Flying through sunny skies on a 75-degree day around Miami and beyond sounds like a Florida visitor’s dream — what better view of the beaches and blue water than out of the side door of a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk cruising at 150 kt while scoping out illegal activity? With the side door kept open, the strong winds beat uncomfortably through the cabin, but the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) agents seated and tethered in the gunner seats can stand up and hang out over the aircraft’s edge to peer down below as needed — a thrill seeker’s dream.
It was an ordinary March day when R&WI visited the CBP AMO unit near Miami, Florida. Ordinary in that every day is different for the federal law enforcement agents who patrol this crowded coast.
The day, which started out as a typical surveillance assignment, turned into a hunt for a suspicious boat thought to have a history of drug smuggling.
A typical daily assignment for this team might include a round of surveillance like this via the unit’s Black Hawk, the exact assignment in which I had the opportunity to fly while sitting in the right door gunner’s seat.
Or it could involve apprehending a suspected drug smuggler or an illegal migrant from neighboring nations via boat. The agency’s mission is to protect the American people and their borders, after all, and it often does so in coordination with other U.S. agencies like the Coast Guard and ICE Homeland Security Investigations, among others.
“There is no typical day here,” said Deputy Director of Air Operations Jeffrey Maher. “That was the most appealing part about this job.”
CBP agents hold somewhat of a sensitive role. They advised me to refer to them in this story by only their first names. All agents are credentialed law enforcement officers. Among their duties specific to CBP include gathering and sharing intelligence on illegal activities or potential acts of terrorism with internal and external agencies. Most, understandably, want their identities kept private.
For Air Enforcement Agent Jorge, every day is also different. Sometimes he might get to shoot the engines off drug-running boats; other times it’s a breezy surveillance flight from Miami to the Bahamas.
In fiscal year 2017, AMO seized or disrupted 269,790 pounds of cocaine, 384,230 pounds of marijuana, 5,721 pounds of methamphetamine, 1,089 weapons and $26.1 million on its way into the U.S. The unit also made 2,573 arrests and rounded up 37,009 illegal aliens.
This AMO unit is situated in Homestead, Florida, 36 miles south from downtown Miami and about 75 miles west of the U.S.’s closest point to the Bahamas — the island chain of Bimini. As Maher explained, Bimini is a convenient location for much illegal activity, as it’s the end point of a large string of islands that curves northward from the Caribbean toward Florida. The agency encounters more than just migrants and drug trafficking. It also investigates human trafficking and suspected terrorism. The Miami unit is one of two AMO branches in Florida and four branches in the entire Southeast U.S. region responsible for the protection of 2,000 miles of coastline. The others are in Jacksonville, New Orleans and the Caribbean Basin branches.
The team and I (there were five of us on board) flew out and around the Miami coast, including a brief flyover to Bimini, running registration numbers off any boat we could see along the way using the Black Hawk’s aerial downlink camera. Like any automobile, most marine vessels are required to carry title and registration from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. These tags are run through a database the agency uses at its operations center to identify whether the boat had been involved in illegal activity before.
Earlier in the four-hour flight, the boat we were now hunting was flagged in the database. It was long, with three outboard motors. Our mission now was to find it and keep it in sight while ground units were dispatched. We essentially backtracked our path back to the Miami coast, trying to spot the boat among the innumerable other vessels in the spring break traffic.
As we approached a small Marina where boaters can dock and pop into a nearby eatery, there it was. We hovered around the Marina as we notified the operations center and awaited CBP’s ground units.
“One hour left of fuel,” pilot-in-command Jessie alerted us after hovering in large circles over the Marina about six times, being careful not to get too close and sandblast nearby parked cars. The Black Hawk has a total range up to 600 nm, with endurance up to 4.5 hours.
Once we were cleared to leave, we quickly returned to base.
The AMO unit operates more than just the Black Hawk, which is primarily an interdiction and apprehension platform. Also in its Miami hangar is an Airbus Helicopters AS350 A-Star, which is strictly used for aerial patrol and surveillance, and two fixed-wing aircraft: a Lockheed P-3 Orion and Bombardier DHC-8. Both fixed-wing aircraft perform wide-area surveillance and tracking. The Bombardier can also assist in natural disasters. Aside from its external sensors, all equipment on board CBP’s fixed-wing aircraft are designed and integrated specifically for the agency’s covert missions, Maher said during a hangar tour.
Other CBP branches use General Atomics MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which require significant infrastructure to operate.
“All of them are deployable, but … because of the remoteness of the flight control system, you don’t have to be near the aircraft for a majority of missions,” Maher said. The UAS vehicles perform similar functions to the fixed-wing assets.
“Unmanned aircraft help both tactically identify groups coming across the border and strategically understand the threat better. We can’t do that with helicopters [or fixed-wing aircraft] alone,” Maher added.
Overall, CBP AMO units operate a total of 240 aircraft across all its branches.
CBP’s air and maritime branches are continuously looking to fill vacancies for both interdiction and enforcement agents. Air Interdiction Agent Will Suggs, who is assigned to the AMO National Capitol Branch at Virginia’s Manassas Regional Airport outside of Washington, D.C., told R&WI the agency has been competing for pilots with commercial operators that typically pay more than the government. One way the agency is recruiting new pilots is by conveying the important work agents perform in service to their country.
The agency saw a large hiring surge about 20 years ago, Supervisory Marine Interdiction Agent Christopher Wiyda told R&WI, and now realizes how a large portion of those are reaching retirement age. The agency then implemented a robust recruiting program focused on hiring pilots, having hired more pilots this year alone than it has over the past two years, Wiyda said. It has done so by targeting existing pilots with helicopter type ratings, whether currently in law enforcement or transitioning out of the military. CBP hires a variety of pilots for rotary-wing, fixed-wing and UAS platforms. A benefit to veterans is that CBP supports them in their reserve duties with dedicated time off. Veterans also can buy their military time back to enhance their pensions, Wiyda said.
Although CBP generally hires those who are already trained pilots, its new agents go through extensive law-enforcement training at its academy in Glynco, Georgia, Maher said. Then they move on to specializations specific to CBP, in which they learn everything from immigration and customs law to fast roping from a helicopter. Agents can learn specialized skills like shooting from a helicopter, something for which only a small number of agents ever train due to the complexity involved in successfully and safely shooting from a moving aircraft.
In the future, CBP would like to see increased diversity in its workforce, Wiyda said. To do so, the agency will continue to boast the values its agents perform in service to their country. RWI