyone can have one. But the Il-76 also carries a secret: Beneath the floor of the cargo hold, its Soviet creators added a number of extra spaces. Originally designed for escape equipment, armaments, and classified payloads, these secret chambers don’t appear on any cargo paperwork; they won’t be checked by customs; officially, they don’t even exist. But they are there. And if you’re determined enough to fill them—and foolhardy enough to fly—then your plane will carry up to 13 extra tons of phantom cargo—cargo that some men are determined to take airborne, though it means risking their lives.
Mikhail is one of those men.
“Some people deliver letters for the post office. That’s me,” he explains, walking along the tarmac in Kabul. “Just a mailman. Only the parcels are heavier.”
I don’t know what I had expected an outlaw aviator and international gunrunner to look like, but Mikhail, whom I take to calling Mickey, is definitely not it. Heavy-boned and stooped, he looks 50, maybe more. His gaunt, ashen face carries a permanent expression of mild disappointment better suited to anti-smoking ads in hospital waiting rooms than to wanted posters at the UN.
“When the USSR broke apart,” Mickey explains, “some of us took our chance to do something different.” That something was a dramatic escape from the military and a bid for a piece of the private-enterprise pie. “We knew some people, and when they ‘acquired’ a military plane, we flew it down to Kazakhstan and, you might say, rebranded.”
Call them, and they’ll fly whatever you’ve got—guns, drugs, medical supplies—to wherever you want it. “We fly a lot of freight,” Mickey explains. “Military things. And a lot of aid.” Which has had the strange effect of turning Mickey, his men, and their “partners” into rather reluctant saints too. Because from Pakistan to Somalia, from famines to tsunamis, Mickey’s battered Ilyushin is often the first to arrive in disaster areas with lifesaving humanitarian relief. Chartered by everyone from NGOs to Western governments, these planes are regarded as agile, responsive, and able to get more aid closer to hazardous, harder-to-access disaster zones than anything else. Still, casualties are high, and the roll call of death makes for sobering reading.
Over just the past few years, an entire ex-Soviet crew and all passengers were killed when an Il-76 blew up in midair over Uganda; a Ukrainian Antonov An-12 (a Russian-built cargo plane similar to the Il-76) crashed on takeoff in Egypt, killing all on board; three out of four crew were killed while attempting a landing in the Congo; and an Il-76 on an aid run to Sudan burst into flames over Pakistan, killing all eight crew members.
Few of these airmen are putting their lives at risk for solely humanitarian purposes, however. “If you wanted to,” a former pilot told me, “you could take off with whatever you like on board, wait until you’re out of radar range, buy yourself some time by misreporting your position, divert somewhere to make an illicit rendezvous, land, unload your cargo, take on more contraband, and resume your original flight plan. In the places where these guys operate, nobody will notice if you’re 40 minutes late.”
This is a business where not everything is quite as it seems. One international monitor recently identified these Ilyushin-Il-76s as a key to the transport of narcotics, suspiciously sourced diamonds, arms to terrorists, and sanctions-busting supplies to rogue regimes like North Korea.
In this world, a cargo hold full of blankets bound for a disaster zone can apparently transform—in midair—into one of land mines for a rebel militia or bootleg goods for a local Mafia. And a flight ferrying doctors and medicine may also hold in its secret compartments the very Kalashnikovs that will be used to execute the patients.