Harry Kirk Elarbee (alias Kirk James Bird)

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Harry Kirk Elarbee (alias Kirk James Bird) is a suspected CIA pilot.

The CIA pilot with the alias 'Kirk James Bird' is wanted in Germany on charges of kidnapping and causing serious bodily harm to Khalid El-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent.[1]

The offences are alleged to have been committed as part of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program. According to German magazine Der Spiegel, "El-Masri says he was wrongly abducted on New Year's Eve 2003 in Macedonia and detained in various secret overseas prisons often referred to as 'black sites.' His five month ordeal finally ended when he was dumped on an abandoned road in Albania."[2]

The plane which abducted El-Masri is alleged to have been operated by Aero Contractors Ltd., which is based at the nearby Johnston County Airport.[1]

Identifying Kirk James Bird

Criteria for a match

Over the past several months, U.S. and German newspapers have given several different pieces of information about the real identity of Bird. These lead to the following strict criteria for identifying the pilot:

  • His real first name is also Kirk, according to Der Spiegel: "German public broadcaster ARD also reported on Thursday that some of its journalists had been able to uncover the identities of at least three of the US agents in Spain under the aliases Eric Fain, James Fairing and Kirk James Bird... All kept their real first names..."[2]
  • He lives within a half hour drive of the Johnston County Airport, according to both the LA Times[1] and The Nation.[3]
  • He lives within a twenty minute drive to the south-east of Raleigh, NC, according to The Nation[3].
  • He lives "...in a house that backs onto a private golf course", according to the LA Times.[1]
  • In February 2007, he was 46, again according to the LA Times.[1]

One can also apply a weaker criterion: that the FAA records for Bird's real-life identity should closely match those of his CIA alias. This is the case for his colleagues Kovalesky and Hume.

Scanning the FAA database

To identify Bird, a computer program was written to scan the FAA's downloadable database of aviation personnel. It is called SourceWatchPilotFinder.pl. On an up-to-date PC it takes less than a minute to scan the 850,000 records in the database. There are several combinations of search criteria which support the identification of Elarbee as Bird.

Pilots who match Bird's certificate types and certificate ratings

There are 56 people in the FAA database who hold exactly the same number of certificates as Bird, where all the certificate types and certificate ratings are the same as Bird's. Those are:

  • Airline Transport Pilot certificate:
    • Airline Transport Pilot, Airplane Multi Engine Land
    • Commercial privileges, Airplane Single Engine Land
  • Flight Instructor certificate:
    • Airplane Single Engine
  • Ground Instructor certificate:
    • Advanced, Instrument

If one also allows individuals who hold additional types of certificate to those held by Bird to match (i.e. whose certificates are a superset of those held by Bird), then the number of matches increases to 90.

It's important to emphasise that this search makes absolutely no assumptions about the geographical location of the record holder. It searches all individuals in the FAA database of domestically registered aviation personnel.

Of those 90 people, there is only one person who has 'Kirk' anywhere in his or her name (recall that that is a strict criterion for a match). That is Harry Kirk Elarbee - and he just happens to live in Clayton, North Carolina, the same town as the known El-Masri rendition pilots James Kovalesky and Eric Robert Hume.

Comparison of pilot type ratings, pilot limits, and medical data

Although Bird and Elarbee's certificate types and certificate ratings are a perfect match, their type ratings (that is to say, the types of plane they are qualified to fly) are not. Elarbee's type ratings are a superset of Bird's, i.e. he can fly three additional types of plane. Furthermore, their pilot limits do not match: Elarbee's is a restriction on operating the BE-300, whereas Bird's is on the CE-500. Their medical class is the same (second). There is a slight discrepancy on the instructions for wearing glasses: Bird "must have available glasses for near vision", whereas Elarbee "must wear corrective lenses".[4][5]

Elarbee matches the first name criterion

Although his legal first name is Harry, a number of publicly available sources confirm that in his everyday life, Elarbee uses Kirk as his first name.

