A Casa 235 about to take off from Ruzyne Airport in Prague on
a flight to Afghanistan operated by the C.I.A.-connected Aero Contractors.
This article was reported by Scott Shane, Stephen Grey and Margot Williams and written by Mr. Shane.
SMITHFIELD, N.C. - The airplanes of Aero Contractors Ltd. take off from Johnston
County Airport here, then disappear over the scrub pines and fields of tobacco
and sweet potatoes. Nothing about the sleepy Southern setting hints of foreign
intrigue. Nothing gives away the fact that Aero's pilots are the discreet bus
drivers of the battle against terrorism, routinely sent on secret missions to
Baghdad, Cairo, Tashkent and Kabul.
When the Central Intelligence Agency wants to grab a suspected member of Al
Qaeda overseas and deliver him to interrogators in another country, an Aero
Contractors plane often does the job. If agency experts need to fly overseas
in a hurry after the capture of a prized prisoner, a plane will depart Johnston
County and stop at Dulles Airport outside Washington to pick up the C.I.A. team
on the way.
Aero Contractors' planes dropped C.I.A. paramilitary officers into Afghanistan
in 2001; carried an American team to Karachi, Pakistan, right after the United
States Consulate there was bombed in 2002; and flew from Libya to Guantánamo
Bay, Cuba, the day before an American-held prisoner said he was questioned by
Libyan intelligence agents last year, according to flight data and other records.
While posing as a private charter outfit - "aircraft rental with pilot"
is the listing in Dun and Bradstreet - Aero Contractors is in fact a major domestic
hub of the Central Intelligence Agency's secret air service. The company was
founded in 1979 by a legendary C.I.A. officer and chief pilot for Air America,
the agency's Vietnam-era air company, and it appears to be controlled by the
agency, according to former employees.
Behind a surprisingly thin cover of rural hideaways, front companies and shell
corporations that share officers who appear to exist only on paper, the C.I.A.
has rapidly expanded its air operations since 2001 as it has pursued and questioned
terrorism suspects around the world.
An analysis of thousands of flight records, aircraft registrations and corporate
documents, as well as interviews with former C.I.A. officers and pilots, show
that the agency owns at least 26 planes, 10 of them purchased since 2001. The
agency has concealed its ownership behind a web of seven shell corporations
that appear to have no employees and no function apart from owning the aircraft.
The planes, regularly supplemented by private charters, are operated by real
companies controlled by or tied to the agency, including Aero Contractors and
two Florida companies, Pegasus Technologies and Tepper Aviation.
The civilian planes can go places American military craft would not be welcome.
They sometimes allow the agency to circumvent reporting requirements most countries
impose on flights operated by other governments. But the cover can fail, as
when two Austrian fighter jets were scrambled on Jan. 21, 2003, to intercept
a C.I.A. Hercules transport plane, equipped with military communications, on
its way from Germany to Azerbaijan.
"When the C.I.A. is given a task, it's usually because national policy
makers don't want 'U.S. government' written all over it," said Jim Glerum,
a retired C.I.A. officer who spent 18 years with the agency's Air America but
says he has no knowledge of current operations. "If you're flying an executive
jet into somewhere where there are plenty of executive jets, you can look like
any other company."
Some of the C.I.A. planes have been used for carrying out renditions, the legal
term for the agency's practice of seizing terrorism suspects in one foreign
country and delivering them to be detained in another, including countries that
routinely engage in torture. The resulting controversy has breached the secrecy
of the agency's flights in the last two years, as plane-spotting hobbyists,
activists and journalists in a dozen countries have tracked the mysterious planes'
Inquiries From Abroad
The authorities in Italy and Sweden have opened investigations into the C.I.A.'s
alleged role in the seizure of suspects in those countries who were then flown
to Egypt for interrogation. According to Dr. Georg Nolte, a law professor at
the University of Munich, under international law, nations are obligated to
investigate any substantiated human rights violations committed on their territory
or using their airspace.
Dr. Nolte examined the case of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who American
officials have confirmed was pulled from a bus on the Serbia-Macedonia border
on Dec. 31, 2003, and held for three weeks. Then he was drugged and beaten,
by his account, before being flown to Afghanistan.
The episode illustrates the circumstantial nature of the evidence on C.I.A.
flights, which often coincide with the arrest and transporting of Al Qaeda suspects.
No public record states how Mr. Masri was taken to Afghanistan. But flight data
shows a Boeing Business Jet operated by Aero Contractors and owned by Premier
Executive Transport Services, one of the C.I.A.-linked shell companies, flew
from Skopje, Macedonia, to Baghdad and on to Kabul on Jan. 24, 2004, the day
after Mr. Masri's passport was marked with a Macedonian exit stamp.
