The curious tale of the Emtrasur B747-300

Gepubliceerd op 14 februari 2024 om 14:32

© Gianfranco Abrusci

On 12 February 2024, when this Jumbojet arrived at Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport (FL), having been seized by the US authorities.

So, what happened and how did this 38-year old aircraft end up in Florida?

Almost immediately after the delivery of the aircraft from Mahan Air to Emtrasur, the US put the aircraft on a “wanted”-list as the transfer was forbidden under the sanctions placed upon Iran by the US. Part of the sanctions is that it’s not allowed to deal in US-goods to and from Iran without permission from the US government, which wasn’t applied for in this case.

Knowing this, Emtrasur only operated the aircraft on cargo-flights to “friendly” destinations like Iran, Russia, Belarus, Paraguay, and Bolivia. However, from the beginning, it was suspected by the US authorities that the aircraft wasn’t always used for legal cargo but also for illegal ones like transporting weapons and counterfeit cigarettes. Especially the link with Mahan Air was a concern as this airline is backed by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard. It also seemed that the aircraft was still insured via an Iranian company.

On 6 June 2022, things went downhill for Emtrasur as the Jumbojet arrived at Buenos Aires-Ezeiza Airport from Querétaro in Mexico. The aircraft was delivering a cargo of car parts, which was all in order. However, the authorities were surprised to see the aircraft was operated by a crew of nineteen people: consisting of twelve Venezuelans and seven Iranians. The last group was a concern for the Argentinian authorities as they seemed to be members of the Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

As the Argentinian government has suspected that Iran was behind a bomb attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires on 18 July 1994, killing 84 people, both countries are no friends. This, coupled with knowing that supporting an US-sanctioned aircraft could lead to penalties from the US, meant the aircraft was denied fuel and the crew detained by the government, effectively grounding the aircraft in Buenos Aires.

A day later, on 7 June 2022, the airline filed a flight plan to Montevideo in Uruguay. This flight would have been able to be carried out as the crew wasn’t officially detained. However, the government of Uruguay decided to not grant permission and the flight was cancelled.

The Venezuelan government decided to file an emergency lawsuit with the Argentinian courts to get its plane and crew back, but this motion was denied by the judge.

On 14 June 2022, the Argentinian authorities conducted a raid on the hotel where the flight crew was staying, seizing documents, passports and electronic devices like tablets etc. Based on that they concluded that most of the passports of the Iranians were false and that the aircraft wasn’t owned by either Emtrasur or Mahan Air but by Fars Air, another Iranian airline backed by the IIRG. The CEO of Fars Air was also on board the Jumbo, which raised some eyebrows.

Based on the input from the raid, an Argentinian judge approved the official seizing of the aircraft and YV3531 was put at a corner of the airport and put under 24/7 police protection.

Interesting to note is that Emtrasur knew it wouldn’t be able to refuel at Buenos Aires. It had, therefore, made a fuel-stop in Venezuela.

© Ehsan BG

On 6 June 2022, the weather was however very bad at Ezeiza, forcing the aircraft to divert and fly to Buenos Aires later, having burned-up its reserve.

On 1 August 2022, an Argentinian judge approved the release of twelve of the nineteen crew members, allowing them to leave the country. The Jumbojet remained to be seized. A day later, the US government officially asked the Argentinian government to seize the aircraft on their behalf and transfer it to the US on a later date.

Soon after that, President Maduro of Venezuela gave a press conference, stating the seizing of the aircraft was unlawful and that it was only used to fly humanitarian aid and medicines to Venezuela from China, India and Russia.

However, by then material downloaded from the electronic devices from the crew, surfaced showing photos of boxes of weapons in the cargo hold and in front of the aircraft at an undisclosed location.

The Venezuelan government also launched a social media campaign called #DevuelvanElAvion (return the plane) to keep the pressure on.

Despite all this pressure, an Argentian judge indeed approved the US seizure on 11 August 2022. A month later, 14 September, the courts did release all remaining crew members and allowed them to leave Argentina.

On 20 October 2022, the United States District Court of Columbia, approved a request filed by the US Attorney, and ordered the aircraft to be confiscated by the US government. On 2 May 2023, the same US court ordered the execution of the confiscation, and a formal request was issued to the Argentinian Ministry of Justice.

A few months later, on 3 January 2024, the Argentinian government announced it would grant the request from the US and that the aircraft would be handed over soon. Since its grounding, the authorities had regularly turned-on the engines and taxied it around the airport.

On 8 February, YV3531 was towed into a maintenance hangar at Ezeiza and prepared for a ferry-flight, which eventually took place on 12 February 2024. For its flight it used call-sign “TYSON23” and it flew non-stop from Buenos Aires to the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport near Miami. It was flown by an American crew. At the airport a special NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) was issued, which stated that the airport was closed for 24 hours due to “military operations”.

According to a statement from the US Department of Justice, the Boeing has been successfully seized and returned to the US. It will now be prepared for “disposition”, which means the end of this tale of this aircraft.

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