A Former American Airlines Plane is Still Missing After 15 Years

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared on March 8, 2014. It’s never been found, and we’ve never gotten real clarity about what happened. It’s reasonable to assume there was a total aircraft failure and that it crashed into the ocean. It may even have been a suicide by the pilot.

Disappearing planes, and no clear answers, just isn’t something that happens in aviation. There hadn’t been a single commercial aircraft go missing in the prior 13 years. Nearly all the aircraft that have disappeared have been probable crashes. Perhaps surprisingly commercial planes simply aren’t ever stolen. At least they almost never are.

Yet a Boeing 727 disappeared on May 25, 2003 from the international airport in Luanda, Angola. The plane used to belong to American Airlines. It was never found.

The aircraft, registered N844AA, was stolen. At the time it was 28 years old, and had retired three years earlier from the American fleet. It was owned by a company in Miami and was leased to TAAG Angola Airlines. Nonetheless, its paint job still reflected its glory years at American with bare metal and red, white, and blue paint.

The missing aircraft, Boeing 727-223 (N844AA), at Chicago O’Hare in 1989, credit: RuthAS

Although TAAG was supposed to be paying on it, the plane sat idle at the airport for 14 months. Several reports suggest the airline owed $4 million in airport fees although that seems extreme. The leasing company sent $43,000 to pay outstanding fees just before the 727 disappeared.

And the plane may have been tentatively sold some time before without full payment having been made, and the aircraft itself didn’t conform to Angolan aviation regulations for being converted to cargo. It seems clear that the passenger seats had been removed, and the plane was supposed to carry (likely diesel) fuel in support of an African diamond mining operation..

As sunset approached on May 25 the aircraft was boarded by a mechanic with small aircraft flying experience from the US and a local mechanic. The two men were Benjamin Charles Padilla — who had received the $43,000 from the aircraft’s owner — and John Mikel Matantu. It’s possible that the 727, with its three person cockpit, had someone else on board that hadn’t been spotted entering the plane.

Ben Charles Padilla Jr., Credit: Joseph Padilla, Sr.

Both men had been working on the TAAG aircraft. Neither was certified to fly a 727. Yet the plane taxied out onto the runway. It didn’t provide any communication to the control tower. It didn’t have clearance, and ignored attempts at contact. The 727 took off without any lights, heading out over the Atlantic ocean. And it disappeared. Neither the pilot nor the mechanic were ever found. Padilla’s brother believes there was a third man on the aircraft who hijacked the aircraft.

Odds on the 727 crashed, though there have been reported sightings of the plane in Guinea and elsewhere. Since the theft occurred less than 21 months after 9/11, the U.S. saw the plane as a potential terrorist vehicle and scoured for it as far apart as Nigeria and Sri Lanka.

My own ill-informed speculation is that the aircraft was stolen to carry drugs for a cartel but crashed, with the wreckage never positively identified. Although it’s not possible to rule out insurance fraud, while simultaneously skipping out on Angolan debts, as a motive in light of reports of a deal for the aircraft having gone bad. Ultimately perhaps the fuel tanker wasn’t well-constructed and that led to the plane’s demise rather than the lack of familiarity of its pilots with the aircraft.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I think I saw this plane in Florida recently being buried with sand on the beach. It appeared to be behind Oscar Munoz’s house.

  2. When planes go missing without a trace it is usually because they have gone down in water. This has happened to hundreds of unaccounted for aircraft and pilots over the years. The most famous examples are the Lockheed Electra flown by Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan and Flight 19, five Grumman TBM Avengers lost in 1945. Dollars to doughnuts the missing 727 and its occupants are at the bottom of the Atlantic.

  3. “Wow, Robert Mueller is looking into this as well.”

    Since the day it went missing, probably. That bufoon will be conducting his investigations until the day he dies. And nothing will ever be solved/concluded, either.

  4. @pfbonney, The buffoon is Donald Trump. His constant lies and petty behavior dishonors our nation and the office of the presidency. In 1968, Mueller was a Marine platoon commander and was wounded in action. Trump, in contrast, (thanks to a deferment for fake bone spurs) was playboying around NYC grabbing women by the pussy and daring them to object. John McCain, one of Trump’s favorite punching bags, was hit by a SAM over downtown Hanoi and spent five years in POW hell. Trump said he likes people who weren’t captured. (B/t/w McCain turned down an offer for an early release when his captors realized his father was the CINCPAC, Commander in Chief, Pacific Command.) Trump, who is now the Commander in Chief, has no sense of honor, service or sacrifice, and he proudly displays his lack of character on a daily basis.

    As Trump will show in the coming days at the meetings with NATO and Putin, when the national security interests of the US conflict with his personal ambitions and self image, Trump (not America) comes first. The vast majority of his unwavering supporters don’t seem to care as long as they believe he can magically reverse time to the 1950s and make America white again. Keep sticking your head in the sand of the Trump alternate universe reality and refusing to face facts.

    I disagree with McCain and Mueller on various issues but greatly respect them as men (gender neutral). Trump, on the other hand, is just a lying POS. I really don’t like ranting about the guy, especially given how obvious he is, but some things are too important to let slide.

  5. @john,

    So john, where was your outrage with Bill and Hillary when they were the perpetrators of the constant lies and petty behaviors that dishonor our nation and the office of the Presidency, office of the Secretary of State over the last three decades?

    Where was your outrage with the Bill Clinton who actually signed up for the military then just decided to go AWOL instead of showing up for duty with the Army Reserve?, The multiple women sexually assaulted?, Whitewater, Death of Vince Foster, Travelgate, Filegate, Benghazi, Elián González, and ongoing Clinton Foundation “irregularities” – could go on and on… Oh wait, that’s right – it’s totally cool if the offender is a liberal…

    Freaking hippocrates…

  6. And once again the Trumpers go to the clintons when they can’t accept the fraud that is Trump. Sad. And really, who cares about this story?

