Some weeks ago I started a blog post about a mystery plane that turned up in Australia, a significant quantity of illegal drugs, a large amount of cash and likely CIA involvement.
I’ve already written two blog posts on this topic. Here is part three. But first a little background as a recap.
The plane, a US-registered Swearingen Merlin 3 twin turbo prop, arrived illegally in Australia but no one knows how.
But clearly someone knew something because the Australian Federal Police and the New South Wales Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad, raided the eight-seater private plane while it was parked on the tarmac at Illawarra airport, a tiny, regional hub south of Sydney. The day of the raid was real cops and robbers stuff. About 20 police surrounded the plane. The local newspaper was tipped off and took plenty of pictures.
A 43-year-old Wollongong pilot, Bernard Stevermuer, listed as the owner of the plane, was arrested and charged with being part of a criminal organisation and dealing with the proceeds of crime. He is currently on bail.
Police allege a major international crime syndicate was using the airport to import guns and drugs for distribution throughout southwest Sydney. The syndicate was allegedly operated by two other men, who police claim have links to a number of New South Wales outlaw motorcycle gangs. What their precise connection might be to Stevermuer has not been revealed.
Police obviously had Stevermuer under surveillance. They claim to have documents which show that the syndicate commissioned Stevermuer to buy the plane in the United States for $US400,000 provided by a mortgage company in Sydney. But as you will discover, the purchase was very complicated and full of intrigue.
Police also allege that documents show Stevermuer, mysteriously had access to a large amount of cash and was prepared to pay $A1.5 million to buy two aviation businesses.
Several aviation sources say Stevermuer was in negotiation to buy the flight training organisation, NSW Air and another company,the Aerial Patrol shark-spotting plane service.
Both businesses were based at Illawarra airport.
Police allege these two aviation companies were designed to act as legitimate fronts to hide criminal activities. But when Stevermuer offered a $300,000 cash deposit, the seller became suspicious and the sale fell through. When Police arrested the Wollongong pilot they discovered 36 kg of an illegal drug, which they are refusing to name, but believed to be heroin, with a street value of $A9 million, as well as $70,000 cash.
But then the story gets even murkier.
If you do a search of US Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA) records, you will discover, that an organisation called the Oregonian Aero Club, with an address listed in Wilmington, Delaware, owned the Swearingen Merlin 3 aircraft.
But the fact that this club has its registered office in Delaware might be an extremely significant clue. Delaware is one of the strangest states in the United States, in terms of corporate law specifically if you happen to be in the business of asset management.
Companies, incorporated in Delaware, enjoy freedom and secrecy similar to the clients of other highly secretive organisations like the Vatican Bank or financial institutions in the Cayman Islands. Asset Management companies with aircraft and yachts, register in Delaware as a way of minimising tax and personal liability and also because the assets are automatically registered as belonging to a trustee corporation rather than an individual, making it a great place to hide true ownership if that was your desire.
And according to FAA records it turns out that the person who is listed as a Director of the Oregonian Aero Club which owns the mystery plane is none other than Australian pilot Bernard Stevermuer, who has just been arrested by Australian police.
The papers list Stevermuer as the purchaser of the plane on behalf of Oregonian Aero Club. Nothing strictly illegal with that you might say. Except, why would an Australian pilot and skydiving instructor, travel across the world to buy a 42-year-old plane?
There is nothing in the least exceptional about this model of aircraft.
Even more unusual, Why an Australian, who doesn’t live in the United States, is listed as a Director of a fictitious American aviation club? None of this makes sense unless there was another agenda being followed.
The Oregonian Aero club has no headquarters, no web address, telephone numbers, aircraft (apart from this one 42 year old plane) or members. In fact none of the other aero clubs in the Oregon area know anything about it.
And, it turns out the plane at the centre of all of this intrigue, a Swearingen Merlin 3 twin turbo prop aircraft, could best be described as a stealth plane.
By that I mean there is no record, whatsoever, of it arriving in Australia.
In fact, the last known official record concerning this aircraft shows it flew into the Philippines on May 5, 2014, after a two-month journey from the United States. But the Swearingen Merlin 3 had been pretty busy right up until the time it left for the Philippines. It flew for a couple of weeks from Punta Gorda in Florida via Missouri and Texas and then to California and finally Washington State.
Flight records indicate the plane left Seattle, Washington on the 30th of April 2014. It touched down at Cold Bay, Alaska, a village of 108 people, one shop, one hotel and an airport. The next day the aircraft flew to Honolulu and then the Marshall islands, a series of atolls in the Pacific Ocean. Next stop was the US airbase at Guam before arriving in the Philippines capital, Manila.
