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June 13, 2003

BACK ON MAY 29TH, I HAD A POST ABOUT A MISSING 727. A lot of readers thought it was probably a repossession. But apparently intelligence services are worried:

The media has figured out that the US government 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. . . .

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.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Here's a photo. The 727-200 model has a range of 2,175 nm according to the linked source. On the other hand, a reader sent this link to a source stating that "The 727-200 is capable of a maximum range of 3738 miles with full fuel tanks; with maximum payload, it has a range of 3335 miles." I'm not sure what explains the difference. Terrorists, presumably, wouldn't want to arrive at their target with empty fuel tanks, regardless.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Daniel Aronstein observes:

1 - if the stolen 727 has a nuke on it the fuel tanks can be empty on arrival.

2 - if I remember correctly, the metaphorical language of what was purportedly OBL's last audiotape prefigured his "martydom" in an "eagle" or another form of transportation; hence maybe OBL will be on board.

3 - the most likely target is Israel, as the neighboring countries do not have great air defenses or a diathesis to warn Israel.

Hmm. I wonder if you could land and camouflage a 727 in the Sahara, then reach Israel from there. I think so. Several readers noted that if the plane is configured as a tanker it could have a much longer range. You'd have to modify it to draw fuel from those tanks I think, and it would probably pose non-trivial challenges, but I'm sure it could be done. As for the range discrepancy, reader Michael Jennings emails:

The Boeing 727-200 was originally developed as a derivative of the shorter 727-100. The original version did not have additional fuel capacity, so the range was shorter than the earlier 727-100

Airlines wanted a version with greater range, so Boeing produced the "727-200 Advanced" in 1972 with more fuel capacity. Later versions were techically still called the 727-200 Advanced, but they had even greater range. (Increasing the fuel capacity of an aircraft can be non-trivial. More fuel means a larger maximum take off weight, which means more powerful engines and sometimes a larger wing can be required. Even without dramatic changes in design, the range of newer aircraft tends to be more than that of older aircraft (even if they are technically the same model), because new technology means that lighter versions of components are being invented, engines are becoming slightly more efficient and similar, and the aircraft manufacturers and airlines are always looking at ways to improve the aircraft.

Therefore, different instances of theoretically the same aircraft can have markedly different ranges. That said, getting a 727 of any description across the Atlantic ocean is not likely to be possible.

Let's hope.

STILL MORE: Jonathan Gewirtz emails:

In the 1970s a 727 flown by an incompetent Arab airline crew got lost and flew over the (then-Israel-occupied) Sinai in the direction of Israel. The Israelis intercepted the plane, tried unsuccessfully to communicate with the pilots, then -- fearing a 9/11-type attack -- shot the plane down. (The event was written up in Aviation Week.) I doubt that a similar plane would be able to penetrate Israeli defenses now. Assuming the plane is in the hands of terrorists, a European target seems most likely.

Interesting. I don't remember that story, but it was rather a long time ago. Most likely, of course, the plane isn't in the hands of actual terrorists, but the possibility is troubling.