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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Desert Defense

Helicopters of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Yuma Air Branch stop crimes and save lives in the harsh environment along the Arizona-Mexico border.

By Frank Colucci

Launched on a telephone tip early one Sunday morning last June, an Eurocopter EC120B of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Yuma Air Branch intercepted an ultralight aircraft about 6,800 feet over Arizona. The target had apparently crossed the U.S.-Mexico border around the Pinacate Lava Flow and flown north through the Air Force Goldwater bombing range in the CBP Yuma Sector. The helicopter pilot flying formation with the intruder saw bundles strapped to the frame of the powered kite and used hand signals to order the ultralight flyer to land. Once on the ground, the Supplemental Aircrew Member (SAM) from the helicopter arrested the ultralight pilot and turned him over to border patrol ground agents directed to the site by a second CBP helicopter. The ultralight carried just over 245 lbs of marijuana. Drug-smuggling ultralights are one twist in the illegal traffic through the CBP Yuma sector. Marijuana is more typically smuggled in 60- or 70-lb. backpacks, and illegal immigrants still try to cross deadly expanses of desert on foot.

This ultralight, carrying around 245 lbs of marijuana, is one new twist in the drug-smuggling traffic through the CBP Yuma sector. CBP Yuma intercepted the ultralight aircraft about 6,800 feet over Arizona and forced it to land. More commonly, many smugglers attempt to cross the desolate desert on foot.
“It can be a very difficult environment, just because of the heat and distance,” observes Yuma Sector director of air operations, Howard Aitken. The 6,000 square miles of Yuma Sector include the Sonoran desert with its wildlife refuge and Military Operating Areas. Aitken observes: “It’s a big expanse of uninhabitable terrain, just desert and rocks, no water.”

Yuma Sector air operations in conjunction with a three-layer border fence, vehicle barriers, and various enforcement actions have cut immigrant traffic dramatically in the last five years. “The biggest group I ever apprehended was 125 in one group,” recalls Aitken. “That was in 2005 when we were real busy.” Despite the decline in border crossings, CBP flying in Yuma Sector has held steady around 4,000 to 5,000 hours a year, most of it logged by helicopters.

Last year, the Yuma Air Branch participated in the seizure of 17,523 lbs. of marijuana, arrest of 1,121 illegal aliens, and rescue of 28 people lost or in distress. About 30 minutes before New Year’s 2009, a CBP helicopter located four rafters lost at night without food or water in the brush along the Colorado River. “My pilot actually found them and guided the sheriff’s officers out there to rescue them,” notes Aitken.

Air Assets

With four Eurocopter EC120Bs and two AS350B3s, two fixed-wing Piper PA-18 Super Cubs, and a Cessna 182 Skylane, Yuma Air Branch is one small piece of the Department of Homeland Security’s nationwide CBP Air and Marine Office (AMO). Yuma aircraft nevertheless cover a large, inhospitable area along the 126-mile border with Mexico. Active control of the Air Branch resides in the Yuma Border Patrol Station. Stations at Wellton, Arizona and Blythe, California and the FBI, DEA, ATF, and ICE field offices in Yuma can all request air support. Aitken notes, “We’re the only law enforcement agency in the Yuma area that has aircraft, so I support everyone.” He adds, “We have been called by the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office to look for lost hikers and Alzheimer’s patients who have wandered off.”

Around 6:00 a.m. each day, the Yuma Air Branch launches an EC120B from Yuma Intl Airport (NYL) eastbound along the international border road toward Ajo 110 miles away. Restricted Area agreements with the Marine Corps and Air Force require the CBP helicopter to stay under 200 feet. Most of the route is flown at 50 feet or below. Yuma Air Branch pilots and SAMs are skilled at aerial signcutting to spot footprints and marks where infiltrators mask their signs with blowers or foam footwear. Aitken explains, “We follow roads; we also follow washes, long sand washes where we can detect a people or vehicle crossing. There are certain areas we look at for potential crossings.”

CBP Yuma Air Branch operates four Eurocopter EC120Bs (one shown here) and two AS350B3s, two fixed-wing Piper PA-18 Super Cubs, and a Cessna 182 Skylane.
Airborne eyes assist ground agents to crack down on border crossings. “Having a helicopter that’s able to cover what the agents can’t see on the ground has really helped. We can see drive-throughs the agents can’t,” says Aitken. Though Yuma Sector is crossed by dirt roads, “We can move a lot faster than the ground units do.” Many infiltration routes also cross the wildlife refuge where no vehicles are allowed. “The helicopter’s real important to cover the alien tracks without disturbing the environment.”

