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How A Boeing 727 Went Missing In 2003

SimpleFlying logo SimpleFlying 5/25/2022 Andrew Curran
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Disappearing big planes are rare events, given the extent of modern tracking data available nowadays. Nonetheless, every now and then, the disappearance of a big passenger jet flies under the public radar. That's the case with a Boeing 727-200 that departed from Luanda's Quatro de Fevereiro Airport (LAD) 19 years ago today. The trijet took off late one afternoon and was never seen again.

This was no ordinary disappearance, and it had multiple layers of complexity involved. According to the Aviation Safety Network, the Boeing 727-200 (registration N844AA) was owned by Aerospace Sales & Leasing, but had been stuck for over a year owing to unpaid airport fees and other disputes.

The men who took the plane were not certified to fly it, but capitalized on a rough and wild flying environment with poor regulatory oversight. After the disappearance, N844AA was considered stolen. The FBI and CIA were involved in the follow-up investigation, but these well-resourced organizations found no trace of it.

Missing plane mired in legal disputes

At the time of the disappearance, the plane's owner, lessor Miami-based Aerospace Sales & Leasing, was in the process of transferring the plane to IRS Airlines, a short-lived Nigerian carrier. Data from ATDB.aero shows that it had originally flown for American Airlines from 1975 to 2002, which is why the stolen aircraft was reported to have been painted silver with a red, white, and blue tricolor cheatline.

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The aircraft (not pictured) served American Airlines for the first 27 years of its career. Photo: Scarlet Sappho via Flickr

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Late in the afternoon of May 25th, 2003 (19 years ago today), two men boarded the 727 at Luanda Airport. One was a US citizen and private pilot named Ben Padilla. The other was an Angolan named John Mutantu. Padilla was a pilot but not certified to fly a Boeing 727-200. Meanwhile, Mutantu was his offsider.

According to a comprehensive review of the disappearance in Air & Space Magazine in 2010, the men took the plane onto the runway without ATC clearance. Both its lights and its transponder were switched off when it took off and headed towards the Atlantic Ocean. N844AA disappeared into the sunset, never to be seen again.

The plane's disappearance caught the interest of the FBI & CIA

An aging Boeing 727 disappearing from an African airport might not normally arouse much interest in Washington DC. However, this was two years after 9/11, and memories of weaponized airplanes were fresh in public memory.

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Luanda's coastal location meant that the aircraft was over the water almost immediately. Photo: L Willms via Wikimedia Commons

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"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," Mastin Robeson, a retired US Marine General and the commander of US forces in the Horn of Africa at the time, told Air & Space Magazine.

Having spent the bulk of its career before its disappearance at US legacy carrier American Airlines, the plane was old but immaculately maintained. However, after arriving in Africa, the trijet became mired in a messy contractual dispute. Lease payments were missed, promises broken, and the crews poorly looked after.

Speaking to Air & Space Magazine, an unnamed pilot explained that "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."

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Before the Boeing 727 went to Africa, it was flown by American Airlines. Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi via Wikimedia Commons

Nineteen years later, the mystery remains unsolved

By the time the plane disappeared, rough treatment had severely degraded it, but the engines were considered sound. The morning after N844AA mysteriously took off, alarm bells started ringing. It wasn't automatically assumed the plane had crashed. After all, there are a lot of long unpaved runways in Sub-Saharan Africa that could accommodate a 727. Theft and insurance fraud were also considered.

However, it would be hard for such a large aircraft to disappear long-term. Planes are not much use unless you can fly them, and there have been no ongoing reports of mystery Boeing 727s flying around Africa. Nineteen years down the line, most people connected with the plane, such as lessors, pilots, US Government officials, debtors, and other stakeholders, think that it crashed in the ocean.

Multiple examples of the 727 have disappeared over the years. Photo: Getty Images

Not the only 727 to go missing

Nonetheless, with no trace ever found, the true fate of N844AA remains an enduring mystery. This is also the case for another Boeing 727, although its disappearance unfolded under slightly different circumstances.

Specifically, September 11th, 1990, saw a Faucett Perú Boeing 727 go missing while on a transfer flight from Malta to Peru. It was traveling back to Lima after a summer lease to Air Malta. However, on the leg between Iceland's Reykjavík–Keflavík Airport and Gander in Canada, it crashed hundreds of miles off course.

The circumstances of this disappearance are more clear-cut, given that the aircraft sent distress signals and voiced their intentions to ditch due to running out of fuel. However, despite the differing nature of the aircraft's disappearance, neither it nor the remains of its occupants have ever been found in the 32 years since.

What do you make of the 727's disappearance? Do you know of any other similar tales? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Source: Air & Space Magazine, Aviation Safety Network

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