Elarbee is described as 'Kirk Elarbee' in an obituary in The Brunswick News marking the passing of his grandmother.[6] And an edition of his church's newsletter which welcomed him and his wife to the church described him as "Kirk Elarbee".[7]

The connecting thread which shows that the "Kirk Elarbee"s mentioned in these sources are the same as Harry Kirk Elarbee are his wife's name and his child's name. Public records,[8] and a blog maintained by a member of her extended family,[9] give these as Elizabeth Beesley Elarbee and Houston Kirk Elarbee respectively. These names are also mentioned in the above sources. This unambigously establishes that Harry Kirk Elarbee does indeed use "Kirk" as his first name.

Elarbee matches the golf course criterion

Elarbee meets another important criterion for matching Kirk James Bird - his home backs directly onto a golf course, as is shown very clearly by satellite imagery.[10]

Elarbee (almost) matches the age criterion

The LA Times gave the true age of James Kirk Bird as 46 in February 2007.[1] Elarbee was born on August 31, 1961,[8] which would have made him 45 when the Times article was published. In other words, Elarbee is younger than the age reported by the LA Times.

However, as at July 2007, some publicly available records gave Elarbee's age as 46 (whereas it should have been 45).[11] This may explain the figure given by the Times article.

Aviation personnel with 'Kirk' in their given name who live in North Carolina

Another search worth performing is for all aviation professionals who have Kirk either as their first or middle name who live in North Carolina.

The SourceWatchPilotFinder.pl program finds 23 matching people. Many of these are student pilots, or are only rated as mechanics. But for the sake of completeness, how many of these 23 people have homes backing onto a golf course?

Golf courses integrated with housing developments turn out to be a common feature of this affluent state, and so Elarbee is not the only match. The following individuals, according to Google Maps, have homes which could reasonably be said to be adjacent to a golf course:

  • Kirk Patrick Sears, Wilmington, NC. His home could reasonably be said to back onto a golf course.[12] However, the as-the-crow-flies distance between Smithfield (home of the Johnston County Airport) and Wilmington is 92 miles,[13], and AOL's route-planning website gives the travelling time as about 2 hours.[14] Clearly, Sears lives too far away to qualify.
  • Kirk Thomas Conway
  • Kirk Thomas Gavel

All of these people live too far from the Johnston County Airport to meet the half-hour travel time criterion, or live in the wrong direction relative to Raleigh, NC. The only pilot with a first or middle name of Kirk in North Carolina who lives in a house backing onto a golf course, and who lives in a location consistent with the criteria given above, is Harry Kirk Elarbee.

Articles and resources


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Bob Drogin and John Goetz, "'Ghost pilots' of the CIA's rendition team: The Times traces the identities of three facing kidnapping charges in Germany related to a 2003 operation", Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2007. Subscription req'd. Subscription-free copy here.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Suspected CIA Kidnappers Identified", Der Spiegel, September 21, 2006.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Chris Kromm & Jill Doub, "Tracking the Ghost Pilots", The Nation (web only), February 23, 2007.
  4. FAA certificate 1 (pilot), certificate 2 (flight instructor), and certificate 3 (ground instructor) for James Kirk Bird. Registration req'd. Undated, accessed July 25, 2007.
  5. FAA certificate 1 (pilot), certificate 2 (flight instructor), and certificate 3 (ground instructor) for Harry Kirk Elarbee. Registration req'd. Undated, accessed July 25, 2007.
  6. "Edythe Smith" (obituary), The Brunswick News, April 30, 2005.
  7. "Welcome!", page 18, The Garner Methodist Messenger, Garner United Methodist Church, Garner, NC, volume XXXII, issue no. 18, September 27, 2006.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Records search verifying Harry Kirk Elarbee's date of birth, PeopleFinders.com. Undated, accessed July 25, 2007.
  9. "Beesley Lloyd Combobulation" (family blog), via Google cache, dated June 23, 2007.
  10. Google Maps image showing clearly that Elarbee's home backs onto a golf course. Undated, accessed July 25, 2007.
  11. Public records search which gives Harry Kirk Elarbee's age as one year older than his true age, PeopleFinders.com. Undated, accessed July 26, 2007.
  12. Satellite image of Kirk Patrick Sears's home, Google maps. Undated, accessed July 25, 2007.
  13. Distance between Smithfield, NC and Wilmington, NC, myrateplan.com. Undated, accessed July 25, 2007.
  14. Johnston County Airport to Quadrant Cir, Wilmington, mapquest.com. Undated, accessed July 25, 2007.

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