President John F Kennedy’s DC-3 Gift To Mobutu Found Back In Congo, SOS For The Scrapper

Chaotic Start of the Congo State. Until 1960, the Congo was under Belgian Colonial rule. On June 30 of that year, a huge new Central African Nation was installed as the independent Republic of Congo with their Government seated in the Capital Leopoldville (later Kinshasa).

Sadly, it would very soon turn out to become one of the most dramatic starts of any of the fledgling democracies; that emerged from Colonial rule in Africa and Asia in the period 1945-1965.

Unexperienced with democratic values of the Western World, the Republic of Congo’s Genesis turned almost from scratch into a nightmare scenario with fierce tribal/ ethnic competition that resulted in rebellion, upheaval and secession of the more remote provinces Katanga and South Kasai, with their strategic mining industry.

The Congo had rich natural resources, including uranium. The U.S.  WW II nuclear programme was built on Congolese Uranium, and that simple fact attracted both the Soviet Union and the United States to this region in their Cold War struggle for domination.  Their competing interests developed into the Congo Crisis, which started in 1960 and would rage for five years, costing some 100.000 people their lives.

In all that turmoil, soon the name of Army General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu surfaced as the man who claimed to have the key to stability in the war-ridden country. In 1961, the situation was dramatic, with many foreign powers trying to protect their existing interests,  or get a larger piece of the cake in that potentially rich country.

In a situation somewhat similar as to what we see now in 2015 in Syria, the Russians moved in with arms supply and military advisors, invited by the leftist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Their arrival complicated matters to such extend, that the UN troops, US and Belgian troops intervened in an escalating leftist uproar of the Simba’s.

It must be said, the only one who survived over the years all revolts, killing parties and conspiracies, was that General with the mysterious smile. Allegedly, he could only survive since he was more perfidious than his opponents and probably the most active organizer/ executioner in the hunt for his enemies, rebels and communists. After a coup d’état in 1961, he expelled all Soviet advisors and gained with that act a certain status as being “The great Defender of Western Values on the Dark Continent”.

On the other side of the pond, JFK and his staff must have watched the antics of the General with some serious doubts about the democratic principles of the General. But the US geopolitical considerations were made at a time (1961) in which the Soviets were trying for the first time to expand their influence into Africa. It was clear that even the Champ of Democracy JF Kennedy was willing to accept some minor wrinkles in the reputation of General Mobutu concerning human rights issues. (Not much seems to have changed over the years, politicians tend to follow their more pragmatic rules)

For the sake of the good relations, a meeting was arranged between JFK and Mobutu in early 1963 in Washington (see the Getty photo on top). According to good customs and traditions, the General was offered a gift from the President of the USA, in order to underline the enduring relations between the two nations. From there, it was clear that Mobutu was considered the most powerful man in the Central African shark tank.

Though, his ruling methods had a few flaws (to say the least), and that should come to expression in the special “allure” of the present. Not over the top, so to let everybody know that in spite of the good relations, there existed some reservations from the US Government over the General. The “genius” outcome of all these political contemplations is shown in the gift depicted below.

General Mobutu dearly wanted a Jet as personal aircraft (his Air Force nr. 1)  for traveling the immense distances of the Congo in comfort and with some speed.

Surprise for him, as this vintage “Jalopy” Aircraft arrived: it was a personal gift from JFK  after their meeting, and indeed Mobutu was disappointed – no brand new Jet,  he got an 18-year-old DC-3 instead. This aircraft is a rare post-war production plane, the last ever US built C-47, with a VIP interior, and was found somewhere in the USAF inventory in an old forgotten hangar of an Idaho Air Force Base.

If it is true that there was some symbolic message to be incorporated in the “Present from the President of the USA” to a “War Lord” with limited political status and dubious moral compass, this aircraft surely was the perfect gift. Evidently, Mobutu himself had a different opinion.

Now read this, it is an excerpt from an interview with Henry Kissinger aboard Mobutu’s yacht in 1976:

Mobutu: ” Mr. Kissinger, I appreciate very much what you said earlier in front of your associates about the 1,000 colonels sitting in the Pentagon, analyzing other people’s problems so they can tell them how to solve them.(!)

