Evidence suggests the FBI operates a sizeable fleet of single-engine Cessnas that it doesn’t want the rest of us to know about and it’s not talking about the purpose of the aircraft. In an investigative report in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, the paper was able to identify a Cessna 182T that spent hours circling several prominent locations in the city at night thanks to an observant tipster with a live flight tracker app on his phone. The aircraft used a full tank of gas flying over downtown and a couple of malls from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. The aircraft, N361DB, is one of at least 27 late-model turbo 182s registeredto what may be corporate fronts for the Department of Justice/FBI with post office boxes in Bristow, Virginia. In fact, the DOJ has listed a post office box in the same postal facility as the address of record for two Boeing 757s it recently acquired from American Airlines. What the FBI intends to do with two well-worn, 25-year-old, 200-seat airliners isn’t clear either. There is also another company called Worldwide Aircraft Leasing Corporation that shares the same box office as the DOJ and its 757s. But it’s the shadowy existence of the 182Ts, most of them 2010 models, that’s raising questions about whether the FBI is engaged in secret surveillance over major U.S. cities.
According to the Star Tribune’s story, there have been reports of similar flights over Baltimore during the recent riots and over Boston after the Marathon bombing. Some media have pried strained confirmations from the FBI that it was behind the flights. No such confirmation was forthcoming from Minneapolis FBI officials. There have been no reported violence or security threats in Minneapolis recently so the flights are raising even more eyebrows. The Star Tribune says the flights have also caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which the paper says has filed Freedom of Information Act requests about the nature of the aircraft and their flights. The ACLU says it believes the 182Ts have imaging pods and maybe even cellphone “sweeping” equipment to intercept phone calls.
Almost all of the 182Ts belonging to the various three-letter acronym companies with Bristow box offices are 2010 models and if they were all purchased in 2010 they represent more than a third of Cessna’s Skylane sales that year. According to General Aviation Manufacturing Association data, Cessna recorded 27 182 sales in the fourth quarter of 2010 compared to a combined total of 37 in the rest of the year. The FAA registry says the acronym companies also have at least one 2011 182T, a 2009 model and a few 210s and 206s. Like most manufacturers, Cessna offers a law-enforcement version of several of its models. The Enforcer option is available on 172s, 182s and 206s and features a strut-mounted imaging pod.