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Lesser Known Aviation Mysteries

Most of us are at least partly familiar with well-known aviation mysteries like Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937, the loss of US Navy Flight 19 over the Bermuda Triangle in 1945, and Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 that went missing in 2014.

That said, since regional and long distance flights became common after the Wright Brothers skimmed just a few meters over the ground in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, scores of military and civilian airplanes have crashed and gone missing in bizarre circumstances. 

Though weather, faulty design, mechanical problems and pilot error are often to blame, many incidents are shrouded in hearsay, misinformation and competing theories, and espionage, industrial theft, nefarious insurance payouts and religious fervor sometimes factor into the equation too. 

Whatever the case, missing aircraft and crashes often baffle investigators, and in many instances the truth remains in near perpetual obfuscation. 

Now let’s take a look at 4 lesser known aviation mysteries. 

Missing 727-223 – Angola, Africa

In late May 2003, a Boeing 727 that’d once belonged to American Airlines was stolen from Quatro de Fevereiro Airport in Luanda, Angola, prompting a bevy of investigations by the FBI, CIA and local authorities.  

The narrow body tri-engine 727-223 was manufactured in 1975, but after more than two decades hauling passengers for American Airlines it was bought by Miami, Florida-based Aerospace Sales & Leasing.

The airplane – long past its prime as a people mover – ended up in Angola where its seats were removed and replaced with large tanks capable of holding nearly 14,000 US gallons (53,000 liters) of diesel fuel which it regularly ferried to the region’s mines. 

With a maximum gross takeoff weight approaching 200,000 pounds (90,718 kg), the plane had a range of about 1,500 miles (2,414 km).  

But though the airplane had been working as a fuel hauler for some time, it’d also been variously leased to other airlines including TAAG Angola Airlines, the state-owned carrier of Angola. 

However at the time of its mysterious disappearance it was apparently being retrofitted once again, this time for another local airline, and it had been sitting on the tarmac for more than a year, during which time its owners purportedly racked up more than $4 million dollars in airport fees which were never paid. 

In documents later released by the FBI, the plane was described as “…unpainted silver in color with a stripe of blue, white, and red.”

In other words, American Airlines colors minus the lettering.  

The story goes that on May 25, 2003 at about 5:00 PM local time just as the sun was setting, two men stealthily boarded the massive jetliner. 

One airport employee reported seeing one person board the aircraft, while others stated that they’d seen two men.

One is thought to have been experienced American pilot and flight Engineer Ben Padilla, who wasn’t certified to fly a 727.

The other was a Congolese mechanic named John Mutantu. 

With Padilla at the controls and Mutantu monitoring the engines and other vital systems, the aircraft’s engines roared to life and it taxied erratically toward the runway without any communication or proper clearance.

Air traffic controllers in the tower repeatedly tried to make contact with no luck.   

With no lights it lined up and took off, heading southwest over the Atlantic Ocean before disappearing.

During the investigation Padilla’s sister admitted that her family suspected he was involved, that he’d been forced to steal the plane against his will, and that the aircraft had most likely crashed because he wasn’t capable of flying it.  

US authorities discovered that prior to the incident Padilla had been caught up in an accounting fraud scheme, and that he was heavily in debt and in constant fear of prosecution and retribution from those he’d stolen the money from.  

After the disappearance a number of sightings were reported in far-flung countries like Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Guinea, but though they were looked into, investigators found no evidence that any of them were true. 

Nearly a decade later Air & Space Magazine published an article reexamining the events surrounding the disappearance, but despite extensive research and interviewing many of those involved, they too were unable to draw any concrete conclusions. 

Pan Am Flight 7

Pan American World Airways Boeing 377 missing flight
Pan American World Airways Boeing 377 by RuthAS is licensed under CC-BY

On Friday November 8, 1957 just before noon, Pan Am Flight 7 took off from San Francisco International Airport for Honolulu. 

The Boeing 337 Stratocruiser nicknamed ‘Romance of The Skies’ was embarking on a multi-stop around-the-world flight between California, Hawaii, and ultimately Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

But after departing from the west coast, the massive Pratt & Whitney radial engine-powered airliner was never seen again. 

With nearly four dozen onboard including passengers and crew, the globetrotting behemoth vanished, and the search and rescue effort that followed was the largest since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart in July of 1937.