In 1963, I came to Washington to see President Kennedy and in our discussions, he said I ought to have a small jet aircraft so that I could more easily move about the country; in those days I did not even have a Piper Cub. But there was one colonel there who explained that I did not need an executive jet. What I really needed was a DC-3. If I want to fly from here to Lubumbashi in a DC-3, it’s a five and one-half hour flight.”

Kissinger: “And what did you get?”
Mobutu: “The Colonel prevailed. I got a DC-3.”
Kissinger: “They always like to get rid of their old equipment.”

Hilarious final remark from Kissinger, but isn´t this amazing? Mobutu clearly showed, here again, his frustration over a JFK gift of 13 years earlier. An outright disappointment but the General had not much to complain. He had become head of the State in 1965 with yet another Coup d’ état, thanks to his Western allies and their weapons support. In 1971 he renamed his country Zaire and became one of the richest rulers in human history, staying in power until 1997.

In the 32 years of his administration, he gathered an immense fortune, with his family in key functions, running the state as his private corporation with monopolies and a widespread corruption that kept him in power for so many years. In the end, he entered the exclusive “Hall of Shame for Robbing the Nation” with other Presidents/ ex-Generals like Suharto (Indonesia), Ghadaffi (Lybia), Marcos (Philippines), Saddam Hussein (Iraq) and a few more to follow. All of them had for shorter or longer periods full political (and weapons-) support from the Western Powers, for some good or bad political reasons.

Yet, with his filthy personal richness that came over the years, the shame and pain-in-the-brass of that old DC-3 plane was never forgotten by him. The status so much wanted, to show the World that he had JFK as a friend; it got an ironic twist with this gift. The story of that single Pentagon Colonel, who decided to swap the proposed Jet for a DC-3 was probably told him as a consolation, but the virtual consideration to do so was most likely agreed by JFK and staff. They had sent him the perfect gift with the correct jewelry message, one that would be remembered for a lifetime:  your allies are not automatically also your personal friends.


The ex- Mobutu DC-3, with Reg. nr. 9Q-CAM is still existing and found back in Goma, on the border of the Lake Kivu in Eastern Congo. It was visited in 2009 by Brendan Odell, who was interested in buying the aircraft. But the region is reputed for frequent turmoil, very close to the Ruanda border where bands of armed rebels have been looting and raping since years. The rebels were allegedly financed by the Ruanda Government, but they always denied. Relations between the neighbouring countries have remained awkward ever since.

The situation seems to be rather quiet now and tourist travel to that part is open again, but that can change rapidly. The Military are omnipresent but is not always a guarantee for a safe stay. Mobutu never flew much with the DC-3 and the aircraft was put up for sale somewhere in the early 1980’s.

It came in hands of a commercial operator, who flew for many years on the domestic flight routes in Congo with the VIP interior. That lasted until the late 1990’s or so and finally the aircraft ended up parked on the ramp of Goma Airport as you can see on the photos above.

The current owner (name and email known to me) sent me a sort of SOS with this email below, in which he expresses his worries for the future of the aircraft.

The Dakota is currently parked on the southern edge parking area at Goma Airport.  The airport authority has required that the airframe be removed from the airport asap.  In that regard, we have removed both wings. Since Brendan’s visit and report the plane has had the interior and cockpit looted by the military so does not correspond to the condition as in his report. Since we are obliged to remove the airframe that most likely entails scrapping it (after so many years trying to preserve it). Very unfortunate.  If I get a chance will send photos”.

And in his final email;

” I have not had the opportunity to go to the airport to obtain recent photographs of the aircraft. (Permission for photography is very awkward out here, HW)

The engines are still on the aircraft and records are partial. From what I understand the US government provided the aircraft to President Mobutu to secure his travels early in his days.  It was in VIP configuration at that time. It subsequently was turned over to the military and later sold to a civilian operator.
I do not have an area to store the airframe so we will have to scrap it as it leaves the airport.”

It would be very sad indeed, if this aircraft had to be scrapped, with its history as being the very last C-47 built and a personal gift from JFK to Mobutu.

According to my friend Michael Prophet, the claim of being the last ever built C-47 seems right:
Aircraft 9Q-CAM is  C-47B-50-DK 17142/34409. it was the last assembled C-47 on the US Production line 23 November 1945.

