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Thursday, May 23, 2024

One-way glass, a weirdly-placed shower and a secluded hangar: Did the CIA rent space at the Wilmington airport?

Built in 1988, this hangar at Wilmington International Airport was occupied by Signatech, Inc. for about 20 years. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– There is an unassuming hangar in the eastern fields of the Wilmington International Airport, just within the line of tall fences that mark the perimeter of the property. In the years before heavy traffic began to flow right behind it, on Kerr Avenue, it was probably seldom noticed.

Views at dusk and dawn are pristine from the outpost, which now hosts the North Carolina-based company All American Aviation Services. The hangar is filled with small, private aircraft in need of repair and maintenance. Through the constant hum of commercial and military aircraft using the two nearby runways, planes get fixed. 

All American Aviation Services, which set up shop in the hangar last year, is not the first company to lease the space from the airport. Lines and nets were fashioned on the floor of the spacious building between 2014 and 2016, when it was rented by Cape Fear Volleyball Club; then came SeaHawk Aviation, an aircraft maintenance facility, which rented from July 2016 until early 2020. 

The original tenant, some say — who commissioned the hangar’s construction and occupied it from 1988 to 2009 — was the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Back in the ‘80s, there was an awful lot of drug smuggling going in through Wilmington with airplanes. Lots of significant busts,” said Wilmington businessman and aviation entrepreneur Bill Cherry.  

“I don’t know that the CIA had any involvement in it, but they did come onboard the airport, and I helped them a little bit –– not much.”

‘Why don’t we build you a hangar?’

Signatech, Inc. was formed in Delaware a few months before it inked the lease for airport space in Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

Cherry has been a key player in the growth of the Wilmington International Airport. He started Air Wilmington, Inc., which among other things provided fuel to military planes, in 1975. Cherry purchased another local aviation company in 1986 called Aeronautics, Inc. and merged it with Air Wilmington 20 years later. 

Air Wilmington was acquired by Modern Aviation in 2018. The new ownership recently secured renewal of a Department of Defense fuel contract now worth $8.4 million. 

‘IT’S THE SOUND OF FREEDOM’: Here’s why military aircraft love Wilmington airspace

In 1988, two years after Cherry grew his enterprise through the Aeronautics purchase, an interested party reached out to inquire about renting some of Cherry’s existing hangar space, but wasn’t comfortable with the options.

“It was too congested, obviously, for their operation,” Cherry recalled. “So I said, ‘Well, why don’t we build you a hangar?’”

Under the name Signatech, Inc. the tenant selected their chosen spot for a new hangar on airport grounds and moved in. The group had their own in-house flight crews and other personnel. Their planes would take off after dark and arrive before dawn, Cherry said.

“They built a facility and operated out of there because they didn’t want exposure,” he said. 

On the rare occasion when Signatech would need fuel, the interaction would be brief and standoffish, Cherry said. He recalled the mysterious tenants would gather at the former Whitey’s restaurant, once located on Market Street, for breakfast. 

“They had a number of different airplanes, but not any high-volume airplanes,” he said. “They did their own maintenance. They had their own flight crews, you know. That’s about all I know about it.” 

Signatech kept its lease at the airport for 20 years and departed in 2009, according to ILM.

The company first formed in Delaware in May 1988 then filed for a North Carolina registration a few months later. In filings it describes its business as “aviation services on a contract basis,” performed specifically at the Wilmington airport. 

Cherry said its personnel at one time purported to be with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. 

Signatech’s president was listed as Danny Jones from Little Rock, Ark. in its Secretary of State filings. Identically named companies were also registered in Arizona and Tennessee.

The October 1988 lease between New Hanover County and Signatech lists D. Marshall Jones as company president and Robert E. Bundy as secretary. 

Cherry recalled speaking with a man named Bob Bundy, “which was probably not a real name,” about the logistics of building the hangar.

The company had its business certificate revoked in 1993 for failing to file annual reports. Signatech resumed submitting annual reports in 1998, according to N.C. Secretary of State filings.

The company applied for a new certificate of authority in 2000 and added a local man, Alton G. Porter, as its registered agent in N.C. Porter declined to be interviewed when reached by phone. 

‘I can’t discuss that’

According to Farkas, these two windows in the far office space used to be one-way glass. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

The hangar can be found at the end of Morris Road, which runs perpendicular to Kerr Avenue. A small taxiway exudes from its doorstep and works its way out to one of the airport’s main runways. 

“So you know this was a CIA hangar, right?” said All American Aviation’s general manager Tara Farkas, while standing outside her office in the front section of the hangar.

