A Boeing 727 parked at Quatro de Fevereiro Airport in Luanda, Angola, was boarded by two men in 2003. The plane took off and disappeared, and to this day, it has never been found.
The airplane had once been in service with American Airlines for 25 years, but after being acquired by different parties, it ended up sitting on the tarmac of an Angolian airport for eighteen months starting in 2002.
Right before sunset on May 25, 2003, Ben Charles Padilla, an aircraft mechanic, private pilot, and certified flight engineer, and Mikel Mutantu, a mechanic from the Republic of the Congo, boarded the Boeing 727–223, tail number N844AA.
The airplane was taxied onto the runway at Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport and made no contact with the air traffic control tower of the airport. The aircraft had its lights off and departed the airport heading southwest over the Atlantic Ocean. The transponder was also off, which would have identified the airplane with altitude and position information. The plane had been filled with 14,000 gallons of fuel, enabling it to be flown up to 1,500 miles. The aircraft mysteriously disappeared, and no debris or trace of N844AA, or the two men, were ever found.
The Backstory and Aftermath
The Boeing 727–223 had been leased in 2002 from a Florida-based company called Aerospace Sales and Leasing by a man named Keith Irwin. Irwin had planned for the airplane to be fitted with diesel fuel tanks in the fuselage to supply fuel to diamond mines in Angola. But the deal fell through, and Irwin made only two payments on the airplane and defaulted.
Padilla and Mutantu had been hired by Maury Joseph, the president of Aerospace Sales and Leasing, to work on the plane to bring it back up to flight-ready status. But neither man was certified to fly the airplane, and a 727 required three certified crew members.
After the airplane disappeared, it set off an immediate search by US security organizations because of the possibility the plane could have been used for a terrorist operation. When the disappearance took place, it had been less than two years after the attacks of 9/11.
United States intelligence agencies, along with the FBI, began investigating why the plane was taken. No clear reasons why the theft took place were discovered. Many theories were proposed, and one that seemed the most plausible was that it had been taken for insurance reasons.
The 727 had been sitting idle at the airport for eighteen months and racked up over $4 million in unpaid fees. Maury Joseph, who had just lost on the leasing deal with Irwin and still owned the airplane, was thought by investigators to be engaging in an insurance fraud scheme. In addition, Joseph had previously been charged in the 1990s by the Securities and Exchange Commission for falsifying financial statements and defrauding investors. But the FBI eventually cleared him of any wrongdoing in the disappearance of the 727.
Another theory posed was that Padilla stole the airplane so it could be ferried to another location to be scavenged and sold for parts. A friend of Padilla said that it was flown to Tanzania’s western border and disassembled there, though no evidence was ever found that any of that took place.
And still, there were other theories. One proposed that the airplane crashed into the Atlantic after takeoff, another that the Angolan air force shot it down, and one that the 727 made it north to Congo and crashed.
No evidence of debris ever surfaced if the plane had crashed, and there was no evidence that it landed at any runway around Angola or in a neighboring country. There was also no evidence of the two men that reportedly had piloted the aircraft. The investigation into the theft of 844AA slowly subsided, and the FBI closed its investigation in 2005.
So what could have happened to 844AA? As of now, no one knows why the plane was taken in the first place and where it might have gone.
Sources: Air & Space, Plane & Pilot, The Sydney Morning Herald