Sunday, December 3, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gore's Jet Has A Shady Past -- `Air Force Two' Was A Gun Smuggler In A Previous Life

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Vice President Al Gore loves jet-setting in "Air Force Two" but knows nothing of its sordid past.

Dan Quayle flew the Boeing 707, also clueless about its shady history.

And Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the dark about her wings to China, Mongolia and South America.

Today, the gleaming aircraft is emblazoned with the words "United States of America" and the American flag. Its interior is state-of-the-art: about 30 phones, color televisions, videocassette recorders, stereo systems, an electric typewriter, a photocopy machine.

But before it was seized, impounded and turned over to the Air Force, it was a gun-running cargo plane bound for South Africa with an illegal shipment of 1,146 M-16 automatic rifles, 259 pistols and 100 M203 grenade launchers.

"Once it mingles with thieves, it always mingles with thieves," aviation appraiser Ed Lindquist joked when told of the plane's secret double life.

For the past 10 years, rumors have floated about the plane's origin. Lore said that it was a drug-running plane. When a reporter inquired several weeks ago, officials at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland began digging and eventually tracked down the plane's past.

Many Washington heavyweights have flown this notorious 707, according to Lt. Neil Nipper, a spokesman for Andrews.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide flew it to Haiti in October 1994 when Aristide was restored to power. Christopher took it to Syria and Jordan in July 1994. It carried Defense Secretary William Perry to Croatia, Switzerland and Germany in September 1994. It recently returned from shuttling Gore to Japan.

According to court records, the plane was seized before it could deliver the weapons to the South African company that ordered them.

On May 12, 1981, after tape-recorded conversations about a phony Sudanese destination and $1.2 million in wire transfers, undercover U.S. Customs agents seized the plane at Houston Intercontinental Airport, according to court records.

The Customs agents, who had been tipped off about the deal, posed as drivers of the trailer truck that carried the weapons to Houston. Two British men, who Customs agents said were representatives of an international arms-trading company, were arrested while they inspected the weapons. They eventually pleaded guilty.

Federal law allows the government to keep items used in connection with an attempt to export munitions illegally.

After the federal civil forfeiture case was resolved in the government's favor in 1985, the plane was turned over to the Air Force. It was a great deal, the Air Force says: The plane did not cost a dime, although it has cost a pretty penny to refurbish.

At that time, a Boeing 707 would have been worth about $1.75 million, said Lindquist, an appraiser for AVMARK Inc., an aviation consulting firm in Arlington, Va. Today, it is valued at $1.6 million.

Manufactured in 1969, the plane was first used by Quebec Air, then Ward Air, now-defunct Canadian carriers that used it for charter flights, said Lindquist, whose firm keeps an extensive aircraft database. It also was used by Sudan Airways and Nigeria Airways, he said.

At the time of its seizure, the plane was being operated by Montana-Austria, an Austrian-based charter service that was leasing it from a West German corporation. Montana-Austria had contracted to fly a shipment from Houston to South Africa, according to court records.

"It once carried guns," joked Neel Lattimore, Hillary Clinton's spokesman, when told about the plane's past. "Now it is flown by top guns for our country's big guns."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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