One year ago, on 2nd February 2016, Daallo Airlines flight 159 departed Mogadishu bound for Djibouti. In the cockpit’s left-hand seat was an experienced Serbian captain, Vladimir (Vlatko) Vodopivec, who had no idea that this was to be his final flight. Shortly after departure, a passenger, seated in a window seat in the sixteenth row, detonated, either knowingly or unwittingly, the improvised explosive device concealed within the laptop computer he had brought on board – one given to him, after the screening checkpoint, by airport-based employees. The blast ripped a hole in the Airbus’ fuselage and sucked Abdullahi Abdisalam Borleh out of the aircraft. But the explosion had taken place at relatively low altitude and Captain Vodopivec was able to maintain control of the aircraft and return to, and safely land in, the Somali capital. On the anniversary of the attack, Philip Baum travelled to Belgrade to meet with the heroic commander to hear his account of the Daallo Airlines bombing.
PB: How long have you been flying?
VV: I started flying here, for JAT [Jugoslovenski Aerotransport], 44 years ago when I was 22 and I became a first officer. At age 28 I became a captain and then, when I was 35 or 36, I moved for the first time to Adria Airways in Slovenia. We [Serbia and Slovenia] were together at that time [as part of Yugoslavia], but then the war started - the civil war between our countries. I moved to Macedonia, then Montenegro and, after the war, to Africa, starting with Nigeria, and then Cameroon, Gambia, Egypt, Djibouti. I’ve been flying in a lot of places where there have been wars. Everywhere I go! I also flew for five years [for BelleAir] in Albania.
PB: And working for Daallo Airlines?
VV: This was a contract for Daallo. I was employed by Hermes Airlines, a Greek company. They had six aircraft, [of which] Daallo had one in Djibouti and one in Dubai and covered the countries between the United Arab Emirates and Kenya. Mostly the passengers are from Somalia; that’s where the money is also from - Somali money invested in the company. We used to go there for one month, then off for two weeks and then one month again. That’s the operation.
PB: So you were living in Somalia?
VV: No, Djibouti. We were living in the Kempinski Hotel, or, at times, in Dubai close to the airport, flying two days on, one day off; it’s a normal operation with these two Airbus A-321. Flying there, it’s really wild; you can’t compare it to normal aviation [like] in Europe, because these airports are like Mogadishu - never safe at all. You don’t have met [meteorology] reports, you don’t have communication, nothing, it’s HF [high frequency] communication. It’s a piece of asphalt and nothing else; no lights, no ILS [instrument landing system], nothing, not even NDB [non-directional beacon]; nothing. You come, if it’s good weather, you’ll land and that’s it. Especially Mogadishu, it’s dangerous. You can only use one direction for the landing because on the other side is a city, if you can call it a city. If you approach from over the city for the landing, it’s 150 metres from where they are shooting for fun! That is why we always land from the sea-side with 20-25 knots tailwind…which is not allowed, but it’s the only way. All operations there are very… shall we say…dangerous.
PB: So you had flown into Mogadishu many times?
VV: Yes. I first flew there in 1986 with JAT, but at that time it was much better - peaceful, not like now.
PB: How well did you know the crew that you were flying with last February?
VV: Well, as we spent a month there [on each tour of duty], living like a family; three [sets of] crew on the two aircraft. The crew [on D3 159] was what you would call ‘international’: two girls from Greece, one girl from Bosnia and the other three were local staff - two guys and one girl were from Kenya and two from Djibouti. Every crew is the same: three locals and three from other countries. We always had six cabin crew.
PB: And with you on the flight deck?
VV: On the flight deck were only the captain and first officer. We had generally very, very young and inexperienced first officers because that was the policy of Hermes company. The guys go there and pay to fly because they need 500 hours to try to find a job somewhere else.
PB: So where was your first officer from?