In 2003, two men stole a Boeing and flew away in the sunset. They have never been found

The Guru Blog - Things you didn't know

On May 25, 2003, just before sunset, two men were noticed boarding a Boeing 727 parked at Aeroporto Quatro de Fevereiro in Luanda (LAD), Angola. A few instants later, the forward door of the trijet was closed and engines started. As the 727 left its parking stand, the control tower called the aircraft but no explanations came from the cockpit. Then, without asking any clearance, in complete radio silence and with all lights off, the airplane reached the runway and quickly took off to the south-west over the Atlantic Ocean. The jet and its occupants have never been found since, notwithstanding the vast campaign of research involving the likes of the FBI and the CIA.

Luanda 4 de Fevereiro airport (Wikimedia / Manuel Dohmen)

May 2003 was less than two years away from the September 11 attacks, and in those weeks the armed forces of the US and their allies were engaged in a conflict in Iraq. The fear of many was the 727 could have been used for a terrorist attack similar to the one that had destroyed the Twin Towers. Vast areas of the ocean and African forests in several Countries, dozens of airports in Africa, the Middle-East and Asia were searched for months. The hunt for the Boeing and its crew went on for two years before the case was considered formally closed.

So, some 18 years since that May evening, mystery remains regarding the fate of the trijet and the two men who were last seen boarding it. One is (or was) a US citizen, Ben Charles Padilla, a flight engineer from Florida who held a private pilot licence; with him was a mechanic that Padilla himself had hired, John Mikel Mutantu from the Republic of Congo. The two had been working for quite some time, along with Angolan mechanics, to return the 727-223 to flight-ready status. The aircraft, tail number N844AA, had served with American Airlines (AA) and was still wearing basic AA colours: metal finish with red, white and blue stripes along the fuselage.

Boeing 727-223 N844AA served for American Airlines (Wikimedia / RuthAS)

At the time of its disappearance, 844AA was being leased to a South African businessman named Keith Irwin. Irwin procured the aircraft in February of 2002 from a Miami-based company called Aerospace Sales and leasing, owned by Maury Joseph, for use in delivering diesel fuel to diamond mines in Angola. For this reason, the trijet had been stripped-off of almost all its interiors, including the seats, and fitted with diesel fuel tanks positioned in the former passenger cabin. But Irwin only used the plane for a brief time and quickly defaulted on his payments.

LAD is one of the busiest airports in southern Africa (Wikimedia / L.Willms)

At the beginning of 2003, Joseph found a buyer for the jet in South Africa and hired a small crew, including Ben Charles Padilla, to prepare N844AA to fly again after it had spent months parked at Luanda. Two days before the flight, N844AA had been moved from the hangar to the apron and filled with 14,000 gallons of A-1 jet fuel, enough to travel up to 1,500 miles or 2,400km. On the eve of it being repossessed, the 727 was stolen and never found.

No trace of a crash was found as in Angola nor in neighbouring Countries, as no debris were seen, even using satellites, in the Atlantic Ocean. So, the most likely conclusion is that the 727, flying at night with its transponder off and at low altitude to be invisible by radars, was flown to one of the several airstrips situated just outside the Angolan border, either in Congo or Zambia, then accurately hidden and sold off for parts.

An even more obscure mystery persists regarding the fate of Padilla and Mutantu. he former had a family and children in Florida: of course, he might have decided to disappear leaving no trace behind, but another hypothesis, endorsed by his family, is that when he and Mutantu entered the 727 on that fatal May 25 evening, one or more other persons were already onboard, then forcing Padilla to fly away the aircraft. In this scenario, the American flight engineer and his fellow Congolese mechanic may have been killed by their kidnappers after successfully landing the trijet. Or…

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