When the CIA needs to run a clandestine flight into Central America, this has been one of their favorite airports.
Marana is a small town located northeast of Tucson along Interstate
Marana Northwest Regional Airport is due east of Marana, and at first glance appears to be an ordinary freight and maintenance airport. Cargo jets operated by such companies as Federal Express and United Parcel Service are the main users of Marana; the only passenger flights involve small private jets. Marana is also used as a storage facility for mothballed commercial jets, and they glisten in the Arizona sun.
To look at it, you’d never guess Marana has long been popular with the CIA for espionage against Cuba, covert operations in Asia and Africa, and, more recently, clandestine drug and weapons flights to Latin America. In fact, only the Mena airport (see ARKANSAS) can top Marana for sheer amount of covert weirdness associated with it.
What’s There: Even for a cargo airport, Marana looks dull. In fact, it doesn’t even have an operational control tower. Its ordinariness was undoubtedly one of its big attractions for the CIA, along with its proximity to Mexico. It has four runways, hangars, and repair and fueling facilities. While the airport is not open to the public, there are no extraordinary security measures in place; the flight instruction, aircraft rental, and repair facilities are open to anyone with business there. The odds are very good that a typical user of Marana has never heard of the airport’s CIA connections.
Marana Northwest Regional Airport, Marana Map Photo Gallery
Adjacent to the Marana airport is the Pinal Aviation Park, which has a facility housing the local operations of Evergreen Aviation (see below). This building does have tight security, including prohibitions against photography on their premises. Trespassers on this property have been detained and arrested, so respect any warning signs that may be posted.
Secret Stuff: Marana first became a location for CIA projects in 1961 when it was a center for Skyhook balloon launches intended for reconnaissance of Cuba. Skyhook was a classified CIA project to launch high-altitude camera-equipped balloons to drift over foreign nations, take photos, and then release the camera via parachute when it drifted Iic k over a friendly or neutral (like the ocean) territory. Because of limit high-altitude (behind the range of surface to air missiles until the mid-1960s) and silvery color, Skyhook balloons were responsible lor many UFO reports in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Skyhook operations at Marana were conducted through Inter-mountain Aviation, a CIA-created and owned company. A specially t-quipped B-17 bomber would depart from Marana and launch the balloons at night while in flight. Later Intermountain greatly expanded it’, lleet of aircraft and became global in its support of CIA operations. Inlormountain Aviation was identified as a CIA front company during *innator Frank Church’s Senate hearings in the mid-1970s. One consequence of these hearings was that the CIA was forced to sell its Iront companies, and Intermountain Aviation was purchased in 1979 hy Evergreen Aviation of Oregon. For most of the 1980s, the Evergreen operations at Marana were outwardly normal. Evergreen leased air-planes to, and provided support services for, government agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Postal Service. However,
I vergreen’s cover began to unravel in 1989 when it hired Gary Eitel, ,i pilot for the CIA in Angola in 1976, as a pilot for its DC-9 and 727 lleet.
Soon after Eitel was hired, he noticed that card-carrying CIA employees were at Marana’s Evergreen facilities and that CIA contracts made up a substantial portion of Evergreen’s revenues at Marana. He .ilso discovered that Evergreen was overbilling some government clients, such as a $52 million overcharge for the U.S. Postal Service during a two-year span, and using the overbilling to provide additional services to the CIA above those specified in their contracts. Eitel also discovered that Evergreen was paying several pilots less than the compensation provided for in the government contracts, and this revelation resulted in angry pilots telling Eitel what they knew about CIA operations at Marana.
Eitel learned that numerous C-130 transport craft leased to the U.S. Forest Service for firefighting support were actually being flown out of Marana by the CIA for missions to Latin America. 727 jets supposedly leased to the U.S. Postal Service were being packed with electronic surveillance gear and flown out of Marana on intelIigencez missions. He further learned that most of the C-130 flights to Latin America were transporting weapons to Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Colombia; many of the return flights carried cocaine and other drugs to finance the arms shipments. But Eitel also learned that an Evergreen pilot named Dean Moss, who had been embroiled in a labor dispute, had been murdered when he threatened to go public with similar revelations about illegal activities at Marana. Moss had been murdered in an especially gruesome way: chlorine bleach had been injected directly into his stomach.
Eitel didn’t wait to see if he would be next. He left Evergreen in the summer of 1989 and filed a “whistleblower” complaint against Evergreen for the overcharges of the U.S. Postal Service and the use of U.S. Forest Service planes by the CIA. He also filed suit against Evergreen, and testified before Congress in 1993 about Evergreen’s activities. In 1996, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona indicted two former Evergreen employees for fraud in connection with the overbillings. Eitel received several death threats after he went public, but his high public profile apparently protected him. Eitel now leaves quietly in Washington state.
The use of Marana for CIA operations dropped precipitously after Eitel went public with his accusations and the Clinton administration de-emphasized clandestine operations. However, Marana is still ideally located for clandestine flights to Latin America and the continued large Evergreen presence indicates they expect a heavy need for their services sometime in the future at Marana.
Getting a Look Inside: There are several businesses open to the public at Marana, although they don’t want the curious just dropping in. As previously noted, the Evergreen Aviation operations have high security and most definitely do not want uninvited visitors. However, it has a large sign in front that makes it easy to identify.
Unusual Fact: The promotional materials for Evergreen’s facilities at Marana boast of a “24-hour gated entrance along with armed roving security officers in marked and unmarked vehicles. Basewide Overt & Covert CCTV and Intrusion Detection Systems insures [sic] safety and security for our customers. In order to track and maintain the strictess [sic] confidence all employees and visitors are required to wear identification badges at all times.”
Getting There-. Marana is about 20 miles northwest of Tucson on Interstate 10. The airport is due east of downtown Marana on Avra Valley Road.
Hu,ills to Marana Northwest Regional Airport, Marana
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