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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

FLASHBACK 2003 - Where is the missing 727 ?

Where is the missing 727 ? missing Ben Padilla ? (story by then Washington Post writer John Mintz)

727, Padilla
There are many stories that I have covered over the years that I still think about often — and the story about the missing 727 in Africa, piloted by American Ben Charles Padilla, is one of them. How does a giant plane, a 727, simply vanish?  No oil slick was ever seen so you can conclude it did not crash into the ocean. 
Case of Missing Jetliner Unsolved

Officials Discount Terrorism Angle
By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2003; Page A19

After months of scouring Africa, U.S. investigators have all but
concluded that the 727 jetliner that mysteriously disappeared after
departing from an Angolan airport in May crashed or was taken to a
remote hangar to be stripped for parts.

U.S. intelligence officials had expressed fears that the 153-foot,
200,000-pound aircraft might have been stolen by terrorists for use as a
weapon against Western targets in Africa. But an examination of
satellite photographs and visits to dozens of African airfields failed
to yield any evidence that it is on the continent, leading U.S.
officials to largely discount the terrorism scenario.

Nearly two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the case
demonstrates that Western intelligence officials remain on hair-trigger
alert for the possibility of terrorists’ gaining access to large
aircraft — especially in Africa, where concerns over terrorism have
risen dramatically in recent months, U.S. officials said. U.S. and other
Western intelligence agencies still regularly unearth indications that
the al Qaeda terrorist network remains interested in using aircraft to
launch attacks.

As part of its search for the aircraft, the FBI has posted on its Web
site a photograph and an announcement seeking information about Ben
Charles Padilla, an airplane mechanic who is believed to have piloted
the jet on its last known journey. The State Department is offering a
reward for information about Padilla, and has placed his photograph on
posters being distributed throughout Africa.

The mystery surrounding the jet began on May 25, when Padilla and
another mechanic — both of whom had been hired by the plane’s owner –
entered the aircraft, which had been parked for months at Luanda
International Airport in Angola. Just after 6 p.m., the jet rumbled down
the runway, and despite protests from the control tower in Portuguese
and English, it took off, never to be seen again.

The owner of the 1970s-vintage jet, Florida-based Aerospace Sales &
Leasing Co., notified the FBI, and the government began its search. U.S.
spy satellites snapped photos of African airports, and U.S. diplomats
telephoned or visited dozens of airfields and aviation ministries. But
no sign of the plane was found.

In late June, a Canadian pilot believed he had spotted the plane at the
airport in Conakry, capital of the West African nation of Guinea, with
its tail number sloppily covered by a new coat of paint. But when that
plane was later tracked down in Lebanon, where its new owners had flown
it, it was found to be a different 727.

A 727 sighted in Libya also turned out to be another aircraft. U.S.
diplomats even checked airports in South and Central America, based on
the theory that the plane could have crossed the Atlantic by refueling
at a midpoint such as the Azores. That effort was fruitless as well.

One remaining theory, officials said, is that the plane was spirited
away to an African hangar, where it could not be detected by spy
satellites, and stripped for parts. Another is that it crashed, either
in a remote forest, a deep lake or the Atlantic. Luanda is on Angola’s
seacoast, and pilots in the region say they often fly over the ocean for
fear of drawing gunfire in the war-racked nation.

U.S. officials said they do not believe Padilla was involved in any
wrongdoing involving the aircraft, so the theft-for-parts and crash
scenarios could suggest he is dead. That has been the theory of
Padilla’s family members from the start.

Joseph Padilla of Pensacola, Fla., the missing man’s brother, described
the family as extremely close. He said: “[I]f he was alive and knew all
this mess was going on, he would contact us.” Another brother had
e-mailed Ben Padilla in Africa days before the disappearance to inform
him that their mother had suffered a massive heart attack, and Ben had
replied that he would call her soon — but the call never came.

“If he’s still alive, the only way he wouldn’t have contacted us is that
he’s being held captive someplace,” Joseph Padilla said. “But if you
were a terrorist, why go to the trouble of keeping someone captive for
24 hours a day? I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve got to face the reality that
my brother likely is deceased.”

Representatives of Aerospace Sales could not be reached for comment
yesterday.

Ben Padilla and his Congolese assistant, John Mikel Mutantu, had been
hired by the firm in the spring to repair the plane, ensure its
airworthiness and straighten out disputes with Angolan officials who had
grounded it.

Angolan officials said tens of thousands of dollars in landing and
parking fees were owed on the jet, and that its interior configuration
violated air safety standards because the seats and galleys had been
removed to allow the installation of huge internal fuel tanks. The plane
had been leased at various points to deliver fuel to remote diamond
mines around Angola.

Angolan airport officials told U.S. representatives that Padilla and
Mutantu were the only people to board the plane that day. Mutantu was
not a pilot, and Padilla, while licensed to fly a 727, was an unskilled
pilot, people who know him said.

One pilot who had flown the plane recently and who requested anonymity
said it was in such poor shape that on one outing it inexplicably lost
cabin pressure. He also said its emergency locator beacon — which would
help pinpoint its position in a crash — was inoperable.

U.S. officials said a number of individuals and companies had either
leased or sought to buy the jet in recent months, and that some of them,
including a few who had staked a claim to the 727, had engaged in shady
business deals.

Aviation sources with direct knowledge of events said some of the
parties involved had discussed simply removing the plane without Angolan
officials’ approval or paying the debts. It is unclear whether the
Angolans were ever paid.

“How we’ll ever really know what happened to it,” one U.S. official
said, “I can’t imagine.”
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