It takes off carrying night-vision equipment, encrypters, side-looking radar and a drone under its wing that could dart into combat zones and send back live video images. But it is not a military spy plane.
It's an airborne "journalism machine," meant to fly TV news crews and a full production studio to the world hot spot of the moment and help them out with assorted techno-goodies usually associated with the deep-cover profession.
The plane will go into action just as soon as someone puts up $7 million a year for its services.
"Aerobureau" is a labor of love for Chuck de Caro, pilot, former globetrotting correspondent for Cable News Network and devotee of all things with wires or wings. He has spent four years and his personal savings outfitting the plane that he is convinced will rewrite the books on TV reporting. "It's a news bureau that flies," says de Caro, owner of Herndon-based Aerobureau Corp. "We can go anywhere in the world and bring news muscle to the scene of the story."
This week, the plane will be at Atlanta's Peachtree Airport during a National Association of Broadcasters convention. De Caro, hoping to lead his beloved craft into action as well as make some money, is hoping that a news executive will climb aboard and say who cares what it costs, let's give it a try.
Bombarded by images from the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square, Americans take live news coverage from abroad for granted. But things often break in more out-of-the way places -- the Mediterranean Sea, for instance, where the cruise ship Achille Lauro was hijacked, or the Ethiopian hinterland, where Rep. Mickey Leland's plane crashed into a mountainside. In cases like these, live coverage may take days to set up or may not be possible at all.
De Caro says the Aerobureau notion came to him in 1983 while he was attempting to foil the military's attempts to keep journalists out of Grenada as U.S. troops landed there. Having ridden a sailboat to a nearby island, he came across a road that doubled as a runway and began daydreaming about airlifting in a whole news team.
The plane he is peddling seven years later is a prop-driven Electra, the civilian version of what the Navy uses to hunt submarines. Based in Tucson, it can fly at more than 400 mph, circle over a site for 20 hours and land on short runways. Various companies who like the idea or want some publicity have pitched to outfit it -- Panasonic donated complete studio gear and cameras, Motorola has pledged a new antenna, Shell Oil has put up 20,000 gallons of aviation fuel.
As de Caro sees it, the plane might put down at a remote airstrip and discharge a crew that would ride to the action on a motorcycle they had brought along. (There is talk, too, of putting an all-terrain vehicle or a small, collapsible helicopter aboard.) The plane might take off and circle out of harm's way, relaying scenes beamed from the ground team.
If things are too hot to land or happening at sea, the plane could stay aloft, its crew observing what it could with specially stabilized telescopic cameras, side-looking radar and night-vision equipment and turning out fully edited reports in the air. Or, it could land and launch a drone to fly into dangerous airspace -- the Persian Gulf during a sea battle, say -- and send out video images, which the plane would pass back to the home office.
During a hurricane, it could fly into the eye and send out live images.
For now, it can only beam video feeds from the air to a ground station, which then sends it up to a satellite. But de Caro is working on gear that would allow a straight shot from plane to satellite.
How do the hoped-for customers feel? "We see a great deal of potential," said Richard Mulliner, manager of operations for news and sports for Capital Cities-ABC. "It's an interesting option," said Steve Jacobs, senior producer for CBS News special events.
However, no one is beating down de Caro's door. One big reason is the $7 million, year-long commitment that de Caro is pushing for. He doesn't want to hire the plane on an on-call basis. When not deployed at some hot spot, he said, it could be flying from country to country turning out features.
Networks also have a problem with de Caro's proposal that Aerobureau provide a "turnkey" product -- finished news reports produced entirely by its own 10-member staff, in the early stages of a breaking story, at least. De Caro argues that transporting network people would require special federal permission, delay "scramble" time and take up too much space. There wouldn't be room to take a full flight crew and news team, he says. Aerobureau's people, however, could double as both.
However, networks pay their correspondents handsomely and would prefer to see those faces on the air. Having the plane available for short-term assignments, to rush their own people to a news site, would be much more attractive to them. Still, de Caro hopes they will come around. "I'll give you a capability that will blow your mind," he says. "All I need is someone with enough vision to say, 'go do it.' "