What we know about the National Guard plane that surveilled protests

An RC-26B reconnaissance plane. Photo by U.S. Air Force

The Arizona National Guard flew a surveillance aircraft over Black Lives Matter protests in June to assist the Phoenix Police Department in deterring peaceful demonstrations, and a newly released Air Force inspector general’s report details some more information on the aircraft’s history and capabilities. 

Some information was already known about the Fairchild Swearingen C26 that flew under the call sign “Stash 22” during the flights, but the report gives more detail on the capabilities of the aircraft. 

The plane is a modified version of a C-26 and was given the designation of RC-26B due to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance modifications it was given in 1996. (Aircraft used primarily for reconnaissance have an R in their designation.)

Initially, the 11 aircraft that are part of the Air National Guard’s fleet that were seen flying over protests across the country this year were used to support Operational Support Airlift Activity and Air Mobility Command. These units specialize in transportation and airlift operations within the United States. 

After the modifications were made in 1996, the planes became dedicated surveillance aircraft. They had night vision and other sensors installed, and have since primarily been used to support counterdrug operations, missions that continue to the present day

The aircraft have assisted Customs and Border Patrol, Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Agency. They have also been used in wars overseas, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“While performing deployed overseas missions, the aircraft was fitted with a complement of classified sensors,” the IG report says. “Before performing missions again stateside, these classified capabilities and associated wirings were removed and the aircraft has only the capability to record infrared and electro-optical imagery.” 

The Arizona National Guard previously told the Arizona Mirror that no electronic surveillance equipment was used and no video was recorded of the flights. This was due in part to an incompatibility in software between the Phoenix Police Department and the National Guard, the IG found. 

Additionally, the IG report says that the cameras on the aircraft are not sensitive or powerful enough to make out a person’s “race or gender” or discern a license plate or facial features. 

It is not clear what exact camera system is installed on the aircraft that flew over Phoenix, but documents obtained by independent investigative reporter Sam Richards shed light on the aircraft. 

Previously, the fleet was once operated by a company named “Air Cerberus” that obscured the true ownership of the aircraft. 

Richards obtained Federal Aviation Administration documents through public records requests of the aircraft to show their true ownership, as well as what equipment had been installed on the aircraft. 

The records obtained were not for the RC-26 that flew over Phoenix, but for one that flew over Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis. In 2009, Alliant Techsystems, commonly known as ATK and part of Northop Grumman, installed “radios, antennas and surveillance equipment,” though the installation does not specify what exactly that entails. 

“This aircraft has been altered to provide long standoff range, day and night surveillance and equipment with several display capabilities,” the records Richards obtained say. “This aircraft is for government use only.” 

It isn’t known what type of camera is on the aircraft, but the most popular series of cameras utilized by law enforcement and the military is the WESCAM series by L3 Technologies. 

The company offers five varieties of its camera in five different strengths. 

The camera used by the RC-26 is likely an MX-20 or an MX-15, one of the higher end cameras. Similar cameras have been seen installed on similar sized military and police aircraft in promotional photos posted by the company

The MX-15 boasts a zoom range of up to 3.5 miles. A demo video of the camera appears to show the Yuma County Courthouse. 

The MX-20 spec sheet and specifications for its zoom length are blurred on the website and are only available upon request. A video showing off the camera on the company’s YouTube shows a video of a man walking down a sidewalk, likely unaware of the aircraft following him at over 10,000 feet as the narrator boasts about the camera’s laser designation technology.  

Footage released of the aircraft circling protests in Minneapolis is blurrier and granier than other footage released previously of things such as wildfires in Oregon and blurrier than footage shown off by Wescam. 

The MX-20 model is also known for its use on drones, as noted in photos on L3’s website. 

“The sensors on the RC-26B can only collect infrared and electro-optical imagery, and this imagery was not capable of identifying distinguishing features of individuals,” the IG report said.