Bernie Ecclestone Considering Bid On Interlagos Circuit

In an effort to preserve Brazil's spot on the Formula One calendar, the city of Sao Paulo is selling the Interlagos circuit. Sao Paulo mayor Joao Doria says the track will be auctioned off as privatization is the best way forward for both the circuit and the city. Bernie Ecclestone, who was recently replaced at the head of Formula One by an actual living and breathing human, is keen to bid on the track. Ecclestone, who's wife is Brazilian, also owns a ranch in the country.

With privatization will come much needed upgrades to the facilities and grounds. The sale comes with the authorization to build a hotel and luxury apartments, as well as a museum named for Formula One god, Ayrton Senna. Faced with a massive economic crisis, Sao Paulo is unable to make the upgrades themselves. Doria told Reuters "The privatisation of the track is the guarantee of the continuity of Formula One. I understand that Formula One is important but with private money, not public money. It's perfectly possible for it to keep running with private money as a private track."

In a typical Ecclestonian response, when asked about the buying the circuit, Ecclestone said "I haven’t made any ‘yes, I’m going to buy’ or ‘no, I ain’t going to buy’ (decision). We’ll wait and see."

It is understood that Formula One's new owners, Liberty Media, are also considering bidding on the track. Ecclestone has, in fact, been urging them to buy Interlagos.

Formula One, under Ecclestone's control, built tracks and held races in several new countries in recent years. A good number of those races were financial failures for the host countries. Billions of dollars were spend on track construction and hosting fees, only to have the race pulled from the calendar after a year or two. The only party the benefited from this was Ecclestone. His "take the money and run" approach did Formula One no favors.

It's a safe bet that most people involved in Formula One would rather have Ecclestone stay away on "gardening leave" at this point. The Brazilian Grand Prix has, for years, been one of the best races on the calendar. Championships have been won here while hearts have been broken. Some of Formula One's most emotional moments have happened at this track. Some racers have the drive of their lives here, while others got lost on the service roads.

Formula One can not afford to loose this race. The best thing for Interlagos and Formula One would be for Liberty Media to purchase the circuit. This would show the teams and fans that Liberty is fully committed to both bringing Formula One successfully into the future while keeping the sport's heritage alive.

The BMW M2 Is All the Sports Car We Need—and Maybe a Little More

Leading up to the BMW M2's unveiling in October 2015, Bimmer enthusiasts would salivate at just the mention of its name. Before the M2 ever officially saw the light of day, word spread that it was a glorified state of BMW sports car perfection, a throwback to the simple days of the racing-inspired E30 M3, the perfect balance of performance and usability. Turns out that's not too far from the truth.

BMW loaned The Drive a dual-clutch-transmission-equipped M2 to test as we pleased. As you may have seen in a recent Facebook Live video, we took the car to car to some of our favorite roads in the southern Catskill region of New York state to judge the capability of the new entry-level M car.

Unfortunately, when we had the car, the temperatures were pretty low—like 25 degrees low—so we took an extreme amount of caution with its summer-rated Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires. But that didn't stop us from tossing it around.

The BMW M2's motor pulls and pulls

The M2 packs a 365-horsepower turbocharged inline-six motor that feels like it wants to pull you and the 3,450-pound car through anything. According to BMW, with the seven-speed DCT transmission, the car manages 0-60 in 4.1 seconds.

Digging deeper into the details, the M2 has BMW's N55 motor with a single twin-scroll turbo. The N55 can also be found in the M235i, but with upgraded crank bearings, pistons, a different forged-steel crankshaft, and a better oil cooling system. With all of those pieces tossed inside, the M2 feels quick as hell.

At no point while driving this car did I wish it had any extra power.

With the M2's drive mode left in "Comfort," power was always readily available and the car remained happy to launch me for a highway pass or smoothly power out of a corner when I needed it to. It wasn't too boosty or overly aggressive. I wasn't mashing the right pedal, especially because of the low road temperatures, but when I needed the power, the car was ready and able.

Its suspension is unashamedly aggressive

The M2 is an aggressive car. You might not be able to tell that from its appearance, or maybe not even from its grunty exhaust note, but if there's anything that will remind you just how hard this car goes, it's how its stiff suspension handles bumps.

