Public Service

Help from the Sky

By By Robert W. Moorman | August 1, 2014
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A pair of CBP UH-60 Black Hawk pilots prepare to conduct morning patrols over Washington, DC. Photo courtesy CBP

Aug. 9, 2013: Jeff Birks remembers vividly the day he received the urgent phone call for air support from the Salt Lake City FBI SWAT Team. Horseback riders in the mountains near Cascade, Idaho had sited James Lee DiMaggio, who had kidnapped teenager Hannah Anderson from her Southern California school days earlier.

Birks is a helicopter and fixed wing pilot and critical care paramedic with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The three-person crew, with Birks as tactical team leader and paramedic, flew CBP’s Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk from Great Falls, Mont. to Idaho to rendezvous with the SWAT Team that had established a base camp near Cascade. The UH-60’s mission was to ferry supplies and SWAT teams to landing sites in the high country. An Airbus Helicopters AS350 AStar from CBP’s office in Spokane, Wash., which was equipped with a high-powered FLIR system, would help in the operation to rescue Anderson and hopefully capture DiMaggio.


Valuable aerial footage from the AStar and a fixed-wing aircraft showed that DiMaggio and Anderson were holed up at a remote camp site in the rugged Frank Church Wilderness Area, which presented some operational challenges for the helicopters and agents on the ground.

On the morning of August 10, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team from Quantico, Va. arrived. Radio equipment was loaded in the UH-60 and a repeater station was installed on top of a mountain near the campsite to ensure communications between law enforcement and aerial support.

It was time to move. The UH-60 flew two groups of the Hostage Rescue Team to a mountain-landing site 2.5 miles from the campsite. The team hiked in and confronted the suspect, who refused to drop his weapon and fired on the team. DiMaggio was killed instantly and Hannah was rescued and flown out in a Bell 407 operated by the FBI.

Graphic showing EC135 police helicopter. 

That was not the end of the mission for the Birks-led and AStar crews. For the next few days, they flew investigative teams in and out of the 7,500-foot area.

“It was varsity level flying,” said Birks. The crews had to execute a one-skid landing on rocky, sloped terrain. To make matters more challenging, there were several forest fires in the area. At one point, the pilots donned night vision goggles (NVGs) because smoke from the fires obscured their view.

Birks is one of many helicopter pilots flying for CBP, the unified border agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Officially, CBP is charged with the management, control and protection of the U.S. borders at and between the official ports of entry.

“We provide the Border Patrol 40,000 flight hours per year,” explained Merton Cox III, executive director of the Operations Office of Air and Marine. “We help them access areas that are difficult to access by foot and vehicle.”

Cox describes CBP as the “world’s largest aviation and maritime law enforcement agency” with a little over 1,200 federal agents, 257 aircraft and 286 vessels. CBP Air and Marine is one of three law enforcement components of the CBP.

The air unit has a diversity of missions for homeland security, said Cox, from anti-terrorism and aerial support for the border patrol, to conducting missions in source and transit zones in Central and South America from which illegal drugs flow to the U.S. CBP Air and Marine works closely with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Bond Helicopters Europe has been awarded a contract to install the next generation of missions system equipment into the National Police Air Service (NPAS) fleet. Images courtesy of Bond Helicopters

CBP’s air unit was integrally involved in the Dorner Case more than a year ago. Christopher Dorner, a disgraced ex-cop, went on a shooting rampage in Los Angeles and Riverside counties, which prompted a large manhunt involving several local, state and federal law enforcement divisions. A CBP AS350 and a fixed-wing Pilatus PC-12 turboprop were used to help locate the suspect in the San Bernardino Mountains, provide aerial support and guide in law enforcement on the ground. The CBP also provided “carry coders,” hand held downlink viewing units, to law enforcement, allowing them to see the scene from the air. The siege ended February 12 when Dorner committed suicide in a cabin during the standoff with police.

CBP helicopters were used to move FEMA and emergency personnel and suppliers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most destructive and costliest storms that hit the Gulf Coast in late August 2005.

CBP’s aerial missions can vary, Cox noted. CBP Air provides airspace security for major events, such as the Super Bowl, or to protect the President of the United States. CBP provides aerial support for the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Within its fleet of 257 aircraft are 110 fixed-wing aircraft and 147 helicopters. The rotorcraft fleet is broken down into two classifications, light enforcement and medium-lift helicopters. The light enforcement fleet is made up of more than 80 AS350s and 19 EC120 helicopters. The light fleet is used to conduct surveillance in support of border patrol.

The medium-lift fleet consists of Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks, Bell UH-1 Hueys, Sikorsky S-76s and AgustaWestland AW139s. These aircraft are used primarily in the maritime environments because of their extended range capabilities, according to Cox.

Prior to 9/11, CBP was two separate organizations. The U.S. Customs Service was part of the U.S. Treasury. Border Patrol was a unit of the Immigration and the Naturalization Service (INS). The Customs Service flew drug interdiction missions and provided surveillance support, while the Border Patrol aircraft were used for surveillance of the border and illegal immigration.

