Over a Thousand Foreign Planes 'Secretly' Registered in Small Texas Town: Report

The Texas town of Onalaska can be reached by automobile and boat. The town barely registers as a small dot on a road map of the massive Lone Star state.

But, as reported by WFAA TV, there are more than 1,000 small airplanes registered to the town even though Onalaska has no airport. One source said it makes it easier for smuggling across borders—whether it be people, drugs or weapons.

WFAA's investigation found that aircraft registrations funneled through two post office boxes in Onalaska. According to the 2010 U.S. census, the town has a population of 1,764, meaning that there were enough registered aircraft for more than half of its citizens. Onalaska has more registered planes than New York, San Antonio, Seattle and San Diego.

The report said that not only were the aircraft owners not in Texas—they're not even in nearby states.

The town has become a hub for foreigners to anonymously register their planes at $5 apiece, leading to speculation that criminal activity could be behind the phantom planes that were registered here, but never touch down nor take off.

"When you can conceal the true ownership of a plane, you're putting a lot of people in jeopardy," former Federal Aviation Administration special agent Joe Gutheinz told WFAA. "If you're a terrorist and you have a way of concealing your secret ownership of a plane in the United States, you're going to do it."

The process of registering a plane in the U.S. can be as simple or tricky as the registrant wants it to be. Any aircraft owner who's an American citizen or permanent resident can register a plane. But the FAA allows foreign residents to register planes through a trustee.

Planes registered in the United States carry an "N" on their fantails, which makes traversing borders easier, the report said. If that insignia weren't there, crossing those borders would be difficult.

WFAA said it investigated such "trust companies" that handled requests from so many airplane owners, and that company officials said they did their "due diligence" vetting them.

"We shouldn't require less information to…to register a car than to register an aircraft," U.S. Representative Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, said. "If you are a foreign national…you can register an aircraft here and the government doesn't know anything about it. Come one. It's laughable."

Trustees vetting these planes are required to alert the FAA within 48 hours of any sudden requests, the report said. That time frame is still too long for a potential disaster, Lynch said.

"That is not a good policy," Lynch said. "We shouldn't be into accident reconstruction. At that point, we're too late in the game."

According to WFAA, the following aircraft have been reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation after raising red flags:

  • In 2006, A U.S. bank became a trustee of an aircraft for a Lebanese politician who turned out to be "backed by a well-known U.S. Government-designated terrorist organization." "It wasn't until the bank found out that they were affiliated with Hezbollah that the relationship ended," Lynch told WFAA.
  • In 2010, an airplane registered to a trust approached the Tripoli International Airport with no landing permit just hours before the U.N. Security Council met to approve a "no-fly zone" over Libya. The owner of a foreign oil corporation had registered the plane through a trust but sold a "large percentage" of his company to a Chinese company.
  • In 2012, an FAA inspector was unable to find out who was flying a Boeing 737 registered on behalf of a foreign owner. When the FAA contacted the foreign owner, officials were told the airplane had been leased to a United Arab Emirates-based rental company. The foreign owner couldn't "provide the inspector" with information about who was flying the plane.

A memo from the U.S. Department of Transportation stated that trustees did not have to identify the trustors or any foreign owners of aircraft.