11 July 2015

The Rocky History of Ariana Afghan Airlines

Ariana's logo- note the use of the Pan Am font
Prior to the Second World War, air services to Afghanistan were adventurous to say the least, given the inhospitable terrain of the area. Most air links to South Asia of the day that connected the region to Europe passed via India and were controlled by primarily the British. The first air links to Afghanistan, however, came by way of the Soviet Union starting on 14 September 1926 when the Russian airline Dobrolyot connected Kabul to the other Central Asian cities under Soviet control with Junkers F13 monoplanes. Dobrolyot was founded in 1923 to develop air services in the Soviet Union and in 1932 it was Dobrolyot that formed the nucleus of a new airline, Aeroflot. Dobrolyot's air services to Kabul continued until the outbreak of the Second World War. Interestingly enough, Dobrolyot was not the only foreign airline active in Afghanistan in the interwar period- DLH (Deutsche Luft Hansa, predecessor to today's Lufthansa) also opened air services to Afghanistan. At the time, DLH was looking to extend its route network to China where there were substantial German business interests. However, remaining bitterness from the First World War stymied DLH's attempts to open routes to China via India, so going through Afghanistan was seen as a short cut around British influence in the area. DLH extended its network eastward from Istanbul to Baghdad in October 1937 and then extended again from Iraq to the Iranian capital of Teheran in April 1938. Two weeks later, DLH extended its network again, this time connecting the Afghan cities of Kabul and Herat via Teheran and at the time, it was the furthest corner of DLH's airline network. Services ended abruptly, though, in August 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War. 

Air services to Afghanistan were spotty at best and ad hoc for the duration of the Second World War  and aside from a small air mail service using Hawker Hart biplanes, it would be an American businessman in India who would forge new air links into Afghanistan again at the end of the war. New York native Peter Baldwin had served with the US Army Air Force in India during the war and returned in 1945 leading a US government mission to oversee the disposal of surplus USAAF aircraft in the region. His job finished, he elected to stay in India and in 1947 formed a company in Bombay (Mumbai today) for the sales of light aircraft and airport equipment. By 1950, he had his own fleet of thirteen Douglas DC-3s that he was flying all over the region on charter flights all over India, the Middle East and as far as Africa. His small charter operation even operated Hajj flights to Mecca. It was in this capacity that he came into partnership with the Afghan government. 

The DC-3 services were a boon to a country without railroads.
In 1951, the Kabul government established a branch of the Royal Afghan Air Force that was tasked with civil aviation development with Colonel Gulbar Khan as the head of what was called the "Hawabazi Mulki". Colonel Khan worked out a partnership with Peter Baldwin to form a new Afghan airline which was established on 27 January 1955 as Aryana Afghan Airlines in Kabul with Peter Baldwin holding 49% ownership of the airline and the Kabul government owning 51%. I haven't been able to determine if the airline's first three DC-3 aircraft were from Baldwin's charter operation, but it would make sense given his signifcant ownership in the new venture. The first services were launched at the end of 1955 connecting Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north near the Soviet border via the city of Kunduz. What had taken a week on the region's poor roads now only took three hours. 

During the Pan Am years, the Ariana chief pilot was a Pan Am pilot
On 27 June 1956, the Kabul government signed an air transport and development agreement with the United States. At the time, both the Soviet Union and the United States were eager to get Kabul's business and the Afghans astutely played both sides off each other to get economic development agreements. The air agreement with the United States included Pan American buying out Peter Baldwin's interest in Aryana. As a result, Pan Am become responsible for all operational and technical matters and also changed the spelling of the airline's name to Ariana, ostensibly to eliminate any possible references to the word "Aryan" that had been corrupted by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. On 3 June 1956, an Ariana Douglas DC-4 with an all-Afghan crew trained by Pan Am departed New York for Kabul to begin Hajj flights to Mecca. The DC-3s were used for internal domestic services that connected Kabul to Herat, Kandahar, Kunduz, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Maimana. New Delhi was connected to Kabul via the Indian city of Armistar and Karachi, the Pakistani port city, was connected via Kandahar. The DC-4 was used to connect Kabul to Teheran, Beirut and Damascus via Kandahar where American economic development funds were used to build a modern airport and terminal facility. 

