The EX-CEO Of Blackwater Is Morphing Into A Real Life Hank Scorpio, Busted Trying To Build Personal Secret Air Force
Last month, news broke that former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince was using his new company, Frontier Services Group, as a front to send paramilitary forces around the world.
Frankly, it made him sound exactly like The Simpsons’ infamous supervillain, Hank Scorpio, who was last seen seizing a large swath of the East Coast.
Prince’s metamorphosis from rough-around-the-edges mercenary to out-and-out evil genius wouldn’t be complete though without his own personal fleet of weaponized aircraft, illegal, of course, and developed in secrecy, shrouded from government regulations by multiple shell companies.
Oh and his own bad ass code name.
From, again, The Intercept:
On a crisp Saturday in November 2014, a black Mercedes SUV pulled onto the tarmac of an Austrian specialty aviation company 30 miles south of Vienna. Employees of the firm, Airborne Technologies, which specialized in designing and equipping small aircraft with wireless surveillance platforms, had been ordered to work that weekend because one of the company’s investors was scheduled to inspect their latest project.
For four months, Airborne’s team had worked nearly nonstop to modify an American-made Thrush 510G crop duster to the exact specifications of an unnamed client. Everything about the project was cloaked in secrecy. The company’s executives would refer to the client only as “Echo Papa,” and instructed employees to use code words to discuss certain modifications made to the plane. Now the employees would learn that Echo Papa also owned more than a quarter of their company.
Echo Papa is quite the name, and employees soon realized the alias was for one Erik Prince. And that they weren’t just adding surveillance equipment to the planes.
One of the mechanics soon recognized Echo Papa from news photos — he was Erik Prince, founder of the private security firm Blackwater. Several of the Airborne staff whispered among themselves, astonished that they had been working for America’s best-known mercenary. The secrecy and strange modification requests of the past four months began to make sense. In addition to surveillance and laser-targeting equipment, Airborne had outfitted the plane with bulletproof cockpit windows, an armored engine block, anti-explosive mesh for the fuel tank, and specialized wiring that could control rockets and bombs. The company also installed pods for mounting two high-powered 23 mm machine guns. By this point, the engineers and mechanics were concerned that they had broken several Austrian laws but were advised that everything would be fine as long as they all kept the secret.
That is, yea, that’s how crime works. The planes were to be a test run in Prince’s attempt to build an international air force that he could rapidly deploy in conflicts to the highest bidders.
The conversion of crop dusters into light attack aircraft had long been part of Prince’s vision for defeating terrorists and insurgencies in Africa and the Middle East. In Prince’s view, these single-engine fixed-wing planes, retrofitted for war zones, would revolutionize the way small wars were fought. They would also turn a substantial profit. The Thrush in Airborne’s hangar, one of two crop dusters he intended to weaponize, was Prince’s initial step in achieving what one colleague called his “obsession” with building his own private air force.
The first contract? The South Sudan
Then, in the summer of 2014, Prince brought a project to FSG that he believed could serve as a test run for the newly modified Thrush planes and help get the infant company on its feet. It involved South Sudan, where Prince had a long track record dating back to the Blackwater era. Prior to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, Blackwater was fined by the U.S. government for brokering defense services to southern Christian rebels without a State Department license. In 2006, ignoring explicit U.S. government instructions, Blackwater proposed a security contract with forces loyal to rebel leader Salva Kiir, a devout Christian and the future president of an independent South Sudan.
Nearly a decade later, when Prince brokered FSG’s deal, South Sudan was ruled by Kiir, whose trademark cowboy hat was a gift from President George W. Bush. In the summer of 2014, the young, oil-rich country was several months into a civil war that had reduced oil production by a third, and Kiir needed Prince’s support. But, as was the case with many of Prince’s proposals, the services he claimed he was offering stood in stark contrast to his real plan.
The plan was to provide safe transit for employees working in the country’s oil fields, but really, it would be to use the planes to hunt down insurgency groups from the sky.
Unfortunately for Prince, but not for the safety of the free world, the planes were a disaster.
Despite a range of safety concerns from Airborne’s technicians, a few days later, the heavily modified Thrush took off for Africa. But the pilot had to abort the journey and make a premature landing because of a damaged fuel pump. After the plane was repaired, it was flown to Malta, where a plane spotter snapped a picture of the aircraft. The Thrush, according to its tail number, had been registered in the European mini-state of San Marino. The photo the plane spotter posted on a hobbyist website showed an armored aircraft with a distinctly military appearance and clearly visible drone-style surveillance gear. Eventually the aircraft was flown back to Austria, where Airborne workers would spend three weeks repairing it.
That naturally attracted the attention of authorities.
In the meantime, San Marino aviation authorities had seen the picture of the Thrush posted by the plane spotter and canceled the aircraft’s registration. They informed FSG that the plane did not appear to be the civilian aircraft for which they had issued an operating certificate. Within a few weeks, the Thrush was transported from Juba to an air hangar in another East African nation, where it remains to this day.
The story continues with Austrian authorities trying to pin down Prince for his actions, as well as a coup he staved off to keep him at the helm of FSG.
Give the whole thing a read here.
[Via The Intercept]