By Jack Kintner
“During one operation we watched five loads of drugs go right underneath us and across the border. There’s a lot of stuff moving back and forth,” said Brian Webb, an air interdiction agent for the Air and Marine Operations branch of the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection (CPB).
Webb is part of what’s known as the largest civilian air force in the world, where a thousand pilots keep more than 300 aircraft and 200 boats active 24/7 patrolling the border.
Though in Blaine it sometimes can seem as though they’re all overhead at the same time, Webb explained that their mission out of the local Bellingham air and marine branch is to patrol all of Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon, up to 200 miles offshore and more than six miles straight up.
Webb’s base in Bellingham operates two Cessna Citation II jets, a Beech King Air 200 turboprop, a blackhawk and two A-star helicopters and a Cessna 206 six passenger single engine land plane for what Webb calls “low and slow” work, following drug runners through the narrow valleys of the 72 mile stretch of border between Sumas and Oroville that has no road access.
Speaking at a recent meeting of the Bellingham chapter of the Washington Pilots Association, Webb said that during Operation Frozen Timber last year, when he saw the five loads of drugs go by underneath his jet loitering at a high altitude over Mt. Baker, agents seized over four tons of marijuana, 800 pounds of cocaine, $1.5 million and three aircraft. Sixty smugglers were arrested.
“We probably go no more than a week or two without making some kind of major bust,” Webb said.
Webb’s heavily modified ten-passenger Citation II, what the military calls a T-47, can go over 400 mph or slow down to less than 100 to fly next to a light aircraft. He said his radar can follow a target from as far away as 80 miles, useful in this part of the country where mountainous terrain often hampers ground-based radar coverage. “We intercept by coming up alongside and communicating with the pilot,” Webb said, “although when we get the one-finger salute we can ask an F-15 to join us. That’s a convincer in most situations for the pilot to cooperate.”
“The [twin engine] King Air is used for marine searches while we do mostly air-to-air work, intercepting aircraft that have strayed into restricted areas,” Webb said. In addition to surveillance support he and his fellow pilots also participate in search and rescue efforts, high risk insertions and interdictions and provide transportation for people and confiscated drugs, weapons and money.
“With the Olympics coming up,” he said, “pilots in this part of the country can almost rely on being checked out if they fly across or even near the border. There will be a lot of restricted areas beginning with the World Police and Fire Games this July in Vancouver through the Olympics next winter and the Paralympics after that.” Among other things, small aircraft will be required to abide by the rules now governing commercial cross-border flights as of May 18. “The thing is, smugglers try to blend in, so if you neglect the rules yourself you’ll definitely draw our attention,” Webb said.
The rules are complex, and require pilots to check daily as restricted areas can change overnight. “When the president wants to travel someplace then there’s a restricted area that follows him around,” Webb said. “We came into Tulsa once without checking that and here was Air Force One on the ramp. Things keep changing, and even we get caught sometimes.”
Webb went on to say that despite the added regulations, his agency was trying to preserve general aviation’s right to fly. “It’s when a small airplane loaded with explosives hits the space needle, when a kid will look up and say with some fear, ‘Mommy, it’s an airplane,’ that’s when you’ll all lose your right to fly. We’re trying to keep that from happening.”
In 2008 Webb’s agency, working in cooperation with other police forces under an umbrella known as the Integrated Border Enforcement Team (IBET), arrested over 1,800 smugglers and over 72,000 illegal aliens nationwide. The Air and Marine Operations Center (AMOC) in Riverside, California, coordinates communications and operations much like the Johnson Space Center in Houston does with astronauts, with a comparable ability to call up data immediately from just about any police force and air traffic control facility from Columbia to the North Pole.
“We rely on locals, though, just like CBP always has,” Webb said, “so if you see something unusual, call us at 1-866-AIR BUST.”