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Air Power for Drug War : Eye in the Sky, Customs Hunts for Smugglers

February 05, 1989|LARRY MARGASAK | Associated Press

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — Flying wingtip-to-wingtip with suspected smugglers or buzzing a boat to get a better look, the air crews of the U.S. Customs Service are on the front line in the war on drugs.

Equipped with high-tech radar that can spot a plane 200 miles away, they roam the skies at 20,000 feet or skim the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

They know the thrill of an airborne chase.

"It seems like what we're doing is an act of war," says radar detection specialist Steve MacDonald as he scans the skies on his radar screen.

Using five four-engine P3 Orions the size of airliners and two smaller twin-engine E2C Hawkeyes, the Customs Service runs its surveillance detection operations here at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station on the Gulf of Mexico.

These crews have a tough job. They are responsible for patrolling the vast Gulf and the U.S.-Mexican border from Texas to California. Their equipment often fails. They get little help from countries south of the border.

Radar Balloons

The system of tethered radar balloons that will someday relieve much of their border coverage is behind schedule--only four of a planned 17 are operating.

But they are excited about their new $20-million P3 outfitted by its builder, Lockheed, with an airborne early warning (AEW) radar dome on top--similar to that of an Air Force Airborne Warning and Control plane (AWACS).

On this plane, radar operators sit at two computer keyboards, where they can track planes 200 miles away, assign color codes to friendly and suspect aircraft and direct Customs planes on a chase. A second dome plane is due in April and Customs hopes for a total of four.

Stanley Adams, a Customs pilot and surveillance branch supervisor, likened current detection coverage to hiding a pea in a shell game. "You keep moving the coverage around" hoping to hit the right place on the right night.

This is not first-class flying. This is flying with erratic temperature controls that can leave you sweating, or can keep a soda ice cold without a refrigerator.

This is flying on a roller coaster, because during a chase, the pilots have little time to find "windows" through rough weather.

This is flying in the three-seat radar compartment of an E2C, which is so narrow that a quarter turn of a chair is all the room you have. It is so noisy on the plane built for aircraft carriers that special earplugs are required.

Compared to the Hawkeye, the P3 is a luxury, with a refrigerator and a microwave oven.

On a recent winter's night, the P3 is patrolling over the Gulf of Mexico when a call from a Customs intelligence agent in Houston sends the crew on a 200-mile chase.

The pilots gun the four prop-jet engines and the airspeed indicator jumps from 240 knots to 360 knots.

As the plane bumps through the clouds, two radar operators search for their target on their screens.

"Did they say his lights were off?" one crew member asks another on the radio.

"No self-respecting smuggler would keep his lights on," one of the pilots responds.

The thrill of the chase, as happens too often, evaporates when the P3 arrives in the target area. The suspect cannot be found, perhaps because he had already landed at a remote airstrip.

Strike Pay Dirt

Sometimes, though, the Customs fliers strike pay dirt.

"A couple of weeks ago we chased a plane that landed on Cat Island in the Bahamas," says radar operator Buck Benham. "The drug plane had dumped its load at the airport. We saw cars headed for the airport to pick up the drugs. We sent in a helicopter. They rounded up the plane and pilot. We kept circling 150 feet off the ground trying to identify the vehicles, and the smugglers were running every which way."

When looking for boats, Customs planes fly right over the top of vessels and then circle them to get an identification.

"I wonder what they think down there," says one crew member as the four-engine plane buzzes a fishing boat.

As the plane skims the Gulf waters, the pilots have on their laps a list of suspicious boats provided by Customs' intelligence officers.

A fishing boat is spotted heading for the Alacran Reef about 80 miles from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The reef has a sheltered lagoon and sheds, where Customs believes drugs are stored.

The plane circles several times, and bingo--one of the boats on the intelligence list is spotted. The Coast Guard is notified and will send a cutter to see whether there are drugs aboard.

Customs' chances of spotting suspicious planes increase dramatically when the P3 radar dome plane is flying.

Radar operator Edward Smith locks onto a target by simply touching the monitor. He sees the target's position, course, speed and altitude.

Green for Friendly, Yellow for Unknown

As planes appear on the screen as little squares, Smith color-codes his displays: green for friendly planes, yellow for unknown aircraft and red for hostile.

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