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Air Branch - CIA Special Activities Division (SAD)

Air Branch is the aviation wing of the CIA's Special Activities Division (SAD). Their role is to fly covert missions in support of CIA operations.

Air Branch Roles

The elite pilots of SAD Air Branch, many recruited from AFSOC and the 160th SOAR, as well as civilian aviation companies, are tasked with flying everything from small light aircraft to large transport planes. Roles of Air Branch include:

  • covert insertion and extraction of CIA personnel
  • covert trasportation of sensitive cargo
  • airborne surveillance / intelligence gathering

Air Branch Aircraft

Covert air assets available to SAD Air Branch pilots include:

  • light aircraft
  • turboprop transport planes
  • jet airliners
  • helicopters

These aircraft are usually registered to front companies - seemingly legitimate dummy corporations setup by the CIA.

Some of the actual aircraft known to be flown by the CIA include:

DHC-6 Twin Otter

Several Twin Otters are believed to be in Air Branch's inventory. These twin-engine light aircraft are ideal transports for small SAD/SF teams due to their ability to land and takeoff from short, rough airstrips. DHC-6 aircraft with non-standard antenna arrays have been spotted in Afghanistan. These antenna indicate secure communications capability and a possible SIGINT fitment.

DCH-8 Dash 8

Like its smaller cousin, the DH-6, these Canadian-built twin-engine medium range turboprop transport planes have been spotted in Afghanistan sporting unusual attennas and are thought to be CIA assets.

Antonov AN-32

The Russian-built Antonov AN-32 is another turboprop transport plane believed to be operated by the CIA.

Lockheed L-100-30

The L-100-30 is the civilian version of the C-130 Hercules transport plane. The CIA are thought to operate a number of these aircraft for clandestine operations.

Dassault Falcon 50

This jet, which masquerades as a private business flight, is suspected of being used by the CIA for the covert movement of terror suspects. These so-called 'rendition flights' caused controversy when they came to light in 2004.

Gulfstream Aerospace G-V Gulfstream V

As with the Dassault Falcon 50, this CIA business jet was tied to rendition flights.

Boeing 737

This Boeing 737-7BC airliner was believed to be involved with transporting prisoners to various 'interrogation' centers around the world.

Boeing C-32B

A military variant of the Boeing 757, believed to be used by Air Branch for the covert insertion and extraction of personnel, C-32Bs have been spotted making fast turnarounds at airports during various crisis around the globe. It's believed that in February 2004 a C-32B was used to covertly fly Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the deposed President Of Haiti, into exile in Africa.


MQ-1 Predator

This unmanned spy drone is used by the CIA Special Operations Group for both surveillance and strike missions. A remarkable bit of kit, a Predator in the air above Afghanistan can be flown by an operator in Langley, USA via secure satellite remote control. A set of sensors in a turret under its chin provide its surveillance capability whilst a laser-designator and 2 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles give it teeth. CIA Predators have carried out strikes against suspected terrorists on several occasions.

Mil MI-8 / MI-17 'Hip'

The CIA often use Russian-built helicopters, such as MI-8/MI-17s, for covert operations. As these ubiquitous helicopters are usually commonplace in theater they create less attention than a tricked-out Black Hawk or MH-53 Pavelow and cannot be readily linked to US forces. These helos are cheap to run and easier to find spare parts for when operating outside the US military logisitical chain. They are also one of the few military helicopters capable of operating over the mountains of Afghanistan.

CIA hips spotted in Iraq were equipped with various extra antennae (e.g. Bat-wing SATCOM) and countermeasures such as flare launchers and AN/ALQ-144 infrared jammers.

cia hip helicopter
US Special Forces help Northern Alliance troops away from a CIA-operated MI-17 Hip helicopter at Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan, during Operation Anaconda, March 2002.
US Dod photo by Master Sgt. Keith Reed, USAF

Air Branch Operations

In the run up to Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, the aborted US operation to rescue American hostages from Tehran, the CIA were invovled in an operation to recon the proposed desert staging area inside Iran. 2 CIA pilots, operating a CIA DH6 Twin Otter, flew a USAF Combat Controller (CCT) and his motorbike from Oman to the proposed staging area at Dasht-e-Kavir. Flying at night and below radar coverage, the CIA plane landed in the desert, delivering the CCT who surveyed and marked out a runway on the desert floor before being flown out again, all without being detected. (1)

In Honduras, in 1985, CIA pilots flew Beechcraft King Air light aircraft modified with antennas and RF listening equipment, in support of signals intelligence (SIGINT) operations carried out by the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA). (2)

In recent times, Air Branch have operated MI-8 and Mi-17 helicopters in support of special operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the early stages of Operation Enduring Freedom, SAD helicopter flights inserted Ground Branch operatives and Army Special Forces into the country. Aside from ferrying SAD agents around the battlefield, they also acted as aerial surveillance platforms. Fitted with thermal imaging devices, and carrying SAD photographers, CIA helicopters scoured the mountains, valleys and desert plains for Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.

CIA Twin Otters and Dash 8 Turboprops have been active in Afghanistan and Iraq , inserting and extracting CIA operatives.

CIA Air Branch Resources


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