These days, it seems like you can find out nearly anything on the Internet. And even if you can't find it, now you can just ask on social media and chances are pretty good that someone will have your answer. Here is an incredible example.
In the days just after the Baltimore riots, resident Benjamin Shayne was in his backyard and noticed a small plane loitering above his neighborhood. As the sunlight faded, it was difficult to identify the suspicious aircraft. On a whim, he turned to Twitter to ask if any one of his followers knew about the airplane.
Here's his tweet. It reads, "Anyone know who has been flying the light plane in circles above the city for the last few nights?"
Here was the first surprise. Within minutes, his Twitter feed answered the question with more detail that he could have imagined. He had the exact aircraft model, registration number, owner's name and even a map of the airplane's flight path.
Super imposed over a map of his neighborhood was a scribble of green lines tracing the route of the single engine Cessna airplane he had spotted from his back yard. But that was just the beginning of the surprises. It turns out that with the right app or website, anyone can identify nearly any plane either overhead or even anywhere in U.S. airspace. But what this plane was doing over Baltimore is raising a lot of eyebrows.
Using flight tracking apps and websites, others found even more clues about the flights. Apparently, the radar tracking codes, known as "Squawks," used by the aircraft are reserved exclusively for law enforcement use. Now, the Twitter followers were pretty confident that the flights were probably some sort of law enforcement flights over Baltimore.
The same type of Cessna plane is marketed to law enforcement as Cessna Enforcers. According to the site, "The Cessna Enforcer program provides our law enforcement customers the ability to customize their new ... aircraft with the mission equipment they need for aerial surveillance and discrete communication. Helicopters have a loud, distinct noise signature that attracts attention no matter which altitude they operate. A fixed wing Cessna aircraft is a more discrete observation platform that attracts little attention."
The site also shows the camera that is mounted on the surveillance Cessnas.
The next step for citizen-detectives was to confirm exactly who was operating the suspected spy flights. Freedom of Information requests were filed with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. Marshals Service seeking information about the mystery flights.
According to the Washington Post, 3 days after Benjamin Shayne first spotted the planes, the FBI denied comment. But by the next day, the FBI finally confirmed that it had indeed provided aircraft to the Baltimore Police Department.
"During the recent unrest, the FBI provided aircraft to the Baltimore Police Department for the purpose of providing aerial imagery of possible criminal activity. The aircraft were specifically used to assist in providing high-altitude observation of potential criminal activity to enable rapid response by police officers on the ground," FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson said in a statement.
She added that the flights “were not there to monitor lawfully protected first amendment activity, and any FBI aviation support to a local law enforcement agency must receive high level approvals.”
I think it is pretty amazing that a simple tweet from a backyard can set in motion such a sequence of events in such a short amount of time.