Brendan Odell wrote about the same aircraft: Virunga Air Charter, Goma. I (Brendan Odell) have visited C-47B 9Q-CAM (s/n 17142/34409) in Goma DRC on 12 June 2009. I can confirm from its logbook information, that prior to its sale to Virunga Air Charter in 1981 and re-registration to that company as 9Q-CAM, it held the identity of 9T-JDM between 1963 and 1980. The “JDM” suffix was for Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, as it was his VIP aircraft, and still retains its original VIP interior, even now (2009). He later changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngendu Wa Za Bang. (Mobutu Sésé Seko as he was more commonly known).

If you might have a clue to save this aircraft, you, please let me know. Not the easiest place to go, but I have visited worse places for salvaging the C-47’s. I wish I could give the owner some help or a hint in his effort to save this iconic aircraft from the smelting oven and am willing to get out there for a joint salvage operation.  Over the past years, there have gone so many Dakotas down the drain. Earlier this year in April 2015, I was called in by Mr. Mark Bruce to salvage parts of the DC-3 airframes that were parked on San Juan International Airport in Puerto Rico.

The aircraft were stored there for years since the bankruptcy of Four Star Aviation. The Airport Authority finally wanted to rid the derelict airframes, creating room for new activities. See my facebook report about this expedition, which describes the final salvage of the DC-3 Cockpits, before the scrapper moved in.

Click San Juan DC-3 Grave yard

Leo-Airport-Ndolo60s-Wigmo-Q-C-46-ebay-1From the internet, there surfaced a few more fascinating photos from the Congo in the early 1960’s.
Above, depicted is a Curtiss Commando C-46, that flew cargo for the Belgian troops, that intervened already within weeks after the Independence day on June 30, 1960. Belgian paratroopers moved in without the Congolese state’s permission to protect fleeing white civilians. The Belgian intervention divided the Congolese leadership consisting of Lumumba and Kasa-Vubu, which escalated in a civil war-like chaos all over the country.

Leo-Airport-Ndjili60-07-15-Be-Para-MG-ebay-1Belgian Navy ships bombarded the port city of Matadi which prompted renewed attacks on whites across the country.  Belgian forces entered other towns and cities, including Léopoldville, resulting in skirmishes with Congolese troops. The photo above depicts Belgian paratroopers who occupied Leopoldville Airport, protecting the air bridge evacuation of Belgian civilians.

Leo-Airport-Ndolo60s-FATAC-mbokamosika-1Rare photo of the first Congolese Air Force crews, that were trained by Cubans.

United_Nations_peacekeeping_air_forces_in_Congo_-_January_1963United Nations peacekeeping forces of Iran, Philippines and Sweden in Kamina Air Base, Congo, January 1963, a few months before Mobutu met JFK. This photo was taken from a Sikorsky UH-19 Chickasaw (S-55) Helicopter, the type that you can see standing on the rear end of the platform next to the DC-3. From January to May 1963, the Imperial Iranian Air Force sent 4 F-86Fs with eight pilots and 33 ground crew to the Republic of Congo. Different times! Furthermore, you see 5 Swedish Air Force Saab 29 Flygande Tunnan’s (Flying barrels) and 5 Philippines Air Force Sabres. Photo was taken by Brig- General Mohammed Khatami.

If interested in more historical tales of the DC-3/ C-47, may I recommend you my book “The Dakota Hunter”. Published by Casemate USA/ UK  in May 2015, the book has received very positive reviews from War History Online Magazine, on the Amazon order page The Dakota Hunter and on Facebook, Hans Wiesman. The reputed AIR CLASSICS Magazine selected my book as the “Book of the Month” in August 2015, with a 5-star review as you can read here below.

The book (ISBN 978-1-61200-258-3) has 320 pages and 250 most fascinating and unique photos, made during my 25 years of expeditions, in search of the legendary DC-3 on the last frontiers. Please come to my website where you can have a sneak preview, and where you can order the book directly at Amazon USA/UK, Bolcom, Barnes & Noble, etc. or in an autographed version via my web shop.

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Feature photo; Courtesy Getty Images, backdrop photo of DC-3,  courtesy Julie Le Bolzer

Hans Wiesman

Hans Wiesman is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE