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Out of Africa, into thin air: A jet vanishes

Did terrorists take the Boeing 727 in Angola? What happened to the Florida man aboard? So far, no answers.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published October 24, 2004

[Courtesy of Joseph B. Padilla Sr.]
Ben Charles Padilla, front right, disappeared on board a Boeing 727. He was an FAA-certified flight engineer, aircraft mechanic and private pilot.

In May 2003, Ben Charles Padilla got a disturbing e-mail from a brother in Pensacola: Their mother had suffered a heart attack.

Padilla e-mailed back that he would call as soon as he could get to a phone. Relatives didn't hear from him again, but at first they weren't concerned. After all, he was 7,100 miles away in the African nation of Angola.

For several weeks before, the 50-year-old pilot and aircraft mechanic had been at Angola's main airport overseeing refurbishment of an aging Boeing 727. The plane had been parked so long that observers were surprised when, shortly before sunset on May 25, Padilla and another man climbed on board, revved up the engines and taxied out.

Witnesses were even more surprised to see the plane swerve back and forth, as though someone were wrestling for the controls. Then, with no flight plan or contact with the tower, the big jet roared down the runway and took off.

That was the last known sighting of the 727 and Ben Charles Padilla.

Did the plane crash into the jungle or plunge into the Atlantic Ocean off the Angolan coast?

Did it disappear as the result of an insurance scam or garden-variety theft, only to resurface in another Third World county with a new paint job and registration number?

Or did something more sinister happen, as Padilla's family and others fear? Could the 727 - which had been retrofitted to carry tons of extra fuel - been hijacked by terrorists for use in a 9/11-style attack?

"I believe al-Qaida stole this plane because all the seats had been stripped and it has 10,500-gallon fuel tanks on board," says Padilla's brother, Joseph, a retired millwright in Pensacola.

"The plane left as the sun started going down - it could have been landed on a dirt runway out in the jungle somewhere and they had until sunset to hide it in a hangar."

The State Department says U.S. authorities have worked closely with Angola and other African nations to locate the plane and Padilla. The FBI posted his picture on its Web site, along with the plane's identification numbers and a request for information. And Padilla's family has enlisted the help of Florida Sen. Bill Nelson to get the CIA or NASA to reposition their satellites to look for the jet.

But what happened to it and Padilla remains a mystery.

"In spite of months of searching and following up on several false leads, neither Mr. Padilla nor the plane has ever been located," a State Department official recently wrote to Nelson.

"There has never been any evidence that would give us a clue as to what happened to Mr. Padilla. Given the efforts to date and the time elapsed since his disappearance we sincerely regret that we cannot offer more hope about his whereabouts."

"A dangerous place'

Growing up in Pensacola, the birthplace of naval aviation, Ben Padilla always wanted to fly. As a kid, he saved his money to buy a gas-powered model plane.

"It probably cost $100 - that was a lot of money back then," his brother recalls.

In keeping with the family trade, Padilla first worked as a millwright repairing electrical equipment. In his spare time he took flying lessons and eventually earned FAA certification as a private pilot, flight engineer and aircraft mechanic.

By the early '90s, Padilla was a professional pilot ferrying cargo around the United States. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks and the slowdown in civil aviation. Unable to find work, Padilla left his girlfriend and grown daughter and headed for Africa. On that sprawling continent, he resumed his cargo-carrying career.

In early 2003, Padilla was contacted by Maury Joseph, owner of Aerospace Sales & Leasing in Miami. Joseph knew of Padilla's skills as a mechanic, and asked if he would supervise work on a Boeing-200 that Aerospace had repossessed.

Introduced in 1963, the 727 long was a workhorse of commercial aviation. It had a range of 2,140 miles and needed relatively little runway space. But with the introduction of the quieter Boeing 737, the 727 was gradually phased out of passenger use in the United States.

Still, 1,200 of the jets remain in service today, many of them in developing countries. The plane Padilla was hired to work on joined the American Airlines fleet in 1975 and was still flying almost three decades later, this time hauling diesel fuel to remote Angolan diamond mines.

For months, the 727 had been idle at DeFevereiro International Airport in the Angolan capital of Luanda. Then on May 25, 2003, an unidentified man paid $93,000 cash to fully fuel the jet. That afternoon, Padilla was seen boarding the plane with a Congolese man who also had been working on it. Padilla was not licensed to pilot a 727, so any actual flying was to be done later by a crew he had hired.

"My brother was to take it out on the runway to rev the engines up and see how they were performing and then return it to the hangar," Joseph Padilla says. "Authorities at the airport said it started making crazy ground maneuvers and then took off. That tells me my brother was trying to fight off whoever was trying to take control of the plane."

