Privacy SOS

Mystery flights above Quincy raise questions about domestic aerial surveillance

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long term cookie on your computer.

On May 9, 2013, the Patriot Ledger reported that residents of Quincy, Massachusetts were "calling police and the city about an aircraft that appeared about two weeks ago and has been taking wide, repeated loops in the air, between about 7 p.m. and 4 a.m."

At first, people thought the "low-pitch humming sound" was coming from a drone, but the FAA told the press "It’s not a drone." The FAA wouldn't tell the public what it was, but police told the press "it’s nothing to worry about." 

A photograph snapped by a Quincy resident put the drone speculation to rest: the aircraft is a single engine Cessna airplane, and residents are sure there’s more than one. Boston.com reports:

Although people have gotten a better look at what the plane is, it's still unclear what it’s doing or who's doing it.

“We’ve received a couple more phone calls and the response is the same,” said Christopher Walker, spokesperson for Mayor Thomas Koch. “The FAA confirmed that it is a sanctioned flight, and there is no information beyond that.”

FAA spokespeople have said the aircraft is not a drone, but refused to elaborate on the machine’s purpose.

The tail number, N906TM, which can be seen in one photo, is registered to a company called RKT Productions. The only information that could be found on the company is a post office box in Bristow, Va.

A spokesman for the nearest airport, Manassas Regional Airport, had never heard of the company and said the plane did not fly out of that airport.

But Quincy residents say there is more than one aircraft flying overhead.

“There’s definitely more than one plane,” said Jennifer Azevedo-Andre, who lives in Merrymount. “[There’s] the one we could get a picture of. The other one has a dark blue belly. My husband is a pilot…the Cessna can only fly for seven to eight hours, so there is definitely another plane that comes to relieve it.”

Residents have not seen the tail number on the second plane.

The company that owns the plane has virtually no digital footprint. A website indicates the company bought the plane in 2010 along with two other Cessna 182s. A company called RKT Productions, LLC is registered in Washington, DC. Beyond that, it's as if the company didn't exist.

FBI spy planes

In 2006, Wired reported about the FBI’s then-new "generation of spy planes, equipped with sophisticated optics to watch people on the ground. In 2003, the Bureau admitted to flying a tricked-out 182 over several communities near Indianapolis to keep tabs on customers of internet cafes and copy shops."

A heavily redacted 2012 audit of the FBI’s aviation operations says that “[p]redominately, FBI aviation resources are used to support [redacted] operations.”

When deciding how to prioritize the use of its limited aviation resources, FBI field divisions considered the FBI’s national priorities and the most significant threats in an office’s geographic jurisdiction, along with the safety of the operation and other mission-related factors. The FBI’s overall data on field division aviation activity indicates that aviation resources supported the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts, which is its number one priority…

In 2009, the FBI budgeted over $9 million to augment its aviation surveillance program:

The FBI requests funding to replace aging surveillance aircraft, provide for aircraft operating expenses, and expand the FBI’s surveillance capabilities. Ninety aircraft must be replaced over ten years (at an annual cost of $5,449,000) for a more efficient, modern fleet. Additionally, this funding will provide Forward Looking Infrared equipment to leverage air assets to maximize surveillance capability ($713,000); offset fuel cost increases ($2,000,000); and support necessary enhancements to the Special Operations Group ($1,034,000).

Which agency is flying those planes over Quincy? What surveillance capabilities do they possess?

The local news report embedded above says that the planes circling the skies over Quincy belong to the "feds." A flight tracker website says the specific plane identified by Quincy locals flew between New York City and Boston on February 18, 2013. The same flight tracker website shows that this plane appears to have flown to New York from Chicago on that same date. On January 29, the plane flew in a strange pattern over Chicago. You can see that pattern in the map below:

      

We don’t know exactly what kind of surveillance equipment these "feds" are using in the Cessna plane(s), but a Washington Post story from 2012 alerts us to the possibility that there may be radio and cell phone sniffing gear inside them. The story describes small US military planes disguised as civilian aircraft:

At the heart of the surveillance operations are small, unarmed turboprop aircraft disguised as private planes. [They are e]quipped with hidden sensors that can record full-motion video, track infrared heat patterns, and vacuum up radio and cellphone signals…

Internet searches reveal that Cessnas are widely used by federal and state law enforcement for domestic surveillance purposes. 

The video below comes from the Cessna website. The Cessna Enforcer program enables law enforcement to customize their 172 and 182 models with specialized surveillance equipment, the company says. 

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long term cookie on your computer.

Helicopters have a loud, distinct noise signature that attracts attention no matter which altitude they operate.  A fixed wing Cessna aircraft is a more discrete observation platform that attracts little attention.  The Cessna Enforcer offers much greater time on station and quicker “dash” times than a helicopter.  An Enforcer equipped Cessna aircraft is a flexible ISR solution that delivers greater range, endurance, and mission payload than a comparable class helicopter all at a fraction of the cost.

DHS uses Cessnas for domestic surveillance, noting "They provide better range and endurance than helicopters, and blend more effectively with local traffic to mask the presence of continuous air surveillance."

Various states including Michigan, Washington, Texas, and Maryland have also used the planes for surveillance purposes. The Wisconsin state government uses them to monitor and police traffic. And researchers in Massachusetts have flown the planes to monitor whale populations. 

The Department of Defense flies them in Colombia, presumably on drug war missions. The CIA, for its part, has been associated with a number of private flight corporations suspected of having helped the agency transport people during renditions. One of those corporations, Tepper Aviation, flies a Cessna 182.

As for what these planes are doing in Massachusetts after the Boston Marathon bombings? Who knows. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.