Mystery Plane, Drugs, Cash And Maybe CIA 5

This is a fascinating mystery. And I’m a little bit obsessed. It’s the story of a ghost plane with confirmed links to the American CIA, which mysteriously turned up in Australia. It’s also a story about a significant quantity of illegal drugs and cash seized by New South Wales police, as well as a daring and dangerous under the radar flight operation into Australia.

As I have said more than once, it really is the story that keeps on giving. So many intriguing twists and turns. Here is part five. But first, some background to put the story in context.

At the heart of this tale, is a plane, a US-registered Swearingen Merlin 3 with twin turbo props, which arrived illegally in Australia. How it managed to end up parked at Wollongong airport, a tiny regional hub south of Sydney is a complete mystery.

The Australian Federal Police and the New South Wales Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad, raided the eight-seater private plane in 2014 while it was parked on the tarmac. The day of the raid was a real old fashioned cops and robbers type operation. The plane was surrounded by about 20 armed police, even though no one was on board.

A 43-year-old Wollongong pilot, Bernard Stevermuer, who is 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.

The News South Wales Police case, is that 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 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 clearly had Stevermuer under surveillance. They also claim to have documents showing that the syndicate commissioned Stevermuer to buy the plane in the United States for $US400,000, with money provided by a mortgage company in Sydney. But as you will discover, the purchase was anything but straightforward and is full of intrigue.

Police also allege the documents show Stevermuer, had access to large reserves of cash and was prepared to pay $A1.5 million to buy two aviation businesses based at the same airport where the plane was raided.

Several aviation sources have confirmed that Stevermuer was in negotiation to buy a flight training company, NSW Air and another company, Aerial Patrol shark-spotting.

Police allege these two aviation companies were to act as legitimate fronts in order to hide criminal activity. 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 now are refusing to name, but believed to be heroin, with a street value of $A9 million.

But then the story gets even more intriguing.

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 in the United States, owns the Swearingen Merlin 3 aircraft.

But the fact that this club has its registered office in Delaware, might be an extremely significant development. Delaware is one of the strangest American states in terms of corporate law, especially if you happen to be in the business of asset management.

Companies, incorporated in Delaware, enjoy similar freedoms and secrecy  as do the clients of other highly secretive organisations, such as the Vatican Bank or financial institutions based in the Cayman Islands. Asset Management companies, which own aircraft and yachts, register them 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 the person listed as a Director of the Oregonian Aero Club, which owns the mystery plane, is none other than Australian pilot Bernard Stevermuer, who was arrested by Australian police.

The papers list Stevermuer as the purchaser of the plane on behalf of Oregonian Aero Club.

Now you might ask, why would an Australian pilot and skydiving instructor, bother to travel across the world to buy a 42-year-old plane? There is nothing in the least exceptional about this model of aircraft apart from its age.

Even more unusual, Why would an Australian who doesn’t live in the United States, be listed as a Director of a fictitious American aviation club? None of this makes sense unless of course unless there was a darker purpose behind the deal.

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 have ever heard of it.

And, as it turns out, the plane at the centre of this intrigue, the Swearingen Merlin 3 twin turbo prop aircraft, could best be described as a ghost plane. By that I mean there is no record, whatsoever, of it ever arriving in Australia.

In fact, the last known official record concerning this aircraft reveals that it flew into the Philippines on May 5, 2014, after a two-month journey from the United States. But the Swearingen Merlin 3 was doing a lot of flying 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. 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 official 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 Albion Park airport. And that’s where it’s been ever since, on the tarmac, until the police raid.

The next obvious question is who flew the plane illegally into Australia? At this point in time we don’t know the answer to that question. So let’s talk about what we do know. Sometimes fact can be way stranger than fiction.

The contract to ferry the Swearingen Merlin 3 from the United States to the Philippines was undertaken by an Australian company called Snow Goose International.

Snow Goose was engaged by the Oregonian Aero Club, which of course exists in name only. So it might be fair to assume that Snow Goose might know the principals behind Oregonian. If they do, they are not saying. In fact Snow Goose released a statement making the point that it was their job to ferry the plane to the Philippines, which they did, At all times the flights were planned and approved by the appropriate authorities. Communication was maintained at all times by High Frequency Radio in accordance with international requirements. Snow Goose had no knowledge of what happened to the plane after they ferried it to the Philippines nor does it have any knowledge of how it ended up illegally in Australia.

