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Point of Impact: Kalitta Charter Flights for Fallen Heroes
Opening Up Private Flights to Tracking: ‘Places Our Mission in Jeopardy'
March 29, 2011
The tension between free speech and privacy has never been more poignant for Berry Birurakis than today, as he contemplates how to uphold the spirit, as well as the letter, of his charter company's contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.
Birurakis is general manager of Kalitta Charters, based in Ypsilanti, MI, which has the contract to transport fallen heroes, along with their military escorts and family members, for burial ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery or other locations around the nation.
A proposed government plan to open private aircraft flights to real-time tracking "places our mission in jeopardy," he says.
Birurakis explains that Kalitta places every fallen hero flight in the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program to avoid the possibility of protesters confronting family members at a time when they most want privacy.
"We only block those flights," he says. "It's amazing how easy it is for someone to bring up this information."
Kalitta has four Falcon 20s and full-time crews dedicated to the Defense Department's Air Transportation of Hero Remains program. "Those airplanes and crews are at Dover Air Force Base all the time except when they are doing missions," says Birurakis, himself a pilot and flight instructor. "It's a pretty emotional experience for everybody; I've flown some of these missions myself."
The company's contract with the Defense Department requires "we not share any information about the progression of these trips as they are happening," Birurakis notes.
"We even cloak the empty return flights. We don't have transcontinental range, so we have to make fuel stops," he explains. "Where they would be most vulnerable would be at a fuel stop, so we cloak flights from anyone knowing where we stop for fuel, along with when we are planning to depart or arrive.
"There are people out there who are interested in these movements," Birurakis says, "And people who go around disrespecting our fallen heroes and protesting at funerals."
He is alluding to a tiny family church group in Kansas that has traveled around the country to protest at funerals of U.S. military personnel. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that this group's First Amendment rights to free speech overruled the families' desire for respect and privacy for their grief.
"It's really sad," Birurakis says, "giving people grief over something that's beyond their control." Even if Kalitta can provide sufficient proof to keep its flights for fallen heroes private, what about others who wish to keep their movements away from prying eyes?" he asks.
"What about all those who have reasons to be concerned about their privacy, safety or security?" he asks. "What does the government do if something happens to one of those airplanes they force to uncloak? Who's going to explain that?"