French military takes over guidance of distressed Sky Mali flight

Ministry of the Armed Forces

A Sky Mali flight with 105 passengers lost its positioning system while traversing adverse weather conditions. The aircraft was taken over by the control tower of the Desert Operational Platform (PfOD), a French base in Gao which is in charge of the logistics of ongoing operations in Mali.

The aircraft was most likely the Boeing 737-500 registered TZ-SMA that Sky Mali leases from Africa Charter Airline. Sky Mali was established by the Emirati group Al Sayegh in July 2020. It started operating in September of the same year.

As it was about to land at Gao airport (GAQ) on March 27, 2021, the flight lost its positioning system, according to the Chief of Staff of the French military. At the time, weather conditions were described as “difficult”, with a sand cloud at about 200 meters above the ground. 

The control tower of the PfOD took over the ground-controlled approach of the aircraft, making use of its SPARTIATE multipurpose telecommunication collection and altitude identification landing system. The 40-year-old radar “allows aircraft to land safely in bad weather and very low visibility,” as described by the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

The French military has been deployed in Mali and the Sahel region since 2013. The aircraft of Operation Barkhane are regularly engaged, with 79 sorties between March 24 and 30, 2021, including 20 fighter missions, 18 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) flights, and 41 transport or refueling missions.

Operation Barkhane recently came under fire after it was accused of carrying out an airstrike on a wedding organized in the village of Bounti, in central Mali. The report of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was contested by the Ministry of the Armed Forces, which said it opposed anonymous testimonies to “a robust intelligence method of the French armies.” The French General Staff of the Armed Forces argued that the airstrike was carried out against an armed terrorist group. The MINUSMA called on the Malian and French authorities to conduct their own investigation into the incident.

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