Episode 038: Ben Charles Padilla

May 2, 2022

In 2003, two men boarded a plane in Angola, then vanished without a trace. Two decades later, the search is still on. What happened to the missing 727?

Episode Media
Ben Charles Padilla Jr.
The Boeing 727-223 before it disappeared from Angola (Wikipedia)
Airport location where Padilla was last seen (Google Maps)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week we’re exploring a different kind of case – one that involves not only a missing person, but also a missing airplane. It’s a story with way more questions than answers, a mystery that has endured for nearly two decades.

Ben Charles Padilla Jr. grew up in a large Catholic family in Pensacola, Florida. His father, Ben Senior, was a millwright who was skilled in machinery. As a boy, Ben was as mechanically gifted as his father and dreamed of someday working with airplanes. In his 20s, Ben got his pilot’s license, eventually becoming a certified flight engineer and aircraft mechanic. He was talented, and his skills were in high demand; he spent much of his adulthood traveling, visiting airports around the world as he worked for a variety of private companies and airlines.

In May of 2003, then 50-year-old Ben was working in the Republic of Angola on the west coast of Africa. He was overseeing the rebuilding of a Boeing 727 at the international airport in the capital city of Luanda. The plane had once been a passenger jet for American Airlines, but it had been sold to Aerospace Sales & Leasing, a company based out of Miami. It had then been repurposed to transport diesel fuel, a process which involved removing all the seats to fit multiple 500-gallon tanks of fuel. By the time Ben arrived in Angola, the plane had been sitting on the tarmac in Luanda for 14 months and had racked up thousands of dollars in fees. Ben’s job was to supervise the team of mechanics who were preparing the aircraft to be put back into service and finally get it out of Angola.

On the evening of May 25, 2003, at approximately 6pm, the 727 suddenly began taxiing down the runway. Officials in the control tower were baffled – the aircraft did not have clearance to take off. But when they tried to make contact with the cockpit, there was no answer. The plane didn’t have any lights on and seemed to be maneuvering erratically as it picked up speed. Unable to stop it, the tower officers watched as the plane took off and headed southwest toward the Atlantic Ocean before it disappeared from view.

Immediately, airport officials scrambled to figure out what had just happened. Shortly before taking off, two men had boarded the plane – one was believed to be a Congolese mechanic named John Mikel Mutantu, the other was Ben Charles Padilla. Both men had been working on the plane for months, and nothing had seemed out of the ordinary. But now there was a 727 – an aircraft that required at least three crew members – flying out over the Atlantic with only two people aboard. And neither of those people were trained to fly that type of plane.

Just before takeoff, the aircraft had been refueled and was now carrying 14,000 gallons of jet fuel, which would give it a flight range of about 1,500 miles. It could only go so far.

Soon, an international investigation was underway. Because of Ben Padilla’s US citizenship, three American agencies – the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA – joined the search. Spy satellites from American, British, French, and Russian intelligence agencies were deployed to scope out potential landing spots, and experts analyzed thousands of hours of air-traffic communications. But there was no sign of the plane or its tiny crew.

The media quickly picked up the story of the missing plane. Early reports said that the plane was headed to Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa. Then some outlets reported that the plane had made contact with an airport in the Seychelles, an island nation off the east coast of Africa. Supposedly the plane requested permission to land on the main island, but never did. However, officials in the Seychelles denied that they ever heard anything from the missing 727.

Either way, the plane would have had to refuel somewhere on the mainland of Africa in order to make it to either destination. But no country admitted to seeing the aircraft, much less refueling it.

Complicating the search even more was the lack of sophisticated technology at the time, and the fact that the plane’s transponder had been switched off. Richard Cornwell, a researcher at the South African Institute for Security Studies, told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003 that after takeoff, the 727 could have easily disappeared within minutes. “Basically, once you go north of South Africa there is no air-traffic control until you reach the Mediterranean coast. Radar over most of Africa is non-existent. This aircraft could have gone anywhere.”

At first, authorities were concerned that the plane had been hijacked in a terrorist scheme. It had been less than two years since the attacks of September 11th, and a plane carrying thousands of pounds of jet fuel would make a dangerous weapon. But ultimately, there was no evidence to support this theory, and no such attacks ever materialized.

