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9U-BBB: the mysterious yellow and black Antonov An-26
It is late 2020. Two small and unknown airlines operating out of Juba, South Sudan, upload photos and videos of a yellow and black Antonov An-26 transport aircraft to Facebook. After flying in South Sudan for a few months, including flights for a UN organization, this aircraft would be seen at a military base in another African country torn by a civil war: Libya.
In recent months, I have been trying to get more information about this aircraft, 9U-BBB, and its whereabouts: a trail that starts in Bulgaria around 2015, continues into South Sudan in 2020 and goes dark in Libya in 2021.
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Bulgarian Air Force An-26 reg. 087
According to Russianplanes.net, a total of five Antonov An-26s were delivered to the Bulgarian Air Force. Four of them were delivered in 1984 and 1985. A fifth was delivered later, in 1998. Four were phased out in 2014-2016 and subsequently moved to different airlines. One of these is serial 14209, delivered to the Bulgarian Air Force in 1985, registered 087. After the aircraft was phased out, she remained in storage at Sofia International Airport until 2020.
In early 2020, 087 was first seen in her current and very distinctive yellow and black color scheme - the only An-26 globally with this color scheme that I am aware of. According to Airhistory.net, the An-26 was first seen in this color scheme on 16 Feb 2020. Judging by Sentinel-2 imagery, she first parked outside (at 42.699821, 23.410084) in this color scheme on or before 20 Dec 2019, about two months earlier.
About half a year later, on 20 Jul 2020, the An-26 was first spotted on Russianplanes.net by Marius Höpner, now parked at 42.699568, 23.410675. Google Earth imagery taken 14 Aug 2020 shows her parked on the same location. A geolocation showing both images is shown below.
In the months that followed, two small airlines published pictures of the An-26 on social media: Eastman Air Solutions and Optimum Aviation Ltd.
Eastman Air Solutions
Very little is known about this airline. Their Facebook page was first created on 25 Jun 2019. According to one of their Facebook posts, they are based at Juba International Airport in South Sudan, and fly to Yida every Tuesday and Saturday. One of their Facebook post includes a Gmail address and two +211 South Sudanese phone numbers.
Their Facebook page has two pictures of the yellow and black Antonov An-26, uploaded on 04 Dec 2020. These pictures are taken at Sofia International Airport. A comparison between Google Earth 3D buildings and the two Facebook pictures makes clear that the An-26 was parked around 42.699746, 23.410020 at the time.
At the time of first finding these pictures during the summer of 2022, I was still unaware of her registration, location and history. However, they reminded me of the analysis I did for a Twitter post I made on 18 Nov 2020, which was about Air Libya aircraft receiving maintenance in Sofia. As it turned out, memory served me right: it was at this very same location that the An-26 was parked!
This geolocation allowed me to browse through pictures taken at Sofia International Airport, which is how I eventually found the Russianplanes picture presented above - confirming her registration is 9U-BBB.
According to Airhistory.net, 9U-BBB was scheduled to fly to Alexandria in Egypt on 27 Oct 2020. Flightradar24 playback confirms that an aircraft (unknown Mode-S code 257113 and callsign 33278VAF) indeed flew from Sofia towards Africa on that date, last tracked just east of Crete around 14:30 UTC.
Optimum Aviation Ltd
On 30 October 2020, the Optimum Aviation Ltd Facebook page was created. Their Facebook page lists two websites (optimumaviation.co and aviation.optimum.com), neither of which are functional at the time of writing. Like Eastman, their contact details include a Gmail address and two +211 phone numbers (different from the Eastman numbers).
Judging by photos and videos on their Facebook page, they operate various aircraft models, including Antonov An-26, An-28 as well as Ilyushin Il-76. One of these An-26s is 9U-BBB.
Pictures on the page confirm registration 9U-BBB, and show a red Optimum Aviation logo on the tail, which was not visible on earlier images taken in Sofia. The pictures show cargo being loaded onto/unloaded from an IOM (United Nations International Organization for Migration) truck and were uploaded in November 2020.
A later picture, uploaded in December 2020, shows a truck and a pick-up truck parked up behind 9U-BBB. Since the truck is parked right rather than left of 9U-BBB, it is likely a different flight. All three pictures were most likely made at Juba International Airport.