Snow Goose is a very interesting company. It’s Director and Chief Pilot is David Baddams, who was awarded an MBE, a Member Of The British Empire by the Queen of England. On the company website, he is listed as an ex-Navy fighter pilot with 40 years flying experience on many aircraft types including the Sea Harrier, BAE Hawk and the Douglas A4 Skyhawk. Since leaving the Navy in 1999, Baddams has remained closely involved in aviation as the business development manager of a military flying training school, a highly experienced flying instructor, an aircraft salesman and as the Chief Pilot and director of an airborne surveillance company.  He has many years and many hours experience on numerous aircraft.

I am certainly not inferring or suggesting that David Baddams had anything whatsoever to do with ferrying the Swearingen from the Philippines to Australia. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest or infer he was involved. Nor is there any evidence to suggest or infer that he was involved in anything illegal.

But there is also no denying that he had the flying expertise and the skill set to undertake the most perilous of flying journeys in a small plane, for example, from the United States to the Philippines. Snow Goose International regularly posted photographic updates of the Swearingen ferrying job to the Philippines on its company Facebook page. A photo posted by Snow Goose International on April 30 showed Baddams and a man seated beside him the cockpit of a plane, with the caption: “It’s Bernie!!! He is back!” The man sitting next to him is Bernie Stevermuer.

Another photo, posted on June 13, was captioned: “Here she comes! On the pan at Clark about to continue on her journey with the owner!” The caption is referring to the tarmac at Clark Air Force base in Manila.  You might want to ask yourself the question: How is it possible that a private plane obtained the necessary permission to land and take off from a highly restricted US airforce base in the Phillipines?

On the same date, Baddams commented: “Here she comes to Australia! It’s N224HR, the one we brought across the Pacific!”

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 Albion Park airport. And that’s where it’s been ever since, on the tarmac, until the police raid.

But would this mystery be solved if we were able to trace the full ownership of this plane from the time in rolled off the assembly line?

As I already established in a past blog post, the U.S. Forest Service was the first owner of the Swearingen Merlin 3 in the early 1970s.

The Forest Service has a track record of an activity known in aviation circles as sheep dipping planes on behalf of the CIA. You sheep dip a plane when you conceal or disguise its true owner. Sheep dipping explains how some Forest Service owned aircraft were discovered in exotic locations like Colombia and Mexico being used by drug cartels instead of fighting forest fires.

Are there any significant clues such as who might have owned the plane, before it was sold to the Oregonian Aero Club? Again a search of U.S. FAA records reveals the previous owner was a company called Sterling Strategic Consulting LLC based in Salem Oregon. Nothing unusual in that you might think except that Sterling Strategic Consulting LLC is owned by a dentist based in Colombia, Missouri on the other side of the United States. He bought the Swearingen Merlin 3 in 2011 and sold it to the Oregonian Aero Club a few months later. There is no suggestion or implication that any of these transactions were illegal. But they were definitely unusual and as per usual we end up with more questions than answers.

There is another interesting element to this story that invites further scrutiny. The fact that this plane began its mysterious odyssey across the world, from Charlotte County Airport at Punta Gorda in Florida, could be an indication of its true origin and purpose.

Punta Gorda, would have to be one of the more unusual locations in the United States and it’s all to do with its history. Punta Gorda could easily and humorously be re-named Spooksville. The founding fathers of Punta Gorda happen to be a pair of CIA spooks, Bud Cole and Al Johns, who turned a vast tidal flat into upmarket home sites complete with canals. As a CIA agent, Al Johns, was fairly gung-ho if you’ll pardon the pun. The CIA posted him to the East China Sea in the 1950s where his job was to supply pirates for junks used to attack Communist Chinese shipping. In fact, Punta Gorda seems to act as a magnet for CIA agents past and present. Porter Goss, former CIA Director during the Presidency of George W. Bush, was a long time resident of Punta Gorda and served as a local Mayor.

With that kind of history of CIA connectivity, it’s little wonder that Punta Gorda’s Charlotte County Airport has been home to some interesting characters and even more interesting allegations. For example at least one Congressional committee heard allegations that the airport was used to transport arms to the Contras in Nicaragua and to smuggle drugs, principally cocaine. Of course the allegations were never proven and no one was ever prosecuted or served jail time.

And there’s the case of the 23 helicopters that mysteriously disappeared from Charlotte County Airport. One of the helicopters was later discovered in Chile of all places. No one can explain how they managed to disappear, how they managed to leave the United States or who was responsible but the local Sheriff has suggested publicly that he has a pretty good idea even if he’s not saying.

