Five decades since it last faded way, the Congolese Government has relived hope of the revival of Air Congo, the new national carrier in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after the country’s Ministry of Transport announced that plans are underway to launch a new aviation operation.
The minister disclosed that a partnership with Ethiopian Airlines is central to this new business. The national carrier of Ethiopia would take 49% of the company’s shares while DRC will control the remaining 51% of the shares.
Africa’s Aviation in the ‘60s
Until the period of independence, air services in Africa were operated largely by airlines based in Europe and the United States, or by colonial governments. The 1960s were a time of growth for national airlines throughout Africa as new nations attained their independence.
These national airlines served important functions in connecting regions underserved by rail and road infrastructure in the transportation of people and goods.
But equally as important, they also served as symbols of national identity, economic expansion, modernity, technological advancement, and a place on the world stage, carrying the flags of newly independent nations within their borders and abroad.
Air Congo’s Historical Foundation
Air Congo was originally formed in June 1961 as the national airline of the Congolese Republic, with Sabena (Societé anonyme belge d’Exploitation de la Navigation aérienne) – ‘Belgian Limited Company for the Exploitation of Aerial Navigation’ providing both technical assistance and equipment.
Initially, the Congo government had a 65% participation in the airline, Sabena had a 30% holding, and Air Brousse and Sobelair held the balance.
Short-haul services were inaugurated a year after the airline’s formation and were operated with a fleet that included 7 de Havilland Dragon Rapide airplanes, 2 Piper Apaches, 4 Piper Aztecs, and 8 Beechcraft, in addition to wide-body planes that included Douglas DC-6, DC-4, and DC-3 aircraft that served the airline’s first international destinations to Entebbe, Luanda, Nairobi, and Ndola.
Services to Belgium were inaugurated in early 1963, linking Léopoldville with Brussels via Rome, using Boeing 707 equipment operated by Sabena on behalf of the carrier. By 1964 the airline was also operating Curtiss C-46s and DC-4s equipment, leased from Aerovias Panama Airways to complement the Sabena-leased aircraft.
The airline also signed an agreement with French airline, Union des Transports Aériens (UTA) in January 1964, which saw the two airlines cooperating on flights between Africa and Europe. UTA operated a Johannesburg-Salisbury-Léopoldville-Paris service with Douglas DC-8 equipment, and Air Congo operated Boeing 707s on the Léopoldville-Douala-Paris route.
In October 1964, the airline added four Beech Barons in order to provide feeder services, and in November 1964, Zambia Airways reintroduced the Ndola-Élisabethville route which was formerly operated by Central African Airways.
Zambia Airways operated the flight on Mondays, and Air Congo operated the same service on Fridays. On 29 November 1964, a Douglas DC-4 of the airline, leased from Belgian International Aviation Services crashed upon take-off from Stanleyville, killing seven of the fifteen people on board. It was initially reported the aircraft, which was carrying Belgian soldiers, may have been shot down by rebels, but it was later revealed the aircraft had hit an empty fuel drum on the runway upon taking off.Air Congo domestic routes Image: Wikimedia commons
Ushering a new Era
Following the 1965 coup which brought Mobutu Sésé Seko to power, most of Sabena’s property in the country was seized, and the Belgian airline had its traffic rights at Élisabethville cancelled. In addition, the Congolese government seized funds which were due to be paid by Air Congo to Sabena, and other funds earned by Sabena in the country.
Foreign ownership of the airline was eliminated at the same time, with the Congolese government holding a seventy percent share, the Institut National Securite Sociale holding eight percent, and local Congolese concerns holding the remainder. At the time, the fleet comprised two Douglas DC-6s, eight DC-4s, eleven DC-3s, two Curtiss C-46s, three Beech 18s, five Beech Barons, one Piper PA-23 Aztec and one Cessna 310.
In 1967 the airline ordered two Sud Aviation Caravelles for delivery in October 1967 and the summer of 1968, and on 12 May 1967 a BAC One Eleven, on a one-year lease from Laker Airways entered service on the airlines’ routes.
The airline operated a service from Kinshasa to Brussels in a pool arrangement with Sabena until June 1967. On 25 November 1967 a Douglas DC-8 joined the airlines’ fleet, and it flew on routes from Lubumbashi-Kinshasa-Brussels-Paris or Rome, with the last sector being flown on alternate weeks.
The Caravelles were introduced on regional flights from Kinshasa-Lagos and Kinshasa-Bangui-Fort-Lamy. The airline also operated twice weekly flights on the route Kinshasa-Entebbe-Nairobi-Dar es Salaam-Lubumbashi-Lusaka-Lubumbashi-Kinshasa.
The DC-6s operated on regional routes linking Kinshasa-Goma-Bujumbura-Entebbe-Nairobi. The airline operated the DC-3s, DC-4s and DC-6s to 26 domestic destinations, and the smaller Beech aircraft were operated to 27 other domestic destinations. At the end of 1967, an agreement was signed with Fokker for the purchase of ten Fokker F 27-600s.
In October, Pan American World Airways began managing the airline, under a three-year management contract. The American airline provided 14 specialists to the airline in order to assist with technical and operational issues.
Special emphasis was also placed on the training of Congolese nationals to run the airline, and in 1970 two Douglas DC-8s were bought from Pan Am.
On 27 October 1971 the country changed its name from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Republic of Zaire, with Air Congo subsequently changing its name to Air Zaïre.
By Victor Shalton Odhiambo