At the heart of the story of Australia's current experience with the latest American-registered drug plane busted overseas is that this is not just another American "mystery plane."
It's a "stealth" mystery plane.
Another American “mystery plane” was busted last week, this time in Australia, at the Illawarra regional airport in the seaside city of Wollongong, an hour south of Sydney.
Police seized a cache of 35 kilos of illegal drugs found on an American-registered Swearingen Merlin twin–engine turbo-prop during an initial search, sources told ABC Australia, and said one local man, already known to police, had been arrested.
The drug seized went unspecified, but speculation focused on heroin.
The news sent local media in Australia into a three-day tizzy. One newspaper published seventeen separate photographs showing police swarming over the aircraft from a variety of different angles, to no particular effect.
“Mystery plane raided: Pilot flew across Pacific, left it in Philippines” reported ABC Australia.
“Mystery surrounds THREE DAY police ‘drug’ raid on 43-year-old light plane” headlined London’s Daily Mail.
America's 'mystery planes' are the Foo fighters of the 21st Century
In American general aviation, examples seem to be everywhere:
“Crash Jet Had Air of Mystery,” headlined as New York Post story on an American-registered Gulfstream II luxury jet from St Petersburg caught carrying four tons of cocaine in the Yucatan in 2007.
“How the U.S.-registered Gulfstream ended up in the hands of suspected drug traffickers,” reported the AP, covering the same story, “remains a mystery.”
America's “mystery planes” are the “Foo Fighters” of the 21st Century. Investigating them is like chasing balls of light. Still, it may be possible to answer a few of the many unanswered questions on the U.S. side of the current imbroglio in Australia.
The so-far shadowy American owners of the Swearingen Merlin (N224HR), who began the whole chain of events when they exported the plane to Australia, should not be sleeping comfortably at night.
But, of course, as we all know, they are.
A Delaware State of Mind
David Baddams, owner and chief pilot of Snow Goose International, the Australian aircraft ferrying company contracted to move the plane, is a retired Lieutenant Commander in the Australian Air Force and Top Gun-type fighter pilot extraordinaire.
A post on the Snow Goose's Facebook page revealed some details of the plane’s journey around the edge of the Pacific. When the controversy erupted, the company issued a press release, declaiming responsibility after delivering the plane to its destination, which, the release said, was not Australia, but the Philippines.
So Snow Goose's contract with "Oregonian Aero Club LLC," the company says, was to ferry the plane from the US to the Philippines."
Leave that aside for the moment. The big question is: Just who, exactly, is the Oregonian Aero Club?
The "Oregonian Aero Club" is incorporated in secretive-to-the-max Delaware. So the rub will be in finding out who–or what–is behind the Oregonian Aero Club.
Ol' Dave Baddams offers no clue, though we're sure he knows. On this, as well as on the 'delivered in the Philippines' nonsense, we suspect he's selling wolf cookies to his American cousins, and to his Australian brethren as well.
Clearly-identified editorial content:
Corporations may be people, too, as our Republican friends are fond of saying. But in Delaware, they're gods. When people get pulled over for driving erratically, say, or shooting up a bank, their identities become public records.
But ask anyone who's tried to shake loose the names of company principals of Delaware-registered companies, even ones engaged in serious criminal endeavors, like drug trafficking, for example, and they'll tell you they soon learn that we—you, me, General Motors, The Queen—may all be people, but we're not all equal under the law.
So, what I want to know are the names of the principals running—if that’s even the right term—the Oregonian Aero Club. Failing that, I want to uncover some pretty big clues.
How to spot a CIA plane
Clue #1: If the CIA were secretly engaged in moving this plane to Australia for some unfathomable CIA-type reason, the Oregonian Aero Club would be exactly the kind of bogus dummy front company they’d use to do it.
Why? Because there’s no ‘there” there. On the off-chance that the Oregonian Aero Club was in any way a “real’ company, I phoned the public contact person at what would be a similar company, the Oregon Flying Club, and spoke with Brent Osterberg, the head of public relations.
“Are there hundreds and hundreds of flying clubs in Oregon?” I asked. “Or is it a pretty small pool?
