In a parking lot off the Jones Falls Expressway, my eyes started to water from staring into the sun.
I could hear it better than I could see it. At five-minute intervals, a low hum sounded and a small Cessna airplane, roughly a mile from the ground, passed overhead.
Throughout April, I’d heard from several Baltimore Banner readers that a surveillance plane was flying over West Baltimore. Most assumed it was the Baltimore Police Department, which had tested a controversial aerial surveillance program in 2020.
After spending weeks combing through hundreds of flight records, analyzing flight-tracking software and interviewing experts, here are answers to some — but not all — of your spy plane questions.
Who does the plane belong to?
In short, it’s the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s.
The first clue to the plane’s ownership came when a source sent me a photo, with the plane’s registration number, or N-number, clearly visible.
Armed with this key piece of information — N168DK — I headed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft registration database. The plane was registered to a company called OTV Leasing, located at a strip mall in Greenville, Delaware. Additional FAA records and other public documents show the owner of OTV Leasing is Robert Lindley and the company has also been associated with a P.O. Box in Bristow, Virginia.
OTV Leasing. The past addresses. Robert Lindley.
Plugging all of these keywords into Google pointed me toward a 2015 Associated Press investigation revealing that the FBI registered its surveillance aircraft to a variety of shell companies — many under Robert Lindley’s name at the same address as OTV Leasing.
It’s unclear who Lindley is, or if he is an FBI employee. But FAA registration records show inconsistent signatures for Lindley, suggesting different people have been signing the documents.
Why is the FBI doing this?
Again, it’s unclear. The FBI declined to answer questions for this story.
But it’s probably not for run-of-the-mill training exercises.
According to a 2015 news release, the aviation program is used for ongoing investigations and to support state and local law enforcement, not “bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.”
The release added that the agency covertly registers aircraft (with the consent of the Department of Justice, attorney general and the FAA) to avoid compromising investigations and employees’ identities.
Before the publishing of the 2015 story, the FBI asked AP not to disclose the names of the shell companies, claiming it could “saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies” and “could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions.”
Eight years later, the agency is still using the same address and owner name.
For specific investigations, the FBI has been known to use spy planes to monitor suspects for hundreds of hours — as in the case of alleged ISIS supporter Muhammed Momtaz Al-Azhari, whom the FBI tailed from the sky in Florida for over 400 hours.
While watching the plane in the West Baltimore parking lot, I tried to track its flight path on FlightRadar24, a global flight-tracking service. Nothing came up. The plane’s transponder, which transmits its location to air traffic control, was off.
Most planes are legally required to turn their transponders on when operating. However, in 2019, the FAA passed a rule stating that government aircraft conducting “sensitive operations” do not.
So this FBI plane in West Baltimore was likely conducting a “sensitive operation.”
Without comment from the FBI or more information on the aircraft — and without the transponder data — there isn’t much more digging I can do.
Prior investigations into FBI surveillance planes from AP, Buzzfeed and the American Civil Liberties Union relied on FlightRadar24′s data not only to identify a surveillance plane circling cities but also to piece together who the FBI was tracking. With this data, for example, Buzzfeed reporters deduced that FBI spy planes were circling the home and mosque of San Bernardino, California, shooter Syed Rizwan Farook.
How is this different from Baltimore Police’s defunct aerial surveillance program?
Some of the readers who reached out to The Banner immediately assumed the plane was the Baltimore Police. Over a six-month period in 2020, BPD conducted a pilot run of an Aerial Investigation Research Program. Based on my reporting, however, this spy plane seems to be unrelated.
In an email, BPD spokesperson Lindsey Eldridge wrote, “BPD has NOT been flying any plane for surveillance.” (However, on May 1, City Hall announced that BPD collaborated with the National Guard to conduct aerial surveillance of a drug trafficking ring. BPD did not comment on the collaboration.)
The AIR program used surveillance planes from a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems. Even before the planes took off, the program caused significant controversy between criminal justice advocates and local politicians. The city ultimately terminated PSS’ contract, and the Fourth Circuit ruled the data collected from the AIR program was unconstitutional.
PSS planes operated in a continuous orbit, circling 32 square miles and capturing the same area for a given period. During the trial, the planes flew about 40 hours a week and obtained about 12 hours of daily coverage for the vast majority of Baltimore, according to court records.
Based on FAA records and interviews with surveillance experts, the FBI surveillance plane spotted over West Baltimore operates very differently.
“They look through what we call a soda straw,” PSS founder Ross McNutt said.
Essentially, McNutt clarified, the equipment onboard the FBI plane covers significantly less ground than the PSS planes, meaning the federal agents need to know exactly where they’re looking to surveil — again suggesting the plane is being used for a specific law enforcement investigation.
The most recent airworthiness report conducted by the FAA shows the FBI plane has a high-resolution multispectral camera system, which enables night vision and high image quality, and a GIS map overlay, which shows street addresses and landmarks on aircraft GPS.
Has the FBI used spy planes before in Baltimore?
During the 2015 Freddie Gray uprising, the FBI flew surveillance aircraft over the city, specifically over West Baltimore, to aid the Baltimore Police Department in monitoring the riots.
According to the ACLU, the FBI flights used infrared, video surveillance and night-vision cameras to watch the events, and half of them had a BPD representative onboard.
Why does this matter?
To ACLU Maryland senior staff attorney David Rocah, the issue is not necessarily that the FBI is using these surveillance planes. It’s that it isn’t disclosing why.
“The response of ‘no comment’ is not an acceptable response,” Rocah said. “The public deserves an explanation as to what is going on.”
I plan to keep on investigating issues of surveillance. Have you seen surveillance planes flying over your Baltimore neighborhood? Or other government surveillance near you? Feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.