If you need to get rid of a political opponent, what better way than to arrange a plane crash. The 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed a grim litany of political leaders whose careers were cut short by alleged pilot error or mechanical fault while at high altitude. These suspicious deaths have proven difficult to investigate, especially when the plane crashes occur in countries where transparency and good governance are unknown qualities. Some of the crashes are so obviously not accidental that they verge on the darkly comical.
Yet not so comical when you consider that killing a VIP using a plane also means murdering the crew and other passengers. That’s a lot of collateral damage for one assassination. It surely requires a complete absence of a moral compass to plot such an atrocity. Yet, as we shall see below, there are plenty of regimes prepared to resort to this method of bumping off somebody.
Take the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin for example. On August 23, 2023, the leader of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, died when his private Embraer jet crashed en route from Moscow to St Petersburg. United States officials declared the most likely cause of death was an explosion on board the plane. Kremlin sources vehemently denied this even though Prigozhin had only recent mounted an attempted coup against the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
Most commentators believe that if he hadn’t died in a plane crash, then he’d have done something like fall from a hotel window or accidentally ingest radioactive material. The kind of fate that befalls those who cross the Kremlin.
Putin sent condolences to the family of his one time friend calling him a “talented person” who had “made serious mistakes in his life”. One of those mistakes was presumably assuming that Putin would forgive and forget Prigozhin’s march on Moscow with his mercenaries and videos slamming Putin and his ministers as traitors.
In Russia’s mafia state, this couldn’t be tolerated. The capo – Putin – whacked his treacherous underling – Prigozhin. But as we’ll see, planes that accidentally fall out of the sky with an inconvenient political passenger on board is not something new. In fact, since the dawn of aviation in the early 20th century, assassination by aircraft has proven to be very attractive in certain parts of the world.
Let’s look at some suspicious deaths in a plane crash…
Toivo Antikainen – Finnish Communist leader has an accident
When it comes to suspicious deaths from a plane crash, then the sudden end of the Finnish Communist Toivo Antikainen in 1941 must rank high. From his youngest days, Antikainen had been a loyal Communist firebrand. He believed that his politics reflected the interests of working-class people everywhere, but Finnish conservatives viewed Antikainen as a traitor bent on handing over the country to its huge Soviet neighbour.
When he was 19, the Russian Empire collapsed and the Soviet Union came into existence. Antikainen agitated to make Finland a Soviet republic and a player in the coming world proletarian revolution. All of which led him to be put on trial in 1935 as an enemy of Finland and a court in the capital Helsinki handed down a long prison sentence. He languished in jail until 1939 when he was released and deported to the Soviet Union.
Only when he got there, it was to discover that while behind bars, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had annihilated a vast swathe of communists in a series of bloody purges. Including many Finnish comrades decried as counter-revolutionaries in staged trials. This drove Antikainen to a nervous breakdown and some injudicious condemnations of the Kremlin leadership.
There are three versions of what happened next. Firstly, he never boarded a plane but leaped to his death from a hotel window (or was helped on his way by the Soviet secret police). Secondly, it’s been alleged that he was shot by the future short-lived leader of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov. Or thirdly, he was killed in a thoroughly suspicious plane accident near the city of Arkhangelsk.
Once dead and no longer posing any kind of nuisance, Antikainen was declared a Soviet war hero.
Polish Prime Minister plane crash in Russia
Lech Kaczyński was Mayor of Warsaw and then President of Poland up until April 10, 2010. On that date, he fell victim to a suspicious plane crash while flying over Russian airspace. The Kremlin appointed – wait for it – Vladimir Putin, then Prime Minister, to lead the investigation into what happened.
Kaczyński had been on his way to Smolensk, situated near a site in the Katyn forest where 22,000 Polish officers were massacred by Soviet forces during World War Two. Their bodies were uncovered by invading German Nazis who exhumed the huge number of corpses for great propaganda effect. From the outset, the Soviets denied having slaughtered all those Poles, blaming the Germans. This is one of those very few uncomfortable moments where you have to accept the Nazi version of events.
Władysław Sikorski was the Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile during World War Two and he demanded that the International Red Cross investigate the Katyn massacre. This annoyed Stalin, Soviet leader at the time, who was none too upset when Sikorski died in a suspicious plane crash, plunging into the sea immediately after take-off from Gibraltar on July 4, 1943, The Soviets, Americans, and British have all been accused of involvement in a conspiracy to silence the troublesome Sikorski.
In 2010, when Kaczyński died, he took with him to the afterlife his wife, the head of the Polish armed forces, the head of the Polish security services, the governor of the national bank of Poland, and the chief of the President’s office. Pilot error and “VIP syndrome” were blamed for the crash by the Russian authorities.
DISCOVER: Fear of nuclear war in the 1980s
Mozambique President dies in exceedingly suspicious circumstances
President Samora Machel of Mozambique had spent most of his life living under Portuguese colonial rule. As a young man, he joined FRELIMO, an independence movement influenced by Marxism-Leninism and dedicated to kicking the Portuguese out of Mozambique. Whereas the British, French, and other European powers had wound back their empires in the 1950s and 1960s giving their former colonies independence, Portugal did not.