  7. @Kevin, so what do you think this is, a race to the bottom to see who can be the worst President ever? If so, Trump is winning hands down. Among other sins, as President of the United States he lies to your face everyday about all matters big and small. The list, starting with inauguration crowd size, is long and growing. It includes (but is by no means limited to) three to five million fraudulent votes. Trump’s own commission found that to be a lie.

    Then there is his obsession with Obama, the only African American to be elected President (twice). After years of spouting racist nonsense that Obama was not born in the US, Trump finally and grudgingly had to admit that was false. It seems every other month or so when he is feeling cornered, Trump comes up with some new wild, unsubstantiated assertion against Obama, e.g. he ordered that the campaign offices at Trump tower be bugged. People then must spend time and resources proving Trump’s claims are false.

    A recent example of a Trump bold-faced lie was his claim that a law required the separation of immigrant parents and children at the Mexican border. Trump went on TV claiming “only Congress” could stop it. The next day Trump signed an executive order doing exactly that. Trump’s an idiot, a liar, or both. Take your pick.

    Those border crossers have been convicted of nothing and have the right to assert a claim for asylum and to have their claims heard and adjudicated. Also, nearly half of people in the country illegally didn’t sneak across the border. They overstayed their visas. A border wall does nothing about that. Trump’s single-minded focus on brown folks from Mexico and Central America makes it plain as day what Trump and the American public is really scarred of.

    Family separation shows just how incompetent and vindictive this administration is. Separating children from parents with no plan, I repeat no plan on how to reunite them, is simply unconscionable and amoral. Imagine being a 10-year-old girl or boy in a strange country and being forcibly taken from your parents, thrown in with strangers, and having no idea what will happen next. That is state-sponsored terrorism and kidnapping designed to deter immigration. It is akin to the way slave families were treated. Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that many in America had no problem with that either.

    I’m so glad you brought up the Clinton foundation. It actually gave millions of dollars each year to worthwhile charities. The Trump foundation admitted to self dealing in 2014 and 2015 in violation of the legal requirements for a private foundation under IRS Sec. 501(c)(3). Furthermore, the Trump foundation is being sued in New York accusing the charity and the Trump family of sweeping violations of campaign finance laws, self-dealing and illegal coordination with the presidential campaign. Is anyone surprised? Like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Trump is the only cause Trump is interested in.

    In conclusion is a topic everyone should be worried about, national security. Preservation of values and democracy in Europe is vital to the national security interests of the United States. Anyone who has visited the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer (Omaha Beach) Normandy, France ought to realize that.

    But next week Trump will visit NATO and threaten to curtail US military assistance unless countries like Belgium, Greece and Norway spend 2% of GDP on defense. He will spin it to try to make people think spending anything less than that amount is a debt owed to the US or NATO. That is another lie. Any lessening of our commitment to NATO is a green light for Putin to proceed full speed with plans to increase his influence in and ultimately to dominate Europe. Increased influence in Europe by the thug Putin who heads a country that is purportedly a democracy but is run like an organized crime syndicate is a horrible outcome for the US.

    To top it off Trump refuses to admit that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump. Trump has done little to prevent a recurrence of the problem he can’t bring himself to admit. At the summit in Helsinki Trump will once again prove he lacks the courage to confront Putin in a serious way. Elections are the backbone of democracy. Trump and many Republicans are more interested in winning than ensuring elections that are free of interference from powers that would like nothing better than to see democracy and our values fail.

    Trump is Putin’s bitch. He will get played again in Helsinki just like he has been played over and over by other anti-democratic leaders hostile to our values like Erdogan, Xi, Duterte and even Kim Jong Un all of whom he now praises. Those leaders have their populations and news media under their thumbs. Trump admires that. He’d like to see America that way.

    it is unfortunate that this comment will likely fall on ears that refuse to listen.

  8. Oh for ^*((%’s sakes. Trump is not nearly the worst President ever. Neither was Obama, nor Clinton, nor Bush.

    James Buchanan might own that crown, or maybe Jimmy Carter, or Warren Harding, or Andrew Johnson. Maybe Franklin Pierce.

    Political partisans are so stupid spouting off their “the other party is so bad, but mine is so good”. Shaadup, will you?.

  9. @Too much flying whoever you are, It is about holding any serving President accountable for faithfully executing the duties and responsibilities of the office be it Nixon, Clinton, Trump or anyone else. I regret that is too much for some to be bothered with.

  10. I totally agree with john! //trump is all about making trump great again// America you are getting used by the biggest phony in the world!

  11. @Kevin The Clintons were investigated dozens of times over 30 years. With the exception of Monica Lewinsky, they have been found innocent every time. What about how George W Bush made up Texas Air Guard service? Or Bush’s cover up of his DWIs? How conveniently you forget?

  12. Never argue with a Trumpster. They are in a true cult. Facts mean nothing to them. It is like wrestling with a pig. You just get muddy and the pig likes it.

    They’re never going to change. The only way to win is to vote out every Republican in every election; local, state or national. Starting with the midterms on November 6th. Spend your precious time helping people register and then making sure they get to the polls or get and vote an absentee ballot.

    These uninformed, misled, hateful people represent a minority of Americans. They live in an alternate reality. It is long past time to let these people slither back under the rock from whence they came.

    That will only happen when the leaders they follow blindly are eliminated and removed from power.

  13. Perhaps Mr. Mueller should investigate Mr. Blane Padilla, the brother. Mr. Blane Padilla certainly displays the characteristics of a psychopath, so perhaps he had a hand in his brothers disappearance.

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