Without a Trace


Ben Charles Padilla is believed to have been piloting a Boeing 727 that took off and disappeared from an Angolan runway on May 25.

(ABC News)
Mysterious Disappearance of Boeing 727 and Pilot Remains Unsolved

By Adrienne Mand


April 19 Ben Charles Padilla, an aircraft mechanic, flight engineer and cargo pilot, traveled the world plying his trade for various private companies.

He'd often keep in touch with family members from faraway locales, so it was no surprise in May 2003 when he replied to an e-mail about his mother having a heart attack with news that he was in Africa refurbishing a plane and would contact her as soon as he could.

Boeing 727
U.S. intelligence officials are searching for a Boeing 727 passenger jet that mysteriously disappeared over Africa three weeks ago.  
Rogue Missile?
Intensive Search Under Way for Airliner Missing for Nearly a Month

By Pierre Thomas

June 10 The U.S. government has secretly launched an intensive campaign to find a Boeing 727 passenger jet that mysteriously disappeared in Africa three weeks ago, sources told ABCNEWS.

Intelligence agencies have used satellites to try to locate the plane, the CIA is working its human sources in Africa, and embassies in Africa have been informed of the disappearance and asked to provide any information they may come across, sources said.

The plane's status is discussed every morning in meetings at various intelligence agencies and congressional intelligence committees. A number of government officials told ABCNEWS everyone is frustrated.

"When an aircraft of this size has been missing for so long it does raise some questions as to where it is and what it's being used for," said Chris Yates, editor of the London-based specialist publication Jane's Civil Aviation Security.

The Boeing 727 is 153 feet long and weighs 191,000 pounds.

Many Options

The plane disappeared out of Angola on May 25. But a government official says the Angolans do not know whether it was bound for Burkina Faso, South Africa, Libya or Nigeria. It's also not clear how many people were on board.

Some U.S. officials believe the plane may have been stolen to run drugs or guns. Others suspect it may have been crashed for insurance money.

American officials have so far turned up no evidence the disappearance is related to terrorism, but no one knows for certain, but the plane's disappearance raises some troubling security questions.

"It's extraordinarily troubling that you can literally disappear off the face of the Earth once you are airborne and fly across a continent like Africa," Yates said.

Other issues that officials cite include:

   The lack of security at many African and Third World airports.

   The limited oversight of flights in some African countries. Preliminary research shows some countries don't require flight plans.

   The security of the international aviation market. Could this plane resurface in legitimate aviation without anyone knowing, or change hands on the black market? How secure are we when an airliner can go unaccounted for?

The most worrying possibility is that the plane might be used as a flying missile against a U.S. target in the manner of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"An aircraft could be either stolen or hijacked overseas, fly to the U.S., on schedule, and it wouldn't be seen on FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] radar, if it didn't want to be seen, until the very last minute," said Richard Clarke, former White House terrorism czar.

The chance of that happening is slim, Clarke said. "The government believes the plane would not have enough fuel to reach the U.S."

But that doesn't rule out an attack on a U.S. embassy or facility overseas in Africa making U.S. officials no less intent on finding the missing airliner.

 His family has not heard from him since, and the FBI believes the 51-year-old was aboard a Boeing 727 that took off without authorization from an airport in Angola on May 25 and promptly vanished. At the time, U.S. officials told ABCNEWS they suspected the plane was stolen to run drugs or guns, and some theorized it was crashed for insurance money.

Though there was fear that the former passenger plane, which the FBI says was reconfigured to carry diesel fuel, could be in the hands of terrorists eyeing a Sept. 11-style attack, there was no evidence to link it to terrorism.

The incident touched off an intensive investigation by U.S. intelligence agencies that continues nearly a year later. The plane and Padilla remain unaccounted for and the mysterious circumstances around their disappearance leave many unanswered questions.

How could a plane vanish? Who has it now? And what happened to Padilla, who was no stranger to assignments like the one that took him to Angola?


Waiting for a Break

"It's been almost a year and I know really no more now than I did in the beginning," said Joseph Padilla of Pensacola, Fla., younger brother of the missing man. Family members are baffled by his disappearance but maintain Ben Padilla would not knowingly have been involved in any illegal activities.

Joseph Padilla suspects there may have been some sort of dispute of ownership between the company that hired his brother and someone else, and that Ben got caught in the middle.

Joseph Padilla stays in contact with the FBI and State Department for updates on the case and provides them with leads from reporters and his own research.

There have been glimmers of hope for a breakthrough a crash in Benin at Christmastime, a tip that the plane had been spotted in Guinea but investigators have told him they were not the missing plane.

"[The investigation] is still ongoing," said FBI Special Agent Jeff Westcott. "We're investigating possibilities. Every now and then a lead will come in. The FBI, working with our agents overseas, will aggressively pursue that." But so far, he said, the leads "haven't amounted to anything."

The agency is considering any scenario, including terrorism, but "we really don't speculate," said Westcott. "It's a concern I wouldn't really characterize it beyond that."

The State Department, which is in charge of locating missing persons abroad, has not learned much about Padilla's whereabouts. "It's still open," said Stuart Patt, spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the Department of State. "We stay in touch with the family of the pilot, but they haven't heard anything. We haven't heard anything. It's really been a very long time since we've had any news or even any leads.

"Certainly there are a lot of hypotheticals," Patt said, without giving specifics. "We just don't have any basis yet for really being able to give an answer that would be meaningful."


A Frustrating Process

Joseph Padilla, who is retired, spends much of his time checking in with the FBI and State Department and looking for information about the case on the Internet. "I always look at every news organization in America and across the world," he said. "I do that late at night, almost daily."

He is being helped by Florida attorney Martin Pedata, who is working pro bono to try to obtain more information.

The government agencies have said they cannot be more open because of privacy provisions in the Freedom of Information Act that would require Ben Padilla's consent for his relatives to learn more.

Pedata hopes to establish a conservatorship, which would legally allow someone in the Padilla family to act on behalf of Ben, but there's no precedent for the current situation. "There's really no case out there that says this could be done," he said. "Theoretically, under Florida law, the conservator could step into the shoes to try to get around the defense that they can't tell more details."

Meanwhile, the family which has already lost two other siblings has struggled through holidays without Ben and "not knowing the status of my brother is just about to drive us crazy."

"The government can see that we are ordinary people," Joseph Padilla said, saying he's told investigators, "'Look, I'm a big boy now. You can tell me if my brother's deceased and you know it.' "

But they don't know, nor do they know the fate of the last plane that was in his charge. And that worries Joseph Padilla, too.

"As an individual, I could care less about this plane," he said. "But as an American, I want it found because this plane has 10 500-gallon fuel tanks."

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