The plane that grew ears

Not every technology deployed by the military needs to be custom built and cost millions of dollars. Sometimes, off-the-shelf technology can prove just as effective. Dave Wilson explains.

<b>No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave. Francis Scott Key (1779 – 1843).</b>

The chaps at the office of defence were getting more frustrated by the minute at their lack of ability to gain any real intelligence about the mysterious ‘goings-on’ in the foreign land.

Oh sure, they had lots of folks on the ground feeding them information. But they wanted to know more. And ideally that meant monitoring the entire electromagnetic spectrum; everything – radio broadcasts, TV shows, private telephone conversations, no signal was too small or too unimportant.

So you can imagine their delight when one of their favourite Defence Companies approached them with an idea that would make their dream come true.

Like all good ideas, it was simple. And, better yet, relatively inexpensive by military standards. So the chaps in charge of defence duly signed the cheque, handed it over to the contractor, and the project got underway.

First off, a large airliner was purchased and then flown into the remote headquarters of the Defence Company where it was duly stripped down to the bare bones. Oh sure, outside it still looked like a passenger airliner, but inside it was just a hollow shell.

Then the technical chaps moved in with their racks and racks of central processing systems, data acquisition boards, huge hard drives and sensors. And before too long the whole plane was filed with more computer gubbins than you could shake a stick at.

And it worked perfectly too. Posing as a passenger aircraft, the plane was cleared to fly across the foreign land, where it duly sucked up every signal broadcast that day. Upon safely returning home, an umbilical was hooked up to it, and all of the data it had collected was sucked out for the technical folk to analyse for anything suspicious that might possibly compromise national security.

The fellas in the office of defence were delighted. Aside from the seriousness of analysing conversations between top members of the foreign government, there was some fun to be had from the system too! Imagine, if you will, the wry grins that appeared on the faces of the defence chiefs as they eavesdropped on conversations between bureau members arguing with their colleagues over the importance of vodka to the national economy!

But like all good things, the fun had to come to an end one day, I’m afraid. And I’m sorry to say that when it did, the consequences were most unpleasant.

You see, someone leaked out the details of the not so stealthy aircraft to a member of another not so friendly foreign power. And wouldn’t you just know it, but several months after they caught wind of what was going on, a real passenger aircraft with 320 souls on board was shot down over that country much to the absolute incredulity of the rest of the world. But not, I might add, to the chaps in the defence department.