Maybe it isn’t so surprising that a ghost plane that flew out of a mysterious place like Punta Gorda would end up thousands of miles away in Australia, linked to drugs and organised crime and with no record of it ever entering Australia in the first place.

So what might have happened to Bernie Stervermuer? He allegedly purchased the plane on behalf of a drug syndicate, and was also allegedly buying two companies so that the syndicate could launder dirty money. It turns out that Stervermuer bought not one but three planes on behalf of the syndicate between 2012 and 2014. NSW police say from 2012 to mid-2014, Stevermuer bought tplanes, in the United States, Malaysia and Cambodia, using money supplied to him.

Investigations by police reveal a “highly suspicious” paper trail linked to the purchase of at least two of the planes.

In the case of the US plane, which was infamously raided at Albion Park airport last July, $450,000 was paid through six bank transfers from five Chinese accounts, none of which had legitimate links to Stevermuer.

The US Department of Homeland Security told NSW investigating officers at least one of the accounts was used suspiciously in the past to transfer large amounts of money from Asia to the United States.

Two hundred thousand dollars was transferred to pay for the plane purchased in Malaysia, again using suspicious accounts, allegedly linked to drug operations.

Investigators couldn’t find any evidence to show who paid for the Cambodia plane or how it was paid.

When police raided Stevermuer’s house on the same day they raided the Merlin plane at Albion Park, they discovered $70,000 in cash, which, they say, was payment to Stevermuer for his involvement in transporting the Merlin to Australia.

After his arrest, Stevermuer decided to plead guilty to charges of dealing with property suspected of being the proceeds of crime and knowingly participating in a criminal group. But here’s where it gets even more interesting.

At the time, Stevemuer’s lawyer, Mark Savic, described his client as a “gentle, devoted and trustworthy family man” whose inherent naivety had been his undoing.

‘‘His love of flying caused him to be blind to what others might see were obvious signs to what was going on around him,’’ Mr Savic said, telling the Magistrate, hearing the case, that his client was extremely remorseful.

‘‘He’s not shied away from the charges, he has deep remorse and shame for being before the court today.

‘‘There was no intention on my client’s part to be involved in breaking the law. He didn’t go out to seek people in the underworld, he was approached by people with an agenda.’’

The Magistrate was clearly unimpressed with the submissions on behalf of Stevermuer, sentencing him to 19 months imprisonment.

However, Stevermuer appealed to the District Court of New South Wales and surprise, surprise won his appeal. His prison sentence was suspended and he walked away from everything a free man who will never spend a solitary second inside a jail cell.

Like I said, this story remains a fascinating and intriguing mystery.

Welcome To World Of Donald Trump

A man walks into a bar in Kansas City. I’m not telling a joke by the way. Many of the patrons are from countries other than the United States. Their physical appearance is a dead give away. The man asks them, as if he had some God given right, what visa did they hold? Were they in the United States illegally? There is cold blooded method in his madness. He leaves and returns to the bar with a gun, killing one person, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian born engineer working for Garmin in the United States. Two other people are wounded, one seriously. The seriously wounded man, is incredibly lucky to be alive and still walking. The bullet narrowly misses his carotid artery and spinal column. This is a racially motivated hate crime. Welcome to the world of Donald Trump.

A celebrated Australian author of children’s books, Mem Fox, goes to the United States on business. She holds a valid visa and Fox is a regular traveller to the US. By regular, I mean 116 times before, without incident. But this time it’s different. This time she’s travelling directly in the wake of Donald Trump’s anti immigration rantings, his executive order on immigration. Fox is detained and questioned for two hours by US Customs officials. “I have never in my life been spoken to with such insolence, treated with such disdain, with so many insults and with so much gratuitous impoliteness,” she would later say. “I felt like I had been physically assaulted which is why, when I got to my hotel room, I completely collapsed and sobbed like a baby. And I’m 70 years old.”

Fox tells Australian reporters the Customs officials seem turbocharged with the power granted them by Trump’s order. Fox complains. She receives an apology, but says this will be her last trip to the United States. Welcome to the world of Donald Trump.