According to Angolan officials, air traffic controllers tried to communicate with the jet, but it did not respond. Witnesses said it flew low, as though trying to avoid radar detection, before disappearing from sight.

But despite the 727's strange behavior, controllers did not immediately report the incident to Angolan authorities, the plane's owner later told Padilla's family.

And the owner said he did not learn of the disappearance until the next day, when the company that was supposed to supply the pilot and flight engineer complained that the plane had left without them.

"Whoever took it probably bribed people in the tower to delay reporting it so the plane could get out of Angola's airspace," says Padilla's sister, Benita Padilla-Kirkland. A poor nation ravaged by decades of civil war, Angola ranked as one of the world's most corrupt countries in a recent survey by Transparency International, an organization devoted to battling corruption.

Once the 727 was officially listed as missing on May 26, searchers combed the nearby Atlantic but found no wreckage or oil slicks. There also weren't any electronic signals from the plane's waterproof beacon, designed to operate for at least 30 days.

"We've experienced cases where we were able to find beacons in the water for several weeks past that, so it's a highly reliable mechanism," says Liz Verdier, a Boeing spokeswoman.

The plane also should have been easy to spot had it gone down in the savannalike terrain along the coast. It would have been harder to find if it had crashed in the jungles of northern Angola, but the impact presumably would have caused a fireball visible for miles.

The missing Boeing was shaping up as a classic aviation mystery. Although smaller planes are sometimes stolen and altered to elude detection - especially in what one expert calls the "Wild West" atmosphere of Africa - no one could recall a 200,000-pound, three-engine jet disappearing without a trace.

As time went by with no sign of the 727, concern grew that it had been hijacked. Africa is no stranger to terrorist attacks; in 1998, truck bombs killed 231 people at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And less than a year before the 727 disappeared, 15 died in the bombing of a Kenyan hotel frequented by Israeli visitors.

"We don't have (terrorist) groups in Angola, but after Sept. 11 anybody with a big plane like that disappears and you get worried," says Evaristo Jose, a spokesman for the Angolan Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The 727's range and age likely would preclude it from being flown across the Atlantic for an attack on American soil. However, it could easily reach numerous African capitals - and U.S. embassies.

Aviation experts say that it's also possible the plane was stolen for less ominous reasons, and that it has been hard to track because its registration was changed with the complicity of corrupt officials.

"It's not something that's easily done in the U.S. or Europe or Asia, but if you go to a very small Third World country and they stamp off on it, it's going to look official," says John Cox, a USAirways pilot familiar with African aviation because of his work with the International Federation of Airline Pilots.

If, as Cox speculates, the plane is still "flying around cargo," why haven't Padilla and the Congolese man been heard from?

"Africa's a dangerous place and you're talking about an asset that's certainly worth a couple of million dollars. People have fallen prey to foul play for far less."

For Padilla's family, the past 17 months have brought only frustration and false alarms. On Christmas Day 2003, officials thought they had found the plane when a chartered 727 crashed on takeoff from the West African nation of Benin, killing 111. But it turned out there had been a mixup in registration numbers.

Several months ago, the family's hopes rose again when they got a tip from a private investigator: A pilot in Fargo, N.D., had been overhead saying he knew an aircraft mechanic who had seen the missing 727 in a hangar in Beirut, Lebanon. The FBI tracked down the pilot, but "from what I understand, that led to a dead end," Padilla's brother says.

A month after the 727's disappearance, the son of Maury Joseph, the plane's owner, told the Washington Post that a disgruntled former sales associate had been in Africa saying he intended to make a claim on the jet. The man, a convicted marijuana smuggler, could not be reached for comment, the Post reported.

Suspicion also fell on Joseph himself. The former head of Florida West Airlines, a cargo hauler, Joseph was ordered in 1998 to pay a $50,000 penalty for inflating company revenues in public statements and for having an employee forge signatures on aircraft sales contracts.

Joseph could not be reached, and calls to Aerospace Sales & Leasing were not returned. However, Padilla's relatives say Joseph has spoken with them and seems to be cooperating with investigators.

A few months ago, Padilla's brother contacted the CIA about using a spy satellite to search for the 727 but "only got the runaround," he says. Now he is working with the office of Sen. Nelson, who flew on the space shuttle, to see if NASA would reposition one of its satellites. The family is still waiting to hear from the agency.

With no progress in the search, Padilla's relatives remain convinced the plane was hijacked by al-Qaida and hidden somewhere. And they know Padilla would have called to check on his mother if he had been able to.

"Put yourself in the spot of a terrorist," says Joseph Padilla. "You think they're going to want to bother holding someone 24 hours a day and keeping an eye on them? I believe they have killed him."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 24, 2004, 00:43:52]


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