Daytime patrols in EC120Bs typically last about five hours with stops at forward refueling points. “I don’t have a remote base that I base aircraft out of,” Aitken says. Crews flying night patrols from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. in AS-350B3s use FLIR sensors and night vision goggles. Their routes cover the Yuma area from about 13 miles west of the Colorado River sand dunes along 10 to 15 miles downriver to San Luis. “We call it the Z,” says Aitken. “The busiest time for the Yuma Station is at night in that area.”

One night in February 2009, Yuma Air Branch supported border patrol agents on the ground and Mexican police from Los Algodones just over the border. A remote video surveillance operator in Yuma Station spotted three trucks entering the U.S. through a canal maintenance gate. When the CBP helicopter and ground agents responded, the smugglers tried to escape first into the U.S. by driving along a levee on a canal and the Colorado River. Border patrol agents on the ground pursued the trucks guided by the helicopter pilot. The smugglers ultimately abandoned their trucks and escaped back into Mexico where most were apprehended by Mexican police cued to the arrest by the helicopter. The operation captured more than two tons of marijuana worth more than $3 million.

Pilots and SAMs

Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine pilots and their SAMs are all border patrol agents trained to make arrests and testify in court. Helicopter crews can land to intervene themselves or call for ground units.

“If the ground unit is too far away, we’ll land and make the arrest, or if they’re within a mile or two, we’ll just circle until the ground unit gets there,” Aitken explains. No Yuma aircraft have been fired upon, but according to Aitken, “We’ve had rocks thrown at them.”

The Yuma Air Branch has 15 pilots assigned. “A lot of my pilots came out of the Border Patrol when they merged the legacy Customs and Border Patrol,” says Aitken. (Air assets were consolidated in 2005.) Included in the mix were four trainee pilots with military backgrounds—two Army aviators and two Marine F-5E jet pilots. All attended the CBP Field Operations Academy within the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga.

The Yuma Sector director of Air Operations was himself a border patrol agent hired as a trainee pilot. Most new AMO pilots are now “street hires,” many with military flight experience, who go to the Academy for 12 weeks and receive six weeks Spanish language training and six weeks Pilot In Command (PIC) training.

Yuma Sector pilots receive commercial flight training from HeliStream and Cessna. Aitken adds, “We put them through a PIC course where they learn to fly in our general area, the aircraft capabilities, how we operate.” Training includes brownout operations in desert dust and confined area flying to operate the aircraft around bushes and trees. Qualification on ANVIS 9 night vision goggles requires three hours every 30 days to remain current. In 2008, Yuma Air Branch was recognized for 50,000 accident-free flight hours.

Yuma supplemental aircrew members are border patrol agents sent to a SAM training course and detailed to the Air Branch for a year. They too are NVG-qualified to assist pilots in searches and watch out for obstacles. SAMs who are also qualified EMTs or paramedics are part of the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) unit. Each Yuma Air Branch helicopter carries a survival pack with extra water and a first aid kit. BORSTAR SAMs are first responders with a more complete medical bag.

Yuma Sector aircraft are maintained under contract by DS2—Defense Support Services. Before the Eurocopter fleet, Yuma pilots flew five ex-Army OH-6Cs—one of the Vietnam-vintage helicopters had 17,000 hours in its logbook. In contrast to the little Hughes Cayuse, the EC120B first delivered in 2007 gave Yuma pilots a modern aircraft with a protected tail rotor and spacious, air-conditioned cabin. Endurance is about three hours with full fuel. However, with desert temperatures in Yuma Sector approaching 140 degrees F, density altitudes even at sea level are 1,800 to 2,000 feet.

“It restricts our fuel load because of the heat,” explains Aitken. The EC120Bs typically carry just 70 percent maximum fuel in summer, limiting their endurance to about two hours. “I’ve got those remote fueling sites. They always refuel in the field when they’re out there.”

Like the EC120B, the Yuma Sector AS350B3s on night patrols are equipped with a Nightsun light. The AS350B3s night package will be upgraded from the FLIR Systems Ultra 7500 night vision gimbals to Ultra 8500 systems in the near future. The current package includes a videotape recorder for evidence collection. “The A-Star is a perfect night platform,” says Aitken. “It’s able to carry a full load of fuel and an observer. It’s got lots of power, lots of tail rotor authority.”

All the Yuma helicopters have integrated GPS navigators—the Garmin 500 in the AS350B3 and Garmin 400 in the EC120B. EC120s have Wulfsberg C5000 radios for multi-agency communications. The A-Stars will upgrade from Motorola radios to Wulfsberg sets next year.

A Bell Huey once used in Yuma Sector to insert an Air Mobile Unit with All Terrain Vehicles or Special Operations teams on mountaintop observation posts has left Yuma for the Grand Forks Sector in North Dakota. “I’m going to rely on Tucson and San Diego with Black Hawk support,” says Aitken. “For now, we’re status quo with what we have. In the future, I see us expanding.”

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