Texas Has Its Own Spy Plane—Here’s How to Track It Online
Plane used to snoop on terrorists now heading for the border
A spy plane normally used for secretive military operations over Africa and Afghanistan has begun its first flights over … Texas.
Meet the Pilatus PC-12 NG Spectre: a single-engine, Swiss-built plane the Texas Department of Public Safety purchased two years ago.
Its mission: patrol the Mexican border.
Now the plane is flying. The PC-12's first two flights—recorded by flight trackers available to the public—were spotted this week by G.W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The San Antonio Express-News followed up.
During a flight on Dec. 9, the plane—under the designation N243TX—made a short hop from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio. On Friday morning, the plane flew to the dusty, West Texas town of Fort Stockton. The plane broadcasts its signal over public radio channels and its flight history is recorded.
Schulz revealed the plane’s capabilities after Texas snapped it up in 2012. The state paid more than $7.4 million in total including a set of high-tech spying tools.
There’s $1 million thermal imaging system built by defense contractor Wescam. The Texas plane has night-vision goggles for four passengers ($58,000), and a microwave antenna system ($300,000) to beam high-definition video to officers based from El Paso to the Louisiana border. The single-engine plane can travel as high as 30,000 feet.
But remember: these are spy planes designed for the Pentagon’s most sensitive missions. It doesn't have any firepower, but the snooping gear is way ahead of what most state police agencies regularly deploy.
PC-12s are increasingly used by U.S. Special Operations Forces stationed across Africa. Sierra Nevada corporation—a privately-held defense contractor—was awarded a $218 million contract in 2012 for PC-12s intended to be used to ferry Afghan special forces.
When used by the military, the plane is known under the designation U-28. They are also intended to be modular, meaning the interior can be swapped for surveillance missions, hauling cargo or ferrying people. The military versions don’t show up on public channels, though.
Update Jan. 10: These are not the plane’s first commissioned flights. DPS spokesman Tom Vinger emails: “Since being commissioned, this aircraft has conducted numerous humanitarian missions, including assisting with major floods; missing persons searches/rescues; crash scene support; and others.”
Update Jan. 10 10:12 p.m.: During its flight today, the PC-12 “assisted Border Patrol ground personnel in Terrell County today in locating two subjects suspected of firing a weapon during an incident with law enforcement,” Vinger writes. The two suspects were arrested. One suspect is seen below: