European colonialism has left a bitter legacy in many African nations, but probably none has been so disgraceful and damaging as the Belgian influence in what has become the Democratic Republic of Congo. Independence did not bring the new chapter the Congolese wanted and instead the next 50 years have been as bad or worse than what went before. Nevertheless throughout this period a veneer of normalcy was provided by the national carrier Air Congo (later Air Zaire).
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a vast nation, today the 2nd largest in Africa with a population of over 90 million, that includes the majority of the Congo river basin and is heavily forested. Given this it is little surprise that air travel is a vital way of getting around but its development has had to go hand in hand with the incredibly brutal and chaotic history of the country. As is so often the case it is hard to understand the aviation scene without at least a rudimentary understanding of the political one.
To put it bluntly the area of the modern country was stolen from its native inhabitants by King Leopold II of Belgium in the 1870s and his rule was formalised in 1885. He created his own personal fiefdom, called the Congo Free State, and ran it as a slave state - brutally exploiting the indigenous people's in order to mine rubber and ivory. This bizarre state of affairs killed millions and finally led to the Belgian state somewhat reluctantly annexing it from the King in 1908 when the horror of reality became known to Belgian citizens and the wider world.
The Belgians were better and the worst excesses of Leopold's state were fixed in the new Belgian Congo, however Belgian rule was hardly progressive. Unlike in other nation's colonies the Belgians wouldn't allow any blacks to become educated or take part in the running of their own country. After the end of WW2 the independence movements grew stronger in African countries emboldened by the new world order of the USA and USSR, neither of whom supported colonialism.
Belgium refused to pay heed to the changing world and did nothing to prepare the country for independence, as it seemed to believe it wasn't ever going to happen. The result was when ti came it came quickly and the country was woefully under-prepared to handle it. The Belgians basically did nothing but set the stage for the chaos and anarchy that would be termed the Congo crisis. For more details on this I recommend having a look at the following:
The Congo crisis lasted from just after independence on June 30, 1960 until November 25, 1965. Fundamentally it was a toxic mix of colonial interference, a proxy war between the US and Soviets, inter-tribal conflict, nationalism and greed that resulted in the death of over 100,000 and a series of civil wars. It was during this period that Air Congo came into being.
Air Congo was formed on June 6, 1961 as a joint venture between the new government (60%), SABENA (30%), Sobelair (5%) and the local airline Air Brousse (5%). The political turbulence had delayed the formation but during this early period Belgium and SABENA still had a lot of influence. Much of the airline's initial equipment came from SABENA including several DC-4s and DC-6s. The new airline tookover all local traffic and international rights on June 29. Although the worsening troubles saw an exodus of Europeans the reliance on air transport and the influx of United Nations personnel helped Air Congo develop rapidly.
Initially SABENA trained all personnel and by the end of 1962 of the 2,400 employees, 1,100 were from the Belgian flag carrier. The initial fleet consisted of Douglas DC-3s, DC-4s and DC-6s serving internal and regional destinations such as Entebbe, Lagos, Nairobi, Ndola, Salisbury and Usumburu. To operate long-haul services the new airline leased several SABENA 707s to connect Leopoldville with Brussels via Rome. Services began in March 1963 and the airline joined IATA in April.
Given Belgium's continued interference (it basically tried to create separate states to secede from Congo and in a large part caused the Civil War and resulting involvement of the US and Soviets) SABENA's influence in Air Congo couldn't last. A co-operation agreement was signed with the French airline UTA in 1964 with capacity sharing on UTA's DC-8s and Air Congo's 707s.
All images above are from the collection of Bjorn Larson from
Mobuto spent the next 5 years consolidating his power, which included in 1966 seizing most of SABENA's property in the country, and the seizure of funds owed to and earned by the airline. SABENA's share in Air Congo was annulled and the state now held 70% with the rest held by the Institut National Securite Sociale and local Congolese interests. SABENA did however continue to operate the Kinshasa (the renamed Leopoldville) to Brussels service until June 1967.
