The Florida man who created a Twitter account that tracks Elon Musk’s jet has teamed up with an Ottawa partner to set up a mechanism that will monitor and publicize the movement of Canadian military aircraft transporting VIPs such as the Prime Minister.
The effort follows a story in The Globe and Mail about how the military is exploring ways to add a layer of secrecy to the movement of some Canadian Armed Forces flights, including those that carry the Prime Minister and the Governor-General.
Jack Sweeney, a Florida college student who uses air traffic data to power his “Elonjet” Twitter account, is working with with Ottawa researcher Steffan Watkins to set up the Royal Canadian Air Force VIP Tracker, or @RCAF_VIP, that will tweet the movement of military planes that transport Canadian VIPs or military personnel.
The Royal Canadian Air Force recently announced it’s investigating how it might prevent the real-time tracking of military aircraft. One option would be taking steps to ensure that flight-tracking websites, which sell their services for a fee, are unable to display the movement of some Canadian military planes.
The military says no decision has been made yet on how to proceed but NAV Canada, the not-for-profit corporation that owns and operates Canada’s civil air navigation system, has written the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, asking them to block the dissemination of call signs of numerous Canadian military aircraft. For-profit flight-tracking websites use this data to display the movement of aircraft.
Last fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau drew criticism for flying to Tofino, B.C., with family on the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation instead of appearing at Indigenous events to mark the historic occasion. His official itinerary didn’t disclose the plans and said he was in Ottawa for private meetings. Only after flight-tracking data showed a Canadian Armed Forces plane heading to Tofino did his office confirm that he was on that flight.
The Canadian military however said security concerns are at the heart of its inquiry into more safeguards.
Some of the biggest VIPs the military transports include the Prime Minister, Governor-General and members of the Royal Family. Flights carrying the Prime Minister use the call sign Canforce 01 (CFC 01) and flights carrying the Governor-General use the call sign Canforce 3701 (CFC 3701).
Mr. Watkins, an Ottawa-based research consultant who tracks aircraft and ships worldwide, is building the tracker with Mr. Sweeney. He said Canadian military efforts to block call signs from being disseminated on flight-tracking websites may create barriers for members of the public who are unskilled in monitoring plane movement. But those who track flights as a hobby, or professionally, and rely on an independent network of sensors that track plane transponders, such as ADS-B Exchange or SkyScanWorld, will see no change.
He and Mr. Sweeney are drawing upon ADS-B Exchange data for the Royal Canadian Air Force VIP Tracker. It will track flights by the military’s CC-144 Challengers, its CC-150 Polaris aircraft and King Air planes that are leased for RCAF use.
Mr. Watkins said this effort is being undertaken in anticipation that Canada will take measures to block the display of flights based on their call sign. “It looks like the RCAF is considering measures that would block these flights from flight-tracking websites in an effort to make it harder for the general public to monitor these flights,” he said. “It made sense to set up a Twitter bot to do the work and feed people the information.”
A spokesman for Canada’s Department of National Defence called the RCAF VIP Tracker “an interesting use of existing, open source information” and said the military “always welcomes interest in our activities.”
Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations, said the RCAF has not made any decision on reducing the visibility of VIP flights. “No decision has yet been made by the RCAF on this matter.”
The matter came to light after the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates civil aviation in the United States, discussed a Canadian request to block call signs in a July 14 e-mail to aviation stakeholders with an interest in the agency’s Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed (LADD) program. This program allows aircraft owners to block or limit the dissemination of flight data.
In the letter, FAA analyst William Blacker tells aviation stakeholders that NAV Canada “has requested several call sign combinations to be added to the LADD Filter file.”
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