Driving through New York City with this thing is not for someone who keeps a his-and-hers Ibruprofen container handy for regular back pains. But just because it was stiff, doesn't mean the car was easily upset over bumps while driving at speed. It kept together well, and with a performance-built machine like the M2, that's the most important thing.

The M2 is not something we would recommend as a daily driver—unless you're commuting on perfect country roads.

This dual-clutch automatic transmission did its job, but the cheaper, manual option is our preference

The automatic transmission in the M2 is a quick-shifting seven speed. It launches the car quicker than the six-speed manual (with the help of launch control) and allows for a calmer driving experience. But who buys an M2 because they want to be calm?

While we had the car, we kept it primarily in the "Sport" drive mode with manual gear selection chosen. In "Comfort" the transmission felt too lazy for our liking.

The additional $2,900 that the DCT costs just isn't worth it. But if you need an automatic transmission for your M2, the dual-clutch that BMW will pack in there for you is fantastic.

The way this thing pulls out of corners is like, woah...

The M2's trick electronic limited-slip differential that's stuffed between the rear wheels performs some real magic when it helps the car out of corners. Borrowed from the M3 and M4, the computer-controlled LSD manages how much power is sent to rear wheels depending on the corner the car is coming out of. From the driver's seat, you feel it working as you come out of a turn, and honestly, it takes some getting used to. But for us, it was a welcome feeling.

Its fuel economy is really not great

So yeah. Maybe we drive like lunatics, maybe it was the weather, maybe it's a combination of both, but while we had the car, we barely saw anything over 17 miles-per-gallon. And what also didn't help was this car's seemingly-tiny 13.7-gallon tank. The U.S. EPA rated the M2 for 20 MPG city and 26 MPG highway, but it was rare that our test car recorded those numbers.

Refueling every 230 miles or so is not pleasant.

Without nitpicking, the M2's driving position could use some adjusting

Everything in the M2—like on pretty much every other BMW—was familiar if you've driven any modern BMW. While that means it's all pretty plain, it also says that everything just works.

Our main gripe with the M2's interior was its driver's seat position. No matter how we adjusted the seat, it always felt a bit too high up. Not a huge deal and we manage to live with it.

Overall, the entry-level M car was easy to get acquainted with.

And, hey. The M2 even has a somewhat useable backseat. Though we wouldn't want to be stuffed back there while driving down a twisty road.

It's beautiful

The M2 is subtle beauty. It's compact, but not cheap. Its body is different and more aggressive than the normal 2-Series lineup in all the best ways—mostly the wider appearance. For some reason, those huge front air dams just do it for us.

BMW nerds love it

While driving the M2, we were getting thumbs-ups from Bimmer guys in modified E46s, other M cars, and even during rare sightings of other M2s. The people who knew what this thing was about absolutely adored it—as they should. For enthusiasts, the M2 represents what BMW is known for as a performance car-creating company. To them, and to us, the M2 reminds us that BMW doesn't joke about performance cars.

Contact the author: aaron.brown@timeinc.com

Watch This Jeep Cherokee Climb Up a Nearly Vertical Rock Face Easy As Pie

The Jeep Cherokee XJ is beloved by almost all off-road enthusiasts. With a bullet proof 4.0-liter inline-six making 193 horsepower and full-bore four-wheel-drive capabilities, the boxy SUV could easily outlive you—espeically when the road gets rough. Unfortunately, Jeep stopped production of the XJ in 2001 and eventually brought back the name in 2014 with the new Cherokee...though with a very different model.

Anyways, Facebook user and clear off-road expert Josh McBride uploaded a video of his adventures in Sand Hollow, Utah. The video starts with his heavily modified Cherokee at the base of this seemingly vertical ascent and ends with the XJ at the top. Whatever the case may be, McBride must have a freakish crawl ratio on his truck to achieve such an ascent.

Unfortunately, the details revolving around Josh’s build are limited at this time, but we at The Drive will be sure to keep you posted if we obtain more information.

UPDATE: According to the owner, Josh McBride, the Cherokee XJ was built by Fat Bob's Garage of Layton Utah. Some of the build's highlights include "Rock Krawler Three Link Long Arms, BDS Springs, G2 Axle and 4.56 gears, Torq-masters front and rear Aussie lockers, 15x10 Fuel Offroad wheels and 35" Cooper STT tires." The build also includes a flurry of cosmetic improvements that you can see on his Facebook page.

