The sun had just begun to set over Quatro de Fevereiro Airport in Angola’s capital Luanda on May 25, 2003. As dusk began to set in, Florida-based pilot Ben Padilla boarded a Boeing 727 jet along with a Congolese mechanic. Moments later, the aircraft took off from the runway but made no communication with flight control. Neither the men nor the airplane have been seen since.
The Boeing 727-223 in question had a long history. First built in 1975 for American Airlines, it was later decommissioned and purchased by one Maury Joseph. He in turn sold the plane to South African entrepreneur Keith Irwin in 2002. In a joint venture with an air transit company, Irwin planned to use the plane to deliver fuel to diamond mines in Angola, in the southwest of Africa.
After settling on a $1 million price tag, Irwin made a $125,000 down payment and agreed to settle the remainder of the balance within 30 days. The airplane along with Irwin and a six-man crew was then flown to Angola. But when they arrived in the country, the men quickly began to fear that things would not go as planned.
Firstly, the African company that had ordered the fuel deliveries reneged on a deal to pay Irwin upon his arrival. To make matters worse, the work conditions were dangerous. Indeed, one of the crewmen later likened the experience to flying into a combat zone. As a result, Irwin and his crew aborted the project soon after. The plane was left abandoned at an airport in Angola’s capital Luanda.
Determined to get his property back, Joseph sent aircraft pilot and mechanic Ben Padilla to recover the plane. Joseph had hired Padilla for aviation-related work in Africa in the past and trusted him to get the job done. Padilla’s main task was to ensure the plane was in working order.
Padilla and a group of Angolan mechanics spent the next couple of months repairing the 727. He also hired two local pilots to help him fly the airplane to South Africa. There, Joseph was waiting to sell the jet – or at least its engines – to a new buyer. But on the day they were supposed to fly out, something unexpected happened.
On the morning of May 26, 2003, Joseph received a phone call informing him that the plane – crewed only by Padilla and a mechanic from Congo – had left the airport without even making contact with the flight control tower. Strangest of all was the fact that neither Padilla nor his assistant even knew how to fly the plane.
With its transponder and lights turned off, nobody knew where the plane had gone. To this day, the only thing we do know is that the Boeing 727 tail number N844AA flew southwest towards the Atlantic Ocean. Where it went after that is anybody’s guess.
Fearing the worst, Joseph immediately informed the American embassy in South Africa about what had happened. He also called his wife back in the U.S. and instructed her to contact the FBI. The U.S. government responded by instructing all of its African embassies to begin searching for the plane.
Soon enough, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies were involved as well. U.S. officials checked every African airstrip large enough to accommodate the 727. In addition, bulletins asking for information about Padilla or the plane were sent out. Meanwhile, satellites were used to comb through pictures of remote African runways in the hope of finding the plane.
Given that 9/11 had occurred only a year and a half previously, it’s not surprising that the government’s response was so substantial. The biggest fear was that the plane was hijacked by terrorists. According to this worst case scenario, men could already have boarded the plane before Padilla. Subsequently, they might either have killed him or coerced him into flying the aircraft.
In fact, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) even contemplated mobilizing fighter aircraft to a base in Djibouti, a country on Africa’s northeast coast. Presumably, these fighter jets could then have been used to shoot down the airplane in the event that it had been hijacked by terrorists looking to strike an American target. But that wasn’t the only possible explanation for what had happened.
Another popular premise was that the whole episode was an insurance scheme by Joseph. Retired U.S. Marine General Mastin Robeson later discussed this theory in a 2010 interview with <em>Air & Space</em> magazine. He said, “That was one of the speculations, that it was an insurance fraud situation. You know, ‘Oops, my plane was hijacked/stolen by terrorists and now I can do an insurance claim on it.’” However, the fact that Joseph volunteered for and then passed a lie-detector test undermined this thesis.
Yet another theory speculates that Padilla himself stole the airplane. However, this accusation is strongly refuted by his family. “My brother isn’t a criminal nor never done any wrong doings,” his brother Joe said in a 2003 statement. “Maury Joseph told me that he trusts my brother and doesn’t believe the reports of my brother stealing the plane.”
Indeed, Joe Padilla is stalwart in his belief that the aircraft already had people on board. “I talked to my brother Ben Padilla Jr back in either January or February  and we talked about the September 11 2001 ordeal,” Joe later told IASA.com.au. “And he himself told me that if this sort of thing ever happened to him, that he would down the plane in a New York second.”
However, there were two reported sightings of the plane in the western African country of Guinea. Unfortunately, both reports failed to lead to any tangible leads. Months of fruitless searches soon turned to years. Eventually, in 2005 the FBI ended all investigations into the missing airplane.
To this day, nobody has heard or seen anything more of Ben Charles Padilla. Yet despite this, his sister Benita clings to the hope that her brother is still alive. And according to a 2010 article by <em>Air & Space</em> magazine, she has continued to investigate possible sightings of the aircraft. Moreover, she’s even contacted the FBI to try to convince it to reopen its investigation.
As for the fate of the plane, there remain multiple theories about what happened. Mike Gabriel, the man who was originally sent by Maury Joseph to Africa to ensure the 727 was fully paid for, believes that it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean not long after taking off. Meanwhile, one of Padilla’s friends claims it was scavenged for parts in the capital city of Burundi, a small country in the center of Africa.
And that’s not even the wildest theory. One of the American crewmen who flew the plane for fuel deliveries in 2002 thinks that it was actually shot down by Angola’s air forces. But whatever really happened, most people believe that at least one additional person must have been involved. That’s because it’s almost impossible for just two people to fly a 727.
To this day, we still aren’t sure who piloted the aircraft, what their intentions were, and what happened to the plane and the men on board. You may be surprised to hear that we know more about the mysterious case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 than this missing Boeing 727. After all, investigators are certain that MH370 crashed and have even recovered some of its parts. Boeing 727-223 tail number N844AA, on the other hand, remains the largest aircraft ever to vanish without any clues.