Editorials

September 3, 2014

Are There Really 11 Missing Aircraft in Libya Threatening a 9/11 Repeat?

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Written by: Phil Derner Jr.
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Many media outlets are reporting that an official from the U.S. State Department claims that 11 aircraft are missing from Tripoli International Airport following a battle at the airfield in mid-July. Coverage from this anonymous official goes on to declare, that with the 13th anniversary of September 11, 2001 approaching, along with the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS, there could be a threat of a 9/11-style attack using aircraft as missiles.

First, it is important to say that we are an apolitical organization. We are airplane people and can only talk about aviation. Sharing our opinions or thoughts on international conflict is not our place nor within our area of expertise. However, 11 aircraft are said to be missing, so that throws us into the ring to determine which ones are indeed missing. From there, we can only report to you what we know.

Examining the claim

Our investigation began by taking an inventory of aircraft that were present during the battle. We matched aircraft registration numbers (license plate numbers for aircraft) to independently verify each flying machine’s status post-battle, and looked at all of this data to piece together an overall perspective of the missing aircraft. Knowing exactly which aircraft are missing would then allow us to gauge the true threat.

It is important to highlight that many photos used by the media were taken during a previous battle at the airport in 2011, when several aircraft were also damaged. We compared lists from that battle with the recent clash to remove the chance of overlapping data.

To get the research rolling, a Bloomberg article reports that 21 aircraft were damaged during the week long battle.

Aviation Safety Network has a compiled list showing 34 damaged aircraft, though I feel some of their sources are a little on the weak side (ie: merely saying “Facebook” with no link) makes some of the aircraft as having unverified status in our eyes. Additionally, some of the aircraft listed, which we have confirmed as damaged, were airplanes that were parked “long term” in a graveyard on airport grounds and were not flyable, nor close to it by any means.

Aviation Safety Network also has a nice-looking graphic (see below) that takes a Google Earth image, supposedly taken after the battle, and on top of it they highlighted each aircraft with details about its status. Though comprehensive, it is difficult to identify and verify aircraft registrations from this perspective.

Aviation Safety Network created this graphic showing the results of their own gathered data.

Aviation Safety Network created this graphic showing the results of their own gathered data.(Open in new tab to enlarge)

Safety organization JACDEC has a respectable list of aircraft as well, breaking down 23 aircraft with varying levels of damage. Though we were not able to verify the presence of all of the aircraft on their list as having been there, none on their list are of derelict vessels in the graveyard, and can be assumed to have been flyable prior to the battle.

Our own list totals 18 aircraft as having been present at the time of combat; 16 of them we consider confirmed as damaged in some capacity. Our confirmations derive from reliable photographic evidence of damage, or deduction based on its position in relation to other photographed airframes. Of the two that we could not confirm as damaged on our list of “present” aircraft, one was apparently injured according to two sources (Buraq Airlines Boeing 737-500 5A-WAD), while some say it is simply unknown.

There is only one aircraft that we know as being present at the time of the battle that has no known reports of being damaged. That is a Dassault Falcon 50, registered 5A-DCM, operated by the Libyan government. Does this mean they are not damaged? Not at all, but we posses no photographic evidence or personal reports of having received damage.

An Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A330-200, registration disputed between 5A-ONP and -ONF.

An Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A330-200, registration disputed between 5A-ONP and -ONF.

DISCLAIMER: None of the above is to imply that other sites are wrong, though we did find discrepancies between some of them. We can only report what we are confident of via evidence that we believe as being reliable. We admit that photos can be doctored, and we are not present and cannot be considered eye-witnesses.

As for missing aircraft, we see no evidence or indication of any aircraft now being missing as of the mid-July battle, or of having oddly vanished since. The data collected on the damaged aircraft make it very obvious just how many watchful eyes there are on the conditions and status of each aircraft, to the point that it would be extremely difficult for one to go missing without anyone realizing it. Keeping that in mind, and among all of the many discussions going on about these aircraft, there is only one person that claims any aircraft are missing, and it is the anonymous official that provided zero data to support the claim.