Ariana launched services to Europe on 11 September 1959 on what they called the "Marco Polo Route" which used the DC-4 on services to the Turkish capital of Ankara via Beirut. The flight then continued on to Prague and then terminated in Frankfurt. The airline had to replace its DC-4 with a larger DC-6B as adventurous European tourists began to fly the "Marco Polo Route" to Kabul. The airline soon found that it was more profitable for the DC-6B services to bypass Kabul and instead fly Kandahar to New Delhi. Political instability in the region in the 1960s resulted in the termination of services to Karachi and the services that connected Frankfurt to New Delhi could only be flown twice a month- soon after, European services were cut altogether with Ariana's westernmost destination being Beirut by 1962.

Ariana Afghan 727-200
Ariana was near dormant when American development funds arrived again in 1963. This was a time of superpower rivalry and Afghanistan was no different than any other non-aligned nation of the time that had both American and Soviet interests competing for influence. Ariana got an extremely low-interest loan (it was pretty much a gift) that included a second Douglas DC-6 and two ex-Pan American Convair CV-340s to replace the DC-3 on the domestic services. A third CV-340 was purchased from Allegheny Airlines and this allowed a return to Karachi via Kandahar as diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan improved. In July 1965, Ariana opened DC-6 services to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in a pooling agreement with Aeroflot and in the following month, services to Europe resumed with DC-6 services from both Kabul and Kandahar to London Gatwick, stopping only in Beirut and Frankfurt. In April 1968, Ariana got its first jet equipment with a Boeing 727-100 which replaced the DC-6s on the European services. The route to London was reconfigured to route via Teheran, Istanbul and Frankfurt, but as Ariana had no fifth freedom rights, only Kabul/Kandahar-bound passengers could be boarded at London Gatwick. That first 727 crashed in dense fog on approach to London on 5 January 1969, but two more 727s were added- the first a lease from World Airways that was bought outright and a second purchase from Executive Jet Aviation, arriving in 1971. 

Ariana Afghan Airlines Tu-154- note the continued use of the Pan Am font!
The domestic routes of Ariana were spun off under a subsidiary airline called Bakhtar Afghan Airlines. This was a political move more than anything else as some Afghan officials wanted to limit US influence in the northern tier of cities along the Soviet frontier- this was accomplished by cutting Pan Am out of Bakhtar's operations. In 1973, Bakhtar took delivery of three Yakovlev Yak-40 trijets, becoming one of the few non-Soviet client state customers for the 28-seat feeder jet. Pan Am was still needed in the Ariana international operation, though, as Pan Am sold Ariana a Boeing 720B on very generous terms (again, it was pretty much a gift) in May 1973. That year, though, on the heels of a severe drought 1971-1972, Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan seized power in a non-violent coup, deposing King Zahir Shah and ending the Afghan monarchy. A republic was proclaimed to institute economic reforms but only political instability was established as various Afghan leaders relying on tribal loyalties began to vie for control of the country. A series of coups followed starting in 1978, but despite this, Ariana launched Douglas DC-10 Series 30 services with a single aircraft in October 1979 on its services to London which could now be served nonstop. On 24 December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan which for all intents and purposes ended Ariana's operations. The two 727s and DC-10 were parked and eventually sold off under Soviet pressure by 1985. Its regional subsidiary, Bakhtar, took over Ariana's operations with two Tupolev Tu-154M aircraft starting in 1987, but the following year the Ariana name was resurrected and Bakhtar's domestic routes and operations folded into Ariana. 

Ariana's sole Douglas DC-10
The country descended into outright civil war following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Communist President Najibullah's regime only lasted to 1992 and with the Taliban takeover in 1996, worldwide sanctions crippled what was left of Ariana's operation. Pakistan set up a temporary maintenance base for the airline in Karachi, and only Dubai remained as the airline's only international destination. During the Taliaban's regime, Al-Qaeda operatives were given Ariana identification to allow them to move arms, personnel and opium shipments between Dubai and Pakistan. There were indications that Russian arms dealers were operating Ariana during this period. By November 2001, only a month before US-led forces toppled the Taliban regime, Ariana was finally grounded for good. Ariana would be resurrected in the post-Taliban era, but that's a subject for another blog posting in the future!

Source: Airlines of Asia Since 1920 by R.E.G. Davies. Palawdr Press, 1997, pp 84-88. Photos: Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos, Wikipedia, National Archives

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