The family of a man believed to have been piloting a Boeing 727 that mysteriously took off and disappeared from an Angolan runway last month today told of their anguish as international authorities fear the jetliner could be used for a terrorist act.
In a baffling aviation vanishing act, workers at Luanda Airport in Angola watched dumbfounded on May 25 as the Boeing 727 taxied down the runway and took off — without permission. The plane — which ABCNEWS has learned was refitted to haul diesel fuel tanks, making it a potential flying bomb — has not been seen since.
The man the U.S. government suspects of piloting the 727 is Benjamin Padilla — a U.S. citizen from Florida. Padilla, too, has vanished, and his family is worried.
"I am concerned that he might have been hijacked," Padilla's brother, Joseph, said in an exclusive interview with ABCNEWS.
"It's very painful," said Padilla's sister, Benita Kirkland Padilla. "The whole family is in anguish, not knowing what happened to our brother."
The last time the family heard from Padilla was on May 14, when Benita received an e-mail from her brother informing her that he was on his way to Africa and would get in touch with his ailing mother as soon as he returned home.
But more than a month since their last communication, Padilla has not yet returned home. And with international authorities concerned that the missing jetliner could be used for terrorist purposes, the family maintains that he would never be involved in such a plan.
"Personally, I do not believe he has done anything criminal or terrorist-related," Benita told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America today.
U.S. Officials Stumped
The family believes Padilla, a licensed mechanic and pilot, flew to Angola on behalf of Aerospace Sales and Leasing, a Florida-based company that bought the 727 from American Airlines two years ago. The plane had not been moved for more than a year, and his family believes Padilla went to see whether it was fit to fly.
Neither Padilla's family nor ABCNEWS has been able to reach anyone at Aerospace Sales and Leasing. No one was at the office when ABCNEWS visited Wednesday and phone calls were not answered.
Despite the use of satellites to scour the African landscape, and a request to all African embassies for information, U.S. officials said they still have no clue about the plane's location.
"We don't have any reliable assessments about what this portends, what it could be, who may be behind it," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Joseph fears that his brother may have lost control of the plane's hydraulics after taking off and is concerned for his safety.
"If the plane has gone into the water, satellites can't make it out," he told Good Morning America today.
Most intelligence officials believe the plane was stolen to run drugs or guns, or as part of an insurance scam.
However, they have not ruled out the possibility the plane is in the hands of terrorists — perhaps plotting to target U.S. embassies in Africa.
But Benita said she was sure her brother, whom she described as a man with "a sort of nomadic nature," would never voluntarily get involved in any plot against his country's interests. "He was a patriot, he loved his country, he loved to fly," she said.