Loaded with enough fuel for nearly 13 hours of flight at about 260 miles per hour (420 km/h), the 147,000 pound (67,000 kg) aircraft climbed to its cruising altitude of 10,000 feet.

The plane’s crew made their last scheduled communication at just after 5:00 PM that evening, and less than two hours later the company alerted the Coast Guard that they’d failed to check back in at 6:00 PM. 

In response, merchant ships, Naval vessels, submarines, Coast Guard cutters and various aircraft were sent to scour huge swaths of the Pacific Ocean north and east of Honolulu. 

Convinced that the airliner may still be afloat if it had been able to make a relatively soft landing, Pan American dispatched another Stratocruiser loaded with supplies that could be air dropped to survivors, as well as a Douglas DC-7 that carried enough fuel to search for more than 15 hours.  

But though small bits of wreckage were spotted, it wasn’t until days later that a Navy ship recovered 15 bodies, most of which were wearing life jackets and had severe injuries like lacerations, burns and broken bones.  

In addition, watches found on some of the bodies had stopped at about 4:30 indicating what time the plane had gone down, and post-recovery autopsies determined that many had high levels of carbon monoxide in their systems pointing to faulty exhaust and ventilation systems. 

But despite the presence of toxic gas and physical trauma, it was determined that most of the victims had died from drowning, meaning they’d been alive while in the water.  

Yet for Pan Am, the FBI and the Civil Aeronautics Board – predecessor to the National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB – determining the cause of the crash proved particularly tricky, and some suspected foul play.  

Not only were no distress calls made, but the wreckage was well outside the plane’s normal flight path. 

One theory centered on a disgruntled airline employee named Eugene Crosthwaite who may have sabotaged the aircraft out of revenge for contracting tuberculosis while working on the company’s flying boats in the Orient. 

In addition, Crosthwaite was still distraught over his wife’s death three months earlier, and was apparently so convinced that his daughter in law had murdered her that he’d reported it to the local sheriff. 

Investigators also looked into whether any of those on board had made any abnormal life insurance purchases, and they uncovered the interesting case of 41-year-old William Payne, the owner of a California hunting lodge purportedly flying to Hawaii to collect a business debt. 

Payne had taken out three life insurance policies just before flying, and he’d previously worked in the explosives and demolition businesses, but the angle was dropped when it was discovered that his plane ticket cost more than the debt itself.  

It was also-well known that Stratocruisers had a number of persistent mechanical problems including oil pressure issues and overspeeding hollow-core propellers, which under certain conditions could actually throw their blades.

Despite a number of promising leads, in early 1959 the Civil Aeronautics Board ruled that no definitive cause for the crash could be determined, and the case was officially closed. 

Rivet Amber

On the morning of June 5th, 1969 a 4-engine Boeing RC-135E radar and reconnaissance aircraft known as Rivet Amber departed from Shemya Air Force Base in Alaska for Eielson AFB on a non-operational mission with 19 people on board. 

Designated as Irene 92, at 9:36 AM local time, less than an hour after departing from Shemya, controllers at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage received a message that the plane was experiencing vibrations of unknown origin, but that the aircraft was under control. 

Minutes later, controllers at Elmendorf asked for confirmation that the crew wasn’t declaring an in-flight emergency and received a non-verbal radio click in response, followed by suspicious grunting and heavy breathing. 

This was followed by more clicks, and the words – “crew go to oxygen.” 

The troubled crew transmitted additional clicks for nearly an hour, after which there was no further communication. 

Even among the Air Force’s enigmatic and high-value inventory, Rivet Amber was a unique bird, namely because it carried the world’s most powerful airborne radar designed to track Soviet ICBMs from as many as 300 miles away. 

In fact it was so powerful that Soviet fighters and interceptors were generally commanded to steer as far clear of Rivet Amber as possible. 

Developed by Hughes Industries, the 7 megawatt phased array radar added an additional 35,000 pounds to the aircraft’s overall weight, and cost more than 35 million USD, or about 300 million USD today – making it the most expensive military aircraft of its time. 

But despite it’s awe-inspiring capabilities, the radar caused lots of problems for the aircraft. 

