Flying Across Red Skies

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And on Thanksgiving Day, less than two weeks after the Paris attacks, with the nation under a State Department—issued global terrorism alert, federal surveillance planes almost entirely stopped flying, only to resume once the holiday was over.

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The BuzzFeed News analysis almost certainly underestimates the scope of surveillance by federal aircraft. Some two dozen planes operated by the FBI and more than registered to the DHS never appeared on Flightradar24, suggesting that some surveillance planes may be hidden from public view on plane-tracking websites.

See here for details on the BuzzFeed News analysis. FBI planes have also on occasion been used to support local law enforcement.


Responding to the BuzzFeed News analysis, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said that planes may circle over cities while waiting for a suspect to emerge from a building. In some cases, the BuzzFeed News analysis showed that FBI aircraft indeed seemed to be following a vehicle from place to place, pausing to circle at each stop.

Other flights, however, circled a single location for several hours, and then returned to their airfields. The targets of surveillance may simply be less active on the weekends, he said.

He suspects that the weekend dip reflects the controversial practice of using undercover agents and informants to entice suspects into joining fake terrorist plots devised by the FBI. In June of last year, the Associated Press reported that it had linked more than 50 planes, mostly small Cessna Skylane aircraft, to 13 fake companies created as fronts for the FBI.

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Also using Flightradar24, AP reporters tracked more than flights in 11 states over the course of a month. We then looked for planes registered to these front companies in data provided by Flightradar We detected nearly FBI fixed-wing planes, mostly small Cessnas, plus about a dozen helicopters. Collectively, they made more than 1, flights over our four-month-plus observation period.

The aircraft frequently circled or hovered around specific locations, often for several hours in the daytime over urban areas. We also tracked more than 90 aircraft, about two-thirds of them helicopters, that were registered to the DHS, which is responsible for border protection, customs, and immigration. Not surprisingly, these planes were especially active around border towns such as McAllen, Texas, which faces the Mexican city of Reynosa across the Rio Grande.

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The DHS would not comment on flights over specific cities, but confirmed that its planes regularly support other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. DHS spokesman Carlos Lazo told BuzzFeed News by email that its planes are mainly used to combat the illegal drug trade, human trafficking , and violent crime. Many FBI Cessnas, for example, are fitted with exhaust mufflers to reduce engine noise. FBI and DHS aircraft carry sophisticated camera systems in steerable mounts that can provide conventional video, night vision, and infrared thermal imaging.

On FBI planes, cameras are typically paired with augmented reality systems , which superimpose a variety of information over the video, and can embed the feed from a camera into a wider scene built up from stored satellite images. This promotional video from Churchill Navigation of Boulder, Colorado, whose systems are installed on FBI surveillance aircraft, explains some of their capabilities. Over the past few years, news organizations and advocacy groups have also accumulated evidence that some government surveillance planes can carry equipment to track cell phones on the ground.

The documents reveal that the agency was unsure how many times the devices had been used, when pressed for information by the Senate judiciary committee. Calls are not intercepted, and personal data is not captured, Allen said. Still, tracking the movements of specific criminal suspects may entail connecting to the phones of thousands of people who just happen to be nearby.

And although government policies say that information about nontarget phones should be quickly discarded, privacy advocates remain concerned about cell-site simulators, which may not require a warrant in emergency situations. Even before San Bernardino, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump was calling for surveillance of certain mosques.

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And in the wake of the bombings in Brussels in March, rival Ted Cruz said that surveillance in Muslim neighborhoods should be intensified. During a month period between and , the Prussian aristocrat shot down 80 Allied aircraft and won widespread fame for his scarlet-colored airplanes and ruthlessly effective flying style. Baron Manfred von Richthofen was born on May 2, , into an affluent family of Prussian nobles in what is now Poland.

He enjoyed a privileged upbringing and spent his youth hunting and playing sports before being enrolled in military school at age In , after eight years as a cadet, Richthofen was commissioned an officer in the 1st Uhlan cavalry regiment of the Prussian army. He received the Iron Cross for his courage under fire, but he later grew restless after his unit was consigned to supply duty in the trenches.

The request was granted, and by June the headstrong young officer was serving as a backseat observer in a reconnaissance plane. After honing his skills flying combat missions over France and Russia, he met the famed German flying ace Oswald Boelcke, who enlisted him in a new fighter squadron called Jasta 2. In January , Richthofen was placed in command of his own fighter squadron known as Jasta 11, which featured several talented pilots including his younger brother, Lothar von Richthofen. Around that same time, he had his Albatros D. III fighter plane painted blood red.

He shot down nearly two dozen Allied planes during the month of April alone, increasing his tally to 52 overall and cementing his reputation as the most fearsome flier in the skies over Europe. He also became a beloved propaganda symbol in Germany, where he was lavished with military decorations and featured in numerous news articles and postcards. Preferring to avoid unnecessary risks, he typically fought in formation and relied on the aid of his wingmen to ambush his enemies by diving at them from above.

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To mark his growing kill count, he commissioned a German jeweler to make a collection of small silver cups bearing the date of each of his aerial victories. In June , Richthofen was promoted to leader of his own four-squadron fighter wing. Later that summer, it was outfitted with the Fokker Dr. Richthofen endured numerous close calls during his flight career, but he suffered his first serious war wound on July 6, , when he sustained a fractured skull after being grazed by a bullet during a dogfight with British aircraft. Despite returning to duty with his Flying Circus just a few weeks later, he never fully recovered from the injury and complained of frequent headaches.

Some historians have since speculated that he may have also been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD. As Richthofen swooped low in pursuit of an enemy fighter, he came under attack from Australian machine gunners on the ground and a plane piloted by Canadian ace Arthur Roy Brown. During the exchange of fire, Richthofen was struck in the torso by a bullet and died after crash-landing in a field.