“A pretty small pool,” he replied. “No more than a handful or so.”
“Ever heard of the Oregonian Aero Club?”
“No I haven’t.”
“Do you think you would have, if they were a real flying club located in Oregon?”
“Absolutely,” he replied, without hesitation.
Straw companies, shell corporations, and Geno's Pizza LLC
So we are now already fairly certain the Oregonian Aero Club is bogus, a straw company, a shell, masking its true identity like,say, a local auto body shop renaming itself Geno’s Pizza LLC. Except that body shops, or any other real businesses, don't do that sort of thing.
Clue #2: The Oregonian Aero Club bought the Merlin just two weeks before they supposedly sold it on to someone in Australia. If the company were a major aircraft broker, this wouldn’t be suspicious.
But it isn't. So it is suspicious. Why?
Because it doesn't make business sense. Again. There's no there there.
Clue #3: Here's my almost-infallible 100 percent accurate test for picking a sheep-dipped CIA plane from out of a line-up: Check out the previous owners of the plane.
God help me for telling the truth, but, when attempting to “sheep-dip” its planes, its a known fact that the CIA almost always does a half-ass job. When the CIA needs a plane for something, you won’t find spooks sitting around Starbucks thumbing through the “Planes for Sale” ads in Trade-A-Plane.
What they always do—what they invariably do—is find a plane they already own, sell it back and forth a few times between the thousands of off-the-shelf dummy front companies they already own, and Voila!
It may be sloppy “tradecraft.” But guess what? No one hardly ever looks.
Liberty-Riding Colin the Dentist
Still, the real world provides the real test. The Oregonian Aero Club is a dummy front company for somebody whose name usually is spelled out in three initials because, were it not, there would be an Oregonian Aero Club, with members, a website, flight jackets with cool patches for sale, a newsletter, and a Christmas party.
Still, to be sure, to be very very sure sure: let's examine the recent owners of the plane. Who owned the plane just before the Oregonian Aero Club?
Meet Sterling Strategic Consulting LLC, located in in Salem Oregon, which already seems odd. Why? Because the company is owned by a dentist in Colombia, Missouri, named Colin Malaker, who bought the plane in May 2011, before selling it to the Oregonian Aero Clubs folks a few months ago.
If Colin the Dentist isn't flying out to Salem Oregon on weekends to do some strategic consulting, we need take only a (mercifully) brief look at a few of his many outside interests to find clues for why he 'might could' be the kind of guy to want to sheep-dip him some CIA planes.
Ah, yes. Here we go. Turn out, Colin the Dentist is a Tea-Party-loving Liberty-Riding straight-shooting son of a gun who doesn't mind letting the world know his interests are far broader than just: Go Mizoo!
Before Liberty-lovin' Colin, the plane was owned by Bryan Barney, through a company he controls called Farney Aviation One LP in Georgetown TX. Barney, who bought it on March 21, 2008, is a passionately committed Republican, as well as a patent attorney of the type his opponents claim is a "patent troll."
Before violating one of his many patents (is breathing in and out patent-able?), and anxious to move on, I will only briefly mention his wife, herself a committed Republican, who recently spent an inordinate amount of much-commented-on money running and being elected to the Texas State School Board, where she is, I feel certain, a true force lighting the way for future generations of Texas schoolchildren to follow.
Back to "stricken dumb with fear" Australia
What is really odd is that, after a 1-day leak to the press about drugs being found on the plane, a ghastly official silence swiftly descended. No further information has been released—or even leaked!—to the media.
Police spokespersons went from being tight-lipped (which they practice in front of the mirror in the morning, I'm reliably informed) to being close-mouthed, without so much as a pause to allow themselves to be characterized in print as "cagey" or "reticent."
This is more-than-usually-curious. Law enforcement practice worldwide is for officials to be wildly eager to trumpet any significant drug seizure in the Home Country.
So why have officials in Australia been stricken dumb? There is an obvious explanation, almost too obvious to voice out loud. Hovering in the background down in the Land Down Under just now are widespread suspicions that an aggressive investigation will reveal either NSA or CIA involvement.
