January 25, 2019

The public's ability to use OSINT to track planes should not be underestimated by the RCMP.

( Cropped Pilatus PR Photo - underbelly of the PC-12 NG "Spectre" showing its electro-optical sensor)

At least one RCMP surveillance plane, believed to be outfitted with electo-optical night vision and thermal sensors, circled ~6000-7000ft over Kingston for almost two weeks in January, keeping residents awake, annoyed, and curious, all night long, while they were investigating a National Security case in Kingston.

It turns out the noise was from at least one nondescript, primarily white in colour, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Pilatus PC-12, registration number C-GMPB, ICAO Hex C065E0, and a serial number of 1304. C-GMPB departed London Ontario on January 4th headed toward Ottawa. On January 4th a local Kingstonian PlaneSpotter, Neil Aird, heard the plane, and checked his own ADS-B/Mode-S transponder receiver to catch the tail number as it flew overhead and around Kingston.

The same plane seemed to head home on January 7th, then back towards Ottawa January 8th, operating in the area until January 15th when the plane was flown back to Southern Ontario, to the Division "O" headquarters, but not before getting photographed by Neil on January 14th. I speculate the jaunt to London Ontario could have been a crew change, or something similarly practical and mundane.

Let's check in on the capabilities of the plane, which are naturally not mentioned by the RCMP. For cost savings, I suspect the plane is COTS, so we can refer to the marketing material around the two or three PC-12 "Spectre" variants the RCMP purchased. The last official number I could find was two, but I think more have been upgraded/converted or delivered since. The plane would have been outfitted with the top of the line IR/Electro-Optical and Thermal sensors. Here is their brochure; in short, they'll kit it out with whatever sensors you want, or leave you the hook ups exposed so you can customize it yourself. Glossy: here.



Below we have a sister-plane to C-GMPB taking off from Ottawa International YOW/CYOW in 2018. Notice the paint scheme is different from older RCMP planes with rainbow racing stripes.


C-FGMQ|ICAO:C01121|SN:1107

Here is another sister-plane to the aircraft that had been circling Kingston, on and off, from January 4th to January 14th, 2018. Notice the paint scheme; not the usual RCMP colours.

Reg:C-FMPA|ICAO:C02137|SN:1216

What did we learn from this?

  • The RCMP have sixteen Pilatus PC-12 planes, and the same type of plane has several different configurations, with potentially overlapping duties. There is a surveillance variant called the "Spectre" and the RCMP has 2 of those on the books. I believe it's one of those that caused the din above Kingston. I have not been able to conclusively pick out the registration numbers of the two "Spectre" variants out of the 16 plane fleet, yet. (specs)
  • Singled out as being the only single engine plane circling for over a week over a city makes you "overt", not "covert". Kingston has ~125,000 people, and more than a few noticed the RCMP was circling overhead and kept them awake all night for days; that's overt, not covert surveillance. I was contacted by a couple of people in Kingston who'd seen me written up previously (here, here, or here), but I really didn't think there would be such a paper trail for an RCMP surveillance aircraft, I thought they would have been super-stealthy. I guess not!
  • Even before we knew the tail number from Neil's work, the plane operated all night long, that's a very specific behaviour. I ask you rhetorically, who else would possibly be flying, at 3 am, over Kingston in the cold. I live near the Carp Airport (CYRP) and twice a year helicopter pilots get re-certified for night operation or some other paperwork. They fly helicopters over the neighbourhood until ~10pm, and then go home - because they're human and have families to go home to. There is no activity, other than LEO, that would keep employees circling that long at that time in that pattern. I speculated it could be something corporate, doing some sort of survey,... but realistically, no. It's really likely any circling plane at 3am over any town of 125k people is some variety of LEO; local, provincial, national, or border services.
  • The plane was circling for hours. Again, this is a behavioural tell.
    Take an example.. Sightseeing biplanes take off from CYRP; depending how much you want to spend, you can get a short tour, or a long tour of Ottawa. Either way, you're taking off from CYRP, flying around, and returning during the daytime, within a short-ish period. Minutes, not hours. There isn't anything that would justify circling for hours and days on end. The pattern of the plane's movement, the time, the altitude, this all paints a picture, but I still don't know why a white van parked across the street (yeah I know it's a movie trope) wouldn't be sufficient? SURE the plane is nice, but was it necessary? I don't know. That's past what I can realistically criticize, since they won't say why they needed the plane to begin with (even after today's 1pm press conference).
  • Initially many wondered if it could have been military? With CFB Trenton so close, it seemed like it could have been, but Trenton has a transport squadron, and while there are other people who I'd rather not mention in the area, none that would do reconnaissance from a small plane that fits that description, that I'm aware of. I liked the idea they were testing a drone's optics or something, but that didn't pan out either. Early distant photos of the plane showed it was a small plane, that looked like a PC-12, but was not confirmed at the time.
  • On January 4th the public (Neil in this case) knew that an RCMP operation was going on from the noise coming from their not-so-covert platform circling at < 7000ft for hours at night, by checking for the closest transponders that were beaconing in the area. The operational security implications of this are huge, as organised crime could easily look for all RCMP planes' presence in the future. I'm sure there are reasons why Mode-S has to be used, rather than being turned off entirely, which gives away the location of the plane, but shouldn't there be something they can do? Use a different mode? Neil is one of the good guys, and expecting the bad guys to not notice an RCMP plane circling overhead when they can precisely triangulate their position with < $1000 of computer gear bought off Amazon.
Why am I bringing all this up? Because nothing changes if you leave it alone. The RCMP is performing surveillance with a plane that's (figuratively) screaming "HEY! I'm with the RCMP and you're within line-of-sight of this transponder that's on a plane overhead, else your laptop wouldn't be able to hear me!", over 1090 MHz, over and over, as it circles all night long, if you're listening. I believe this was a good use case for why the RCMP needs a Predator-sized drone, which could fly higher, see farther, and loiter longer - drones don't eat or sleep. If the plane hadn't been noticed from its sound, nobody would have looked it up and tried to piece it together with relatively easily available present hobbyist technology.

Here's Global News talking with Neil, who's really the Plane-Spotter hero of this story, in my opinion.
Also, the title of the report should be "MYSTERY SOLVED!". Neil nailed it, and Steph Crosier first reported it in The Whig January 22nd 2018.

Appendix:

Snapshot of all Pilatus PC-12 planes in the RCMP inventory, per the Canadian Government. (source, source)
BrandModelRegistrationICAOSerial
PilatusPC-12/45C-FMPBC02138283
PilatusPC-12/45C-GMPYC065F7311
PilatusPC-12/45C-GMPPC065EE374
PilatusPC-12/47C-FMPFC0213C768
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPMC065EB1011
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPXC065F61017
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPEC065E31073
PilatusPC-12/47EC-FMPKC021411092
PilatusPC-12/47EC-FGMQC011211107
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPVC065F41181
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPOC065ED1197
PilatusPC-12/47EC-FMPAC021371216
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPAC065DF1262
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPQC065EF1268
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPBC065E01304
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPWC065F51336


News:

2019-01-22 "Kingston's mystery plane captured on camera" (Kingston Whig Standard)
https://www.thewhig.com/news/local-news/kingstons-mystery-plane-captured-on-camera

2019-01-22 "Mystery plane that keeps flying over Kingston in the dead of night baffles citizens" (National Post)
https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/mystery-plane-that-keeps-flying-over-kingston-ont-in-dead-of-night-baffles-citizens

2019-01-23 "Kingston mystery plane solved?" (Global News)
https://globalnews.ca/video/4881340/kingston-mystery-plane-solved

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