In May 2003, two men who didn’t know how to fly a Boeing 727-223 stole one from an Angolan airport. They have never been found, and neither has the plane.
At 47 meters long and 10 meters wide, the Boeing 727-223 is a massive plane in a heavily regulated sector. It should be impossible to steal. Or at least, it should be impossible to fly undetected or even hide once it lands.
But some time between 5pm and 6pm on May 25th, 2003, Ben Padilla and John Mutantu did exactly that. They entered the Boeing registration N844AA at Quatro de Fevereiro Airport in Luanda, Angola, on a ruse. Padilla was an American aircraft engineer with a private pilot’s license, and no known experience flying a commercial jet. Mutantu was a Congolese aircraft mechanic on a short-term contract.
The ruse was simple. For 14 months, the plane had been grounded at the airport due to multiple paperwork problems. It had accrued over $4 million in airport fees alone and the leasee, TAAG Angola Airlines, didn’t look like they were ever going to pay. So the plane’s owner, Miami-based Aerospace Sales & Leasing, sent Padilla to Angola to repair the plane and fly it to Johannesburg. Aerospace’s owner, Maury Joseph, had found a buyer for the plane’s three engines in Johannesburg.
For an entire month, Padilla worked on the ground with Air Gemini, a contract company, to make the plane airworthy again. Then he hired a crew from Air Gemini to fly the plane because he didn’t have a commercial flying license. The flight was scheduled for May 26th. The evening before, Padilla said he would need to test the engines before the next day’s flight. That’s what everyone thought he and Mutantu were doing as the plane began erratically taxing towards the runway, went to full power, and took off. At no point had it even made an attempt to communicate with the control tower or even switch on its lights.
Once airborne, it flew towards the Atlantic Ocean, and disappeared forever. Given that this was two years since 9/11, a serious multinational multiagency search for the plane followed. There were two reported sightings in Guinea, both disputed, and another in Seychelles and Nigeria. Leaked US diplomatic cables show Nigeria was of particular interest in the search, but nothing ever panned out. The transponder seems to have been switched on before the flight even begun.
Part of the fear was that when Joseph had leased the plane in Miami, to a South African called Keith Irwin, he had stripped it of all its passenger seats. Irwin wanted to use the jet to fly diesel to far off diamond mines in Angola, because road networks were impassable because of the ongoing civil war. So the plane had also been fitted with tanks. A fuel-loaded plane would be a disaster, and agencies across the world went on high alert searching for any glimpse of it.
So if it wasn’t terrorism, why did Padilla and Mutantu steal the jet?
The question of motive remains speculation, and diving into the plane’s back story provides no solid clues. Joseph had sold it to Irwin for $1 million, of which $150, 000 was paid as down payment and the rest was to be paid within a month. His company also provided an aircrew to fly the jet, with one person, Mark Gabriel specifically charged with either getting the balance or flying back with the plane.
Hitches begun immediately when it got to Luanda. It was grounded because Irwin and his partners had not obtained proper landing permits. The plane also didn’t have a HF radio, and the first one Irwin bought turned out to be military-grade so it was removed and returned to the seller. Then they stripped a radio from a Cessna 206 and fitted it.
Even after this, the lack of necessary documentation for its conversion to a cargo plane was lacking. So the plane sat at the airport, depreciating in value and accumulating fees of all kinds. Irwin and the air crew hit snags, with their local partners first confiscating their passports. They sneaked out to Johannesburg, leaving only Gabriel in Luanda. Then Joseph fired Gabriel for failing at his task. Now, the plane was all alone in a land miles away from home, abandoned.
This is where Padilla comes in. He was a freelance aircraft mechanic and freelance engineer who had flown with Joseph to Nigeria in November 2002 to deliver another 727. That might explain the particular interest investigators had with Nigeria. A possible theory here is that Joseph got Padilla to steal it as part of an elaborate insurance fraud. In his defense about that claim, Joseph has always claimed he could not be paid because he couldn’t prove his plane was stolen. There was some context here; in the mid-1990s Joseph had been charged with fraud and was even banned from heading any company with shareholders. Faced with this new allegation of fraud, he offered himself up to the FBI for a lie-detector test.
The other plausible theory is that Padilla and Mutantu accidentally crashed the plane into the Atlantic Ocean. Padilla’s siblings added another twist here, that Padilla had said that if he was ever kidnapped, he would crash the plane into the ground or water. They suggested he and Mutantu may have been forced to steal the plane, and then killed. What if there had been a third person in the plane that no one outside noticed? This one is plausible because a Boeing 727-223 requires a three-person properly-trained crew to fly. Since Padilla had had access to the plane, it is likely he had let someone else in unnoticed.
One story is good,
till Another is told.