Tuesday, June 24, 2003

There's been a certain amount of terror porn concerning an aeroplane stolen in Angola, which major media have recently picked up on as a supposed "9/11 plot". But the story isn't new, and the reality may be much less dramatic. This was the first report I saw of it, on the 28th of May. Aviation-related sites have been covering the affair copiously.

"It happened on Sunday night, and we were waiting for the international press to get hold of this one.
The 727 is an ex AA one that has been here for a year now.
Story from the guys on the ramp is that it fired up and taxied, no lights, no calls (not that that tower answers you on a good day anyway) and made for 23 in the dark.
As it happens a ruski of some type was finals for 05 so they did a quick turn in the run up bay and back tracked 25 as what was described as very quick and then departed 25 dissapearing into the dark
We laughed well after that, I wonder if there flight had been dispatched.
So if anyone else in West Africa sees a Sliver 727 with Blue and White stripes. Take cash for gas and wave as they depart."

Another poster to www.pprune.org on 29th May:
"If I'm not mistaken, that is the aircraft that we ferried from MIA to Luanda for a THIEF known as Keith Irwin out of Jo- Burg. It was an Ex AA pax B-727. That aircraft is a full blown fuel hauler and if in the wrong hands could be a serious threat however, I would guess at this point it was just the repo man claiming his property. Keith Irwin brought a crew of six over from the states to operate this aircraft and after two months on the project, the crew left without collecting a single pay check. He also owed several other people lots of money and may have got in trouble for buying a HOT HF radio, stolen from the Angolan military and they may have had something to do with seizing the aircraft originally. Who knows."

There followed various speculation, and a surprising number of posters declared a grudge against Mr. Irwin. On the latest page, though, we may be approaching the truth (Link):

"According to the private Airclaims airplane database, the 727's current owner is a Miami-based firm called Aerospace Sales & Leasing Co., which bought it in 2001 after it was flown by American Airlines for decades. In 1997, Aerospace Sales's president, Maury Joseph, was barred from running any publicly traded firm after he was convicted of forging documents and defrauding investors by exaggerating the profits of another company he ran, Florida West Airlines. Joseph's son, Lance Joseph, said the company has committed no wrong. He said a firm that had leased the plane from Aerospace Sales -- a company whose name he said he couldn't recall -- had removed the seats and replaced them with fuel tanks. It flew the 727 to Luanda with a plan to deliver fuel to remote African airfields, he said.

According to the Airclaims database, a company called Irwin Air had planned to buy the 727 last month. No more information could be learned about the company.

Helder Preza, Angola's aviation director, told the Portuguese radio network RDP that the plane arrived in Luanda in March 2002, but that authorities prevented it from flying on because "the documentation we held did not pertain to the aircraft in question." Angolan officials also demanded stiff ramp fees as well as settlement of private liens on the 727, Joseph said. Aerospace Sales was settling the disputes and planning to repossess the aircraft and fly it away when the 727 -- one of about 1,100 worldwide -- disappeared, he said."

"In the 1980s, Gabriel was convicted of importing 5,000 pounds of marijuana. He did not return messages left at his office requesting comment, and his attorney, Jack Attias, declined to comment.

Preza, the Angolan official, said that "the owner of the aircraft contacted us saying he wished to fly out of Angola." Then, he added, a man who presented himself as "the legitimate representative of the aircraft's owner'' -- a man Preza described as a U.S. citizen but whom he declined to name -- entered the aircraft. Moments later, Preza said, the man flew the plane away.
"The person who flew out the plane was no stranger to the aircraft," Preza said.
Another twist in the case is that the State Department is asking its diplomats in Africa, in searching for the 727, to ask host governments whether they have any information about two men that its cables say "reportedly" own the plane -- Ben Padilla and John Mikel Mutantu. The men are not listed as owners on any public database, and no other information about them was available."

That from the Washington Post. Finally, though:

"Fort Lauderdale, Florida - The family of a 51-year-old pilot from Miami fears that he crashed while flying a Boeing 727 that authorities say has been missing since taking off without permission from Angola in Africa last month.
Ben Padilla had been hired by a Miami-based firm to repossess the plane after Angola Air failed to make payments on it, Padilla's sister, Benita Padilla-Kirkland, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper.
His family suspects Padilla was flying the Boeing that took off from Angola on May 25 and may have crashed somewhere on the African continent, his sister said. Padilla is an airplane mechanic and pilot who has flown cargo planes around the world for two decades. "

Grim-sounding, but by today a rumour had appeared to the effect that "the aircraft is back in South Africa with the original owners having been repossessed. Some of the excitement was supposed to have been caused by the plane flying at a very low level with its transponder off which led to the fears of terrorist activity. Allegedly the plane was fueled by one of the companies which was owed money." So, no reason to listen to those "security sources".....

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