The main reason being that Portugal was ruled by a fascist dictatorship until a revolution in April, 1974. The ultra-nationalist fascists viewed the African colonies – Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique – as an integral part of Portugal. Even if the majority black populations begged to differ. However, after the 1974 revolution overthrew the dictatorship in Portugal, the colonies were swiftly granted independence.
Machel then became president of Mozambique.
But he faced two neighbouring countries still ruled by white minority governments: Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa under the apartheid regime. There were many who would have wanted Machel dead. Disgruntled Portuguese white settlers forced to return to Europe. The whites-only government of Rhodesia. The apartheid regime in South Africa. Opponents within Mozambique. And so on.
When Machel’s plane nosedived in 1986, it was over South African airspace. The President and 33 other people died. Ever since, questions have been asked. Was Machel killed by the apartheid regime or at least elements in South Africa, especially within the military who wanted him out of the way? Or was the Soviet crew piloting Machel’s plane drunk as one journalist reported? Or, do we take seriously a claim made in 2007 that the Soviets and South Africans worked together to murder Machel?
United Nations Secretary-General in suspicious plane crash
Swedish career diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld rose to become the second Secretary General of the United Nations, holding the post between 1953 and September 18, 1961 when he experienced a highly suspicious plane crash. And died. President John F Kennedy, soon to experience his own death in suspicious circumstances, publicly mourned the loss of a great global figure. Even the communist countries led by the Soviet Union lowered their flags to half mast.
Hammarskjöld was involved in negotiations to resolve the bloody conflict in the Congo – which became independent from Belgium in 1960. His efforts were constantly rebuked by the Soviet Union with its then leader Nikita Kruschev even arguing that the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations should be replaced by a troika with three leaders representing the capitalist, socialist, and non-aligned worlds.
That never happened but Hammarskjöld’s tenure certainly came to a dramatic end when his plane blew up. The lone survivor of the suspicious plane crash that killed Hammarskjöld reported hearing an explosion on board. It remains a mystery up to the present day what actually happened.
Italo Balbo – Italian fascist shot down by “friendly fire”
Italo Balbo was a leading Italian fascist from the 1920s to his death in 1940. From his twenties, he had been closely associated with the dictator Benito Mussolini and promoted rapidly. By 1940, he was being touted as a possible successor to Mussolini and was given Italy’s colonies in north Africa to govern. This corresponds to the modern country of Libya.
He was seen as a dashing and colourful figure who was a superb aviator. In many ways, possessing many of the qualities that Mussolini envied. The dictator fancied himself as a muscular hero but Balbo was closer to the real thing. In 1933, he led a mass flight of Italian planes to the United States where he received a rapturous reception. This didn’t go down well with Mussolini who packed Balbo off to Libya to get him out of the limelight.
Balbo had no qualms about using violence to defeat the political Left in Italy and crush democracy. He was a key organiser of the march on Rome in 1922 that brought Mussolini to power. But by the 1930s, he had doubts over the wisdom of aligning Italy to Nazi Germany, even arguing that Italy should be allied to Britain as it had been in the First World War.
By 1940, that argument was lost and Britain was bombarding the Libyan city of Tobruk. On June 28, 1940, Balbo was flying into Tobruk to inspect the situation when he was downed by Italian anti-aircraft batteries. The official line was that they mistook his plane for a British bomber.
In other words, Balbo was killed by his own side. Suspicious? You bet.
Portuguese Prime Minister killed in plane crash
Finally – though the list could go on and on – there is the incredibly suspicious plane crash that killed the Portuguese Prime Minister Francisco Sá Carneiro on December 4, 1980. Originally a politician under the fascist dictatorship that ruled Portugal until 1974, he was swept along by the revolution of April that year becoming a voice for democracy. But what occupied his mind primarily was reducing the influence of the very powerful and influential Portuguese Communist Party (PCP).
To do this, he formed a party that would eventually becoming the main force on the centre-right. In 1980, he got elected Prime Minister and was in power for most of that year until his plane broke apart flying over Lisbon. He was on his way in a Cessna 421 light aircraft to Porto, the country’s second city, for a political rally.
At the time, his distraught supporters pointed at Communists accusing them of the killing. But over the years, evidence has come to light suggesting it was diehard fascists who brought his plane down. Sá Carneiro was a pragmatic populist who blended socialist and capitalist terminology to maximise electoral support for his party. While this approach worked at the ballot box, it angered and confused some on the political fringes. In 1999, it was publicly stated that a violent extreme Right group planted a bomb on the plane.
In a final twist to the story, the city of Porto decided to name its main airport after Sá Carneiro – a name it still retains today. Some have wondered whether calling an airport after a man who died in a suspicious plane crash isn’t willing bad luck. But the name has stuck.