How could a Boeing 727 just disappear without a trace?

You might think in this age of satellite surveillance and sophisticated air-traffic controls, it would be near impossible for a jetliner to be stolen, flown away and not seen again for more than four months.

Yet, that’s just what has happened in a daring feat that has governments around the world fearing the jetliner may be in the hands of terrorists, just awaiting its final suicide mission.

The story began May 25, when two men climbed aboard an idle cargo jet in Angola and flew off into the African sky. The jet has not been seen since.

U.S. investigators and civil aviation officials in Africa have tried to downplay the terrorist threat, saying the plane was most likely stolen for a criminal endeavor such as drug or weapons smuggling. Some have speculated it may have been stolen for the value of its spare parts. Yet, no one can definitively rule out the terrorist threat.

State Department spokesmen have said there is no evidence linking the disappearance of the plane to terrorists, but they admit they would like to see the plane found so the threat can be ruled out.

U.S. officials also say everything that can be done to find the plane using modern technology is being done. But experts say even in the age of satellites and other high-tech search methods, a new coat of paint and a stolen registration number would make tracking the plane nearly impossible.

When the plane, with tail number N844AA, left Luanda airport May 25, the transponder was turned off, so the plane’s position could not be monitored by air-traffic control.

Worse yet, the missing 727 cargo jet had been converted into a fuel tanker, making it highly desirable as a “flying bomb.”

An American named Ben Padilla approached authorities a month before the plane disappeared, saying the owner wanted to take the plane out of Angola. Padilla was asked for $50,000 in fees accumulated during the year the plane sat in Angola. Padilla was one of the two men later seen boarding the plane just before it took off.

According to Padilla’s family in Florida, he was hired to repossess the jet after Air Angola failed to make lease payments.

His sister, Benita Padilla-Kirkland, says she feared the plane had crashed or Padilla, 51, was being held against his will.

“I’m becoming highly concerned that we’re not getting enough cooperation from the FBI and CIA,” she told Fox News earlier this month. “I’ve spoken with someone at the CIA last week and expressed my concerns, and they continue to give us the answer they cannot give us any additional information.”

Padilla-Kirkland said she is suspicious about repeated U.S. insistence that this is a criminal act.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of the European agencies are more concerned with this being a terrorist act,” she said. “It seems to be that the European countries seem to be a little bit more concerned about this plane’s disappearance than our government seems to be concerned.”

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