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Home : News
NEWS | Nov. 3, 2006

Stopping drug traffickers by air

By Staff Sgt. Cheryl Hackley National Guard Bureau

Guard radar specialists at California base monitor thousands of planes, serve as first line to drug seizures

At any given time, there are 8,000 to 10,000 aircraft flying across and into the United States; Knowing who and what are on those aircraft and if they are compliant is mission essential

Dangerous drug dealers are without thousands of pounds of marijuana and cocaine and $359,000 in cash thanks in part to seven Airmen of the National Guard Counterdrug Program stationed at the Air and Marine Operations Center in Riverside, Calif. Their efforts last year helped U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seize the above mentioned contraband from aircraft bound for this country.

Five of the seven Airmen are detection systems specialists, one works in communication and another is the commander of military operations. Working alongside other CBP specialists to guard the skies, they are responsible for monitoring all air traffic coming into the United States 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Customs and Border Protection is charged with securing the nation’s borders between ports. We look at our unique facility as the security of air space,” said James Platske, director, Air and Marine Operations Center (AMOC). “We are an integral part of CBP and the Department of Homeland Security.”

“All international aircraft has to clear customs,” said Air Guard Senior Master Sgt. Bret Patrick, a specialist with over four years at the AMOC. “Commercial aircraft has their own system in place to do that so general aviation is our bread and butter.”

At any given time, there are 8,000 to 10,000 aircraft flying across and into the United States, according to Platske. And knowing who and what’s on those aircraft and if they are compliant is mission essential to the AMOC.

Patrick recognizes the difficulty in remaining that vigilant all the time. However, he is comfortable knowing they are doing a great job based on the experienced staff around him.

“There’s an incredible mind trust within the AMOC among the other specialists,” he said. “Most of them are retired military who have extensive experience in air traffic control and bring 20-30 years of knowledge to the table.”

Sharing an operations room with them motivates him because he values the professional development he continues to gain on a daily basis. Together, they work within nine geographical regions to monitor aircraft. Radars, 230 of them across the nation, pick up aircraft movement and it’s all tracked by the specialists. Each tiny dot of the hundreds denoted on their monitors represents a single plane. It’s the detection specialist’s job to determine which of those aircraft are compliant, and which aren’t.

“It sometimes is like a needle in a hay stack,” said Patrick.

For most cases though, technology is on their side. Each aircraft should contain a transponder box that emits a code to identify the aircraft. As an aircraft is flying, its information is automatically received and the specialists can identify who is flying the plane and where it came from -- if they have uploaded their flight plan. That is all part of their surveillance duties to ensure pilots are adhering to procedures.

However, AMOC’s radars can’t see everything; most are limited by line-of-site. Knowing this, drug smugglers have created obscure routes over the years where radar can’t pick them up.

“A classic tactic is to fly low through a canyon to evade radar,” explained Patrick. “If the aircraft isn’t on our radar, we don’t know it’s there and smugglers can sneak into the country.”

To combat that problem, they use tethered aerostat radars in canyons and similar areas.

“These balloons have a look down capability of 10,000 to 12,000 feet and make it difficult for aircraft to escape their radar,” said Patrick.

Once an aircraft has been identified as a potential threat, CBP launches their interceptor aircraft to track the plane. First, a C-550 interceptor jet shadows the aircraft until it lands. Additionally, an UH-60 Blackhawk is also launched with the law enforcement personnel on board who will make the drug seizures and detain the pilot and crew if necessary.

The AMOC has a huge database at their disposal with information for local, state and federal law enforcement personnel when an aircraft lands.

“We have the ability to coordinate efforts in a one stop shop,” said Patrick. “We can call in the sheriff, local airport police or whatever law enforcement we need to detain the pilot quickly and easily.”

Between the equipment and the highly trained personal and a strong interagency working relationship, the National Guard Counterdrug Program continues to help law enforcement thwart drug traffickers’ attempts to bring illicit drugs into the United States. In addition to the cash CBP agents have seized in fiscal year 2005, Guard efforts at the AMOC resulted in 16,000 pounds of marijuana and 20,500 pounds of cocaine crossing our southern border as well as another 1,200 pounds of marijuana from Canada.

Mission support doesn’t end there. If arrests are made, the specialists have to bring all their evidence to court and testify against the smugglers. Luckily, they can create photographic evidence from their radars to help them in court.

“We have to maintain records of each incident, and luckily we have the unique ability to print everything we have monitored,” said Patrick. “A picture is worth a thousand words in court.”

At the end of the day, Patrick, the other detection system specialists and all of the team members in the AMOC can rest assured they are making an impact in the fight against drugs. This is something that senior leadership back in Washington recognizes and appreciates.

“Senior Master Sgt. Patrick has done an exemplary job in the AMOC,” said Air Guard Col. Earl Bell, chief, National Guard Bureau J3 Counterdrug Division. “Every day, we support all levels of law enforcement fighting narcoterrorism in this country as well as support anti-drug community organizations. It’s Airmen like him and the others he works with make our program a huge success.”