A Former American Airlines Plane is Still Missing After 20 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.

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. Wouldn’t a piece have washed up somewhere at some point? I think almost all planes that are put into the ocean have a part or something that is eventually recovered and identified. Weird.

  2. Back in the 80’s I flew for a large oil company. One of our LR35’s was in Wichita for maintenance at the Learjet factory. When the crew came to pick it up it was missing from the ramp. Everyone asked around and after about 30 minutes of looking they decided it was gone. Personnel called police who called the FBI. Agent who answered the phone said “someone stole a Learjet?” Secretary in FBI office says she thinks she knows who did it…….Yeah, the story gets weirder. Evidently the previous night she had overheard her pilot boyfriend on a call from a friend who said he wanted to steal an airplane. He said no, he wouldn’t help him steal an airplane, you’re drunk- go to sleep. In later checking with the tower at ICT they looked at the radar tapes and saw a primary target take off on a taxiway (it’s a long one from the factory to the runway) and head South. Tracked him all the way to Galveston where it went off radar. Investigators never found the aircraft or any parts. Assumed he committed suicide in the Gulf. Turns out he was in huge debt to bookies who were threatening him……

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