Photo by Detection Enforcement Officer Carlos Rivera
In an effort to hire pilots, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine Operations plans to look at applications on a continuing basis for the foreseeable future.
CBP has been looking to fill positions in McAllen, Laredo and Alpine, Texas; Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; Yuma and Sierra Vista, Arizona; and Grand Forks, North Dakota. Although applicants can list their preferences, vacancies will be filled based on the needs of the agency. Filling positions in Sierra Vista is the top priority.
To learn a bit more about what a CBP pilot's job entails and why working at the agency might be a good consideration for some, R&WI sat down with Air Interdiction Agent Will Suggs. Assigned to the Air and Marine Operations National Capitol Branch at Virginia's Manassas Regional Airport outside of Washington, D.C, Suggs is also a technical communications officer.
What kind of applicants is the agency looking for?
We would love to get as many experienced military pilots as we can. We have certain skill sets that we really appreciate: use of night-vision goggles, use of sensor systems, flight experience in complex aircraft.
We are looking for both fixed-wing and rotary-wing pilots. Not everybody in this agency needs to be rated in both. There are opportunities to add ratings. If I were a fixed-wing pilot getting hired here, I wouldn't assume that I was going to get rotary-wing qualification because that school is really expensive. Those opportunities do exist; they're just going to be very, very few and far between.
In the military, I'm really glad I flew fixed-wing because the military is about projecting power, and a fixed-wing airplane is a way to do that. For law enforcement, rotary-wing is the way to go. It's bringing that sensor, bringing that set of eyeballs to whatever's happening on the ground and providing that eye in the sky for the officers on the ground.
Doing that with the helicopter — that's the way to go. You can stay in one place. You can get low. You can bring extra people with you and drop them off. There are a lot of things you can do with a helicopter for law enforcement that you can't do with a fixed-wing airplane.
The other thing with getting your ratings is that aviation is a constant learning curve. When I got my ratings, it didn't make me a great helicopter pilot. It just made me legal. The people in this agency, the people I was flying with — a lot of them had a lot of instructor experience. The instruction I got within the agency has been great. It turned me into professional.
Why should a veteran be interested in applying for a position with CBP Air and Marine?
A guy or gal coming from the military is going to be leaving a ready room with a bunch of guys and gals that hang out in flight suits. When you get into Air and Marine, you'll find themselves in the same situation. You're going to be in a ready room with people from all different backgrounds.
In our office, we have people from every service — the Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Air Force, and we even have some people that transitioned over from law enforcement aviation. There's a person in this office that flew with the Kansas City Police Dept. So that transition is going to be really easy for that military pilot because you're going to find exactly the same type of people you found in the military.
That's one of the things that most people in the military actually appreciate: the type of people there.
Is the agency also looking for civil pilots?
One particular individual came up through general aviation. She got her private, her commercial and her CFI, and was teaching in Robinson Helicopter aircraft at the flight school here in Manassas. She did very, very well on her interview, is now hired at a very young age and is working for us in McAllen Air and Marine Branch in Texas.
So for people coming from that general aviation background, there is a good opportunity to get hired. It's just that when you put in your application, there are going to be questions that a military pilot is going to be able to say yes to when a civilian pilot might answer no, like combat operations, sling loads, night-vision goggle operations, use of advanced imaging systems.
All those answers go into a point system so that when your application is scored, that military pilot is going to come out with a higher score. Because of the way that federal hiring regulations are, military veterans also get five extra points for being a veteran. If they have any sort of disability finding from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, then they can get another five points.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air Interdiction Agent Will Suggs.
What do you like about working for CBP Air and Marine?
The thing I was looking for when I transitioned out of the Navy was I wanted to work in a ready room. I wanted that same group of people. I was worried, especially coming my previous organization — it was about as elite as you could find in a tactical air community. I was in an adversary squadron right down the street from Top Gun. I flew in Top Gun events on a regular basis. We were training all the people that were going over and fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. So it was a really high-speed, great group of guys, and I didn't think I was going to find that someplace else.
When I found out about this organization, and I went and visited a branch, I was like, “This this might be it.”
What has surprised me most, and it makes me very happy to say this, is when I was hired I went to Bellingham Air and Marine Branch in Washington state and the people there — it was almost the same kinds of personalities. They had different names and they came from different platforms, but they were the same group of people: They were wearing khaki flight suits, just flying different airplanes. It has been a great transition for me.
How many aircraft types do CBP pilots in the agency fly?
In most offices, pilots are going to fly two aircraft. It might be two helicopters. It might be two fixed-wing aircraft. It might be a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft.
What CBP locations are currently hiring?
Right now, we're hiring specifically for the Southwest border. Our offices along the Southwest border run from McAllen out to Tucson, Arizona. Some of those offices are big, like McAllen, Tucson Air Branch and El Paso Air Branch in Texas. Some of the offices are small. In Tucson, we've got 63 pilots down there and lots of aircraft — 13 Eurocopter/Airbus Helicopters AS350 Astars and a whole ramp full of Sikorsky Black Hawks. If you go to one of the smaller offices, it might be two or three aircraft and six or seven pilots. There's a lot of diversity in how the officers are put together.
Another location where we're looking to hire is Puerto Rico. It is more of a maritime-type branch. They've got Bombardier Dash 8s and Sikorsky UH-60s. They do have a couple of Astars that are doing things in and around Puerto Rico, but a lot of work there is over water. It's more important for those Hawk guys — to put someone in a Hawk, they're going to have to have some night-vision goggle experience so they can operate over the water at night.
What is the work like on the Southern border?
It's where a lot of the excitement is. It’s a good place to work if you want to fly a lot more and do a lot more work where you constantly have that ops tempo.
Here in Manassas we don't do a lot of straight-up law enforcement work. We're doing more security for the Washington, D.C., area.
When I was in Bellingham, the number of times we went to the border to chase somebody around the border was, like, a few times a year, per guy.
In McAllen you can work three, four, five groups in one flight. You're going from helping the Border Patrol wrap up one group, and then somebody else needs your help, and then you're returning to base because you're running out of fuel. It's an exciting job down there. If that's what you're looking for, it's a great place to get to do a lot of flying and a lot of high intensity work.
Why are there so many vacancies at CBP?
One reason is that we’re competing for pilots with all these flying companies that are hiring, and that's causing a problem. There's a big hiring boom going on and pilots are chasing the dollar. So they're looking at it going, “Hey, if I could get hired by a major airline, eventually I can be making more money than you make” at CBP.
I would say the quality of work that you're doing here is going to be more rewarding than that. Money is great, but that's the thing about us having vacancies. We're trying to compete with people who maybe don't have an appreciation for how nice this job is.
If a guy wants to turn on the autopilot and fly for six hours every day, that's great. If you like flying VFR a lot and operating in a more dynamic environment, then this will be a better job.