A video uploaded to Facebook by Optimum Aviation Ltd on 03 Nov 2020 shows 9U-BBB taking off from Juba International Airport. One Google Earth image, taken 13 Nov 2020, also shows 9U-BBB on ground at Juba. A geolocation of this video as well as the Google Earth image can be seen below.
Other Optimum Aviation aircraft and a crash
On 02 Nov 2021, an Antonov An-26 crashed shortly after take-off in Juba, South Sudan. According to The Aviation Herald, the director of Juba Airport identified the operator of the aircraft to be Optimum Aviation Ltd. Optimum Aviation Ltd themselves disputed this claim and stated the aircraft was registered TR-NGT operated by Euro Airlines instead. This claim is apparently supported by a cargo manifest. However, The Aviation Herald adds “no trace of this airline "Euro Airlines" based in South Sudan could be found” and “TR-NGT appears to be a fake registration". According to Airhistory.net, this aircraft had an “all white color scheme with light blue tail and rear fuselage”. Since 9U-BBB recently got a yellow and black color scheme, it seems unlikely that TR-NGT is 9U-BBB. However, other aircraft seen around 9U-BBB seem good candidates.
Two white An-26s with a blue tail, blue rear fuselage and blue cheatline can be seen on 3D Google Earth data of Sofia International Airport, on the same location where 9U-BBB was prepared. An identical Antonov An-26 can be seen in a Facebook video uploaded by Optimum Aviation Ltd on 03 Nov 2020. It shows a white and blue An-26 taxiing while 9U-BBB takes off from Juba International Airport. The sighting of this blue and white An-26 at both Sofia and Juba suggests that 9U-BBB may not be the only one that was brought into Africa in this way.
Although the worded description of the crashed aircraft matches the two blue and white An-26s seen in Sofia and Juba, the shade of blue of these An-26s seems darker than the blue paint seen in pictures of the crashed An-26.
Another Facebook video, uploaded by Optimum Aviation Ltd on 17 Nov 2021, shows an Ilyushin Il-76TD taxiing at Juba International Airport. In their post, they refer to this aircraft as “Our Ilyushin Il-76”. This video has been geolocated to Juba International Airport too.
The Il-76 seen the video has a grey nose cone, grey chin, black engine mounts, white fuselage and Latin “IL - 76TD” writing just below the cockpit. Assuming symmetry, this may well be TL-KMZ, a potentially Russian Mercenary-linked Il-76. I previously covered this aircraft in a blog post linked below. As we will see later, this is not the only link between 9U-BBB and TL-KMZ.
The Libya connection
In the blog post above, a satellite image of Al Khadim Air Base in Libya is presented. The same image is presented below. TL-KMZ is likely one of the Il-76s seen in the image. She remained at Al Khadim for almost two months in early 2021, after being flown into Libya from Russia in March. She was later seen regularly in Bangui in the Central African Republic. Next to her in the image is a yellow and black An-26. Given the very distinctive color scheme, this can only be one aircraft: 9U-BBB.
Although An-26s are only about 30 meters wide and Sentinel-2 imagery has a pixel size of 10x10 m, 9U-BBB can still be recognized on Sentinel-2 imagery of airports because of her distinctive combination of color and size. Juba International Airport in South Sudan last shows a recognizable yellow aircraft on 01 Feb 2021. More recent Google Earth images also do not show 9U-BBB in Juba.
The suspected 9U-BBB can be seen at Al Khadim Air Base for the first time on 16 Mar 2021, together with the first sighting of suspected TL-KMZ. She can be seen on a total of nine Sentinel-2 images between 16 Mar 2021 and 15 Apr 2021, and moved around various times during this time period. I have not been able to identify 9U-BBB anywhere since. This means that it has currently been over 1.5 years since the last sighting of 9U-BBB.
The most recent Facebook post by Eastman Air Services was posted on 04 Dec 2020, only just over a month after the aircraft was flown into Africa. Optimum Aviation Ltd Facebook posts continued until 20 Dec 2021, almost one year ago. However, the last time 9U-BBB was seen in their posts is 04 Dec 2020. It has hence been almost two years since either airline posted about this aircraft.
The current whereabouts of 9U-BBB are therefore unknown. For this reason, I have been asking around regularly to see if anybody has seen this aircraft. Following the activities of this aircraft is especially relevant given the connections to Russian Mercenary activities presented above.
If you have seen this yellow and black propellor aircraft anywhere since April 2021, please do let me know. My DMs on Twitter are open to anyone and I will keep your identity a secret if desired.