Here’s the Internal Presentation the FBI Uses to Train Surveillance Pilots

“Pay attention this will get mind bending,” one slide reads.
August 9, 2016, 5:40pm
Image: still from FBI surveillance footage

A few days ago, the American Civil Liberties Union published 18 hours of spy plane footage from Black Lives Matter protests, and multiple investigations have identified the front companies used by the FBI and tracked thousands of flights.

Now, a presentation released to Motherboard under the Freedom of Information Act details how the FBI briefs pilots and agents about its aviation programs.

The "Indoctrination to Bureau Aircraft Operations" presentation comes in three parts, and is dated April 2009. Across over 330 pages, the Field Flight Operations Unit spells out a wealth of legal, technical, and safety issues for operating aircraft on FBI missions.

It opens with a joke, presenting the cover for William Dixon Bell's 1940 book Trailed By G-Men. The cover shows a light aircraft flying over a small cabin.

Screenshot from the presentation

The presentation also includes multiple choice questions, some involving hypothetical situations, presumably to test potential pilots:

"Because you are motivated to accomplish the mission, you fly a surveillance mission with a broken airspeed indicator," one of the questions starts. "After landing you are confronted by an FAA inspector who wants to check the airplane. What should you do?

- A. Allow him to inspect the plane

- B. Tell him to get lost and inform supervisor

- C. Tell him to get lost but don't tell supervisor

Unfortunately, the presentation doesn't say what the correct answer is. We'll let you speculate.

Screenshot from the presentation

Of course, FBI agents need to carry out their airborne missions within the rule of law, so the presentation includes several case studies. In one, police suspected someone was growing marijuana following an anonymous tip. The suspect's property, however, had a tall outer fence, and even higher inner fence. So police flew over the site at 1000 feet, spotted the marijuana plants, and then obtained a warrant. The justification given was that "any member of the flying public could have seen what the officers saw."

"But one can go to [sic] far…," the presentation reads, and points to another (non-airborne) marijuana-growing case. Special Agent William Elliot used thermal-imaging devices to scan a suspect's home, and obtained a warrant based on the thermal imaging data. Eventually, the suspect was convicted. But the Supreme Court overruled this, saying the use of thermal-imaging constituted a search.

Screenshot from the presentation

"Put simply, you can't look through walls of a home without a search warrant," the presentation neatly summarizes. This is the same advice given to agents by a separate FBI presentation on drone use.

Elsewhere, the presentation includes safety information, such as when to bring oxygen tanks onto an aircraft, and what the pilot needs to do before takeoff (ensure that each person has been notified to fasten his or her seat belt). Plenty of information about regulation is included too, such as a lengthy section on how FBI agents planning to fly do indeed require a pilot's license.

In all, the presentation provides a crash-course in what FBI pilots have to consider when they're flying around on operations. You can find the three parts of the presentation here, here, and here.