The 727 that Vanished
A case pursued by the FBI, the CIA, the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security, CENTCOM, and the sister of Ben Padilla.
- By Tim Wright
- Air & Space magazine, September 2010
Courtesy Mike Gabriel
(Page 2 of 6)
New deal: Joseph sold 844AA to Irwin for $1 million and change. According to his records, he received a down payment of $125,000, and says he stipulated that the balance be paid within 30 days. He agreed to remove the passenger seats from the cabin and to allow Irwin to take the airliner to Africa. Irwin says he cannot remember the details of the agreement, but recalled it to be a lease arrangement. In any case, the joint venture made only two payments and defaulted.
Though the two men now differ over the terms of the contract, they agree on one detail: As a condition of the agreement, Irwin was required to take along one of Joseph’s employees, Mike Gabriel, whose job was to make sure that the deal was concluded. “I gave Mike $10,000 and told him to fly with them,” says Joseph. “Stay with the plane till you get the money, and then come on home, and if not, bring the plane home.”
On February 28, 2002, with most of the passenger seats removed and the 10 fuel tanks loaded, 844AA, still in the livery of American Airlines, with a blue stripe down the side and an AA logo fading on its tail, took off for Africa.
Because Irwin’s partners had not arranged a landing permit, it took two weeks for the crew to make their way to Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport, where they arrived on March 14. Irwin, who had not worked in Angola before, realized immediately that the deal was in trouble. The company hiring his partners for deliveries, Kuwachi Dundo, was supposed to pay $220,000 when the airplane and crew landed, but instead the company’s representative made excuses. (Irwin lost almost $140,000 in the first deal and had burned through the rest of the $450,000 by March.)
The crew endured accommodations in a dismal apartment without electricity or drinkable water, near an open sewer. (Gabriel and Irwin didn’t stay with the crew; they had rented an apartment in the back of a house owned by an Angolan air force general.) The only one of the men not troubled by the circumstances they found in Angola was Mike Gabriel. Gabriel, a dealer in aircraft parts and engines, had spent a considerable amount of time in West Africa, and was accustomed to the AK-47s the men saw everywhere, including stacked up behind the bar of a club they frequented. Most worrisome to the crew was that they were required to surrender their passports on arrival. Irwin explains that Kuwachi needed the passports to obtain Angolan licenses for the pilots and flight engineers.
“I was scared to death. I really thought I was going to die,” says Art Powell, one of the flight engineers with the project. Powell had been to Angola before and had spent a year working in Nairobi, Kenya, but this experience was different. He felt intimidated by the people who had hired the crew for the fuel-delivery job. His anxiety was intensified by the presence of a local “helper” who toted an AK-47. The helper was a guard whom Mike Gabriel says he hired because the crew repeatedly voiced concerns about safety.
When Kuwachi got wind of the crews’ unrest (several crew members have admitted that they were planning to steal the aircraft to escape to South Africa or return to the States), the company refused to return the passports. Irwin and members of the crew went to the U.S. Embassy; only then were the passports returned.
By Angolan regulations, Irwin says, 844AA was controlled by the clients who hired it. Prohibited from flying the aircraft out of the country, Irwin booked airline seats and flew the crew members to South Africa. From there, two of the men immediately flew home to the United States. One says he is still owed $17,000. The other four crewmen, still hoping for the money they’d been promised, stayed on.