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    BEHIND THE STORY

    How a hobby blossomed into FAA investigative series

    The crop-dusting airplane that 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta once allegedly tried to rent sat idle behind police tape Sept. 24, 2001, on a Belle Glades, Fla., airfield.
    KELLY OWEN/GETTY IMAGES
    The crop-dusting airplane that 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta once allegedly tried to rent sat idle behind police tape Sept. 24, 2001, on a Belle Glades, Fla., airfield.

    (Editor’s note: A look at the origins of signature Globe journalism.)

    Two years ago, we developed a strange hobby. We moonlighted as collectors of information on airplanes and their owners.

    After work, on the weekends and sometimes late into the night, we rattled off N-numbers and furiously searched for them in Google, Twitter, aviation sites, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft registry. To our families and friends it was clear: We were obsessed with US-registered airplanes.

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    Our hobby was the genesis of Secrets in the Sky, the recent two-part Spotlight series in the Globe about the FAA. The agency is supposed to keep track of every American plane and pilot at its offices in Oklahoma City. But its record-keeping system allows so much secrecy and relies so heavily on self-reporting of crimes and other misdeeds that the United States has become a haven for people with something to hide.

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    Our early searches uncovered a snapshot of what we came to learn was a troubling trend: American planes were commonly used by drug runners and corrupt politicians. The mysterious incidents involving US planes began to pile up.

    It started when we found anomalies in the FAA’s aircraft registry data. A simple count of planes registered by city showed that Wilmington, Del., was at the top with more than 9,000 aircraft.

    But more alarming was the discovery of a city landing in the top 15 that neither of us had ever heard of before — Onalaska, Texas. The vacation spot about an hour north of Houston had more planes registered to it than Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston. We kept asking ourselves why a town of 2,500 people would claim more than 1,000 planes when it didn’t even have an airport.

    The planes’ ownership records offered a clue. All but four of the 1,096 aircraft in Onalaska were registered to a single entity: Aircraft Guaranty.

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    For more than 25 years, Aircraft Guaranty has been providing services for those who don’t meet the FAA’s US citizenship requirements to legally register aircraft. We soon learned that this loophole in FAA regulations was big business and favored by secrecy seekers.

    We began investigating the industry and the planes it registered. We found a mishmash of businesses that include a Delaware incorporator, a boutique bank in Utah, and even individuals operating out of their homes. Some of the companies weren’t even based in the United States.

    The practice has resulted in thousands of foreign-owned planes, marked with US N-numbers, scattered around the globe. In a post-9/11 world, we believed this was an important issue and involved national security. Our hunch was verified when we discovered that the Department of Transportation Inspector General had voiced similar concerns in 2013 and 2014.

    While the FAA’s mission is “to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world,” our early investigation found multiple inadequacies in the FAA’s oversight. The system creates confusion and secrecy in the sky, with alarming consequences.

    We knew it was a story that needed to be told, but we couldn’t do it alone. We were thankful to receive The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Fellowship, which supports in-depth reporting with the help of Participant Media, Open Road Films, and First Look Media.

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    Without the commitment of organizations like these willing to invest in investigative reporting, important stories would go untold and powers who need to be held accountable would continue to lurk in the shadows.

    Jaimi Dowdell can be reached at jaimi.dowdell@globe.com. Kelly Carr can be reached at kelly.carr@globe.com.