The Theft of N844AA: An Aviation Mystery

In May 2003, two men boarded a Boeing 727-223 at Quatro de Fevereiro Airport in the Angolan capital of Luanda. Without lights, it took off in a southwesterly direction over the Atlantic Ocean. The plane and its occupants were never seen again. This is the scarcely believable story of N844AA, the stolen 727.

14 May 2024

In the annals of aviation history, few mysteries have captivated and baffled experts and enthusiasts as much as the enigmatic case of the disappearance of N844AA, the stolen Boeing plane.

This aircraft, with a storied past that stretched back to its days serving the bustling routes for American Airlines, found its twilight years repurposed for freight transport. Yet, it wasn’t its service history that etched this vanished 727 into the annals of aviation lore, but its bizarre and unexplained disappearance on May 25, 2003, from Quatro de Fevereiro Airport in Luanda, Angola.

The circumstances surrounding the Angola plane theft read like a script from a high-stakes thriller, weaving a complex tale of unpaid airport fees, murky ownership records, and a security lapse that would see the 727 take off into the sunset, never to be seen again.

What happened to N844AA? Who were the two men who took such a desperate gamble? Were others waiting inside the plane? Was it stolen for insurance purposes, to be sold to the highest bidder, or for more sinister reasons? And more broadly, how did a stolen Boeing plane simply disappear?

The mystery of the stolen 727 has left the world utterly perplexed. Let’s dive into aviation history as we attempt to shed light on one of the twenty-first century’s most bizarre conundrums.

Two Men and a Plane

The emblem of American Airlines. (Credit: Etienne DE MALGLAIVE / Contributor via Getty Images)

The plane in question, a Boeing 727-223 registered N844AA, entered service in 1975 with American Airlines. It operated for twenty-five years and accumulated almost 70,000 flying hours under their ownership, until 2000, when it was converted from a passenger plane into a cargo plane.

It was subsequently reported to be owned by a company based in Miami, who were said to be in the process of transferring ownership to either a Nigeria-based airline, or an Angolan cargo fleet company. This process and confusion over its status meant that, prior to its mysterious flight, N844AA had been grounded for over a year in Angola, accumulating significant debt in parking and service fees, reported to be in the region of $4 million.

Questions regarding the aircraft’s ownership added layers of complexity to the case, with reports suggesting a murky web of companies and individuals claimed stakes in the aeroplane, complicating efforts to ascertain responsibility for its debts and its ultimate fate.

Alongside rumours that the stolen Boeing plane was grounded because it wasn’t equipped with an HF (high frequency) radio, an Angolan civil aviation authority official was reported to have suggested that the documentation verifying its legal conversion from a passenger plane to a cargo plane was also missing.

At the time of its disappearance, N844AA was rumoured to have been banned from overflying Angolan airspace at all due to what were referred to as ‘irregularities.’ Another version of the story suggested the plane was nevertheless leased to deliver diesel to diamond mines in Africa and was carrying 5,000 gallons of fuel, however this story remains speculative.

This backdrop of financial and legal entanglements set the stage for what would become one of the most baffling disappearances in modern aviation.

The Angola Plane Theft

Outdoor shot of passengers boarding a flight at sunset. (Credit: izusek via Getty Images)

Sometime in the late afternoon of May 25, 2003, Ben Charles Padilla, an American flight engineer, aircraft mechanic, and holder of a private pilot’s licence, along with John Mikel Mutantu, a hired mechanic believed to be from the Democratic Republic of Congo, boarded N844AA. However, like much of the information surrounding this strange story, even that remains the subject of some dispute.

One airport employee reported seeing just one man board the plane, others said they saw two. Neither man was certified to fly the Boeing 727-223, a plane that would usually be operated by a qualified crew of three. It’s also not known whether anyone else was already on the plane at this point.

Whether one or both of these men were involved in the plane’s disappearance, or whether they were innocent bystanders, caught up in an elaborate scheme, also remains unknown.

It’s also believed that prior to the stolen 727 taking off, it took on 14,000 gallons of fuel which would have given it a range of around 1,500 miles, or 2,400 kilometres.

Just before sunset, the plane began taxiing towards the runway without making contact with the communications tower. Eyewitnesses reported N844AA moving erratically, before it entered the runway without being cleared to do so.

With no running lights and with the transponder – the system that provides information to air traffic control and other aircraft about the plane’s identification, location and barometric altitude – switched off, the stolen Boeing plane took off to the southwest, and out over the vast expanse of the South Atlantic.

Neither the men, nor the plane, have ever been seen again.

Most people connected to the story – the plane’s reputed owners, aviation experts, pilots, and even US government officials – suspect it probably crashed into the sea given the piloting inexperience of the two men aboard, but was there something more sinister afoot?

The Mystery of the Vanished 727

Fuselage and tailplane ofa Boeing 727. (Credit: IPGGutenbergUKLtd via Getty Images)

The disappearance of N844AA, the stolen 727, has sparked a myriad of theories over the years, ranging from potentially believable explanations grounded in the realms of aviation and international crime, to more speculative and outlandish suggestions.

Illicit Cargo Operations

One theory is that the plane was stolen for use in clandestine cargo operations. It’s speculated that it may have been used to transport contraband, such as drugs or weapons, across continents. The lack of communication and flight plan could have been deliberate measures to avoid detection by authorities.

Insurance Fraud

Another theory says that the Angola plane theft was an elaborate scheme to commit insurance fraud. It’s been suggested that the disappearance of the plane could have been orchestrated to claim insurance money on the aircraft, which had been sitting unused and accruing fees at Quatro de Fevereiro Airport.

Terrorist Activity

In the immediate aftermath of the plane’s disappearance, there was widespread speculation that it could be used in an attack, similar to the tragic events of 9/11 which occurred just twenty months previously. However, years have passed without any such incident being reported, which has largely discredited this theory.

Personal Use or Sale

Some believe that the stolen Boeing plane was taken for either personal use, stolen to order, or with the intention of selling it on the black market. Given the aircraft’s age and the running and maintenance costs, this theory suggests a high degree of risk for uncertain reward, but the global demand for aircraft parts or even whole aircraft for rogue operations lends it some credence.

Conspiracy Theories

Among the more speculative theories are those that suggest the aircraft was either commandeered by a government or secret organisation for undisclosed purposes or that it encountered a supernatural or extraterrestrial event that led to its disappearance.


The most generally accepted scenario is that the vanished 727 crashed in a remote, possibly uncharted, location in the sea, in Africa or elsewhere. The vast, under-monitored expanses of land and ocean make it conceivable that the wreckage could remain undiscovered, especially if efforts to locate it – if indeed there were any given the transponder was switched off – were hampered by the lack of a last known position or search resources.

Despite the range of theories, the fate of N844AA remains unknown, with each explanation leaving unanswered questions. The absence of concrete evidence has allowed speculation to flourish, turning the aircraft’s disappearance into one of the most enduring aviation mysteries of the modern age.

It’s believed that the Angola plane theft sparked a global search by the FBI, CIA and Department for Homeland Security, though to what extent is unknown. Within about six weeks of the plane’s disappearance, there was a rumoured sighting in Conakry, the capital of Guinea but it was very quickly dismissed by the US State Department.

Sky-High Suspicion: The Strange Saga of N844AA

Boeing 727 on a runway. (Credit: dicus63 via Getty Images)

The enigmatic disappearance of N844AA remains one of the most compelling unsolved mysteries in aviation history. Despite investigations and the passing of time, the fate of the stolen 727 and the men purportedly on board continues to elude experts and enthusiasts alike.


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