In addition to putting undue strain on the engines, it required so much energy to run and produced so much heat, that an additional generator and radiator were added. 

When the Rivet Amber went silent on that fateful day, a massive search was launched. 

Multiple aircraft from Alaskan and west coast bases searched for weeks, but no wreckage was ever found. 

Eventually the search was called off, and to this day the plane’s fate remains a mystery. 

Though it’s most likely that the plane went down due to mechanical issues, far-flung theories abound, including those that the Russians, unhappy about the airspace near their borders being prowled by a technological wonder, shot it down. 

While there’s no evidence to support this claim, those making it often point to the fact that if it were the case, the US government would likely cover it up to save face. 

Whatever happened to the Rivet Amber, it was the last plane of its kind to ever fly, and more than five decades after its disappearance it remains one of aviation’s most enduring mysteries. 

EgyptAir Flight 990

Egypt Air Boeing 767-366 missing plane
Egypt Air Boeing 767-366 by Aero Icarus is licensed under CC-BY-SA

EgyptAir Flight 990 departed from Los Angeles, California on the evening of October 31, 1999 before stopping in New York City and continuing on toward Cairo. 

The long range Boeing 767-366 had two separate crews for the lengthy transatlantic portion of the flight that was slated to take about 10 hours.  

As scheduled, it took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport at about 1:20 in the morning. 

After 30 minutes in flight it had ascended to an altitude of 33,000 feet (10,000 metres), but just a few minutes before 2 AM the airplane began a series of erratic course and elevation changes.

First it dove rapidly to approximately 16,000 feet (4,900 m) at an angle of nearly 40°, during which time it accelerated to more than 750 mph, (1,235 km/h) – much faster than the plane’s airframe was designed to go. 

Just a minute later the rapid descent stopped and the jetliner began gaining altitude again, this time reaching 25,000 feet (7,600 metres) before changing course. 

Then the plane began its final and fatal descent, traveling so fast that one of its engines sheared from its wing-mounted nacelle and plummeted into the sea. 

All 237 on board – 203 passengers and 14 crew – were killed instantly when the airplane followed suit just moments later. 

Since the crash occurred in international waters it was initially investigated by Egypt’s Ministry of Civil Aviation (ECAA) as well as America’s National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

However citing inadequate funding and lack of expertise, Egypt later handed the investigation over to the NTSB entirely.

Nearly 70 percent of the wreckage, including the cockpit voice recorder or “black box” was recovered from just 230 feet (70 m) of water, and just a few weeks into their investigation the NTSB determined that the crash had been caused by operator input, and was likely intentional and not accidental. 

With a potential crime or terrorist event on their hands, the NTSB proposed passing the investigation on to the FBI, but as was their right under international aviation agreements, the Egyptian government declined, and the NTSB continued on alone.  

From the plane’s black box it was determined that first officer and relief copilot Gamil al-Batouti had insisted on taking over the copilot’s seat just 20 minutes after takeoff. 

Then the pilot left the cockpit to relieve himself, after which the autopilot was manually turned off and the plane made its first erratic dive. 

In fact the dive was so rapid and violent that it apparently created zero gravity conditions inside the fuselage. 

Stumbling back to the cockpit, the astonished captain repeatedly asked, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” 

In Arabic Al-Batouti clearly responded, “I rely on God.” 

There was additional evidence that the pilot and copilot were fighting over the controls, namely because the right and left elevators in the tail were set in opposite directions – one for ascent on the pilot’s side, the other for descent on Al-Batouti’s side. 

Then the engines were shut off, and moments later the electrical system failed. 

Among those on board were a large contingent of Egyptian military officers who’d just wrapped up training exercises in the United States. 

Their presence led some to suspect that the flight had been targeted by Egypt’s enemies – namely Israel, though no evidence was ever put forth to support the claims. 

As the country’s official airline, EgyptAir was an icon of national pride, and the NTSB’s findings were far from popular. 

Later the ECAA conducted its own investigation and issued a report vehemently rejecting the possibility that al-Batouti had caused the crash. 

Instead, the Egyptians determined that sheared rivets in one of the elevator’s control mechanisms caused the plane’s erratic maneuvers, and that everyone in the cockpit was working together to regain control up until the time it hit the water.

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