By Sgt. Ernie Stephens
Last year, I ran across the June 13, 2005 issue of the Arizona Daily Star, with the front-page story entitled, "Border Patrol Chopper Flights Perilous." I think there’s a law that says you have to buy a paper if you want to read more than the top half of the front page, so I forked over my 50 cents.
The article cited (and editorialized about) seven U.S. Border Patrol helicopter accidents along the Mexico border since April 2000. They included one in which an OH-6’s aft compartment door vibrated open and a flight jacket was sucked out into the tail rotor and a crash attributed to a complete loss of engine power. None of the seven accidents was fatal.
In short, the article seemed to imply that the Border Patrol was an accident-prone outfit staffed with clumsy pilots and incompetent mechanics. Don’t ask me why, but somehow that implication didn’t smell right. So I laid my pilot wings aside, dug out my investigator’s hat, and looked for the "story behind the story." Here is what I found out.
The accidents cited by the Daily Star really happened, as documented by the NTSB. (I didn’t really doubt that part.) But the article failed to mention a few little details that put those accidents into perspective.
For starters, the Border Patrol employs 115 pilots, who fly 116 aircraft, about 80 of which are rotorcraft. According to Deputy Chief Michael Hester, the man in charge of Air and Marine Operations, Border Patrol aircrews make up only 1 percent of the agency’s sworn personnel, but are routinely credited with 9 percent of the organization’s apprehensions and 7 percent of the illegal drug seizures. This makes the flight crews 36 percent more productive than ground agents.
As far as proficiency is concerned, Hester reports that Border Patrol aircrews log over 46,000 flight hours a year. The pilots take check rides every six months, at which time they must execute several full-touchdown autorotations. And even though single-pilot night-vision goggle flying is very rare in the rest of the law enforcement community, Border Patrol pilots fly nap-of-the-earth that way on a regular basis.
If you take a look at what the Border Patrol is flying, you’ll find a fleet in transition. As of mid-2005, they were flying a large, aging fleet of military surplus, single-engine turbine Hughes OH-6s; 36 were still in their inventory. Many of the accidents cited by the newspaper involved the older OH-6s, whose high airframe times make maintenance challenging to say the least. Fortunately, the fleet now consists of other, newer aircraft. The agency flies 13 Eurocopter AS350B3s, 11 MD-600Ns, 10 Bell UH-1s, seven MD-500Es, four Eurocopter AS350B2s and an MD-500C.
Border Patrol helicopter pilots, in my opinion, are more like submariners than aviators, considering how close to the ground they fly. A significant portion of their time is spent doing something called "sign cutting," which has them cruising 300 ft. above the ground at 60 kt. looking for such things as footprints, broken branches and discarded trash left behind by illegal border crossers. In fact, Border Patrol agents are so good at sign cutting, they train Special Forces soldiers how to track people by "reading" the environment.
They’re not just chasing illegal immigrants, either. They transport detainees, provide tactical support platforms and conduct surveillance operations. So, they sometimes come under fire from not-so-cooperative fugitives trying to escape across the border–regardless of which country they’re trying to enter.
Finally, the Border Patrol does a lot of flying in places other than the desert Southwest. Agents conduct flight operations in areas such as Buffalo, N.Y, and Puerto Rico. In short, at any given time a flight crew may be bouncing around in turbulent mountain winds, humid coastal areas or blazing hot deserts.
So, let’s add everything up. The Border Patrol does an awful lot of flying. They do it close the ground, frequently at night. By necessity, they fly at speeds well outside of the recommendations found on their height-velocity charts. They drive a fleet of single-engine aircraft, many of which are surplus Army helicopters that are older than the men and women who fly them. Border Patrol mechanics struggle to keep the older ships flying in a world where spare parts are thinning out. Pilots routinely fly single-pilot, nap-of-the-earth NVG, something many aviators wouldn’t do on a bet. The agency’s stats show they are apprehending more than their fair share of clients.
Without the benefit of the local university’s supercomputer to crunch my findings, I would say that seven helicopter accidents in the past five years (most of which were relatively minor) is nothing to be ashamed of, considering the complexity of their flight profiles. According to Hester, the agency’s never had a fatal helicopter accident–a statistic he attributes to the skill and safety consciousness of his aircrews.
So, if you’re keeping score, the U.S. Border Patrol is logging an average of 46,000 hr. a year, which equates to 230,000 hr. since 2000. It would be nice to say those years were totally accident-free; it didn’t shake out that way. But in polite opposition to the Daily Star, I would humbly submit that seven non-fatal accidents in their line of work is a credit to the Border Patrol’s professionalism, not a blemish.