Do damaged aircraft mean there is no threat?

Operating on the assumption that no aircraft are actually missing, does that mean there is zero threat? Not necessarily. Perhaps in the “telephone game” between this anonymous official and the reporter, it was not that 11 aircraft are missing, but perhaps they are not in control by friendly/responsible forces. Considering that, some aircraft that received damage might well be “airworthy” in the sense that they can be flown still, albeit in a limited capacity.

Aircraft that received the smallest-known damage were restricted to bullet holes. Assuming they received no further damage beyond punctured skin (no bullet damage to wiring, hydraulics, etc.) the airframe, at a minimum, is probably unable to be pressurized.

This bullet hole may not necessarily stop this Airbus A320 from flying.

This bullet hole may not necessarily stop this Airbus A320 from flying.

Flying without pressurization is possible (I’ve dispatched several in my career, all under legal requirements), but that means it must be flown at a low enough altitude that would allow the crew to breathe normally, maybe 10,000 feet. This increases the fuel burn due to increased air density seen at such lower altitudes, meaning that the range of the aircraft would be limited. The other option is flying higher up anyway, but with the crew utilizing their oxygen masks (which, depending on aircraft type, could be anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple hours), or additional oxygen that they brought onto the aircraft themselves.

In fact, there is at least one report of damaged aircraft leaving the airfield after the battle. These are Buraq Airlines 737-500s, which are reported to have received a few gunshot wounds to the belly. Regardless of its wounds, two sources indicate at least one of them flew to Malta on July 18th for repairs.

So are we in danger?

Most people have absolutely nothing to worry about. It is unlikely that European military forces in the Mediterranean Sea would let an errant aircraft penetrate their borders, or for an aircraft to make it to North America or to any American bases in the Middle East without being detected and neutralized. This is not to mention that the world’s eyes, whether it be spy satellites, human intelligence on the ground, surveillance aircraft or drone, or planespotters, are surely keeping an eye on any aircraft that would be moving in or out of that airfield.

Understanding that, any aircraft that was commandeered by someone ill-willed – assuming they had the knowledge to operate that particular aircraft type, that the aircraft was indeed flyable, that they had access to fuel, and a host of other variables – would likely not get very far without someone being tipped off.

Were we misled?

Based on information we have and the vague implication of a question from an unknown person, the fears of a 9/11 repeat as a result of missing aircraft in Tripoli is slim to none. Even for those aircraft that have been compromised, people in Europe and the United States have nothing to worry about, and those in northern Africa run an incredibly remote chance of this taking place. Due to watchful eyes.

The next question ultimately goes back to that anonymous U.S. official or the reporter that this person spoke with. What aircraft are supposedly missing? If intended as a scare tactic, a little actual (and reliable) information to back up that scare tactic would make the claim much more effective. Until then, we have nothing to go on but to assume that this is nothing more than wolf crying along with worrisome reporting by the media.

For media inquiries, please contact Phil Derner via email.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has a background in online advertising and airline experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.




 
 

 

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  • leroyjabari

    Excellent report. I wish some our media outlets were as thorough as you were here. Thank you.

  • Ken Meyer

    Thanks Phil! Great job. I have been sceptical right away when I read the report in “The Washington Free Beacon”. The media instead of just regurgitating this stuff could at least have double checked its claim by simply calling Libyan Airlines or Afriqiah Airways. They certainly know the whereabouts of their fleet

    • John

      The original story about “missing aircraft” is likely a product of the Tea Party press. They lie and distort all the time, if they think it will serve their objective of putting the President in a bad light.

      For example, a few years ago, they ran a story with a picture of everyone except President Obama saluting, and tried to make it look like he was being disrespectful to the U.S. flag. What they did not tell people is that the band was playing “Hail to the Chief.”

  • The Value Traveler

    That’s sad to see these aircraft like that–they should be flying and being used for commercial flights.

  • Beelzel

    Good report… best I have read on this issue.

  • Abdulmalik Essofrani

    Thank you Phil for this thorough work and reliable report.