Wednesday, June 01, 2005

If Not Mystery Jets...

Then at least mystery turboprops.

The New York Times has a big story on the CIA's air proprietaries, the new-old network of anonymous charter airlines that provide spook transport with deniability (at least until those pesky journalists get at them). Flying has been a CIA business since the agency was founded - the year after, it bought into the assets of Claire Chennault's postwar business venture, China Air Transport, to save it from the Communists. That became the core of what was known to the public as Air America, operating a gigantic fleet of aircraft in all kinds of places you wouldn't want to go out of a huge base in Taiwan. Pretty much anywhere the US had interests in the cold war, you could find one of the morass of frontcos they used - CAT, AA, Southern Air Transport, CNRRA, Continental Air Transport, Intermountain, Pacific Helicopters, Western Heli, Atlas Air - operating the same kind of aircraft (Dakotas, Curtiss Commandos, C-119, -123, and -130s, Twin Otters, Pilatus Porters, Helio-Couriers and choppers. Machines for the hairy of arse and horny of hand..) with the same kind of crews (madmen), doing much the same thing (delivering guns, cash, and drugs).

In fact, very often they were the same aircraft and the same crews. In the mid-80s, the Sandinistas shot down a C-46 that had been with them since the 1940s, manned by a crew who'd been with them since the 1960s..but that's enough babbling.

They had among other things the ability to strip whole C-130s, shuffle the parts like a deck of cards, and put them back together as aircraft that had officially never been built, at least as far as Lockheed knew. Most of the aircraft were on free lease (the technical term was "bailed") from the US Air Force, which drove the USAF liaison people to distraction. They, after all, had to justify their budget to Congress; and they couldn't very well say "Senator, the reason we keep buying more C-130s is because the CIA keeps crashing'em". The liaison officer, Colonel Fletcher Prouty, developed a system of collecting the fuel receipts from US bases to keep track of the aircraft (can anyone guess why I was interested in the Viktor Bout fuel contracts?).

Now, according to the Times, all the old-line features are there: there's even a Dakota still on the roster. Nobody will be very surprised to know it's these aircraft that have been hauling secret prisoners around.

This may throw light on some aspects of the Viktor Bout system. I've recently been asked for information on any C-130s operated by Viktor. The reason is that they have been spotted operating for "Air Mero", which according to Ruud, fellow Bout stalker, is a name used by both Aerocom and Jetline/Jet Line for their KBR contracts in Iraq.

Now, western aircraft are rare in the Bout inventory. But there is a possibility that something called "TransAfrik", a Sao Tome-based company set up by investors in Ireland called "IAS Group", may be at the heart of this. TransAfrik, as well as nearly sharing a name with Trans African (who, by the way, have swapped planes with Jetline in the past), own some 11 Lockheed L-100s. A Lockheed L-100 is simply a C-130 Hercules sold to a civilian owner.

These Hercs have a past, though. They all belonged to none other than that Air America isotope, Southern Air Transport.

However, Transafrik was set up in 1986. Which fits with the liquidation of SAT, but not with the only air-related IAS Group I've heard of (a KLM-owned firm established in 1994). The current owners are apparently something called TWL Ltd. Questions, questions...

On another point, the NYT story is accompanied by a nice photo of one of Aero Contractors' CASA CN-235s. The registration is N168D, which is registered to Devon Holding & Leasing, Inc. Serial no. is C135. Another Devon ship is N187D, serial C143, another CN235. Interestingly, there's one lonely CN235 knocking around the US Air Force's inventory, too, usually in Afghanistan. (Photo here.) Its serial is C-42, military reg. 96-6049. And it, too, frequents rural North Carolina..(Link)

Does that satisfy your craving for mystery aircraft, Tim?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

By the way, the technical word for whatever the CIA or whatever group of people is doing is called a "rendition."

I have found that many of these rendition planes make stops for some reason at low-key airports in Portugal, most probably when their destination is the US or Gitmo.

The US news networks did have a story tonight on "black" bases that used old Soviet era prisons in old Warsaw pact countries. NBC stated it would not name what these countries are but I would put my money on Poland as being a definite location.

The US Senator John McCain (Republican) has been trying to have these out-of-country locations fall under no torture laws applicable in the US. He has a great motivation because he spent about six years in a North Vietnamese prison known as the "Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam war. To this day he is unable to raise his arms above his waist.

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