Mr. Masri was later released by order of Condoleezza Rice, the national security
adviser at the time, after his arrest was shown to be a case of mistaken identity.
A C.I.A. spokeswoman declined to comment for this article. Representatives
of Aero Contractors, Tepper Aviation and Pegasus Technologies, which operate
the agency planes, said they could not discuss their clients' identities. "We've
been doing business with the government for a long time, and one of the reasons
is, we don't talk about it," said Robert W. Blowers, Aero's assistant manager.
A Varied Fleet
But records filed with the Federal Aviation Administration provide a detailed,
if incomplete, portrait of the agency's aviation wing.
The fleet includes a World War II-era DC-3 and a sleek Gulfstream V executive
jet, as well as workhorse Hercules transport planes and Spanish-built aircraft
that can drop into tight airstrips. The flagship is the Boeing Business Jet,
based on the 737 model, which Aero flies from Kinston, N.C., because the runway
at Johnston County is too short for it.
Most of the shell companies that are the planes' nominal owners hold permits
to land at American military bases worldwide, a clue to their global mission.
Flight records show that at least 11 of the aircraft have landed at Camp Peary,
the Virginia base where the C.I.A. operates its training facility, known as
"the Farm." Several planes have also made regular trips to Guantánamo.
But the facility that turns up most often in records of the 26 planes is little
Johnston County Airport, which mainly serves private pilots and a few local
corporations. At one end of the 5,500-foot runway are the modest airport offices,
a flight school and fuel tanks. At the other end are the hangars and offices
of Aero Contractors, down a tree-lined driveway named for Charlie Day, an airplane
mechanic who earned a reputation as an engine magician working on secret operations
in Laos during the Vietnam War.
"To tell you the truth, I don't know what they do," said Ray Blackmon,
the airport manager, noting that Aero has its own mechanics and fuel tanks,
keeping nosey outsiders away. But he called the Aero workers "good neighbors,"
always ready to lend a tool.
Son of Air America
Aero appears to be the direct descendant of Air America, a C.I.A.-operated
air "proprietary," as agency-controlled companies are called.
Just three years after the big Asian air company was closed in 1976, one of
its chief pilots, Jim Rhyne, was asked to open a new air company, according
to a former Aero Contractors employee whose account is supported by corporate
"Jim is one of the great untold stories of heroic work for the U.S. government,"
said Bill Leary, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Georgia
who has written about the C.I.A.'s air operations. Mr. Rhyne had a prosthetic
leg - he had lost one leg to enemy antiaircraft fire in Laos - that was blamed
for his death in a 2001 crash while testing a friend's new plane at Johnston
Mr. Rhyne had chosen the rural airfield in part because it was handy to Fort
Bragg and many Special Forces veterans, and in part because it had no tower
from which Aero's operations could be spied on, a former pilot said.
"Sometimes a plane would go in the hangar with one tail number and come
out in the middle of the night with another," said the former pilot. He
asked not to be identified because when he was hired, after responding to a
newspaper advertisement seeking pilots for the C.I.A., he signed a secrecy agreement.
While flying for Aero in the 1980's and 1990's, the pilot said, he ferried
King Hussein, Jordan's late ruler, around the United States; kept American-backed
rebels like Jonas Savimbi of Angola supplied with guns and food; hopped across
the jungles of Colombia to fight the drug trade; and retrieved shoulder-fired
Stinger missiles and other weapons from former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Ferrying Terrorism Suspects
Aero's planes were sent to Fort Bragg to pick up Special Forces operatives
for practice runs in the Uwharrie National Forest in North Carolina, dropping
supplies or attempting emergency "exfiltrations" of agents, often
at night, the former pilot said. He described flying with $50,000 in cash strapped
to his legs to buy fuel and working under pseudonyms that changed from job to
He does not recall anyone using the word "rendition." "We used
to call them 'snatches,' " he said, recalling half a dozen cases. Sometimes
the goal was to take a suspect from one country to another. At other times,
the C.I.A. team rescued allies, including five men believed to have been marked
by Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, for assassination.
Since 2001, the battle against terrorism has refocused and expanded the C.I.A.'s
air operations. Aero's staff grew to 79 from 48 from 2001 to 2004, according
to Dun and Bradstreet.
Despite the difficulty of determining the purpose of any single flight or who
was aboard, the pattern of flights that coincide with known events is striking.
When Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq the evening of Dec. 13, 2003, a Gulfstream
V executive jet was already en route from Dulles Airport in Washington. It was
joined in Baghdad the next day by the Boeing Business Jet, also flying from
Flights on this route were highly unusual, aviation records show. These were
the first C.I.A. planes to file flight plans from Washington to Baghdad since
the beginning of the war.