The White House holds a press conference. The media, the fifth estate, exists to hold people like Donald Trump accountable. Now there’s a fine word with a multitude of meaning. Accountable. You see the media exists as a free and independent entity in a flourishing democracy. In fact it is one of the foundations of a true democracy. Politicians are criticised, questioned and held to account. They can be caught out lying. Now there’s another good word. Lying. But when a number of media organisations, like CNN, the BBC and the New York Times, try entering the briefing room, they are barred. Barred from entering? Are you serious? In stark contrast the ‘friendly’ to Donald Trump news services like Fox, One America News Networks and the hideous Breitbart news have no problem attending the White House briefing. In fact they are welcomed with open arms. Trump calls the media, purveyors of fake news. They tell lies according to Trump. It’s a bit like that story of the pot, the kettle and the colour black. If Donald Trump really wants to see mendacity he should look in the mirror more often. Terrorist attack in Sweden anyone? Is this Stalinist Russia? Not it’s the good old USA, the greatest democracy in the world. Yeah right. Welcome to the world of Donald Trump.

This media ban is unprecedented. It is a disgrace. Nothing like it in the history of American democratic politics. By democratic, I mean democracy. Not the party. These are the actions of a dictator. A man who thinks he’s above the law and now that he’s President, can do whatever he likes, whenever he likes, to who ever he likes. Welcome to the world of Donald Trump.

The son of the late, Mohammed Ali, the greatest American heavyweight world boxing champion of all time, is detained at a Florida airport and questioned about being a Muslim. I guess the name is a dead giveaway. The same name as Dad. But who cares in Trump America. He sounds like a muslim. And all Muslims are dangerous. Right? Welcome to the world of Donald Trump.

Ali junior and his mother, Mohammed Ali’ s second wife, are returning to the United States from a vacation in Jamaica. Ali junior’s lawyer, tells a Louisville, Kentucky newspaper, his client was detained and questioned for two hours by Immigration officials, who repeatedly asked him: Where did you get your name from? Are you Muslim?

Clearly they were not boxing fans. For the record, Ali junior, was born in Philadelphia and holds a US passport. Welcome to the world of Donald Trump.

Trump’s besieged. He’s taking a beating in the polls. Loved, loathed and despised equally by many including members of his own Government, who keep feeding the media with damaging leaks designed to embarrass and humiliate. So what does he do? Trump takes his message to the American people. Mass rallies of supporters. Hang on. Didn’t we just have a Presidential election campaign? Trump tells them the mainstream media are liars and the economy is going great. And guess what? He says I’m going to keep having rallies, keep talking to the people because I can’t trust anyone. Only a fool would believe him. This man is a bombast. A wrecker and a hater. He can’t be trusted and will trash alliances, relationships and all the goodwill the United States spent decades cultivating. Welcome to the world of darkness. Welcome to the world of Donald Trump.

Everyone Is Crazy Afraid

It’s amazing what fear can do.

It’s amazing what people will do when they are fearful. They go crazy. Man, do they go crazy.

If you don’t believe me, then consider this: A nutcase with a gun goes into an elementary school in the United States and kills teachers and little children. Normally you might expect a thunderous crescendo of noise calling for a ban on the proliferation of guns.

But exactly the opposite happened. People went out and bought more guns. There was a significant spike in the sale of guns after the Sandy Hook massacre.

Crazy.

But you need not be a rocket scientist to come up with the reason. People are afraid. Americans went out and bought more guns through fear. Yes fear. And fear becomes self-perpetuating. If more people have guns, it makes massacres of innocent people more likely, not less. In other words fear breeds more fear and stupidity. But I don’t want to talk about guns. I want to talk about fear. The more fearful we become, the greater the ignorance, the irrationality and stupidity of our actions.

Here’s another example: Brexit. I used to think the Poms were a bit measured and considered and less hair brained than their American cousins. But their decision to leave Europe was completely insane. Seriously, what were you thinking, English people? Has anyone in the UK looked at an Atlas lately? Geographically, you are part of Europe. No amount of wishful thinking is going to change that.

But I know why you did it. You were afraid. You were afraid of all those Syrian refugees somehow finding their way to the UK. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones fleeing war and oppression and ignorance and bigotry and zealotry. The ones who need someone to show them a bit of compassion. And if you stayed as a part of Europe, you were going to have to accept your share and do your bit. Anti immigration is fear. Xenophobia is fear. You don’t need to be afraid.

Fear has become our mantra especially when we are confronted with lone wolf terrorist attacks that inflict mass casualties. What happened in France, Germany and Turkey is appalling, unacceptable and outrageous. And when Governments are powerless to protect their citizens from these attacks, as they seemingly are, everyone becomes fearful and irrational. If Donald Trump becomes the next President of the United States, God forbid, it will be because Americans are afraid. They want a leader who they think will protect them. Who will talk and act tough and build walls to keep people out and ban people on the basis of their race or religion.

