More than two decades later, their whereabouts are still a mystery
Two men who managed to fly off in a Boeing 727-200 they stole have still not been found to this day.
The plane took off from Luanda’s Quatro de Fevereiro Airport (LAD) in Angola on the afternoon of 25 May, 2003 – and was never seen again.
Only two men were onboard – Ben Charles Padilla, a US citizen who was a private pilot, and John Mikel Mutantu, an Angolan helper who Padilla had recently hired.
Although Padilla was a pilot, he was not certified to fly an aircraft like the one he stole.
According to information from the Aviation Safety Network, the Boeing 727-200 (registration N844AA) was owned by Aerospace Sales & Leasing, and had accumulated 68,488 hours in the sky and over 26 and a half years.
Despite having racked up plenty of airmiles, the aircraft was well maintained and its engines were still in working order.
But due to unpaid airport fees and contractual disputes the Boeing been grounded in Angola for over a year.
An anonymous pilot told Air & Space Magazine: “For me, it was an opportunity to make a couple of bucks, and when everything started falling apart, I probably hung on twice as long as common sense dictated.”
Padilla and Mutantu had been working with Angolan mechanics to get the aircraft ready to fly again.
But they weren’t qualified to sit behind the controls of the plane or fly it.
According to reports, the aircraft has started taxiing erratically, before it took off in a southwesterly directly over the North Atlantic Ocean.
The aircraft made no communication with the tower and took off without activating its lights or transponder.
Because the disappearance happened less than two years after 9/11, the FBI and CIA were both involved in the search for the Boeing aircraft.
It was presumed stolen or being used for insurance fraud.
Mastin Robeson, a retired US Marine General and the commander of US forces in the Horn of Africa during the period, told Air & Space Magazine: “It was never clear whether it was stolen for insurance purposes by the owners, whether it was stolen with the intent to make it available to unsavory characters, or whether it was a deliberate, concerted terrorist attempt. There was speculation of all three.”
On top of this, it was unclear who actually owned the jet at the time of its disappearance.
It’s reported that Miami-based Aerospace Sales & Leasing, was in the process of transferring the plane to IRS Airlines, a short-lived Nigerian carrier.
But it was also linked with short-lived Angolan cargo operator Irwin Air.
Investigators didn’t initially assume that the plane had crashed as there were a lot of long unpaved runways in Sub-Saharan Africa that could accommodate an aircraft of that size.
As time has gone on, it’s been widely assumed that the plane crashed into the ocean, killing both Padilla and Mutantu, but there has been no evidence to prove this.