September 12, 2018

ADDENDUM: Iranian Air Force or SAHA airlines - who really owns this aircraft?

ADDENDUM: In light of the September 15 Israeli airstrike on the cargo associated with this particular aircraft, I wanted to update this article with new information and photographs. The new information appears immediately following the original article.

Hard-to-catch track of this Iranian Boeing 747-200 freighter aircraft over Syria, here as civil registration EP-SHB. Note the Mode S (Hex) code 734D02 – this stays with the aircraft as it changes registration and owners. The Mode S and registration seem to agree on SAHA airlines.

This particular aircraft was delivered to the Imperial Iranian Air Force in 1977 as 5-8113. For 1984 and 1985, it was leased to then national civil flag carrier Iran Air, and then returned to the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). In 1991, it was “leased” to SAHA airlines, a wholly-owned company of the IRIAF. In the intelligence business, we call this a shell company.

In 2013, SAHA airlines suspended all operations, restarting again in 2017. At that time, EP-SHB was returned to the IRIAF, again as 5-8113. It appears to be in IRIAF service today, operating from Tehran/Mehrabad airport – home to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aircraft fleet. How coincidental.

I first saw this aircraft in Syria in this livery. Note the Iranian flag on the tail, over the military airlift service logo, plus the IRIAF identification in Farsi on the front of the fuselage and IRIAF in Latin letters below. No question that this was an Iranian air force jet.

As Iranian support for terrorist groups became notorious, we saw the aircraft in this livery. Note the removal of the IRIAF identification in Farsi and the IRIAF letters. The flag and logo remained. Iranian, but whose? The logo alone tells me it's still IRIAF.

As Iran promoted the fiction that this and other aircraft were not part of the the Iranian air force or involved in support to terrorist groups - notably Hizballah - the military airlift service logo was removed, and the civilian registration EP-SHB was applied.

This is the 2018 livery of the aircraft. This is what we in the intelligence business call a “vanilla” airplane. Although in the color scheme of the IRIAF, there is no visible identification – it’s likely there, but so small it is virtually undetectable from more than 10 feet.

Recent flight history – note the numerous flights listed from Kermanshah to Tehran. Also note the dubious flight path – I am not buying it. I suspect this aircraft is part of the Iranian resupply effort to Syria dubbed the “Shi’a Express.”

Who really owns this aircraft?

Spoiler: That was a rhetorical question. We know.

ADDENDUM: Updated information begins here.

This image is a screen shot from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting network showing this same aircraft. As I indicated above, its identification is there, but very small and not very descriptive. Note the numbers 113 on the lower fuselage. That is an abbreviated form of the IRIAF registration 5-8113. If you look closely at the earlier photograph in the original article, and now know where to look, you can make out the 113. This image is likely at the military ramp at Tehran's Mehrabad airport.

This image shows this IRIAF aircraft, using its false civilian registration EP-SHB en route from Tehran to Damascus on the evening of Saturday, July 15.

It landed later at the Syrian Air Force 29th Air Brigade ramp at Damascus International Airport.

After the cargo was unloaded Saturday night, it was struck by Israeli Air Force missiles, destroying the cargo, and likely damaging the aircraft. The image above, posted in a tweet from an imagery analyst, shows the aircraft on the military ramp with blackened tarmac where the cargo was struck.