Little do they realize this only makes a bad situation much worse. Banning all Muslims or attacking all Muslims or excluding all Muslims because we are afraid of them only creates more fear. It makes Muslims fearful of us and the whole cycle self perpetuates. We need to break the cycle. Instead of fear, we need to show love and compassion and understanding and tolerance and be inclusive. As people, we are all in this together, irrespective of whether we are Muslim or Christian or any other religion you care to name. What happened in Nice and elsewhere was an attack on humanity. And as human beings we need to stand together and embrace one another. We need to reassure Muslims we don’t fear them nor should they fear us. The vast majority of Muslims don’t want to kill us nor do we want to kill them. There will always be individuals who are fanatics. Muslim and Christian alike.But these fanatics don’t speak for anyone except themselves. And when these fanatics attack some of us randomly, they are attacking all of us.

They are attacking humanity and it is humanity as a whole that needs to respond. Let me say it again. That means all of us in this together. Xenophobia was never a chapter in the guide book for being human.

We have to stop being afraid and start being inclusive.

Indiana’s Strange Religious Freedom Law. An Excuse For Homophobia

America is a funny place. By that I mean peculiarly eccentric. And it’s not always in a good way. Take this as a for instance. The US State of Indiana has just passed a very strange law. It’s called a Religious Freedom Law. But it seems to me the only freedom it grants is the right to be a homophobic bigot. To put it plainly, the law permits individuals and businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion. In other words people can be denied service because of their sexual orientation and that denial is justified on the grounds of religious belief. It doesn’t take much imagination or ingenuity to figure that this law is directed at Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and the Transgender community. The Governor of Indiana, a man called Mike Pence, signed this into law. He says and I quote: ” The bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it was about discrimination, I would have vetoed it.” He’s entitled to his opinion, but civil liberties and gay rights groups have a very different take. They say this law asserts that the government can’t “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” and that individuals who feel like their religious beliefs have been or could be “substantially burdened” can rely on this law to fend off lawsuits. Supporters of these laws talk of the example of a florist who refuses to sell flowers for a gay wedding or a baker who refuses to make the couple’s wedding cake — and it’s clear this law is aimed at subverting any lawsuits that the florist or the baker might face.

But what about a restaurant that refuses to serve a gay couple, who simply want to sit down and enjoy a meal?

“It would foil any lawsuit against a supplier who acted on religious grounds, but the law can get squirrely, “ according to one legal analyst, adding that it’s likely that a refusal to serve a gay person would not be upheld under the law, but a refusal to provide a service for a gay wedding would.

Indiana is not the first state to implement this kind of a law.

It’s the 20th American state to adopt a “religious freedom restoration” law, most of which is modelled on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993.

But that law was passed in very different times with the backing of a broad-based coalition and wasn’t proposed against the backdrop of gay rights or the Tsunami of marriage equality laws sweeping the country in recent years.

The law in Indiana, came after an outcry from social conservative groups over publicity where business owners found themselves in hot water for refusing services to gay couples planning to get married.

In addition to those 20 American states, legislators in nine other states have introduced similar types of “religious freedom” laws — bills that either failed to go through in 2014 or are still up for consideration this year.

But a spokesman with the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, says those 20 laws are “dramatically different in their scope and effect.”

“Indiana is the broadest and most dangerous law of its kind in the country,” the spokesman said.

Arkansas’ legislature passed an Indiana-style law, which now heads to the state governor for approval.

Religious liberty — and using it to sabotage same-sex marriage and other gay rights — has become the rallying cry for social conservative groups in the past year as they watched one anti-gay marriage law after another get overturned in the courts. Thank God they were overturned.

What the Indiana Governor didn’t say was that standing behind him, as he signed the bill, were several socially conservative lobbyists, the very ones who pushed for the law and are fiercely opposed to same-sex marriage. One of the lobbyists, Eric Miller, wrote on his website that the law would protect businesses from participating in “homosexual marriage.” So much for being non discriminatory.

The Human Rights Campaign is in no doubt that the only reason these laws were passed was because of the legalising of same sex marriage. However,it is a high-risk political gamble. The States who want this type of law will have to calculate risk versus rewards. Are the rewards that come from the religious groups much greater than the financial cost they will have to wear in lost business?  Never underestimate the power of the pink dollar. You do so at your peril.

These “religious freedom restoration” laws have already been used as a legal defence to allegations of discrimination.

The Human Rights Campaign says there are several cases where individuals have used these laws in a courtroom — and not just in cases involving LGBT people and weddings. For example, a police officer in Oklahoma claimed a religious objection when he refused to police a mosque. Another police officer in Salt Lake City claimed “religious liberty” when he refused to police a gay pride parade. And a photographer in New Mexico used religious freedom as a defence for not serving a lesbian couple in 2013.

