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AMERICAN MORNING

Interview With Family of Missing Pilot

Aired June 24, 2003 - 08:09   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL HEMMER, ANCHOR: Now to a large mystery, an airline sized jet stole stolen from an airport in Africa. It's been missing for more than a month. Is it just criminal activity or is it terrorism?
News reports say that Ben Charles Padilla was at the controls when the Boeing 727 took off suddenly from the Luanda Airport in Angola on November 25. Neither the FBI nor the State Department will confirm that, however.

With us today to talk about it, live from Pensacola, Florida, Ben Padilla's sister and brother, Benita Padilla Kirkwood and Joe Padilla.

Thanks for your time in joining us this morning.

BENITA PADILLA KIRKWOOD, BEN PADILLA'S SISTER: Thank you.

HEMMER: Was your brother capable of flying and piloting a 727?

JOE PADILLA, BEN PADILLA'S BROTHER: Well, from what we understand he wasn't licensed to fly a plane this large.

HEMMER: When was the last time, Joe, you heard from your brother?

PADILLA: The last time I heard from him was back in January.

HEMMER: All right. Is that common to go for several months without hearing from your brother? I know he travels the world quite a bit?

PADILLA: Yes. I usually hear from him about every two or three months.

HEMMER: And the last time in January he said what? Where was he and what did he relay to you?

PADILLA: He was somewhere in South Africa last time I spoke with him and he had talked about wanting to get a larger cargo plane, because since he's flying to all these different places, he figured if he could get a larger plane, the more money he could make. He said he could make more money overseas. And that's the reason why he was there, because he was making more money over there than he could here in the United States.

HEMMER: Benita, I understand the FBI has contacted you. It might have been some time ago. What did they say in that contact? KIRKWOOD: The FBI contacted the family May the 29th and the story was pretty vague. They said that my brother was sent to Africa to check the airworthiness of an aircraft and both he and the aircraft were missing.

HEMMER: What do you think your brother is, Benita?

KIRKWOOD: To be frank, I think that my brother is being held captive because I do not believe that my brother piloted the plane.

I spoke with an individual who hired my brother, who is also the owner of Airspace Sales and Leasing (ph) this past week he contacted me. And he informed me that my brother was hired to oversee the repossession of this aircraft and including in that he was supposed to be hiring two pilots to fly the aircraft, as well as a mechanic. And he also oversaw the B-tech (ph) the Air Gemini (ph) was performing on the plane, which included pretty detailed operational maintenance.

HEMMER: When people talk about this case and they're related to terrorism. How do the two of you respond?

PADILLA: Well, I know my brother's no terrorist, and...

KIRKWOOD: Absolutely.

PADILLA: Like the last time I spoke with him in January we had talked about what happened in 9/11, 2001, and he said, "Well, you know, I go all over the world." He said, "If that ever happened to me, somebody could come in the cockpit on my plane and tried it on me," he said, "I'd down that plane" in his famous phrase was "in a New York second."

HEMMER: Is that right?

PADILLA: Yes.

HEMMER: Well, listen, with all this news out there right now, just curious to know why have you -- why has he not tried to get in touch with you to clear up this. Or, Benita, do you really think he's being held against his will right now?

KIRKWOOD: I know without a shadow of a doubt he is unable for one reason or another to contact us. Now we received an e-mail from him mid-May, saying that he had to go to Africa to take care of some business and that he would be in touch with my mother, who has recently had a heart attack, and she was in the hospital at the time.

And so with that knowledge, I know that he would be in contact with my mother. As a matter of fact, if he was able he would be here in Pensacola to take care of her.

HEMMER: Listen, in the few seconds we have left here. Do you understand the concerns that are raised right now in the shadow of 9/11, 20 months removed from the events here in New York City...

KIRKWOOD: Absolutely. HEMMER: ... with a plane missing that there could be an awful lot of concern out there?

KIRKWOOD: Right and the planes were, in fact, carrying large fuel tanks. So I understand the possibility that it's a flying bomb, and I understand all the different stories. We received so many conflicting stories. But I do know two things, that he is not a criminal and he's not a terrorist. He's a very patriotic person.

PADILLA: Yes and we have learned lately, just recently, that the mechanic was hired by my brother and now his wife is missing.

KIRKWOOD: Right.

HEMMER: Well, the story gets deeper and the mystery continues.

KIRKWOOD: Absolutely.

HEMMER: Thank you for your time. Joe and Benita Padilla there in Pensacola.

KIRKWOOD: Thank you for having us on.

HEMMER: No problem. And come back when you get more, OK? We'd love to finish this story. All right?

KIRKWOOD: Absolutely. Hopefully with good news.

HEMMER: Yes. Amen to that.

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