As the search continued, authorities began to dig into the backgrounds of the two men who were allegedly aboard the plane. There was very little information to be found about John Mutantu, the Congolese mechanic. But Ben Padilla was well-known in the aviation community, and his former colleagues were willing to talk. Some described Ben as a man who was willing to do anything to get the job done, the one others would turn to for difficult missions. Ben’s sister Benita described him as “a John Wayne type – intimidating. Like he’s bulletproof.” But even with his brash personality, no one thought Ben was the type to steal a plane. And he certainly wasn’t the type to leave his family behind.

According to Ben’s siblings, the Padilla family was incredibly close-knit and kept in regular contact. Ben also had a fiancee and two children that he adored. He wouldn’t have left them without a word. In fact, a few days before he disappeared, Ben’s mother had suffered a heart attack, and Ben had told his brother that he would call her as soon as possible. But he never called, and a few days later he was gone. His brother Joseph told reporters, “If he was alive and knew all this mess was going on, he would contact us.”

By now, the word was out and the whole world was looking for the 727. Because it had been in the process of being refurbished, there were few distinguishing marks on the plane. The body was an unpainted silver with a blue and white stripe along the center and the serial number N844AA was stamped on the tail.

Six weeks after the disappearance, there was an unexpected development. A Canadian pilot reported that he had seen the aircraft on the ground in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. According to the pilot, the plane appeared to have been hastily repainted and given a new registration number, but the old tail number was still visible underneath. But by the time authorities arrived, the plane had vanished again. The U.S. State Department ultimately dismissed the pilot’s claims and stated that they still considered the 727 “unaccounted for”.

For two years, agencies performed intensive searches across Africa, focusing on countries like Sri Lanka and Nigeria. Then, in 2005, the searches stopped with no explanation. The FBI said that there were very few leads that hadn’t amounted to anything, and the case was officially closed.

For a while, the missing plane and its two-man crew were largely forgotten by the media and the public. But in late 2009, there was renewed interest in the case when the wreckage of a burned-out 727 was discovered in the deserts of Mali. At first glance, it appeared that the plane had crash-landed and burst into flames on impact, but an international criminal investigation soon discovered that the plane had been deliberately destroyed. It had apparently been used to traffic cocaine across the Atlantic as a part of a large drug smuggling ring, then dumped in a remote area and set on fire. Many believed that this could have been the plane missing from Angola, but authorities ultimately ruled that out. It was just another “ghost plane”, an unregistered aircraft being used for nefarious purposes.

After that, all that was left of Ben Padilla, John Mutantu, and the missing plane were theories.

Immediately after the disappearance, US intelligence agencies indicated that the plane had most likely been stolen for drug or weapons smuggling. It had probably been given a false registration number and shuffled around the African continent. But Ben didn’t have a criminal history and had never been tied to the drug or weapons trade.

Another theory that gained traction was that the plane had been stolen as a part of an insurance scheme. Because the 727 had been racking up airport fees in the tens of thousands, was it possible that the owner had arranged a way to avoid paying and cash in on an insurance policy? The owner of Aerospace Sales & Leasing had previously been convicted of accounting fraud with one of his other businesses, but there is no proof that that happened in this case. The owner claims that he never received any insurance money because he had no proof that the plane was actually stolen.

Yet another theory is that the plane was taken to a nearby hangar and stripped for parts. Some believe that the plane simply crashed into the Atlantic. Either way, not a single piece of the aircraft has ever been found.

Ben Padilla’s family believes that he did not take the plane voluntarily, but that he was forced to do so against his will. In an interview with CNN, Joseph Padilla recounted a conversation he had with his brother a few months before his disappearance, in which they discussed the events of September 11th. According to Joseph, Ben had said, “If that ever happened to me, somebody could come in the cockpit on my plane… I’d down that plane… in a New York second.”

Joseph believes that someone was waiting inside the aircraft when Ben and John boarded, then held them hostage and forced them to take off. “If he’s still alive, the only way he wouldn’t have contacted us is [if] he’s being held captive someplace. 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 is likely deceased.”

Ben’s sister Benita agrees, but there is still a lingering feeling that her brother might be alive. “I keep hoping against hope that maybe he’s tucked away somewhere.”

It’s been nearly twenty years since Ben Padilla, John Mutantu, and the Boeing 727 disappeared without a trace. US officials have said that they do not believe Ben Padilla is guilty of any wrongdoing, and he is still considered a missing person. And throughout it all, Ben’s family continues to hope for answers.