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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In 2003, authorities found that a data plate on an aircraft in the DRC had been switched. On May 27 of that year, an AN-12, registered as 9L-LCR in Sierra Leone, was attempting to land in Goma, a city in the eastern region of the DRC. The Antonov landed long, sustaining damages too extensive to repair. After salvaging what was possible, airport workers dumped the remains of 9L-LCR in a nearby empty field.

A few weeks after the crash, a different AN-12 was registered in the DRC as 9Q-CGQ. UN investigators determined that 9Q-CGQ’s serial number, and therefore its identity, actually belonged to 9L-LCR, which was still in the Goma field. Somebody switched data plates, but the UN investigation could not determine why.

What if a ghost airplane were to show up in U.S. airspace? The Federal Aviation Administration is one line of defense against that. With its International Aviation Safety Assessment program, the FAA evaluates the civil aviation authorities of all countries with air carriers that fly into or have applied to fly to the United States. If the aviation authority does not meet ICAO safety standards, its airplanes are denied access.

Although Cuba has never petitioned to land in the United States, Cuban carrier Cubana overflies Florida and four other states on a scheduled route to Canada. In March 2011, a forum on an airplane tracking website chattered that a Cubana Tupolev Tu-204 on that route was sending a transponder code that identified it as North Korean airliner P-632. A search of AeroTransport Data Bank showed that two transports, Air Koryo’s P-632 and Cubana’s CU-C1703, both Tu-204s, were using the same transponder code.

Because the code is programmed at the factory when the transponder is installed, Alexandre Avrane dismisses the duplication as a Tupolev screw-up. But while amateur Internet trackers noticed the odd code, would any of the U.S. air traffic control centers along Cubana’s route have caught it? They had another chance last August. After more than a year of inactivity, CU-C1703 began flying its route again. According to the FAA, Cubana airliners routinely communicate with FAA air traffic control facilities as they fly from Cuba to Canada. On the code transmitted by CU-C1703, spokesperson Kathleen Bergen emailed the FAA’s position:

“The Hex code is part of the aircraft’s Certificate of Registration, and generally remains with the aircraft, and is not changed. A Hex code is associated with the aircraft, not with the company or the country operating the flight. The Russian-built aircraft could have a North Korean Hex code because it was flown by North Korea before being sold or transferred to Cuba. Also, the original Russian transponder could have been replaced with North Korean equipment.”

The statement does not address the second aircraft transmitting the same code. What is obvious is that one aircraft, by sending a false identifier, can pretend to be another.

The most recent U.S. aircraft to disappear, according to Alexandre Avrane’s database, is LY-AWH, a Boeing 737 that dropped out of sight in February 2013. The “LY” designates an aircraft registered in Lithuania. Somewhere, somebody knows where to find LY-AWH. But more important than that person’s identity or the airplane’s current location is this: When LY-AWH reappears, what will it be doing?

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