New Delhi: An innocuous blip on a flight tracking website has thrown the spotlight on India’s oldest flying aircraft, a Boeing 707, used by the country’s intelligence agencies to gather information.
It all started when various OSINT (open-source intelligence) handles tweeted a flight path that appeared on Flightradar24, indicating that an Indian Air Force flight (the Boeing 707) flew into Pakistan.
While it is yet to be ascertained if the aircraft did fly into Pakistani air space, the buzz generated by the OSINT handles has put the spotlight on the old and trusted flying machine of the Aviation Research Centre, which falls under the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).
The buzz, in fact, has led to Flightradar 24 issuing a statement, saying when aircraft fly out of coverage, the positions on their website are shown according to estimates based on the latest received position, speed and track data.
As we have received a lot of questions from our users in India we want to clearify how Flightradar24 and our tracking works.
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) May 14, 2020
The 707, Boeing’s first jetliner, is a narrow-body aircraft, a prototype of which was first flown in 1954.
It has been largely presumed that the Boeing 707 was no longer in service with ARC/R&AW. It was part of a set of two 707s that came to the ARC in the 1960s after having flown briefly with national carrier Air India.
Sources said only one of these two aircraft is operational, while the other is being used as a “Christmas tree” — which means using parts of one aircraft to keep the other flying.
The two planes were modified for the role of signal intelligence by US contractor E-Systems, which has since then been subsumed by another American firm, Raytheon.
At the time, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was helping Indian agencies on many fronts, including technology.
India is among the few countries in the world which continues to use the 707 — information in the public domain shows that only Chile, Iran, Israel and Venezuela are using such aircraft.
The 707 in question had flown extensively during the Kargil battle, and was instrumental in tracking a lot of electronic intelligence, which helped Indian forces target Pakistani positions.
The aircraft was upgraded with a host of new Israeli equipment in the mid-2000s.
The ARC operates a number of aircraft for a number of intelligence gathering operations and for movement of specialised units under its wing.
However, the Boeing 707 is still dependable for its endurance capability, sources said. This means that the aircraft can stay in the air for a very long time in comparison to other aircraft.