“FLYING BOMB” WAS REASON WHY BRITISH AIRWAYS
CANCELLED FLIGHTS TO SAUDI ARABIA
An international hunt is on to find a flying bomb – a stolen Boeing 727 – which led to British Airways cancelling all flights to Saudi Arabia last week.
The plane is a fuel tanker that MI6 and other spy agencies fear is in the hands of al-Qaeda.
The search is being coordinated by Richard Dearlove, director of MI6, and George Tenet, the CIA chief.
Both President Bush and Tony Blair, on holiday in Barbados, are being kept updated on the search – one of the most difficult in aviation history.
Hidden somewhere in the vast Sahara desert of East Africa – an area the size of Europe – the spy chiefs believe the Boeing was poised to launch its attack on a British airliner as it began its descent over Saudi Arabia into Riyadh airport.
Suspected al-Qaeda terrorists spotted outside the airport last week are now believed to have been using sophisticated electronic equipment to track British airways flights.
They escaped before Saudi police could arrest them.
The international agencies involved in the hunt for the Boeing are MI6, Mossad, the CIA and NSA, America’s spy in the sky. All have confirmed the feasibility of the flying bomb destroying a British Airways commercial plane.
The attack would require no more than two pilots.
“Al-Qaeda have a number of such pilots who were trained in Iran. We have been hunting them for some time in Africa”, said a Mossad source.
The area where the Boeing is believed hidden has little or no radar cover – making it almost impossible to track as it took off on its deadly mission.
“We are certain that the flying bomb will have been re-sprayed in the colours of one of the small airlines operating in central Africa”, an intelligence officer involved in the hunt said. “That makes it even harder to spot as there are a lot of old 727s flying in Africa, bought cheap from major airlines”.
The Boeing’s own navigation system would enable it to intercept a British Airways flight as it descended into Riyadh airport.
“The crew would be relaxing after their long flight being almost over. They would not be looking out for an attack coming across the Red Sea from Africa. At a closing speed of almost 900 miles, they would have no chance to avoid the flying bomb”, said international security expert Ted Gunderson in Washington.
The Boeing fuel tanker can carry twice the amount of jet fuel which caused the fireballs that toppled the World Trade Centre in New York.
America’s Homeland Security Agency – which coordinates all intelligence for President Bush – sent out an urgent warning that al-Qaeda “has a continuing fixation to use a large plane to launch a spectacular to mark the second anniversary of 9/11”.
Christopher Yates, a security analyst with Jane’s Aviation Service in London said: “it doesn’t take a genius to figure out if you filled up the Boeing tanker to capacity you would have a huge bomb”.
It was that threat which led to MI6 sending a “red alert” to British Airways.
America’s National Security Agency (NSA) has moved one of its satellites in the Middle East to begin to quarter the Sahara.
Intelligence officers have been authorised to pay substantial sums to nomadic Arabs who roam the Sahara for any clues as to where the Boeing is hidden.
The last sighting was made two months ago by a Canadian pilot, Robert Strothers.
Taking off from Comakry, the seaport capital of Gunea, he claimed he saw the Boeing parked inside a hanger.
“It had been re-sprayed. But the old registration was still visible”, Strothers has told MI6.
By the time an MI6 officer from adjoining Sierra Leone had arrived in Guinea, the 727 had gone. It was next reported to have landed at Ndjamrna, an airport in Chad. The country adjoins Sudan.
The Sudanese deny the aircraft entered their air space – and hinted it had flown north to the Middle East.
Last week, the State Department in Washington – which has asked all its diplomats in the region to “mobilise their resources” – said that “finding the plane is now a top priority”.
Another urgent concern is to discover the fate of Ben Padilla, the 51 year old American “bush pilot” who was at the controls of the 727 when it suddenly took off from Luanda airport in Angola on May 25.
That afternoon, a still unidentified man had paid for 14,000 gallons of jet fuel with US dollars.
Shortly before 5pm, Padilla climbed on board with the man. He was later described as “Middle Eastern”.
Padilla had been at the airport for some weeks. He claimed he represented a Miami company called Aerospace and Leasing, ASL. The company later denied he was working for them.
The Luanda airport manager, Helder Preza, said the Boeing had ran up £30,000 of charges while being parked at the airport after being sold on by American Airlines to ASL.
Padilla guaranteed payment on ASL notepaper. He was then allowed to carry out essential aircraft maintenance to fly the plane back to Miami.
On that May afternoon, he announced to Luanda Air Traffic Control he was going to do engine tests. He fired-up all three engines and rolled the 727 out to the runway.
Suddenly, remembers Helder, “the plane took off. Padilla and the mystery man were on board. The radio was turned off. The transponder, which would have allowed radar to track the plane, was turned off. In minutes it was gone”.
Padilla’s brother, Joe, who lives in Pensacola, Florida, believes his brother was “forced to fly some place and is now dead”. 10 Sept 2003