Following 9/11, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed, the government merged the legacy U.S. Border Patrol aviation operation with the U.S. Customs Air and Marine unit.

“At that point, our mission changed to have a more terrorism related focus,” observed Cox. “Our training changed as well on delivering a greater understanding on how to combat terrorism.”

Cox explained how the air unit has evolved over time. Following the merger, the pilot force, plus management, grew to around 700 people. Fleet type has been trimmed over the years to reduce operational costs.

Asked about the process for procuring new helicopters, Cox said CBP follows strict federal acquisition guidelines. The DHS acquisition directive, D-102, describes specific documentation and review processes that must be followed. Eventually, CBP buys its new aircraft directly from manufacturers.

CBP also obtains fixed-wing and rotorcraft from the U.S. military, which are refurbished and updated with the latest onboard sensor equipment. The UH-60 and UH-1s in the fleet are former military helicopters. CBP also operates several PC-3 Orion fixed-wing turboprops that are used for surveillance and to hunt submarines.

CBP Air and Marine is in the eighth year of a DHS-approved strategic plan to modernize its aircraft fleet, which included the acquisition of the AS350s and upgrading the Black Hawks. Cox said the unit is constantly looking to update the fleet with new onboard systems.

Training and Support

A CBP Air unit UH-60 Black Hawk follows two vehicles on a remote air strip in the southwest border region of the United States. Photo by James Tourtellotte, courtesy CBP

The majority of CBP helicopter pilots come from the U.S. military because of their specialized training, such as NVG instruction. Some CBP pilots come from commercial rotorcraft operators, such as PHI Inc. and Era Helicopters.

Cox said CBP looks for pilots that have a commercial pilot’s license with instrument rating. The applicant should have 1,500 total flight hours, with 250 of those as pilot in command (PIC). He/she needs to have flown 100 hours in the last 12 months and recorded 75 hours of night flying and 75 hours of instrument flying, either actual or simulated.

Prior experience as a law enforcement officer is desirable. [Cox, an experienced pilot, is a former military police officer and served as a state trooper with the North Carolina Highway Patrol. He began his federal career as a Special Agent/Pilot with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, Alaska.]

All new hires go through a rigorous background investigation, which includes a polygraph examination, to remain employed. The pilots receive security clearances that relate to their specific job and the site at which they work. New hires go first to CBP’s National Air Training Center near Oklahoma City, where helicopter pilots are trained on specific surveillance tactics, and on operating the sophisticated onboard sensor equipment.

The primary training vendor is Costa Mesa, Calif.-based HeliStream, from which CBP helicopters pilots receive their FAA biennial flight reviews and emergency procedure training. Check rides are administered in Washington.

The pilots must go through annual recurring (vendor) training, which includes emergency training review and basic aircraft operations. After the pilots come back to station, CBP administers proficiency evaluation and follow-on training, as needed.

The Defense Support Services (DS2) is responsible for maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) for the entire CBP aircraft fleet.

In a related development, CBP’s Office of Air and Marine recently took delivery of its third operational Sikorsky UH-60L as part of a recapitalization effort. CBP is in the process of extending the life of its aircraft by converting select UH-60As to the UH-60L models. The effort is part of the interagency agreement CBP signed with the U.S. Army Utility Helicopter Program Office in 2008 to convert helicopters for CBP’s missions.

CBP pilots are described officially in background materials as an elite group of Air Interdiction Agents. Those materials should add that the pilots are also highly trained and flexible in meeting a varied array of missions that help secure the homeland.

Other Agencies

The DEA’s aviation program plays a vital role in preventing the illicit trafficking of drugs into and within the United States. Its Aviation Division, headquartered at the Aviation Operations Center in Fort Worth, Texas, manages the DEA’s aviation operations.

The air unit has a 90-plus aircraft fleet. It includes numerous single and multi-engine helicopters along with fixed-wing single-engine propeller driven and multi-engine jet aircraft. The DEA Special Agent Pilots log around 50,000 flight hours annually, according to DEA background information. Most of the pilot’s work is in support of drug interdiction efforts.

While most of the fleet is located in the U.S., some DEA aircraft are used to support DEA international operations in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan and Peru.

The U.S. Department of State’s Air Wing has a fleet of 176 aircraft, including approximately 137 helicopters.

The Air Wing was formed in the mid-1980s to conduct aerial eradication interdiction operations in drug-producing countries under bilateral agreements. The Air Wing is based at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

Since its inception, the Air Wing has expanded beyond counter narcotics to support embassies “in high threat areas with passenger and cargo movements where commercial aviation is not secure,” according to Foreign Affairs Officer Krystin B. Vermillion, Office of Europe and Asia, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

The Air Wing provides reconnaissance and surveillance operations, logistical support, medical evacuation, transport of personnel and cargo as well as aerial eradication of drug crops, currently in Colombia only.

Related: Police News

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