The 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLC300 Coupe Is the Cute ‘Ute for Urban Fashion Plates

Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff collection of impressions, jottings, and marginalia on whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: The Mercedes-Benz GLC300 4MATIC Coupe.

Who Is it For?

Urban-dwelling, fashion-conscious empty nesters who fell in love with SUVs while shuttling their kids around years ago, but don’t need the size or the boxiness of a traditional crossover.

Where Did We Test It?

New York -> Vermont -> Massachusetts -> Connecticut -> New York.

The First Thing You Notice

It’s most definitely a Mercedes-Benz. Even if you weren’t familiar with the styling cues of Mercedes’s current design language—the LED swoosh crossing the headlight, the strong haunches—that three-pointed star on the grille, sized between a grapefruit and a volleyball, is a dead giveaway.

Thing They Don't Want You to Notice, But You Do Anyway

That "coupe“ body style is really more of a fastback sedan. It’s reminiscent of the old Saab 900, in an odd way.

Car Is Good at

Being classy inside. Like Mercedes-Benz’s other new models, the GLC-Class seems primed to help knock Audi off its perch as the best purveyor of mass-market luxury interiors. The two-tone red-and-black leather seats in my tester—sporting Ferrari Daytona-style horizontal bands, no less—were as glamorous as they were comfortable on my four-state drive. The swooping center console has grown more familiar since it first appeared in the C-Class a few years back, and consider me in the approving minority when it comes to the iPad Mini-like display for the COMAND infotainment system affixed up high.

Car Is Bad at

Being subtle outside. Between the aforementioned giant emblem up front, the slightly-smaller one on the back that doubles as a secret latch for the tailgate and the hidey-hole for the rear view camera, and the odd tapering effect caused by the giant rims and the diminutive greenhouse, and the end result is a car that does not blend in at the Costco parking lot.

Rating: 1 (Very Poor) to 5 (Excellent)

  • PERFORMANCE: 3/5
  • COMFORT: 4/5
  • LUXURY: 4/5
  • HAULING PEOPLE: 3/5
  • HAULING STUFF: 3/5
  • CURB APPEAL: 3/5
  • “WOW” FACTOR: 4/5
  • OVERALL: 3.5/5

Would You Buy It?

I’m a hard "maybe." The basic GLC-Class platform makes for one outstanding compact crossover, and that hasn't been diluted by the transition to four-door "coupe"; it’s more fun to drive than most of its ilk—though I wouldn’t go quite so far as to endorse Mercedes-Benz’s “Part SUV. Part sports car” marketing tagline.

But the coupe-like rear roofline is hard to sign off on. It certainly gives up some space compared with the standard GLC—and while the regular GLC's tail end isn’t particularly appealing, it’s not so ugly as to require being excised and replaced with an ass that looks like it shares some DNA with an AMC Pacer. Taking the “stylish” option of the GLC lineup also means sacrificing some rear visibility, so if you’re paranoid about the 5-0 riding your six, this probably isn’t the car.

Making the choice a little harder is the fact that Mercedes doesn't charge all that much of a premium for the "stylish" rear end. The GLC300 Coupe, which comes standard with Benz's 4MATIC all-wheel-drive, only costs $4,800 more than an equivalent two-box GLC; add in the fact that the Coupe packs some regular GLC300 options as standard (19-inch wheels, LED headlights) and the difference starts to close up surprisingly quickly.

Would I buy a GLC-Class? Absolutely. I'm just not sure whether I'd buy this GLC-Class.

DEEP THOUGHTS

As an automotive journalist, I often find myself among the ranks of people disparaging the American obsession with SUVs. And yet, after knocking out close to 800 miles of urban highways, down muddy country roads, and everything in-between, it’s hard not to see the appeal in the crossover. After decades of development, most of the compromises have been bred out of the class—at least, when you reach Mercedes-Benz levels of quality.

