When Airliners Vanish

In the murky world of international aircraft deals, old airliners can end up on the dark side.

Many of the airliners that professional data trackers can no longer account for are believed to have disappeared somewhere in Africa, an enormous land mass with a number of countries that have weak civil aircraft authorities. (©Harvepino/iStockphoto)
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The Internet has made it easy to track the current movements of aircraft. Now anybody can punch a flight or tail number into a smartphone—suitable apps can be downloaded from FlightAware.com, PlaneFinder.net,
and other airplane tracking sites—and follow an airplane from Hong Kong to L.A. to Moscow on a tiny map. Digital photographs of aircraft landing at airports around the world are posted on websites even before the transports can shut down their engines. Despite these tools, large civilian aircraft still vanish—and not because they have crashed.

On his database, Avrane tags them “UFOs”—ultimate fate obscure. “An airplane is either supposed to fly, or it’s stored,” he says. “For large aircraft, I put the UFO tag when a significant amount of time has elapsed when it hasn’t been flying, but there is no indication that it’s been stored.” He considers two years a significant period.

Still, he believes that that only a very small fraction of the aircraft he lists as UFOs are used for criminal activities. “Most of the UFOs are just quietly scrapped somewhere,” he says.

The somewhere, according to Avrane and several others I interviewed, is most frequently Africa. “There’s a lot of missing airplanes, and usually the answer is they went to Africa, wrecked somewhere, and were made into pots and pans,” says a former government employee who asked that his name not be used. “It’s about the hardest place in the world” to find an airplane.

“Ever see those guys chop up an airplane with an axe?” asks pilot Brad Randall. Randall spent years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) flying airliners and corporate aircraft. “It takes them about a month. About six guys with an axe. It’s not like here where they have those claws that cut metal. Just with an axe, piece by piece. I watched them chop up a 707 in Lubumbashi [in the DRC]. Every time we’d arrive, piece by piece, the airplane would be apart until it was all gone. It was incredible.”

But not all are chopped up. In a 2008 report on weapons shipments in Africa, The Arms Flyers: Commercial Aviation, Human Rights and the Business of War and Arms, is a photograph, taken on December 5, 2005, of an Ilyushin Il-76 at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. On the aircraft’s tail, the name of a company has been painted over and no registration number is visible. The caption reads, “It has not been possible to identify this aircraft, nor has the Civil Aviation Authority of Uganda been willing to provide information about it.”

The search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared last March with 239 people on board, makes clear one of the reasons that something as big as an airliner can simply vanish: Most of the oceans are not covered by radar. The Boeing 777 dropped from sight after it executed a bizarre change in course as it entered Vietnamese airspace over the South China Sea. The last sightings were by Thai and Malaysia military radars. Investigators believe that the radar data, together with Inmarsat signaling messages, placed the aircraft in a southern area of the Indian Ocean at the time when its fuel would have been exhausted. Last June, the Australian Joint Agency Coordination Center resumed the search, targeting an area larger than 20,000 square miles.

It’s possible that once all airliners are equipped with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance—Broadcast) transmitters, which broadcast locations with more precision than current transponders (see “Lost in America,” Oct./Nov. 2011), airliners will no longer go missing. And in the wake of MH370’s disappearance, some are calling for better satellite tracking that could follow airliners as they cross oceans. Alexandre Avrane doubts that technology will make a difference. “Even if ‘new’ satellite tracking systems cannot be disabled by cockpit crews, they will still require some maintenance and can be removed or disabled by maintenance or during overhaul,” he emailed. He doubts that airlines in poorer countries will spend the money to install the tracking technology.

I asked one of the security professionals who was involved in the search for N844AA, the 727 that disappeared after leaving Angola, if he thought that advances in technology could end the disappearance of airliners. “We said that after 844AA,” he emailed.

“ ‘Modern’ airplanes with Mode-S, SATCOM, etc., won’t disappear. Until one does.”

A former intelligence professional thinks it likely that MH370 will be found and that N844AA may already have been: “It’s likely because there are eyes and ears everywhere. Eventually, over time, someone would run across it. There are enough extraordinary national assets that it would be extremely difficult for something to hide. [It is possible that N844AA] has been identified and either determined not to be a threat or turned into a ghostly asset—that is, not acknowledged as having been found but used by friendly forces.” In Avrane’s database, the last owner listed for the two missing civilian C-130s is the CIA.

Few aircraft disappear as spectacularly as MH370. Most disappear in a much quieter way—by acquiring new identities.

Since 1947, the International Civil Aviation Organization has required operators to register aircraft with a country’s civil aviation authority and to carry certificates of registration and airworthiness, pilots’ licenses, and other paperwork. (The ICAO assigns registration prefixes to each country, which can be a letter or letters, or letters and numbers; the U.S. prefix is “N.” ) But enforcing compliance with ICAO requirements is up to each country, and standards vary. “There are plenty of areas worldwide where ATC [air traffic control] is almost non-existent, airport staff do not care, or can be bribed,” says Avrane.

A 2008 UN report on the flow of weapons into the Democratic Republic of the Congo assessed the DRC’s ability to track its aircraft and states that there were “20 aircraft with an obviously incorrect registration number and, most importantly, 89 aircraft whose manufacturing number is missing or incorrect.” The manufacturing, or serial, number is the key to an airplane’s identity. Although a large aircraft can easily have a half-dozen or more registration numbers over its lifetime, the serial number is included on an airplane’s data plate (along with the manufacturer’s name, the model of the aircraft, and its date of construction), which is installed by the manufacturer as the aircraft is being built. Once attached, typically near the cockpit, where it can be easily seen, the data plate is supposed to stay with the aircraft. If it’s missing or has been tampered with, that can be a sign that someone is trying to hide the aircraft’s real identity in order to avoid mandatory and expensive maintenance checks, or to disguise its involvement in crime or sanctions violations.

“Data plates are easy to forge,” says a pilot with a long history of flying in African conflict zones. (Because he has tampered with data plates himself, he asked that his name not be used.) “I once upped the [Zero Fuel Weight] on a C-54D model by making a plate and quoting some MIL spec number increasing the ZFW to the same as a G model. It is still in that C-54 to this day.”

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