Given recent history, my guess is there is an unspoken acknowledgement in Australian ruling circles that such an outcome would benefit no one, but would bring instead swift, certain, and across-the-board political embarrassment to everyone concerned.
Not exactly the path of least resistance
After the twin-engine Merlin leaves the Philippines nothing further is known of its activities or whereabouts, according to law enforcement, until— as if by magic— it turns up six weeks later, in Coffs Harbour, Australia, a short flight from where it will be discovered, put under surveillance, and finally swooped down upon by law enforcement with such awesome force that seventeen photographs are required to do it justice in local newspapers.
But the real awesome force on display, upon reflection, may be that of the Swearingen Merlin aircraft itself, which somehow managed to enter Australia without passing through Customs or alerting control towers to its presence by showing up on radar.
Aviation observers speculated that this would only have been possible if before entering Australian airspace the plane—in a highly unusual move—flew the last long 2000-mile leg over open ocean blind, completely without electronic navigation, using only visual references.
At the heart of the current story of Australia's experience with the latest American-registered drug plane busted overseas is that, somehow, this is not just another American "mystery plane."
It's a "stealth" mystery plane.
America’s Covert Coast
It's time to set to record straight. The twin-engine American-registered Merlin busted in Australia last week didn’t start its two-month odyssey from just anywhere in Florida, although that's how Australian coverage made it seem.
When Australian air ferry service Snow Goose International arrived in the U.S. to pick up the plane, it was sitting on the tarmac of the Charlotte County Airport in Punta Gorda, Florida.
It was sitting at Ground Zero, at the dead-center heart of Florida’s Covert Coast, which is the single most important fact for Australians to consider as they try to figure out what happened, or, at least, who to lynch first.
Because of experience gained in an earlier four-year investigation of flight schools in Southwest Florida, and specifically Venice, that trained hundreds of potential terrorists to fly during the two years before the 9/11 attack, I knew that the Swearingen Merlin's location at pick-up could not be an accident.
Consider: Punta Gorda is just one of 34,000 incorporated towns and cities in America with less than 25,000 residents. Yet not one of the other 33,999 other towns is remotely like it. Punta Gorda is a place that is so bizarre—but covertly—that it is hard to know where to start.
Town Father, CIA Agent, Can Supply Pirates for Chinese Junks
But since Al Johns was the town's first Big Kahuna (ex-CIA Director Porter Goss, though a big step down, currently holds the position) he's as good a place as any to start. In Punta Gorda Johns is remembered fondly as a civic leader and one of the town’s founding fathers.
In an obit in the Mar 7, 2008 Charlotte Sun-Herald headlined “Punta Gorda Isles founder Al Johns dead at 80,” the paper reports that Johns and two other future Punta Gorda town fathers, Bud Cole and Sam Burchers (all three shown left) met in the early 1950’s while they were CIA agents assigned to a post in the East China Sea.
“Al Johns was in charge of five or six Chinese junks,” Burchers recalled at the funeral. “His job was supplying pirates for the junks we used to attack Communist Chinese shipping.”
H0w droll is that? Punta Gorda town father Al Johns was there—right there, for god sake, he was supplying the pirates!—heroically fighting the godless communists in America's first heroin-funded dirty war. Forgot for a moment (if you can) that they funded their fight on the backs of clueless junkies State-side.
60 years later, consider the 35 kilos of what's rumored—because authorities won't say!—to be heroin on the American-registered plane from Punta Gorda.
Is it really such a stretch to think—after a twin-engine plane took off down the runway of the Charlotte County Airport and was shortly thereafter giving the slip to the national defenses of Australia—that the provenance of the plane might have had something to do with it?
Punta Gorda: Like Woodstock for Spooks, only with better drugs
There are a number of notorious and still-active pilots, covert operatives, and Spook Hall of Famers who still call the Charlotte County Airport home, like Frank Moss and Dietrich Reinhardt, both of whom were linked to Barry Seal's infamous guns and cocaine operation in Mena, Arkansas.
