Photo Gives Glimpse of Low-Profile US Air Operation

PHOTO: This Sept. 8, 2012 file photo shows a helicopter pilot with a patch on his uniform that appears to be that of the U.S. State Department’s Air Wing.

In the fall of 2012, a young Pakistani girl named Rimsha Masih was released from a three-week stint in a local prison where she had been held for blasphemy.

During her detention, Masih’s controversial case garnered international attention so it was unsurprising that when she was freed, crowds had gathered at the prison. Fearing for her safety, the Pakistani government hustled her aboard a military helicopter to be flown to an undisclosed location.

A photographer at the scene, Farooq Naeem, snapped a picture of Masih in the helicopter, with her headset on, face barely visible through a small window in the side of the chopper. It’s a powerful image, but it also captured something else – a curious detail that a source familiar with the event recently noted to ABC News: a small red patch on the helicopter pilot’s shoulder that appears to say “Department of State Air Wing” surrounding what looks like the seal of the U.S. State Department. The pilot’s face, turned towards the Pakistani military co-pilot seated next to him, is not visible.

At the time, the State Department publicly had kept its distance from Masih’s ordeal, except shortly after she was arrested when State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland called the case “deeply disturbing.” When asked if the U.S. had been in touch with Pakistan about Masih’s detention, Nuland said then she was unsure if the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan was “on it.”

More than two weeks later, Masih was released on a Saturday and by Monday, other news had overtaken the State Department. She wasn’t mentioned in the Department’s daily briefing.

Still, the image indicates a State Department pilot was there and the small incident gave a glimpse, however brief, into the operations of the U.S. State Department’s Air Wing, formally called the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Office of Aviation (INL/A), a little-known but surprisingly robust air operation run in a number of foreign nations.

“The Department of State Air Wing operates a large number of helicopters and airplanes relatively unnoticed all over the world,” a source familiar with Air Wing operations told ABC News. “Most Americans have no idea that the program exists at all.”

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The Air Wing, established in the mid-1980s, was originally intended solely “for the purpose of conducting aerial eradication and interdiction operations in drug-producing countries under bilateral agreements,” according to the State Department. A 2011 State Department magazine described the organization’s earliest missions as crop dusting over drug-production fields in Guatemala and Colombia. But over the years mission requirements expanded to “counter-terrorism, border security/law enforcement, and embassy transportation missions.”

READ MORE: Air Wing FAQ (State.gov)

The State Department says it currently employs 150 aircraft in the Air Wing, down from approximately 240 in 2010 – still more than the air forces of some smaller countries. A 2010 State Department fact sheet said then that the Air Wing operated in eight nations: Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan and Peru. Recently the State Department said it’s now active in five: Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan and Peru.

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