The GLC rides as nicely as any C- or E-Class sedan, even on the standard 19-inch wheels; it turns in decent fuel economy (I saw around 26 miles per gallon overall); and it feels every bit as spritely in the day-to-day as any other Mercedes motivated by the carmaker’s turbo four. It lacks for little in luxury or technology, with almost every option to be found in the Benz catalog of fanciness available either standard or as an option. And on top of all that, it can gallivant over potholes, through thick, sticky mud, and across rough terrain better than any conventional car.

Perhaps, then, the greatest attribute of the Mercedes-Benz GLC300 Coupe isn't its style or its prestige. It's the fact that it proves the world can be a decent place even once everyone has traded in their sedans and station wagons for SUVs.

SPECS:

  • PRICE (AS TESTED): $45,950 ($63,505)
  • POWERTRAIN: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four, 241 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque; nine-speed-automatic; all-wheel-drive
  • FUEL ECONOMY: 22 city, 27 highway
  • 0-60: 6.4 seconds (manufacturer figures)
  • Oddest feature to be missing from a $64,000 Mercedes-Benz SUV: Heated seats

Ford To Live Stream 2017 World Rallycross Season

Ford Performance announced that they will be the exclusive United States live provider for the FIA World Rallycross Championship. All 12 races of the 2017 season will be streamed live on the Ford Performance Facebook page. While Ford is streaming the races, World RX Managing Director Paul Bellamy said that highlights would be available on a free-to-air broadcaster in the U.S. The details of that deal should be announced soon.

This is the first time a manufacture has partnered with the series to provide a live broadcast. Ford World RX driver and beloved lunatic Ken Block couldn't be happier about the deal. "I think it's amazing that my factory race partner, Ford Performance, has chosen to become the official distributor of World RX here in the States. One of the things I love about World RX is that fans are able to watch the action in real-time on race day via streaming. The fact that Ford has stepped up and become the official partner in America and is doing it via their Facebook is beyond cool to me" said Block via a press release.

For Ford, it would be wonderful the two Hoonigan Racing Division Ford Focus RS RXs dominate the season. Ford has puffed it chest up in the recent past and actually delivered. For almost a year, they boasted they were bringing the Ford GT back to Le Mans to reclaim the throne. They did. So maybe this will work out, too. It would be America's shame if the Ford-sponsored World RX live stream turned in to Peugeot commercial.

The season starts this weekend. You can watch it live on April 2nd, at 8:00am EST at Facebook.com/FordPerformance.

Watch SpaceX’s Historic Reusable Rocket Launch Live Right Here

If all goes according to plan, at 6:27 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time this evening, Elon Musk and his rocket company SpaceX will be set to write their names into the history books yet again. Because tonight, SpaceX will likely become the first private organization to launch a payload into Earth orbit on a used rocket.

See, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that'll be pushing this SpaceX mission off from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 39A somewhere between half-past six and 9 o'clock will be making its sophomore flight when it helps heft the SES-10 communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit. It first launched back in April 2016, when it helped bring supplies to the International Space Station during mission CRS-8. (That mission also happened to be the first time SpaceX successfully landed a first-stage rocket on an ocean-going barge, a feat it plans to repeat tonight.)

Reusable spaceships are nothing new, of course; each of NASA's space shuttles made repeated trips into space and back. again. But SpaceX is shooting to become the first private company to usher reusable rockets into commercial use. Making rockets that can be launched repeatedly is a crucial part of SpaceX's goal to lower the costs of space launch. It'll also likely be key to Musk's plans to send people to Mars.

The SpaceX livestream feed on YouTube goes hot at 6:27 p.m. EDT. You can click here to go to the company's official page...or, if you'd rather hang out here on The Drive (and we wouldn't blame you), you can watch it below.

Watch This Impatient Subaru Driver Nearly Cause a Mountainside Wreck While Passing

While behind the wheel of a car, being attentive and having some patience are two things that can help keep you and the motorists in the vehicles around you out of trouble. In reference to a video that was uploaded to Facebook Tuesday, that means waiting until you're not on a blind mountain road to pass a truck as it creeps up the hill. Apparently, this Subaru driver didn't get that memo.

The clip, which was uploaded by Facebook user Cathi Duck, shows a truck barely managing to climb a narrow road with an aggressive uphill grade in Australia. As the truck inches up the road, you can see a Subaru WRX-looking (it could be a 2.5RS, but we'd bet our silver dollars it isn't) car dash for a pass, but nearly cause a head-on collision while doing so.