Ironically, 21 states currently have laws on their books prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And another nine have those protections, but just for public employees.

So how could a Religious Freedom Restoration law sit comfortably in an environment of laws that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation? The answer is they can’t. “They’ve basically said, as long as your religion tells you to, it’s okay to discriminate against people,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. Indiana is starting to discover that having discriminatory homophobic laws is not very helpful. Plenty of very large companies are moving to distance themselves from the Religious Restoration bill. For example, Cloud computer giant Salesforce, says it will cut back on its investments in the State of Indiana.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook, in a Twitter post, said his company was “deeply disappointed,” and called on Arkansas Governor, Asa Hutchinson, to veto a similar measure.

” Apple is open to everyone,” Cook said.

Gen Con, the world’s largest gaming convention with 56,000 attendees last year, said it might stop holding the event in Indianapolis, the state’s main city. This would be a huge financial blow because it contributes more than $50 million to the economy.

The powerful National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is hosting the US men’s college basketball finals in Indianapolis next week, but the Association said it was “especially concerned” about how the law would affect its student athletes and employers. Hollywood stars joined the opposition via social media, where actor Ashton Kutcher likened the law to Anti-Semitism and singer Miley Cyrus directed an expletive at Indiana Governor Pence.

Fortunately, Gay rights have made big strides in recent years, with marriage equality recognized in 37 states after the US Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that federal law could not discriminate against married LGBT couples.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican who opposed the law, said he and other city officials would talk to businesses and convention planners to counter the uproar the law has caused. “I’m more concerned about making sure that everyone knows they can come (here).”

Around the state, bumper stickers saying: “This business serves everyone” have begun appearing in many business windows, and groups such as the Indiana Chamber of Commerce have taken to social media with messages that the state is welcoming to all businesses. The stakes in this are pretty high. Indianapolis’ tourism and convention business is estimated to generate $4.4 billion annually and create 75,000 jobs. Chris Gahl, a vice president with the tourism agency Visit Indy, said: “We know that their ability to work is largely dependent on our ability to score convention business and draw in events and visitors.”

Unless Indiana wakes up and smells the coffee and abandons plans to introduce such a discriminatory law, it is going to be hit in a place that will hurt the most. The good old hip pocket nerve. And, quite frankly, so they should.

Airlines Find New Ways To Torture Passengers With Economy Minus Seating

Everything is shrinking. Have you noticed? We can go from one side of the world to the other in an instant. Skype or email, you can reach anyone, anywhere with the click of a mouse or the tap of a keyboard. And it’s not limited to the virtual world. You can stick a pin in a map of any country and be there within hours. That is unprecedented in human history. But if you think this is a plug for the world’s major, or even minor, airlines think again.

It ain’t.

Airline travel has never been more affordable, more frequent, more readily available and more undesirable. Everything the world’s airlines do these days has, what I call, a perverse inversibility. The more they offer in travel destinations, the less you receive in customer service and creature comfort. Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free ride wasn’t kidding. Here are some examples. You think you’ve locked in the final price for your airfare, only to be told it’s going to cost extra should you want to choose your seat. From baggage fees to credit card surcharges, it’s just one more extra fee, airlines are slugging customers, to bring in an extra dollar.

Choosing your seat on a Qantas domestic flight is free, but you’ll get stung big time on their international routes. Selecting a general seat will cost you $25. And for extra legroom make that $60. Qantas does  allow you to avoid paying the fee by offering free seat selection within 24 hours of flying, that is, of course, if you don’t mind taking pot luck on where you’ll end up sitting. How generous? A Qantas spokesperson had the temerity to suggest that seat selection fees were designed to avoid passenger disappointment.

Yeah right.

But Qantas isn’t the only Australian carrier loading on the fees. Jetstar automatically charges for seat selection unless you choose not to pay. Its booking system starts off by adding $5 to your fare for allowing you to choose your seat. And if you want a seat closer to the front it will cost you $11 and then it jumps to $24 for an exit row seat.

Virgin’s fee structure offers extra legroom seating from $20 to $70 for domestic and short haul international flights and a whopping $150 for long haul international flights. And it’s happening all over the world. In the United States, Delta, American Airlines, and low-cost carriers US Airways, Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant have introduced charges for “preferred seating”. In Europe, British Airways charges a seat selection fee and budget carrier Ryanair offers specific seats for an extra cost, as does its low-cost rival EasyJet.

So you can imagine my shock, horror and dismay, did I mention shock? When I read that airlines are planning to introduce a whole new level of flight hell called ‘economy minus.’ If you thought there couldn’t be anything worse than cattle class think again. Plans are afoot to sky test a new, even more cramped section in economy class, according to leaks published on an aviation website.

The “enhanced economy” section would have a seat pitch, which is the distance between your seat and the seat in front of you, of approximately 35 to 38 inches (88.9 — 96.5 centimetres). Regular economy would have a pitch of 76 to 78.7cm and the new “economy minus” at under 76cm — but the exact size, meaning how small, is yet to be confirmed.

But many airlines have already reconfigured their economy sections into similar models, they’re just not letting the travelling public know about it. Numerous airline seats already fall under the 76cm mark. And, you might be surprised to know, that all these teensy seats go against recommendations from plane manufacturer Boeing, which released its “magic formula” for leg room in economy class in 2001. The formula, was hailed at the time as the ultimate guide for leg room. It was based on calculations of how many cubic centimetres of leg, rear, end and shoulder space it takes to create a “tolerable” experience for passengers. Boeing calculated it at 81 cm.

Essentially, what we’ve come to know as the premium offering of “economy plus,”which isn’t quite business class, but less of a squeeze, is really just the equivalent of the economy class section from years ago and we thought that was bad enough at the time. The airlines refuse to advertise the fact that seats are continuing to shrink, and the standard economy section we used to know will soon be just a memory. In fact, these days airlines are stealing space from economy passengers to make their premium flyers more comfortable. For example, last year, one airline reduced economy passenger space by an inch (2.5cm) per row in order to give their “economy plus” flyers extra room.

The airlines are being very quiet about it all, but passengers are noticing the difference. One airline passenger in the United States wrote about what she described as the space-stealing problem in a review of her United Airlines experience. This airline has already garnered a reputation for having an unofficial “economy minus” section with leg room of just 78cm on some of its planes — 16cm less than its premium passengers.

“We just ended a miserable flight, “ she wrote. “United’s ‘economy plus’ option, means that for a family not able to afford to upgrade, you are now put in the ‘economy minus’ seats — meaning the least leg room on any flight in living memory. It seems United gives the plus legroom to the economy plus, but then subtracts the legroom from the poor folks back in cattle class.”

Prepare yourself for the brave new world in airline travel.

Major airlines like Air New Zealand, Emirates, KLM and Air France managed to squeeze in a fourth seat in the middle of their Boeing 777 planes. And to add insult to injury they charge the same price as regular economy for a seat that’s narrower than most other airlines.

This is not good news in a world where people are getting bigger not smaller. Airline travel is fast becoming something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Could Our Pets Infect Us With Ebola?

Just when you thought the Ebola Crisis couldn’t get any worse. It does. Especially, if you are like me and happen to be an animal lover. And I am sure there are plenty of people like me.

Health officials in Texas, must now confront a second dilemma. What should be done with a pet dog, belonging to the Texas hospital nurse who contracted Ebola from the patient she was nursing, who later died from the disease?

Not only did the nurse interact with other people and of course she was completely innocent to the fact that she had become infected. She also interacted with her dog, a King Charles spaniel. Needless to say health authorities have no idea if dogs can catch and spread Ebola in the same way humans can.

Health authorities claim they are trying to find a place where they can monitor the dog, to see if it develops Ebola symptoms. The nurse’s apartment has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. She was admitted to a hospital isolation unit and is reported to be in a stable condition. Texan authorities say her dog will be looked after. But to what extent that statement is a pet lover talking, or simply a deliberate attempt to avoid the torrent of criticism because of what occurred in Spain recently, is anyone’s guess.

Spain was confronted with a similar scenario to Texas. A Spanish nursing assistant also contracted Ebola from a patient. She too had a dog. And while the dog showed no signs of having the virus, Spanish authorities, who were clearly not animal lovers, decided it should be put to sleep. The decision caused a public uproar. Animal rights activists took to the streets to protest the decision in more than 20 cities across Spain. An online petition attracted more than 400 thousand signatures.

I have some sympathy for authorities because this is a really tough call. According to the World Health Organization, Ebola is found in a number of animals like fruit bats, monkeys, apes, chimpanzees and pigs. One of the ways that humans get Ebola in Africa, is by eating bush meat infected with the virus.

A study from 2005, suggests there is a theoretical possibility that dogs can pass the disease on to humans, but nothing is confirmed and the only option for health authorities is to recommend caution.

In 2001, an Ebola outbreak in the African country of Gabon, found traces of Ebola anti-bodies in dogs, which is a sign that they were infected at some point. But where and how they were infected, nobody can answer.

A University Professor in the UK, who is also an Ebola expert, said the wisest move would be to assume that dogs represent a risk to humans but if you want a truthful answer no-one can confirm it because no-one has conducted the necessary research.

Ebola spreads through close body contact with someone infected with the disease. The virus is found in bodily fluids such as blood, vomit, faeces, urine or semen. There has to be an entry point for the infection to be transferred such as having sex, cutting the skin, or touching the mouth, nose or eyes. That’s why health workers wear fully protective suits when they come into contact with an infected patient. The most transmissible fluids are blood, faeces and vomit. But the virus can also be found in the saliva and sweat of patients who are extremely ill with Ebola.

The symptoms include, headache, muscle pain, diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pain or unexplained bruising or bleeding.

But does it mean that by coming into contact with dog faeces or secretions from a pet, belonging to an Ebola patient, you will also contract the disease? The answer is no-one knows.

The US Center For Disease Control and Prevention, is at pains to point out that there are no reports of pets becoming sick or playing any kind of role, so far, in the transmission of Ebola to humans. The center is currently working with the American Veterinary Medical Association, and others, to help develop guidelines to cover the US pet population.

Ebola has killed more than four thousand people. The number of cases is currently double that. There is evidence to suggest that Africa could reach more than a million Ebola cases by the end of the year. We need to fight this thing with everything we have got because potentially it threatens the entire world.

But it would be even more tragic and cruel and heartbreaking to discover that dogs and cats have a role to play in its transmission to humans. Clearly, it is one more question we need to answer urgently.

The Ebola Nightmare

I don’t want to sound alarmist but there is a contagion happening in West Africa that should worry the heck out of all of us.

It’s called Ebola. Here’s a bit of useful background.This disease is highly contagious. Victims haemorrhage from just about every orifice. It’s spread through coming into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. There’s a three week incubation period and no known cure. Health workers wear full biohazard suits which mean they look like they are preparing for a walk in outer space when dealing with its victims.

The United States is starting to take Ebola very seriously. Some say they dragged their heels in getting to this point. I say who cares I’m just glad they did.

President Obama pledged 3000 US military personnel to go to West Africa. Their job will include erecting new treatment and isolation facilities, training health care workers to minimize disease spread and support in communications and transport. The United Nations called it a billion dollar problem.

But it’s not the cost that we should be worried about. It’s Ebola’s capacity to kill people. Twenty-four hundred people have already died since the start of this year. Now health authorities are predicting more than 20 thousand people could be infected by the end of the year. That is not a disease. It is an out of control wildfire. As one doctor described it an out of control wildfire from the pit of hell. They’re talking it up to be a major humanitarian crisis in the countries affected. It is already. The biggest problem they’ve got apart from the rate that it kills people is how to contain it. Right at this moment they’re losing the battle. It’s crippled public health systems in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. They didn’t have much of a public health system to begin with and that’s probably why this disease took hold.

The U.S has already spent $100 million with plans to spend even more. Critics are saying the international community’s delayed response is to blame for allowing Ebola to spread exponentially and in a fashion unparalleled in modern times.

Think runaway freight train destroying everything in its path. And because it’s such a new disease and one we know so little about it’s almost impossible to predict what it might do next. For example could it mutate? Become airborne and start infecting victims when they breathe in the virus? This of course hasn’t happened yet. I pray it doesn’t.

N-I-M-B-Y is how you would sum up the response to this crisis so far. By that I mean Not In My Backyard. The Director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Minnesota believes public officials are too afraid to discuss it. He says they don’t want to be accused of the equivalent of shouting fire in a public theatre. But the risk is real and unless and until we take the risk seriously the world won’t be prepared to do what is necessary to end the epidemic. Ebola doesn’t discriminate. The people treating the victims are as much at risk as the people who already have the disease. A drug called ZMapp, claims to have successfully treated Ebola patients but it’s yet to go through all the proper clinical trials. Such is the desperation it was given to people with the disease anyway.

Ignoring Ebola or pretending it could never reach where we live in our big, modern 21st Century cities, would be a big mistake. Borders and geography mean nothing. And unless something is done smartly there is every chance Ebola will reach us given the global nature of how we live. Forget about the threat of the Islamic State to life and civilisation as we know it. We’re staring at the apocalypse. It’s in West Africa.