The rooms near the front offices, despite an eccentric layout, are mostly run-of-the-mill, Farkas said. There is a parts room with a half-door, two bathrooms with small showers — a standard touch in hangars for weary pilots to freshen up — and an odd wiring box internet companies decline to touch. 

Then comes the hangar itself, big enough to fit a tiny fleet of private craft. Wiring protrudes from the high walls, remnants of a massive network of cameras that has since been ripped out.

On the far side of the hangar, through a door, is a hallway and a few more small rooms. Two glass windows in the hallway enclose a room about the size of a small office. Back in the day, Farkas said, the windows were made of one-way glass. 

David Rock III, president of SeaHawk Aviation, started renting the hangar in 2016, after it got two years of use by the volleyball club. (SeaHawk changed its name to Phoenix Aircraft Services, Inc. in 2020.)

Reached by phone, Rock did not say whether the windows in the far office room were one-way or regular glass at the time his company entered.

“I can’t discuss that, sir,” he responded. 

A representative of Cape Fear Volleyball Club, which is no longer active, said that the group did not use the far office space, and that he knows nothing about the history of the windows.

In the hallway, right outside the glass-windowed room, is a door that leads to a storage closet with tile floors. There is a large shower inside the closet. 

Farkas said she rarely spends time in that wing. While building showers in the front office bathrooms makes perfect sense for a hangar, she said, storage closets with showers in them are not a standard architectural feature. It feels creepy back there, she said.

‘Nothing squirrely about it’

Now crowded by boxes, one storage closet in the hangar offices includes a shower. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

The CIA maintains an electronic repository of files released under the Freedom of Information Act. These now-public documents offer glimpses into old-school CIA activities and writings the agency allows citizens to see. 

For instance, letters in the archives show that former U.S. Rep. Charles Rose (D-NC) helped organize a “short unclassified briefing” for about 40 members of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce in 1978 at CIA headquarters in Langley, V.A. (That particular correspondence is partially redacted.)

When the StarNews — then called the Wilmington Morning Star — wrote an article about a rare occurrence at the Wilmington airport in 1981, the CIA saved the news clipping


The report details a January night in New Hanover County when a Boeing 707 landed at the airport. It was early in the Ronald Reagan presidency, before the administration had officially intervened in any foreign conflict, and amid increased fighting in an Ecuador-Peru border war.

It was uncommon for a plane of that size to land at the local airport, according to the 1981 report. 

“When a Wilmington Morning Star photographer took pictures of the Boeing 707 aircraft, he was accosted by a Spanish-speaking officer in a foreign uniform who waved him off,” according to the report. 

“When the agent of the Miami-based firm handling the shipment was called to the scene, he shouted at the photographer: ‘The CIA knows about this. This is big trouble, big trouble.’” 

The plane, which was headed to Miami and then to Ecuador, according to the report, was loaded at Aeronautics, Inc. It officially contained “emergency supplies” — 40 tons of foodstuffs, according to the U.S. Customs Service — but the recipient was unknown. (This was five years before Cherry bought Aeronautics, Inc.)

When asked about this news clipping, a CIA spokesperson told Port City Daily she would check with the Agency’s historians to see if an interview could be arranged. She later followed up to say she was not able to provide further information. 

The CIA has also been linked to the Johnston County Airport. According to expansive community-driven investigations and official reports, the agency used an entity called Aero Contractors, Ltd. as a front company. 

Aero’s planes were intimately involved in the secretive transportation and detainment of suspected terrorists between at least 2001 and 2005. Under the guise of a charter flight company, the agency used Aero’s infrastructure at the Johnston County Airport as stepping stones to move individuals to international sites where they’d be tortured and interrogated.

“Johnston County facilitated Aero’s operations by providing permits for construction work and by conducting site safety inspections of Aero’s premises,” according to a 2012 UNC School of Law report.

“Aero was intricately involved in the extraordinary rendition of individuals to overseas facilities and black sites, and as a North Carolina-based corporation, could not have carried out these functions without the support and resources of the state of North Carolina and its political subdivisions.”

N.C.’s role in the CIA’s rendition program was further explored in a 2018 report by the N.C. Commission of Inquiry on Torture. (This report cites Federal Aviation Administration flight logs to say Aero planes also touched down at the Wilmington airport during the period of time the planes were employed for renditions.)

Signatech renewed their lease once in Wilmington, having remained at the hangar for about 20 years at the time of its departure in 2009. It disbanded as a company in N.C in 2010. Airport officials said they are unaware of whether or not the company had government affiliations.

“The lease expired again and they said, ‘Nope we’re out of it. Have a nice day,’ and they turned it over to the airport authority,” Cherry said. “Nothing squirrelly about it, just a plain Jane hangar.”

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