Flight logs show a C.I.A. plane left Dulles within 48 hours of the capture
of several Al Qaeda leaders, flying to airports near the place of arrest. They
included Abu Zubaida, a close aide to Osama bin Laden, captured on March 28,
2002; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who helped plan 9/11 from Hamburg, Germany, on Sept.
10, 2002; Abd al-Rahim al-Nashri, the Qaeda operational chief in the Persian
Gulf region, on Nov. 8, 2002; and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11,
on March 1, 2003.
A jet also arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from Dulles on May 31, 2003, after
the killing in Saudi Arabia of Yusuf Bin-Salih al-Ayiri, a propagandist and
former close associate of Mr. bin Laden, and the capture of Mr. Ayiri's deputy,
Flight records sometimes lend support to otherwise unsubstantiated reports.
Omar Deghayes, a Libyan-born prisoner in the American detention center at Guantánamo
Bay, Cuba, has said through his lawyer that four Libyan intelligence service
officers appeared in September in an interrogation cell.
Aviation records cannot corroborate his claim that the men questioned him and
threatened his life. But they do show that a Gulfstream V registered to one
of the C.I.A. shell companies flew from Tripoli, Libya, to Guantánamo
on Sept. 8, the day before Mr. Deghayes reported first meeting the Libyan agents.
The plane stopped in Jamaica and at Dulles before returning to the Johnston
County Airport, flight records show.
The same Gulfstream has been linked - through witness accounts, government
inquiries and news reports - to prisoner renditions from Sweden, Pakistan, Indonesia
Most recently, flight records show the Boeing Business Jet traveling from Sudan
to Baltimore-Washington International Airport on April 17, and returning to
Sudan on April 22. The trip coincides with a visit of the Sudanese intelligence
chief to Washington that was reported April 30 by The Los Angeles Times.
As the C.I.A. tries to veil such air operations, aviation regulations pose
a major obstacle. Planes must have visible tail numbers, and their ownership
can be easily checked by entering the number into the Federal Aviation Administration's
So, rather than purchase aircraft outright, the C.I.A. uses shell companies
whose names appear unremarkable in casual checks of F.A.A. registrations.
On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that those companies appear
to have no premises, only post office boxes or addresses in care of lawyers'
offices. Their officers and directors, listed in state corporate databases,
seem to have been invented. A search of public records for ordinary identifying
information about the officers - addresses, phone numbers, house purchases,
and so on - comes up with only post office boxes in Virginia, Maryland and Washington,
But whoever created the companies used some of the same post office box addresses
and the same apparently fictitious officers for two or more of the companies.
One of those seeming ghost executives, Philip P. Quincannon, for instance, is
listed as an officer of Premier Executive Transport Services and Crowell Aviation
Technologies, both listed to the same Massachusetts address, as well as Stevens
Express Leasing in Tennessee.
No one by that name can be found in any public record other than post office
boxes in Washington and Dunn Loring, Va. Those listings for Mr. Quincannon,
in commercial databases, include an anomaly: His Social Security number was
issued in Washington between 1993 and 1995, but his birth year is listed as
Mr. Glerum, the C.I.A. and Air America veteran, said the use of one such name
on more than one company was "bad tradecraft: you shouldn't allow an element
of one entity to lead to others."
He said one method used in setting up past C.I.A. proprietaries was to ask
real people to volunteer to serve as officers or directors. "It was very,
very easy to find patriotic Americans who were willing to help," he said.
Such an approach may have been used with Aero Contractors. William J. Rogers,
84, of Maine, said he was asked to serve on the Aero board in the 1980's because
he was a former Navy pilot and past national commander of the American Legion.
He knew the company did government work, but not much more, he said. "We
used to meet once or twice a year," he said.
Aero's president, according to corporate records, is Norman Richardson, a North
Carolina businessman who once ran a truck stop restaurant called Stormin' Norman's.
Asked about his role with Aero, Mr. Richardson said only: "Most of the
work we do is for the government. It's on the basis that we can't say anything
Secrecy Is Difficult
Aero's much-larger ancestor, Air America, was closed down in 1976 just as the
United States Senate's Church Committee issued a mixed report on the value of
the C.I.A.'s use of proprietary companies. The committee questioned whether
the nation would ever again be involved in covert wars. One comment appears
When one C.I.A. official told the committee that a new air proprietary should
be created only if "we have a chance at keeping it secret that it is C.I.A.,"
Lawrence R. Houston, then agency's general counsel, objected.
In the aviation industry, said Mr. Houston, who died in 1995, "everybody
knows what everybody is doing, and something new coming along is immediately
the focus of a thousand eyes and prying questions."
He concluded: "I don't think you can do a real cover operation."
Ford Fessenden contributed reporting for this article.