On November 25, 1967 Air Congo began its own long-haul jet operations using a leased Capitol International DC-8-30. The aircraft flew a a twice weekly service from Lubumbashi-Kinshasa-Brussels via either Paris or Rome. The Caravelles and DC-6s ran regional services with the remaining Douglas props operating to 26 domestic locations. The smaller types served 27 further destinations. Fokker F27s were ordered to modernise the domestic fleet.
To replace SABENA Air Congo signed a three year management plan with Pan Am. They provided 14 specialists one of whom, Francis J. Swayze became the director general. Pan Am assisted the airline further in June 1969 by selling it a pair of its DC-8-33s which became 9Q-CLE and CLF. These were joined in November 1970 and July 1971 by a pair of new DC-8-63CFs (9Q-CLG and CLH).
A foundation of Mobuto's coming to power was a policy of Africanisation - basically a pro-African cultural awareness campaign he called authenticité. In June 1966 Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, and Stanleyville became Kisangani. People were forcibly made to change their names and European clothing was banned.
Mobutu's africanisation even resulted in him changing his own name (the shortened version of which became Mobutu Sésé Seko) and the natural conclusion was changing the name of the country, which he did in October 1971 - to Zaire (despite the fact this name came from a Portugese word whereas Congo was African)! Air Congo thus became Air Zaire and the new DC-8s only wore their original scheme for a short period. 9Q-CLH was named “Ville de Kinshasa”. In the 1970s they were joined by 737-200s, DC-10s and for a short period a leased 747.
Mobutu became globally famous for his style of rule, which took realpolitik, kleptocracy and nepotism to new levels. He consolidated his rule by either executing or buying off opponents. He regularly reshuffled his cabinet and often tortured people only to subsequently reward them with high office. His primary aim appears to have been to enrich himself and it is estimated that he stole between US $4 billion and $15 billion from his country.
He was renowned for taking Air Zaire assets as his personal playthings - one time using a DC-10 to fly his wife home from a shopping trip, while he used the 747 for the same purpose. He also regularly chartered Air France Concordes for similar purposes.
Mismanagement and the frankly insane nature of Mobutu's rule saw Air Zaire fall into financial difficulties, just as it did the wider country. The result, in the early 1980s, was the cessation of all international services aside from that to Brussels via Lagos. One of the DC-8s, a 737 and 2 F27s were removed from service.
A six year management deal with UTA in early 1985 failed to arrest the airline's demise and in June one of the two DC-10s was withdrawn and eventually sold to British Caledonian.
Air Zaire struggled into the 1990s and by 1994 the fleet consisted only of a single DC-10, 2 737-200Cs and a pair of DC-8s. It finally collapsed in June 1995 with huge debts. Before then both the stretch DC-8s had left the fleet. 9Q-CLH was sold to American International where she became N811CK from January 1990 until December 2001. She was then sold to MK Airlines as 9G-MKO. Her last operator was Johnsons Air as 9G-LIL and she was withdrawn from use at Ras Al Khaimah in 2006.
9Q-CLG was sold to African Air Charter in 1991 and moved quickly to American International the year after. She remained with Kitty Hawk until May 2000 when she was stored. Subsequent operators were MK Airlines and Johnson Air. She was still operational in 2012.
Zaire itself finally threw out Mobutu in 1997 as a result of a backlash against government led massacres of Tutsis and the new, only slightly better leader, Laurent-Désiré Kabila renamed the country as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The west, and especially the USA, to its shame stood by Mobutu Sésé Seko and his horrible regime almost to the end - a disgraceful betrayal of their own principles and the population of the Congo. Congo's horror had not ended however and millions more would die in the incessant civil wars that have plagued the country since.
Air Congo (and Air Zaire) stand as yet another example of a valiant attempt to run a decent national airline in an environment completely devoid of the tools from which such a thing could be done with any success.
Guttery, Ben R. Encyclopedia of African Airlines
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: