Credit: The Boston Globe.
Tracing the Story

Secrets in the Sky

Published in The Boston Globe in September, 2017.

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Kelly Carr and Jaimi Dowdell on the importance of on-ground reporting, being persistent and not getting overwhelmed by the scope of the story.

Jaimi Dowdell

“Ask if there are ancillary files or files that are only obtainable via FOIA. Had we done this sooner, we would have shaved off weeks in the reporting process.”


What were the major findings of your story?

More than a year of reporting uncovered a lax American system for monitoring airplanes, which allows thousands of foreign owners to hide behind shell companies and other fronts to keep their identities secret. We unearthed a government-sanctioned system that allows drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and potentially terrorists to use the United States as a secrecy haven. 

Our reporting showed the FAA does no better monitoring pilots and airplane mechanics, allowing some to keep their licenses even after they’ve been convicted of aiding terrorists. Some highlights of our findings include:

  • 1 in 6 US aircraft are registered using known secrecy techniques
  • Nearly 11,000 planes registered to corporations in Delaware
  • More than 7,500 aircraft are registered to companies who provide registration services to non-US citizens using a loophole in aviation regulations
  • The FAA does not vet citizenship or company information on aircraft registration applications 

What impact did your story have?

The results of our investigation were a revelation, starting a national discussion about a little known, but serious safety and security weakness that wrongdoers already knew well. Following our report, other news organizations cited our work. Several members of Congress introduced a bill requiring greater transparency in plane ownership. The Department of Transportation Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office launched their own investigations into the FAA and civil aviation registry following our report. In March of 2020, the GAO released its findings that underscored our work and made 15 recommendations to the FAA to help prevent fraud and abuse.

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

Yes.

What was the source of funding you received to do this story?

Spotlight Fellowship from Participant Media. We were the first recipients of the fellowship.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

Our obsession with aviation began when a search of business registry data found more than 1,000 entities named “Continent Aircraft Statutory Trust.” While each firm listed a Wyoming registration address, the mailing city traced back to a PO Box in a Texas town of 2,500 residents and no airport. We wondered: Why would an obscure town have more planes registered to it than Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles? 

Almost all of the planes in Onalaska were registered to one company, Aircraft Guaranty. A tragic crash involving one of their planes was our introduction to a cottage industry that helps foreigners register their aircraft under the American flag. This was just the beginning of our journey into a secret world hiding in plain sight at the Federal Aviation Administration.

We took a two-pronged approach to our initial reporting that focused each of our strengths as reporters. Kelly Carr dove into the world of aircraft trusts and the shell companies at play, and Jaimi Dowdell scrutinized the FAA’s Civil Aviation Registry. Eager to pursue our project further, we applied for and won a national contest sponsored by the makers of the movie “Spotlight.” 

The following weeks and months led our reporting to Venezuela, Guatemala, Mexico and Denmark as well as into corners of Middle and Southwest America. What began as a simple look at the administrative activities of a federal agency turned into a complex analysis of corrupt activities, drug trafficking networks, fraudulent pilots and more.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

The project took roughly a year and a half to report, edit and write.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

Since we were reporting on a global story, we had to navigate communicating with sources overseas. There was both a language barrier and challenges when accessing documents in foreign jurisdictions. Some of our sources were “on background” as well, which required diligence to protect their identity and independently track down information they shared. 

What resources and tools did your team find useful?

Our reporting relied heavily on traditional investigative reporting techniques: tenacity, data analysis and public records were key. But the analysis was daunting as we worked to show how seemingly simple FAA administrative failures help facilitate corruption. Additionally, the FAA admitted it does not have the resources to vet the information it collects, so we developed our own systems to piece together information like criminal investigators. In order to unravel various schemes, we obtained thousands of aircraft records from the FAA and compared the information with business registries, news clips and other sources in the US and abroad. Because the true ownership of aircraft often doesn’t become public until something goes wrong, we spent much of the early part of our reporting conducting thousands of manual searches of aircraft online to find potential case studies. The FAA does not keep track of aircraft registered to foreigners through trusts so we developed methodology to identify such planes and providers. We built internal databases, including a list of planes registered to the top five trust operators we identified, a survey of the top 15 trust providers, and a master file of all case studies. We logged flight patterns and created timelines to track criminals and others utilizing American aircraft. Developer Gabriel Florit ran a massive online search of the tail numbers for U.S. planes owned by foreigners and created a searchable database that reporters then mined.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

No one has tackled a project about aviation security quite like this before. We broke down the secrecy tactics created through front men, trusts, shell companies and PO boxes. By meticulously pulling apart dozens of original case studies we identified how gaps in FAA oversight create an aviation system ripe for abuse. Through our own data analysis, we identified that one out of every six aircraft registered with the FAA is cloaked in secrecy.  

This project was built from the ground up and fueled with passion. We did not receive any tips, leaks or help. Examples were meticulously pieced together from multiple sources. We used data to identify shadowy figures and key businesses operating in an industry that thrives on secrecy. The very anonymity that criminals use to hide made the reporting challenging.

We peeled away layers and combined multiple pieces of information, often from different state and federal agencies, to be able to see the full picture.

Case studies led us to different corners of the world, requiring us to file records requests in Mexico, translate court records from Venezuela, and travel to Denmark. An additional obstacle was the FAA’s unwillingness to cooperate. They refused to give us interviews and would only answer questions in Q&A format. Delays were commonplace. We asked one question in October of 2016 that the FAA didn’t answer until almost a year later.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

We learned several key lessons during this project: 

  1. Don’t give up. It is easy to say, “This is too hard,” when an agency refuses to respond or give you the information you need. We wanted to quit often, but we knew that if we didn’t do this work that it would likely go unreported. We were stonewalled at various levels and found that persistence was key. 
  2. When records are available online or to order, make sure that there are no other pieces of the file hidden from the public. Ask if there are ancillary files or files that are only obtainable via FOIA. Had we done this sooner, we would have shaved off weeks of the reporting process. 
  3. There is nothing quite like being there. We went to the FAA’s Oklahoma City offices because the agency wouldn’t agree to an interview and wouldn’t give us a tour of the Civil Aviation Registry. We saw online that the public could schedule a visit to the Public Documents room so we did. Had we not made this trip, we would have never learned that the very agency that regulates the aviation industry rents out space to businesses to give them easier access to the FAA. 
  4. Build timelines and keep organized. With thousands of airplanes and dozens of sources, we quickly became overwhelmed with our information. We built spreadsheets to keep track of requests made and documents received. We also built roadmaps of key examples that included timelines and links to documents or data. This proved very useful during the writing process.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

There were no challenges to our report and we have not run a correction or clarification.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

The main takeaway from this report for us was a fundamental understanding that even tiny threads found in the most obscure places can morph into global investigations.