09 April 2023

Pacific Express - The Tramp Steamer of the Skies


Pacific Express Holdings Ltd was established in early 1992 by Czechoslovakian born Israeli national Shimon Lahav who held a controlling interest, and Roger Banks and Grant Annals who had been associated with freight airline Southern World Airlines which had ceased operations in late 1991.

The two interrelated companies had their Headquarters in Auckland and chartered cargo aircraft to fly freight services around the world. Most aircraft used were Russian built Ilyushin Il-76 heavy freight aircraft, many of which became available with the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the quest of their new owners for revenue.

The associated Pacific Express Cargo Airline Ltd was formed about six months later. Pacific Express was not a true airline in the accepted sense in that it did not have an operating certificate. Instead, it hired aircraft, predominantly Ilyushin Il-76s, when cargo had been arranged. A New Zealand Herald article on the 12th of June 1993 gives and insight into the airline’s operations. First, Pacific Express doesn't have schedules. Second, planes follow the cargo, making a typical passage in the plane's logbook read like this ... "depart Auckland for Cambodia with United Nations supplies. Take another cargo to India. Thence to Dubai. Load for Amsterdam. Back to Dubai and fly to Johannesburg. Onwards to Manila, Sydney and finally back to Auckland." Start to finish could have been the better part of three months.  A representative of Pacific Express travelled with the aircraft carrying large amounts of cash to pay for fuel, accommodation, wages, customs and so on. The first cargo organised used Il-76 CCCP-76798 on a series of United Nations charters from Melbourne to Phnom Penh commencing in March 1992.

The first aircraft to fly into Auckland did so on 16 June 1992. It was Il-76 CCCP-76493. Most of the later aircraft chartered were painted up with Pacific Express script. Cargoes carried varied from rhinoceros to movie equipment, troops to an RAF Harrier 'jump' jet.

Destinations were where the consignor wished the load to go. The aircraft were wet leased for short periods complete with crew. As part of the wet leasing arrangement the company leasing the aircraft was responsible for maintenance and crew training. Most aircraft were hired from the Commonwealth of Independent States as the breaking up Soviet Union was then known. Lessors included: the Domodedovo Civil Aviation Production Association in Moscow, the Ilyushin Design Bureau, and Atlant Airlines in the Ukraine.

 In October 1992, Pacific Express's Ilyushin Il-76, RA-76786, was photographed at Avalon, Australia. Photographer unknown

In New Zealand, the planes were painted with Pacific Express titles and later the aircraft also carried a logo. As reported in the New Zealand Herald, This gave Pacific Express the appearance of being an airline but the company did not have an international air services licence or air operator's certificate. In the eyes of the Civil Aviation Authority Pacific Express was no more than a freight forwarder. CAA airworthiness inspector Stuart Smith described the set-up as unusual - "they're not effectively in the civil aviation system" - but "perfectly acceptable in a legal sense."

 My only photo of a Pacific Express aircraft, Ilyushin Il-76 CCCP-76822 at Auckland on 25 November 1992 

In 1993 Simon Lahav talked to the New Zealand Herald about the advantages of a New Zealand based operation and the Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft… They can carry very heavy and large objects. A conventional 747 can cope with around 360kg a square metre whereas with Ilyushins things are considered to be getting heavy at 3100kg a square metre. Carrying large items of cargo, with significant amounts of money involved to an outsider it all looks straight out of Boys Own, with profits, and having a lot of fun? Lahav chuckles: "We are. Aviation is addictive. It is also very stressful, which is part of the addiction. I think aviation is the most expensive drug you can buy." Drug of choice is the Russian planes, frill-free and well maintained. As Annals says: "Everything about them is simple, very practicable and very workable." Are these then the Ladas of the sky? "What you have to remember with a Lada car is that it will start in Russian winters, in minus 50-degree temperatures," says Lahav. The men are in awe of the skills of the Russian, engineers. Russia lacks the infrastructure for servicing planes, so engineers need a well-rounded knowledge of hydraulics, avionics, electrics and mechanics. When the plane arrives in New Zealand, the hammer and sickle is painted out and on goes the Pacific Express logo and a New Zealand flag. Lahav explains why he decided to operate from this country. "We were looking at building up a base in the Asian area. Operating from Asia is a problem, for cultural reasons. You really need to be from those countries, to have the contacts there. It can be quite difficult for Europeans. "We looked at Australia. But it was not possible to set up there. It has union and infrastructure problems. "New Zealand has the best infrastructure. The telecommunications here are the best I have ever seen. People complain about it but it is really amazing."

