Former Somali Airlines pilot dies from COVID-19

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Mogadishu (HOL) – A former Somali Airlines pilot who made history when his passenger jet was hijacked by defecting soldiers in the mid-’80s has passed away from COVID-19 in Mogadishu. Captain Mohamud Haji Elmi, better known as Captain Haji Dhagah, passed away on Monday morning in Martino Hospital after testing positive for Covid-19.

Capt. Haji Dhagax began his aviation career as a member of the Somali Air Force before joining Somali Airlines in 1973, where he piloted the Douglas DC-3. He later flew the  Fokker F27, C402, B707 and Airbus 310, according to Capt. Mohamed Y. Egal and Capt. Mohamud Sheikh (Dable Biloote), with whom he has worked for a long time.

Capt. Haji Dhagax was born in Mogadishu in 1945 and spent most of his life in Mogadishu.

Somalis remember Captain Haji Dhagah for piloting the Somali Airlines Boeing 707 bound for Saudi Arabia that three armed Somali soldiers hijacked in late November 1984.

According to a flight attendant on board, Capt. Awil Adan Burhan, the lead hijacker, rose from his seat 30 minutes after takeoff and walked towards the cockpit with a pistol. Burhan shot a flight crew member and forced his way into the cockpit, where he was joined by two accomplices, Bashe Muse Mohammed and Ahmed Haji Mohammed Adan. Capt. Haji Dhagax was injured in the attack after he struggled with Burhan in the cockpit.

The hijackers directed Capt. Haji Dhagax to land in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Upon landing, Haji Dhagax pleaded with the hijackers to release the wounded crew members along with women and children, which they eventually did. They held most of the other passengers as hostages and threatened to blow up the plane with explosives they brought aboard unless then Somali President Mohamed Siyad Barre released seven political prisoners who were scheduled to die that day.

The ordeal came to an end nearly 75 hours later when the hijackers freed the passengers and gave a press conference that the Ethiopian government organized from Bole International Airport. During the press conference, Burhan denounced the Barre regime.

The hijackers were members of the Somali National Movement, a rebel group opposed to the Siad Barre regime in the 1980s to the 1990s that undertook guerrilla operations from bases in Ethiopia.

Since the collapse of Somalia’s central government and institutions in 1991, Capt. Haji Dhagax worked tirelessly behind the scenes to revive the defunct national carrier but has faced many obstacles.  When the civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, Capt. Hajji Dhagax moved to Bossaso.

Capt. Haji Dhagax’s death comes as Mogadishu health officials struggle to cope with a recent spike in cases in the last month. So far, Somalia has experienced 8,438 confirmed cases and recorded 307 deaths. Alarmingly, over half of Somalia’s confirmed cases are currently active.