Monday Mystery: The Vanished 727

Usually, when people refer to an airliner as "lost", they mean it's crashed somewhere and is broken beyond repair. Usually. But when Aerospace Sales & Leasing said it, they meant it literally: They had a 727 parked on the runway, they looked away for just a few minutes, and when they turned back around it was gone.

God only knows where it is now.

In February 2002, a South African named Keith Irwin leased a 727 for use in a cargo-hauling venture he had going in Africa. Shenanigans happened, and the venture unfortunately folded. With the company unable to make payments on the lease, the 727 somehow limped along to Angola, where the company was also unable to pay any of the ground fees at the airport where it settled. The flight crew made their way home one by one, but the plane was left stranded in Luanda.

The 727 sat there, quietly disintegrating, until eventually the only part of her worth anything was the engines. The company arranged for a broker, Maury Joseph, to sell them off for refurbishing. The original crew had long since disbanded -- and many of them, as you might imagine, were no longer returning any calls -- and a flight engineer named Ben Padilla was hired on to go out to Angola, scrounge some mechanics, and figure out how to get the engines back to their new owner in South Africa. Padilla arranged to visit the airport a couple of days before the scheduled flight to meet the pilot and co-pilot for the trip, and make sure the aircraft would survive the hop to Jo'burg.

The next thing Maury Joseph knew, there was someone on the phone demanding to know why he'd hired another crew to fly the plane out of Luanda early. Joseph said he hadn't. The Luanda crew said he must have, because the 727 in question was no longer there.

They tried to ask Ben Padilla what the hell was going on, but nobody could find him either. Padilla and one of the mechanics had gone down to inspect the airplane, and shortly thereafter it wobbled down the runway and took off, all of its lights still out, transponder off, and without saying a word to the control tower. They let it go because... well, what do you do? Civilian airports don't generally have anti-aircraft batteries, even if that seems like a good idea at the time.

This is not a phone call anyone expects to take. You lose car keys, you lose Post-It Notes, you don't lose entire goddamn airplanes. Who do you even report that to? Angola is not exactly teeming with upright civil servants at the best of times, so eventually Joseph decided the best people to inform were probably the staff at the US Embassy. They were just as confounded as he was, but at an official, federal level.

The CIA and FBI both threw themselves into the hunt, because it was 2003, and TERRISTS. No one is exactly sure when they shrugged and concluded that whatever happened to the plane, it probably wasn't intended for the direct sort of crashing-into-buildings terrorism, but when WikiLeaks began releasing diplomatic cables in 2010, among them were several rounds of telegrams indicating that the search had gone as far as Sri Lanka with no luck. Nigeria opined that they wouldn't have been able to put the craft down at any proper airport without arousing suspicions. The general consensus is that they went down in open ocean, as that's the direction the plane was headed when last seen, and neither of the men aboard were known to be rated on that kind of aircraft.

Still, the conspiracy theorists always have an opinion or nineteen on a case like this. Joseph had been dinged by the SEC for fraud (read: lying on his paperwork) once before, so there's an argument out there that the plane was wrecked for the insurance. If so, they did a piss-poor job, since no one has ever found the debris for the insurance company to write off. There's another contingent that says the plane is being used for smuggling or gun-running, or was just dismantled to repair other planes that were already doing that job. Until MH370 went down, the errant 727 was the largest aircraft that had ever vanished without a trace -- and now that they're finding wreckage from the latter flight, it may hold the record once again.

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