By Carlos Camacho
CARACAS -- Former President Hugo Chavez’s $75 million, customized Airbus luxury jetplane is missing.
Chavez had ordered the Airbus A319 jet after seeing one belonging to a sheik of the United Arab Emirates in 2001 but it has not been seen since 2013.
After an investigation by the Latin American Herald Tribune
, two things seem certain, however: the plane is not in Venezuela and, even worse, it is not in operation, air industry sources say. THE MAKER TALKS
Nobody knows where the plane is, not even the high-profile European company that made it in 2001 and sold it to Chavez.
In an email, an Airbus spokesman wrote that the company can “confirm that an Airbus ACJ319 was sold to the Venezuelan government some years ago,” adding later: “Our customers are discreet, and we respect their wishes for discretion, so unable to help you with more information about how the aircraft is being used today”.
“Discreet” is putting it mildly: reports from several sources (including a former Venezuelan Air Force pilot) have it that Chavez, at one point, turned the airplane into a flying fortress, complete with a hospital.
Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, stopped using the plane in 2013. He now flies using Russian-made planes from Cubana de Aviación, Cuba’s state owned commercial airline. Those are the planes he used this weekend, for example, in a quick trip to Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday and Monday.A FLYER SPEAKS
A source says the state commercial airline, Conviasa, is not in possession of Airbus model ACJ-319, registration AMB001 (Aviación Militar Bolivariana Uno or Bolivarian Military Aviation Number One).
“Conviasa does not have it. The plane is not in Venezuela and it is not in operation,” said a pilot who flew with the Venezuelan Air Force during Chavez’s long tenure (1999-2013) but declined to confirm if he flew with “Group 4”, the detail that operates presidential aircraft in Venezuela.
“The last thing they told me was that Chavez insisted on putting offensive capabilities, armament, inside the plane, post purchase and outside of factory specifications. That apparently damaged the plane.”BROKEN WINGS?
According to Maduro, the plane was indeed damaged in one of its wings.
A 2013 report from Spain’s El Pais
from Caracas said the plane was converted, during Chavez last months on earth, into an “air ambulance”, for flights between Caracas and Cuba, where the late President was being treated for the aggressive cancer that eventually killed him in March 2013.
The extra weight of becoming a flying oncology center could have also damaged the plane, the former Air Force pilot conceded. But he sticks to the armaments theory: Putting offensive capabilities on a luxury commercial jet damaged the equipment, perhaps beyond repair.
In a nation where two-thirds of the population live in poverty and are now experiencing life-ending shortages of food and medicine, the $75 million price tag for another presidential boondoggle was always outrageous. But that the boondoggle would end with the brand new custom jet so destroyed that it could not even fly just seems like an apt metaphor for a country with the world's largest oil reserves that is now on the brink of bankruptcy, hyperinflation and malnutrition.