Intelligence: June 13, 2003


All of a sudden, it become obvious  that the US government has launched an intensive intelligence campaign to find a Boeing 727-200 passenger jet that mysteriously disappeared from Angola's Luanda airport three weeks ago. Since then, the plane's status has discussed every morning in meetings at various intelligence agencies and congressional intelligence committees. While the mainstream press describes the US efforts to locate the missing airliner as "secret', the mystery was first mentioned in the Angolan press on May 28th.

It's also not clear who, or how many people were on board or even who actually owns the plane. The plane's last known registration was for the US (N844AA). The aircraft was built in 1975 and originally operated by American Airlines until late 2001. Her latest registered owner was an aircraft leasing firm based in Miami, Florida, but press efforts to contact the firm were unsuccessful. While firms are legally obliged to inform the Federal Aviation Agency of address changes and any transfers in aircraft ownership, that doesn't always happen and the possibility the plane may have been sold to foreigners. 

Some American government officials said the plane belongs to an American living in South Africa, who leased the aircraft to others. Other sources claim that the plane was brought to Angola by a firm called Air Angola, which is owned by a group of current and former high-ranking military officials. 

The plane took off without communicating with the airport's air traffic control tower. Air traffic control over Africa, as well as airport security, can charitably be described as "lax". The Angolan military wasn't prepared to give chase and air traffic control radars are nonexistent to the north and east, over the border into the Congo. Angolan authorities didn't not know whether the plane was bound for Burkina Faso, South Africa, Libya or Nigeria. US government officials last heard the Boeing requesting permission to land in the Seychelles, but it never arrived. 

The most-likely answers to life mysteries are often the simplest ones and aircraft maintenance in Africa is notoriously bad. According to Boeing's own statistics on crashes (1959-2001), an Air Angola Charter 727-100F crash landed short at 
airport on May 10, 2001 and an Air Gemini 727 crashed in Angola on January 5, 2001. Angolan airfields are lined with wrecks, engine failures are commonplace and pilots have been known to drink on the job. N844AA could have simply gone down in some remote jungle.

But speculation runs from the plane being stolen to run drugs or guns, to being deliberately crashed for insurance money. Some US officials say they suspect the plane may have been flown off to avoid repossession, since the plane had been parked at the airport for over a year for nonpayment of about $4 million in airport authority fees. 

While American investigators think that the plane is probably being used for criminal purposes and not part of a terrorist plot, leaving such things to chance in a post 9-11 world is asking for trouble. So an alphabet soup of intelligence agencies have been using satellites to try to locate the plane, the CIA is working its human sources in Africa and embassies in Africa have been informed of the disappearance and asked to provide any information they may come across. The US has also asked South Africa (via Interpol) to help trace the aircraft.

While the South Africans said it hadn't entered their airspace, perhaps most troubling was that their police and aviation officials thought that the 727 appeared to have been converted into a fuel tanker. While the Americans believe the plane doesn't have enough range to reach the US, that doesn't rule out an attack on a US embassy or facility overseas in Africa. 

So far two sightings of the plane have ben discounted; in South Africa, it was a sister plane in South Africa and that the plane was heading for the Seychelles turned out to be bogus. - Adam Geibel


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