A variety of significant political leaders from around the globe have been involved in fatal plane crashes over the last century. The nine crashes listed below all involve heads of state or heads of government who died in airplane crashes. Sabotage or assassination is either involved or strongly suspected in almost all of these cases. All but one crash took place in Africa or Asia.
March 17 1957: Ramon Magsaysay, President of the Philippines, was campaigning on the island of Cebu. Returning to Manila from Cebu City, his C-47 disappeared, and Magsaysay and 25 of the other 26 persons on board died. The craft crashed into Mount Manunggal after midnight, allowing only journalist Nestor Mata to escape the burning wreckage.
March 29, 1959: Barthélémy Boganda, presumptive president of the Central African Republic, was flying to Bangui for Berberati when the craft he was traveling on exploded in mid-air. Whether it was shot down is unclear, but the former priest was among the more charismatic and popular African nationalist leaders who helped usher in self-determination for colonial Africa. Many conspiracy theories abound regarding his death, and there were journalistic reports at the time that explosive traces were found in the wreckage.
September 17, 1961: Dag Hammarskjöld, the second United Nations Secretary-General, was flying to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in an effort to negotiate a cease-fire after fighting erupted involving UN peacekeepers. Flying into Ndola, Zambia, Hammarskjöld’s aircraft crashed, killing everyone on board. The official explanation for the crash is that the pilot made too-low an approach, though unproven allegations persist that either a bombing or assassination-hijacking occurred.
December 4, 1980: Lumbrales Francisco Manuel de Sá Carneiro, the Prime Minister of Portugal and founder in 1974 of Partido Popular Democrático / Partido Social-Democrata, was killed when his plane crash leaving the airport in Camarate, north of Lisbon, on a campaign trip for his preferred presidential candidate, Antonio Soares Carneiro. Though officially termed anaccident, a parliamentary inquiry in 1995 concluded the crash was the result of “sinister elements.” In 2001, Luis Filipe Rocha made a film about the incident, “Camarate”, which explores the inconsistencies and troubling ambiguities of the investigation of the incident.
July 31, 1981: Omar Torrijos, Panamanian general and the effective ruler of the isthmus nation from 1968 until his death, was killed when his de Haviland seaplane, a DHC-6 “Otter,” exploded in flight. While assassination was not proven, it was long intimated. For example, in 1991, Manuel Noriega, an eventual successor to Torrijos in 1983, claimed at his trial in US district court that US intelligence interests were behind Torrijos’ death; but, his effort to produce evidence to support his claim was quashed by the court under the Classified Information Procedures Act.
October 19, 1986: Samora Machel, the first president of Mozambique who led the effort for national independence, was killed when his Russian-made Tupolev Tu-134 crashed in the Lembombo Moutains, just across the South African border from Mozambique and Swaziland. The plane was on approach to the Mozambique capital city of Maputo. Three separate reports on the accident exist: from the South African apartheid regime in power at the time; the Soviet Union, as manufacturer of the crashed aircraft; and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The report of the white South African government concluded that pilot error was at work, as the flight crew “failed to follow procedural requirements for an instrument let-down approach, but continued to descend under visual flight rules” though the weather conditions – darkness, cloud cover – merited caution. The report of the Soviet delegation criticized the South Africans for subjectivity and accused the South Africans of conspiring with Israeli intelligence to emit a false landing beacon to distract the plane – which conflicts with the South African conclusion that the plane “ignored” a ground warning proximity alarm. The release of documents by the TRC in 1998 revealed that the white South African government was actively exploring means to displace Machel and his government in Mozambique.
August 17, 1988: Mohammed Zia ul-Hag, President of Pakistan and Chief of Staff of the Army, and Arnold Raphel, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan died when the C-130 Hercules transport they were traveling started to behave erratically and nosedived toward the ground before exploding, just after departing the airport in Bahawalpur, Pakistan. Numerous rumors persist as to the source of the explosion, none of which are proven to this day, but the usual suspect – opposition political and religious groups, suicide bombers, foreign intelligence agencies, and even the Pakistan Army – are rumored to be involved.
April 6, 1994: Cyprien Ntaryamira, president of Burundi, and Juvenal Habyarimana, president of Rwanda, both died when the private Falcon 50 of President Habyarimana shot down by a missile while on approach to the Kigali airport. Ntaryamira, a Hutu, had been president for just two months when the assassination occurred; he had risen to power from his post as agriculture secretary. He was flying with fellow Hutu and Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, who had come to power in 1973 after leading a coup. The plane wreckage landed in the president’s backyard. The assassination exploded latent ethnic tensions between Tutsi and Hutu and led to the subsequent Rwandan genocide.
February 26, 2004: Boris Trajkovski, president of Macedonia and eight of his party died in a controlled collision with terrain in southern Bosnia. Trajkovski was en route to Mostar when his aircraft crashed in fog and rain into a mountain. Conspiracy theories abound surrounding the crash, the death of the eight persons on the flight, and the rescue attempt. However, official conclusions from U.S., NATO, Bosnian, and Macedonian investigators all point to flight crew error. Other conferees had canceled plans to attend the conference based on the horrid weather. Similar weather conditions were associated with the 1996 crash of U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s 737 near Cilipi in Croatia.