It's dumb driving.

"HOLY F**K.....WHAT A F**KING IDIOT I CAME ACROSS COMING UP THE MOUNTAIN EARLIER TONIGHT......THANK GOD FOR DASH CAM," wrote Duck on the Facebook post. "I am starting to realize what could have happened there if he hit me coming back I would have gotten pushed into the rock wall."

To you, the Subaru driver, we get that you don't want to wait behind a truck as it creeps up a hill, but if you can't see what's in the other lane, or if you're not sure you have enough of a gap to make that pass, please, for all parties involved, just don't do it.

What Is This Car Porsche Keeps Teasing?

In three different YouTube videos, Porsche has teased a new car by showing it under a car cover. It is entirely possible that these are three completely separate models, but we're banking on them all being the same car. Porsche is going to an awful lot of trouble to continue showing this car without really showing it, trying to drum up some excitement for their future model. Based on the context of the car's 'secret identity', its shape from three different angles, and a few hints from elsewhere, we think we know what this car is, but how sure are we? In short, not very. Porsche is known for their subterfuge, and this whole thing could be nothing more than that.

Beginning at the front of the car with the screenshot shown above, we can see that this is likely to be a 911-based car. You can clearly see the 991-generation headlight/fender shape, and the leading edge of the fender. The cover here is tight enough to the leading edge of the bumper to give us the impression of large radiator and brake duct openings, not to mention the widened front fenders, leading us to believe this is a sporting model, perhaps from the GT department. Because it was released in this video, we know that it will be produced by Porsche's exclusive department and will feature a low production quantity.

This second screen capture was taken from a recent GT3 testing video. At the very end of the short video, the German man in this frame says "weiter gehts" to his workers, which basically means "back to work", and then nods his head toward this machine. This angle shows a 911-esque silhouette, but the roofline seems perhaps a bit too low. It's possible that the large rear wing (did we mention the LARGE REAR WING?) is keeping the car cover to an angle that obscures the true rear window angle. The fact that this car is shown off in the same video as the new GT3 seems to reinforce the GT-department connection.

The first time we saw this car was during Porsche's Geneva Motor Show event for the GT3. A man walks into a garage with two cars covered and flips a coin. Whatever the coin read, it meant that he took the cover off of the GT3 and went for a drive around the track. The other car remained covered, and was only shown briefly in a dimly lit storage area. Stacked behind the car in question, however, is a set of treadless pure racing slicks. Porsche doesn't do things by half-measures, and they don't do things by accident. Whatever this car is, it has to be a track-focussed experience.

So, having presented all of this evidence, what do we think this car is? Well, we're leaning toward a new 911 GT2. In an interview with Autocar nearly two years ago, Porsche GT boss Andreas Preuninger noted that a GT2 would be coming at the end of the "Gen 2" series of 991 near 2018. The 997 generation GT2 RS produced 611 horsepower, but you can nearly get that from the current Turbo S. In order to be really wild, you'd have to expect in excess of 650 horses. We won't know for sure what this car is until it bows officially. Porsche has said before that they're putting a lot of effort into their New York Auto Show booth, so perhaps we'll see it as soon as next month.

Two Killed by Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Modified Ford Fiesta ST

If you're looking to shave a few seconds off your car's quarter-mile time, there are a few straightforward routes you can take. You can tinker with the drivetrain setup, find a good ECU tune, add lightness—hell, even new tires alone can make an appreciable difference. But if you're going to open up the exhaust and mess around with the catalytic converter, the tragic deaths of two people in a modified Ford Fiesta ST in England shows the danger created when everything is put back together incorrectly.

20-year-old former Ford engineering apprentice Tom Putt and his friend Nikki Willis were sitting in the car outside Willis's house on the night of December 5, 2016. Neighbors say they heard the engine running around 4:30am, and their bodies were discovered later that morning.

Police announced their findings today after working with Ford over the last few months to pin down the cause.

Putt apparently modified the Fiesta's exhaust system last year, removing the catalytic converter and adding vents in the hood. While local articles vaguely point to the missing cat as the reason the dangerous fumes were allowed to escape, a straight pipe on its own wouldn't cause this, and given Putt's experience it seems more likely there was a problem with the reassembly—possibly something as simple as missing or broken gasket, or a loose connection.

