Nobody Expects a Cessna Spy Plane

It is no longer a secret that the Federal Bureau of Investigation uses aircraft, titled to fictitious companies, for surveillance purposes.  The AP’s recent story on the planes tells how they traced 50 spy aircraft back to the FBI.  They also tracked the aircraft circling over several major U.S. cities.

The aircraft are clearly outfitted with surveillance hardware.  They carry high-tech cameras and sometimes cellphone-tracking equipment. But the FBI is not using drones or fancy spy planes like the SR-71 Blackbird.  The FBI’s secretive surveillance squadron uses a plane that nobody expects: the Cessna 182T Skylane.

Take a look at the AP’s video below if you’ve missed the story.

The humble Cessna presents itself as the classic civilian pilot’s aircraft. Air & Space says, “There’s hardly a pilot flying today who hasn’t logged at least a few hours in a Cessna 172.” Many could see its iconic silhouette in the sky and just as soon assume that it must be a pleasure flight or a simple training mission. Pilots and the general public are familiar with the Cessna.

And that is exactly what makes the FBI’s Cessnas the perfect aircraft for the job.

In fact, military and intelligence agencies use Cessna aircraft all the time.

The U.S. Air Force uses a Cessna 182 outfitted with surveillance hardware as a trainer for drone pilots. Apparently the 182, the same model used by the FBI, is able to mimic a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle pretty well. The Air Force calls the upgraded Cessna a “Predator Surrogate.”

A Cessna 182, "Predator Surrogate" equipped with surveillance hardware. Air Force photo

A Cessna 182, “Predator Surrogate” equipped with surveillance hardware. Air Force photo

Beyond military training, special operations units use Cessna aircraft to get in and out of dangerous places. The 427th Special Operations Squadron uses Cessna Caravans for infiltration and exfiltration on secret missions. How secret is that? Well, War is Boring says that this squadron is, “Arguably the most secretive flying squadron in the whole U.S. Air Force.”

Because the 427th is so hush-hush, it is almost impossible to get any concrete information about what it does.  But it is likely that there is a group of elite, Cessna-flying, Air Force pilots.

“Top Gun” can keep its F-14s.

There is one souped-up Cessna that stands out from the rest of its brethren as the most battle-ready: Orbital ATK’s AC-208. This aircraft begins production as a regular Cessna Caravan, but then undergoes a series of modifications to add what Orbital calls “robust” surveillance equipment.

The AC-208 can also deploy flare countermeasures and launch Hellfire missiles. To see a video of the Iraqi military’s AC-208 testing its Hellfire missiles here. If this were not enough to make it a formidable single engine propeller plane, Orbital says on their website that there are “other weapons coming soon.”

An Iraqi AC-208 firing a Hellfire missile during training. U.S. Air Force photo

An Iraqi AC-208 firing a Hellfire missile during training. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Bolick

Well, “soon” already came and went.  A Cessna can deploy more than just Hellfire missiles. Check out this June 2012 video form Textron Systems that shows its G-CLAW guided bomb being test-fired out the side door of none other than a Cessna Caravan.

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