Australian authorities conducted a search of a British ex-test pilot’s residence in November.
They were looking for documents linked to China’s J-16 strike fighter, Australia’s intelligence partners, and China’s largest aviation firm.
The search was part of an inquiry into Western military pilots training Chinese forces amidst escalating tensions between China and the US and its allies.
Both Britain and Australia have announced crackdowns on ex-military pilots training Chinese pilots, with Britain pledging to modify its national security law to prevent them from working with intermediaries, including a South African flying school that allegedly helps recruit pilots for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Keith Hartley, Chief Operating Officer of the Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA), was the pilot whose home was searched. He has not been charged with anything yet.
Hartley challenged the search warrant’s validity in Australia’s Federal Court, questioning its phrasing and requesting the return of seized materials. The court dismissed his application on April 28 and issued its judgment, providing new insights into the investigation of the South African flying school.
Apparently, the Test Flying Academy of South Africa has a partnership with China’s state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) to train Chinese pilots in South Africa and has employed several Western pilots with military backgrounds.
Federal police searched Hartley’s home under suspicion of unlawfully providing military-style training, directed or funded by China, between 2018 and 2022. The warrant aimed to gather evidence supporting an Australian police investigation into Hartley, who was suspected of organizing or facilitating training delivered by the flight school to PLA pilots in relation to military aircraft platforms and military doctrine, tactics, and strategy.
The police searched for documents, digital records, emails, and encrypted messages related to TFASA, the PLA, four PLA fighter jet and fighter training aircraft models, including the J-16 strike fighter and J-11 fighter, AVIC, and two individuals with redacted names. References to Australia’s Five Eyes intelligence partners (New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and Britain), NATO, and Australia’s air force were also sought, as indicated by the judgment.