So leaking exhaust was allowed to build up under the hood since the car wasn't moving, eventually coming up through the added vents and entering the cabin through the fresh air intakes at the base of the windshield. It's also believed cold weather kept the gas concentrated around the front of the car.

The report released today confirmed CO levels in the cabin were more than 1,000 times higher than the country's legal limit.

It's a tragic tale all around, and a sobering reminder of the inherent risks in messing around with complex machines. Check, check, and check your work again —your (or your loved one's) life could depend on it.

Shedding Some Light On The Pentagon’s Most Shadowy Aviation Units

On May 2, 2011, a group of special operators from the top secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) descended on an unassuming compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In an ensuing fire-fight, members of SEAL Team Six shot and killed infamous Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Due to an accident during the operation, the elite troops had to leave behind evidence of previously unknown stealthy transport helicopter, likely related at least in part to the ubiquitous UH-60 Black Hawk.

The incident offered a rare window into the activities of the U.S. military’s most secret aviators and a look at their unique aircraft. Although the secretive 160th Special Operations Air Regiment, otherwise known as the "Nightstalkers," may get all the attention, layers of clandestine units far more obscure exist. Some of them are silently blazing the path for special operations aviation's future.

Though they often involve various military units and personnel from intelligence agencies, these sort of “black ops” are most commonly associated with the nebulous JSOC. When planning America’s most demanding military operations, which officials in Washington might never admit even occurred, these elements sometimes need very specialized aerial support.

So, with help primarily from the U.S. Army and Air Force, the Pentagon has steadily formed a permanent and secretive infrastructure to provide aircraft and helicopters for these missions. As of January 2017, this included at least four different units across the services and within JSOC itself: the joint Aviation Tactics Evaluation Group (AVTEG), the Army’s Flight Concepts Division and the Air Force’s 66th Air Operations Squadron and 427th Special Operations Squadron.

The bland-sounding AVTEG is situated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the home of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and JSOC. While little is known about this organization, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we can now present its official organization. The U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) provided the following chart in response to a request for information about the group's organizational structure.

The breakdown is almost completely standard. A unit made up of individuals from across the services, AVTEG has a command group and seven “joint” offices, including typical administrative, operational and supporting elements.

The numbering scheme is standard across the Pentagon and the absence of a “J7” – usually set aside for a group in charge of creating joint operational plans, doctrine, training materials and exercises – is not necessarily notable. The sections specifically for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) – distinct from the common operational and intelligence components - are more unusual.

With no description of the functions of these offices or details about their size and associated equipment, the chart provokes more questions than it answers. We have no idea whether or not it is even complete. Of course, none of that is surprising.

A Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter from 6th Special Operations Squadron, also seen at top, which is the kind of foreign aircraft top-secret aviators might have, too.

Details about the other units are similarly scant. The Air Force Historical Research Agency, which had official records on every unit in the service, has nothing in its file for the 427th after 1972. It does not list the 66th among active squadrons on its website, either.

It is possible that these are unofficial or cover designations rather than the formal nomenclature. However, the 427th resides at Pope Airfield in North Carolina and “provides U.S. Army [special operations forces] personnel opportunities to train on various types of aircraft for infiltration and exfiltration that they may encounter in lesser-developed training,” according to an official mission description that aviation researcher Andreas Parsch obtained through his own Freedom of Information Act request.

The only readily available public mention of the 66th is from an Air Force manual on forward-area refueling point (FARP) operations, which also name drops AVTEG. Both units are exempted from over-arching rules regarding pre-site surveys and “for short-notice exercises and contingencies, AVTEG and 66 AOS may authorize the use of temporary FARP sites” based on the service’s approved parameters, according to the handbook. Oh, and there’s also its awesome patch.

Researchers and journalists have found evidence that these Air Force squadrons fly a mix of traditional military type aircraft like the C-130 and less common types, including Cessna C-208 Grand Caravans, Pilatus PC-6s, and CASA 212s and C-295s, over the years. The service went so far as to assign the official designations U-27A and C-41A to the Caravan and 212, respectively.

