The Ghost Plane of Faya-Largeau
What did the French shoot down over Chad in July 1988?
After years of conflict, on Sept. 10, 1987, Chad and Libya agreed to a ceasefire the next day at noon. However, Libyan air patrols continued. Indeed, Muammar Gaddafi seemed to believe any military action short of an actual attack was acceptable.
Not coincidentally, in October the United States handed over the first Stinger missiles to the armed forces of Chad. On Oct. 8, the Chadians shot down a Libyan Su-22 and a MiG-23.
In March 1988, French forces in Chad were on alert. Intelligence had warned of significant troop movements in southern Libya. France added defenses to air bases at Timou, Tanoua and Maaten-es-Sara to make them less vulnerable to Chadian raids.
But the Libyans didn’t attack.
In early July 1988, French troops were again on alert. Between July 7 to 9, the Chadian and Libyan foreign ministers met in Libreville, Gabon. The French feared the Libyans would launch an offensive during the meeting.
At top — a Libya C-130H. Above — A Libyan Mirage 5DR. Albert Grandolini collection
At the French base in Faya-Largeau, air-defense was the responsibility of the 35th Airborne Artillery Regiment. The regiment had three Stinger teams arranged in three positions around a local hill called the Rock of Mao. To separate friend from foe, friendly aircraft were required to arrive at a certain altitude while facing the rock and turn on their landing lights.
On July 7 and 8, the Libyan air force flew a series of reconnaissance sorties — probably with Mirage 5DRs and MiG-25Rs — over Bardai, Ounianga Kebir and … Faya Largeau.
Around eight o’clock at night on July 7, an unidentified transport plane approached Faya Largeau at an altitude of about 400 or 500 meters. It made a pass without respecting the identification criteria, with its rear cargo door open and streaming some kind of vapor.
The French sounded a chemical alert and troops donned masks and protective clothing. Gunners received permission to open fire. During its second pass, the aircraft – by then identified as a C-130 – switched on its headlights. When it was around four kilometers away, all three missile teams fired their Stingers.
The first Stinger developed a technical problem, the second self-destructed after reaching the end of its trajectory — and the third hit the target and detonated.
It was dark. The area where the aircraft should have crashed was heavily mined and inaccessible. The next morning a French Atlantic patrol plane circled the area for 15 minutes and then disappeared.
French troops with a FIM-92 Stingers in Chad in 1987. Photo via the author
French commanders abruptly pulled some of the Stinger crews from duty and replaced them with fresh personnel, all without anyone ever confirming what exactly they had shot down.
It remains a mystery what the regiment shot down that night. One possibility is that it was a Libyan C-130H. At least as likely is the prospect that it was a friendly transport – perhaps one of the Lockheed L-100s — civilian C-130s — known to have been chartered by various U.S. intelligence agencies for their own purposes.
Five days later, another plane flew over Faya-Largeau under similar conditions, but this time without the rear cargo door open. No one opened fire.
According to Ahmad Allam-Mi, Chadian ambassador to France between 1982 and 1990, the French had informed the Chadians of the overflight at Faya Largeau by an aircraft that was “probably” Libyan — and that other overflights had also taken place that same night over Bardai and Ounianga Kebir.
But Libyan chief negotiator El Houdeiri vehemently protested, saying that his country was not involved in these flights. Instead, the Libyans told the Chadians that unspecified “countries opposed to a peace accord” had organized the flights in the hope of derailing the ongoing talks.
We may never know the truth.