Erik Prince. For a lot of folks, the mere mention of his name is guaranteed to evoke a visceral reaction. A philanthropist, businessman, and former U.S. Navy SEAL officer, Prince is best known as the founder of the private security company formerly known as Blackwater USA. has branched out in a different direction. As the founder and chairman of Frontier Services Group, Prince has embarked on building a private air force…a venture wrought with, some say, illegalities.
On a crisp Saturday in November 2014, a black Mercedes SUV pulled onto the tarmac of an Austrian specialty aviation company 30 miles south of Vienna. Employees of the firm, Airborne Technologies, which specialized in designing and equipping small aircraft with wireless surveillance platforms, had been ordered to work that weekend because one of the company’s investors was scheduled to inspect their latest project.
For four months, Airborne’s team had worked nearly nonstop to modify an American-made Thrush 510G crop duster to the exact specifications of an unnamed client. Everything about the project was cloaked in secrecy.
The company’s executives would refer to the client only as “Echo Papa,” and instructed employees to use code words to discuss certain modifications made to the plane. Now the employees would learn that Echo Papa also owned more than a quarter of their company.
A fit, handsome man with blond hair and blue eyes got out of the Mercedes and entered Airborne’s hanger. Echo Papa, who was often just called EP, shook hands with a dozen Airborne employees and looked over the plane.
“He was the sun, and all the management were planets rotating around him,” said one person present that day.
One of the mechanics soon recognized Echo Papa from news photos — he was Erik Prince, founder of the private security firm Blackwater. Several of the Airborne staff whispered among themselves, astonished that they had been working for America’s best-known mercenary.