There is even less information about the Flight Concepts Division or what aircraft it has in its inventory. But it would be reasonable to expect its fleet includes a diverse collection of American and foreign aircraft.

In his 2015 book Relentless Strike, Sean Naylor said this unit had quietly transformed into the E Squadron of the Army’s equally secret 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment D, more commonly known Delta Force. However, on July 8, 2015, Army Colonel Paul Olsen briefed Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk District’s work, in which he described work on the Flight Concepts Division’s hangar as something “you will soon see.” Again, its possible that one or more cover names is in use to refer to these units.

The obscure building itself sits secluded at Fort Eustis, Virginia behind multiple layers of fencing. The base’s fire chief isn’t even allowed in to check things out for emergency planning purposes. “Research activities are also conducted by the Flight Concepts Division that is highly secret and access for pre-planning purpose is non-existent,” an undated job posting explains. “Nature of their work is known to be hazardous.”

A rare shot of a C-41A, believed to be assigned to the 427th Special Operations Squadron, at Andrews Air Force Base in 1993.

The exact relationship between these units, as well as AVTEG, remains unclear. There is, understandably, little official information available. A cursory Google search of .mil websites mainly turns up biographies of officers who list one of the elements among their previous positions, as well as vague job postings. Titles like "operations officer," “troop commander,” and “fire support officer” are just standard military positions that offer no obvious clues as to the specific nature of the missions – no doubt by design.

Of course, the U.S. military has had these types of units for decades. However, by and large, they had historically been ad hoc formations that lasted only as long as specific conflicts. During World War II, in Europe, what was then the Army Air Forces used modified attack planes and medium and heavy bombers to drop intelligence agents behind enemy lines, insert Office of Strategic Services (OSS) teams – a precursor to both the Central Intelligence Agency and Army Special Forces – and resupply those efforts and friendly partisan troops.

From the United Kingdom, the Eighth Air Force’s used the nicknamed “Carpetbagger” for its component of these operations. The 801st Bomb Group (Provisional) and then the 492nd Bomb Group flew the actual missions with a mix fleet of B-24 Liberators, C-47 Skytrains, A-26C Invaders and British Mosquitoes.

Another unit, which ultimately became the 885th Bomb Squadron (Heavy) (Special), conducted its own sorties first from sites in North Africa and then from bases in Italy. Similar “air commandos” supported operations in China, India and Southeast Asia, including providing dedicated air support for allied guerrilla units such as Merrill’s Marauders – the predecessors of the 75th Ranger Regiment – and the British Chindits.

Modified B-24 Liberators, similar to these standard bombers, were among the U.S. military's first special operations transports.

When the war ended, the Pentagon shut them down, only to have to bring them back for the Korean War. This procedure continued for covert and clandestine missions around the world for much of the Cold War. The CIA created its own network of cover companies, including the famous Air America, for similar duties.

By the time America’s war in Southeast Asia was in full swing, things had not changed dramatically. To support an explosion of so-called “special activities” – covert and clandestine missions requiring the United States to be able to plausible deny involvement – in South Vietnam, Laos and then Cambodia, the Pentagon rushed to stand up new secretive aviation units.

In 1964, the top U.S. military headquarters in Vietnam created a single entity to handle these top-secret operations, blandly titled the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG). Though regular and special operations units worked with MACV-SOG, the Airborne Studies Group (OPS-36) was responsible for dropping agents and propaganda leaflets into North Vietnam and Laos, as well as parachuting supplies to teams already on the ground.

The group’s First Flight Detachment at Nha Trang had six specially modified twin-engine C-123 Provider transports sporting a special dark-colored camouflage paint job and equipped with special navigational and communications gear. To help conceal American involvement in this operation, nicknamed Heavy Hook, American personnel trained Taiwanese and Vietnamese crews to fly the actual missions. Special brackets on the sides allowed personnel on the ground to swap out American and South Vietnamese Air Force insignia as necessary.

An MC-130E Combat Talon in flight in 1991.

The C-123s were not particularly popular for the demanding missions. “The C-123 load capacity, operating range, and inability to fly in adverse weather greatly hampered airborne operations,” one 1964 review explained, according to a subsequent Air Force study of special missions. After initially resorting to shorter range helicopters, in 1965, the Pentagon approved plans to convert a number of four-engine C-130Es for specialized missions in Vietnam and elsewhere. These aircraft were the forerunners of the MC-130E Combat Talon and arrived at Nha Trang in 1966, where they joined the 15th Special Operations Squadron.

