Nosy Neighbor: What Are Those Planes Flying So Low?

I live in the South Cove area of Battery Park. All last week, two small planes made flights up and down the river and harbor at very low altitudes. They were identical planes with a single prop behind the cockpit. I did some Googling and I wonder if they could be FBI surveillance planes. Or maybe it’s just new plane ride to replace helicopters…. —Getch

The Live Science article from June that Getch cited basically rewrote an AP article, so let’s just go straight to the AP (via Yahoo). These are pertinent excerpts; the whole article is worth a read.

Scores of low-flying planes circling American cities are part of a civilian air force operated by the FBI [….] The aircraft are equipped with high-tech cameras, and in rare circumstances, technology capable of tracking thousands of cellphones […] generally without a judge’s approval. […] Some of the aircraft can also be equipped with technology that can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they’re not making a call or in public. […] During the past few weeks, the AP tracked planes from the FBI’s fleet on more than 100 flights over at least 11 states plus the District of Columbia, most with Cessna 182T Skylane aircraft. […] Most flight patterns occurred in counter-clockwise orbits up to several miles wide and roughly one mile above the ground at slow speeds.

The thing is, the AP says that they’re mostly Cessna 182T Skylanes (below photo from Wikipedia), which don’t look like the photos Getch took:

So I ran his photos by a friend who works in aviation. “That’s the Icon, a new design,” was the reply. “It’s a light sport seaplane. Very nice. Meant to attract new folks to flying. Probably flying around to gain some attention. I think they are close to delivery on their first customer models.”

And from the Icon website:

Icon Aircraft’s mission is to bring the freedom, fun, and adventure of flying to all who have dreamed of flight. The FAA’s dramatic 2004 regulation changes that created the Light Sport Aircraft category have redefined the possibilities for aviation and allowed Icon to “reinvent flying” by focusing on the consumer experience. Icon’s intent is to democratize aviation the same way that great brands like Apple, BMW, Ducati, or Oakley democratize their products: by fusing outstanding engineering with world-class consumer product design. The end goal is to create products that not only deliver great functional benefit but also deeply inspire us on an emotional level.

The company actually delivered the first one in July, and have since entered production. None of which, however, explains the frequent flights around here. I got in touch with Icon’s marketing communications manager, who said that the company flew media and aircraft owners in the A5 model last week, which is likely what Getch saw. (Bloomberg’s report is here.)

So it sounds like the FBI is not involved—but it’s probably safe to assume that they’re listening and watching some other way.

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  1. Good investigative work. But, I’m still wearing my tin foil hat.