But what happened to the plane after that is a total mystery. It clearly entered Australia some way but what route it took and who was flying it is anyone’s guess. But, what is also apparent, whoever was flying this plane, took extraordinary steps to avoid detection. By that I mean entering Australia at one of its most remote and least habited geographic points, flying visually, without instruments, at low altitude, for long periods so it wouldn’t be detected by radar.
That would have taken the expertise and daring of an extremely skilled pilot.
The next record of contact between this plane, registered NH224HR, and a control tower, was at Coffs Harbour in northern New South Wales on the 27th of June 2014. The plane radioed in that it was bound for Illawarra airport. And that’s where it’s been ever since, on the tarmac, until the police raid.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the background of this particular Swearingen Merlin 3 aircraft.
When it rolled off the assembly line in 1973, her first owner was listed as the U.S. Forest Service in Boise Idaho. Now at first glance that may seem innocuous but given the history of aircraft owned by the United States Forest Service it is a tell tale sign that this plane was destined to serve a sinister purpose.
In the 1960s,70s and 80s, the United States Forest Service acquired a variety of aircraft with varying roles ostensibly to assist it with significantly improving aerial fire fighting capability. The USFS traditionally relied on contracting private companies to provide large air tankers for fighting forest fires. Most of these air tankers were retired World War II and Korean War-era transports, bombers, and maritime patrol aircraft.
There was a compelling reason for using these kinds of aircraft. They were relatively inexpensive to obtain and were capable of carrying the large loads of fire retardant needed to make their use cost effective.
In the 1980s, the bulk of the Forest Service’s air tanker fleet consisted of C-119 Flying Boxcars obtained from the military. But after concerns about safety, the aging C-119s were grounded in 1987.
It meant the available air tanker fleet was suddenly and substantially diminished, and the Forest Service needed additional aircraft for firefighting operations.
However, the plan they came up with to achieve this objective only succeeded in handing over ex military planes to private contractors who ended up using some of them for drug running instead of firefighting.
The aircraft were ex military surplus and only supposed to be used for contract firefighting with ownership retained by the United States Government. But under a new arrangement, the aircraft were sold with direct ownership transferred to private contractors who of course, could then do what they liked with them. This was both irregular and illegal. As you might expect under a deal like this some of the aircraft did not end up having anything to do with firefighting.
But here is yet another curious twist in the story with a uniquely Australian connection. Two C-130 aircraft, supplied to the U.S Forest Service for fire fighting duties by the Australian Air Force were subsequently discovered to have been spirited out of the United States and used for illegal activity in South America and Mexico.
We might never have known of these shenanigans were it not for a whistleblower called Gary Eitel who describes himself as a former CIA pilot, aviation consultant and an aircraft broker. Eitel had clients who were interested in obtaining C-130s but his clients had never been part of the original Forest Service arrangement with private contractors.
Consequently Eitel was told no aircraft were available for purchase.
But Eitel suspected he was being given a load of baloney.
And he was right.
He started doing some digging through Freedom of Information. What he uncovered was a scandal. Not only was the whole operation illegal, Eitel claims he inadvertently stepped into a covert CIA operation. Eitel says he discovered that the program was being used to channel military aircraft into the hands of private companies who, in turn, were contracting their services to the CIA using the Forest Service as a benign middle man for the transfer. This activity is known colloquially as sheep dipping. You sheep dip a plane when you conceal the source or true ownership.
In a Congressional committee hearing in 1976, the CIA’s general counsel admitted that the agency regularly used the United States Forest Service as cover for its covert operations. The CIA even shared an address with the Forest Service’s Air Research and Development unit in Alexandria, Virginia.
Which brings us back to the Swearingen Merlin 3 aircraft owned at one time by the U.S. Forest Service. Is there direct evidence linking this plane to the CIA? The answer is no. But on the balance of probabilities the circumstantial evidence points in that direction based on past history rather than away from it in my view.
Of course the question needs to be asked, if all of these aircraft were being diverted from what was originally their main purpose to boost the Forest Service’s capability to fight wild fires did that have a negative impact on fighting forest fires? The answer is both tragic and emphatic. In August 1994, 14 firefighters died while fighting a forest fire in Colorado.
The U.S. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration subsequently cited the Forest Service for “inadequate use of aviation resources.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration wanted to know what had happened to all of the Forest Service’s aircraft. What indeed.
In part four of this series, we will examine who owned the Swearingen Merlin 3 plane before the Oregonian Aero Club and the plane’s highly suspicious Florida connection.