THE mysterious Australian Federal Police aircraft that helped in the search for missing minister Tim Holding in icy darkness is believed to be a GA Airvan built in Victoria by Gippsland Aeronautics.
The Age has been told that the equipment that produced a thermal image of Mr Holding was a US-made Star Sapphire Forward Looking Infra-red Radar system capable of finding a human body from well over two kilometres away.
The system can be used to track criminal fugitives, terrorists or missing people through darkness or cloud in forests or at sea at a considerable distance.
The AFP and Victoria Police have refused to release details of the aircraft for what they say are "security" and "operational" reasons. The AFP went so far as to say they did not own any aircraft.
But after it was revealed yesterday that an AFP aircraft was involved in the search, the AFP issued a statement saying it could confirm that it did help with the search for Mr Holding and that it routinely leased aircraft to support operational activity across the country.
The AFP "provided aerial support in this matter", the statement said. "When certain operational assets are engaged, the AFP is constrained in the public comments they can make in relation to their use and deployment."
But other police forces around the world have bought similar systems without such secrecy. In Britain last year, police in Humberside bought what they described as a "high-definition helicopter camera" for about $1 million.
Through a local paper, the Grimsby Telegraph, they warned local criminals that with their new "eye in the sky" there was now "nowhere to hide".
The paper boasted that the new FLIR Sapphire system provided the police with clear images of Grimsby, almost 32 kilometres away, from the skies above Humberside Airport. Police inspector Kevin Limbert said the camera was brilliant.
"My message to criminals now is that if you are doing wrong and Oscar is in the air, you are going nowhere because we can see you," he said.
Similar equipment has been used by RAAF P-3 Orion patrol planes scanning highways in Iraq and Afghanistan for insurgents placing bombs or setting ambushes.