The airplanes of Aero Contractors Ltd. take off from Johnston County Airport in Smithfield, N.C., then disappear over the scrub pines and fields of tobacco and sweet potatoes. Nothing about the sleepy Southern setting hints of foreign intrigue. Nothing gives away the fact that Aero’s pilots are the discreet bus drivers of the battle against terrorism, routinely sent on secret missions to Baghdad, Cairo, Tashkent and Kabul. But the New York Times reports that when the Central Intelligence Agency wants to grab a suspected member of Al Qaeda overseas and deliver him to interrogators in another country, an Aero Contractors plane often does the job. If agency experts need to fly overseas after the capture of a prized prisoner, a plane will from North Carolina will stop at Dulles Airport near Washington to pick up a C.I.A. team on the way.
While posing as a private charter outfit–“aircraft rental with pilot” is the listing in Dun and Bradstreet–Aero Contractors is in fact a major domestic hub of the CIA’s secret air service. The company was founded in 1979 by a legendary C.I.A. officer and chief pilot for Air America, the agency’s Vietnam-era air company, and it appears to be controlled by the agency, according to former employees. Behind a surprisingly thin cover of rural hideaways, front companies and shell corporations that share officers who appear to exist only on paper, the C.I.A. has rapidly expanded its air operations since 2001 as it has pursued and questioned terrorism suspects around the world. The Times said the agency owns at least 26 planes, with ownership concealed behind a web of seven shell corporations that appear to have no employees.