Mention, of course, must also be made of long-time Punta Gorda resident Porter Goss, the Director of the CIA under George W Bush. Alas, Porter Goss is these days just low-hanging fruit, and much too easy a target. Also, I hear he doesn't like me, perhaps for exposing him as one of Barry Seal's oldest associates. That's a burden I will just have to learn to shoulder alone.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the CIA’s 40-year history of covert operations that had been run from Charlotte County, for example, the training of Bay of Pigs insurgents on Useppa Island, a private enclave outside Charlotte Harbor now said to be America’s most expensive island.
The Flying Ark of Charlotte County
Speaking of Iran contra pilot Frank Moss… until the government seized it when it was caught running drugs,he owned the most conspicuous airplane I’d ever seen, a vintage silver DC-3 painted like an airborne Ark, with elephants, rhinos and crocodiles crawling across the outside of the fuselage.
Well into the 21st Century, the DC-3 sat at the entrance to the Charlotte County Airport, an ironic and probably unintended monument to America’s secret history.
It was the first thing Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi saw each time they arrived at Charlotte County Airport to take flying lessons at Professional Aviation, where they went after leaving Jones Aviation in Sarasota (for the first time) and before moving up the road to what became their semi-permanent home at Huffman Aviation in Venice.
The image has stayed with me since. The notion that each time the two young Arab pilots exited Interstate 75 onto the rural county surface road leading into the Charlotte County Airport, what they saw was an Ark.
A Technicolor semi-Psychedelic Flying Frigging Ark.
Mohamed Atta’s stay at the Charlotte Airport received scant publicity, because it conflicted with the timeline of Atta’s time in the U.S. that was being peddled by the FBI. But there was no doubt that both he and Marwan Al-Shehhi had been there.
Just three days after the 9/11 attack, Charlotte County Sheriff William Clement told reporters he had received emails from Atta forwarded to him by concerned local citizens, who’d come across Atta while working at the airport, and added by Atta to his email list. Like all real news about the terrorist’s presence in Florida, it wasn't a Fed, but a local official who spilled the beans, before the FBI could get there to shut him up.
“Atta and Al-Shehhi often flew to the Charlotte County Airport where Professional Aviation was located from Huffman Aviation in Venice, about 40 miles north of Punta Gorda,” the Charlotte Sun-Herald reported.
“Authorities have linked some of the e-mails sent by the two hijackers to a Professional Aviation computer.”
Protecting Charlotte County's Southern Flank from Incursion
His most pressing aviation concern at the time I met him was no longer the terrorist’s recent presence at his local airport. It was the disappearance of 23 helicopters from the airport in just a few months, he told me, presumably stolen.
Sheriff Clement said, a little grimly, that he had a pretty good idea who had taken them. And he said he knew for a certainty where some of them were. The problem, he said sadly, was that he wasn’t able to do anything about it.
What Sheriff Clements had obviously run up against was a covert operation to informally re-distribute Government surplus, much like the operation the CIA ran during the late 80's and early 1990’s. On their own initiative, they took a dozen C-130’s that had been released from the military to fight fires for the Forest Service, and “re-purposed" them for better use, distributing them to worthy and deserving Mexican and Colombian drug cartels.
Memorably, one of the C-130’s was found sitting on a runway at Mexico City’s bustling international airport, alone and unattended, but loaded with a whopping $1 billion worth of cocaine. You can be sure that that made somebody's Christmas a little brighter.
The program ended after there was a big scandal just because several dozen fire jumpers got burnt to a crisp because there was no overhead air cover or water drops.
“As I sit here talking to you,” Clements said, a trifle plaintively, “The Charlotte County Sheriff’s Department owns a perfectly good helicopter…in Chile.”
I was incredulous. “What’s a Charlotte County Sheriff’s helicopter doing in Chile?”
He didn't have to pause before give me the answer. “It's protecting Charlotte County’s southern flank from incursion,” he replied.
“Some wag at the airport told my investigators that the 23 helicopters aren’t really missing, per se,” Sheriff Clement said, looking off into the distance. “He suggested they’d just been released on their own recognizance.”
Does this have anything to do with the latest American "mystery plane"busted in Australia? Quite a lot, actually, is my answer.
But hey, who knows? As they say on the Internets, Your Mileage May Vary.