In addition to these large aircraft the much smaller Boeing 737-3S3QC, 5W-FAX, was hired from late January to March 1993 for more localised flights, mainly between Auckland, Apia, Sydney and Melbourne but Christchurch was also used.

Polynesian Airlines' Boeing 737-300QC 5W-FAX wearing Pacific Express titles at Los Angeles in January 1993. Photographer unknown.

In mid-1993 Pacific Express Cargo Airline Ltd applied to the Minister of Transport for an International Air Services Licence to operate a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar on freight services from Auckland to Moscow and Luxembourg with flights to return via Mexico and Los Angles. But by this time things were becoming unstuck. Suits had been filed by other cargo operators against the two companies, disputes were also occurring with the aircraft owners and complaints made to the Russian Embassy in Wellington about crews being stranded overseas.

The only Ukrainian registered Ilyushin Il-76 operated by Pacific Express was UR-76408. It was also the only aircraft Pacific Express used to have a tail logo.

Before it ended Pacific Express had operated to some interesting locations. Pacific Express ferried rhinoceros from quarantine on Cocos Island in the lndian Ocean to Australia; carrying cargo for CARE Australia from Melbourne to Mombasa; movie equipment to Easter Island for the filming of Kevin Costner's Rapa Nui, aid into Baidoa in Somalia; sheep to Papua New Guinea; and a cargo of bees freighted from Melbourne to Tunisia.

On the 22nd of July 1993 a Cuban-registered Ilyushin Il-76 landed in Auckland carrying two Russian helicopters from El Salvador. Upon landing however, they refused to release the helicopters. The helicopters, which were ultimately used by Timberlands for native forest logging on the West Coast, were unloaded after a court order stopped the Ilyushin leaving the country and the receipt of $US70,000. The crew, however, claimed that more money was required to honour their contract and they insisted that the Ilyushin would stay on the tarmac at Auckland Airport until the remaining $US60,000 was paid in full.

Cubana's Ilyushin Il-76 CU-T1258 was the last aircraft to operate a Pacific Express flight into Auckland. It was seen here on the 23rd of July 2022

On the 5th of August 1993 an application for the winding up of Pacific Express Holdings Ltd was filed In the High Court at Auckland by the Bank of New Zealand. Pacific Express Holdings was wound up on the 2nd of September 1993 and Pacific Express Cargo Airline on the 16th of September 1993. When Pacific Express Holdings was wound up the company owed nearly $1.2 million.

So ended the short but colourful life for an operation termed 'The Tramp Steamer of the Skies'.

Aircraft Used:

Because this was a worldwide operation not all aircraft leased came to New Zealand. The first aircraft to do so was Ilyushin Il-76TD CCCP-76493 which arrived in Auckland on the 16th of June 1992. Then followed Ilyushin Il-76s: RA-76786, CCCP-76822, UR-76408 (arrived on the 15th of March 1993), CCCP-76423 and CU-T1258 which arrived in Auckland on the 21st of July 1993. It finally left New Zealand after a dispute over payment on the 29th of July 1993.

Ilyushin Il-76TD           CCCP-76493 was the first aircraft to carry Pacific Express titles

Ilyushin Il-76TD           CCCP-76798

Ilyushin Il-76TD           CCCP-76822 which was reregistered RA-76822 in December 1992

Ilyushin Il-76TD           RA-76786

Ilyushin Il-76MD          UR-76408 was the only aircraft to carry the tail logo

Ilyushin Il-76MD          CU-T1258


Boeing 737-3S3QC     5W-FAX

This post is an extended version of the late Bruce Gavin's history of Pacific Express.

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