For a time, both the 15th and First Flight Detachment flew together. MACV-SOG used the codename “Heavy Chain” for missions involving C-130s. Air Force and Army UH-1, CH-3, and CH-53 helicopters, along with Air America and other private companies working for the CIA also provided support to MACV-SOG and other clandestine units in the region.

But "throughout the Vietnam conflict, [unconventional warfare] operations were tainted with the constant infusion of conventional military thinking," the Air Force complained in its post-war review of special activities. "'Dedicated air assets' was a concept antithetical to the Air Force concept of the Single Manager – centralized control."

So, despite these activities, when the Pentagon decided to launch Operation Ivory Coast in 1970, the daring raid on the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam, officials had to craft yet another temporary task force. This process repeated itself nearly a decade later for Operation Eagle Claw, the attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran who had been swept up in the country’s revolution.

An MH-6 Little Bird of the U.S. Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, similar to the civilian Hughes 500s that Seaspray reportedly flew.

That embarrassing debacle, which left eight Americans dead at a remote site named Desert One, provoked a significant amount of soul searching in Washington and increased support for developing a standing set of special operations units to respond to various crises. International terrorism, the War on Drugs, and continued Soviet-backed insurgencies had already contributed to the Army’s decision to create Delta Force in 1979 and the U.S. Navy forming SEAL Team Six the following year. This in turn led the U.S. military to ultimately create new secretive aviation elements to support those forces.

The most notable of these was a shared CIA and Army special operations element codenamed Seaspray, which reportedly had a mixed fleet of Hughes 500D helicopters and Cessna Grand Caravan and Beechcraft King Air fixed-wing aircraft. The Agency already had significant experience with flying specialized helicopters on top-secret missions, having crafted a pair of ultra-quiet, long-range, night-flying Hughes 500Ps as part of a project to tap phone lines in North Vietnam.

Based at Fort Eustis, the group flew covert and clandestine missions from the Middle East to Latin America, routinely working with Delta Force, SEAL Team Six and the Army’s Intelligence Support Activity. Authorities in Washington ultimately decided to clearly delineate the responsibilities of intelligence agencies from the military and gave the Army full control of the unit, who renamed it the Flight Concepts Division. The force has continued to operate since then, shielding its operations for at least for a time under the codename Quasar Talent, according to Michael Smith’s Killer Elite.

An Iraqi Air Force Cessna C-208, similar to the U-27As the 427th Special Operations Squadron has reportedly operated.

Though there is no official public record, it is likely the Air Force established the 427th and the 66th after Seaspray came under full military control as part of the Pentagon expanding these aviation capabilities. But there is little doubt these special operations aviators have been busy since the 1990s, though it may take decades for any formal information about their latest operations to come out into the light.

In December 2001, Russian authorities arrested a group of contractors working for the Army – reportedly for the Flight Concepts Division – and the CIA in the far-eastern city of Petropavlovsk. The group was trying to surreptitiously buy Mi-17 transport helicopters for operations in Afghanistan.

Nearly a decade later, there was the Bin Laden raid in Pakistan. Though members of the Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment reportedly flew the stealthy chopper, this was precisely the sort of product one could expect to see come out AVTEG or the Flight Concepts Division.

There's also the matter of these shadowy Sikorsky S-92 helicopters operating in northern Syria surfaced on social media. For more than a year, these mysterious choppers had made appearances first at a major U.S. military base in Djibouti, then in Erbil in northern Iraq, and finally near the city of Kobani in Syria.

No one seems to know who owns these rotorcraft, which have been devoid of any national markings, but they could belong to various U.S. government outfits or another regional actor. Officially the Pentagon does not operate the S-92, but it is exactly the kind of "non-standard" or "off-the-books" aircraft AVTEG or another of the secret aviation elements might provide for discreet operations.

The fact that we don’t know for sure is the entire point of having these groups in the first place. We may just have to wait for another tidbit to turn up through FOIA – and hopefully not another accident during an actual operation – for the next set of new details to emerge.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com