Jim Hasburgh’s extensive helicopter pilot training at the U.S. Air and Marine Operations’ National Air Training Center coalesced on one cold and rainy winter day near McAllen, Texas five years ago.
AMO’s sister agency, the U.S. Border Patrol, had worked all night in the rain to apprehend a group of undocumented immigrants but couldn’t locate an 8-year-old Central American girl. A helicopter crew consisting of Hasburgh, Border Patrol agent Aron Quintanilla, and an EMT was assigned to look for her.
The crewmembers searched and searched but even with the help of a FLIR thermal camera, they couldn’t locate the child. With visibility conditions nearing AMO minimum requirements, the crew made the call to halt the mission. Then just as Hasburgh banked to the left, Quintanilla spotted the shaking little girl, all covered with mud and soaking wet.
“I remember the girl hugging us both,” Quintanilla recalled. “I just told her, ‘There’s an angel looking after you.’ Even now I get chills thinking about it. I have a lot of experience doing this, and our chances of finding her were maybe five percent…It was a miracle.”
Quintanilla said he uses this example frequently when he’s training agents to use FLIR sensors, urging them to plan out missions and never give up.
“If we did not complete the mission, she would have died,” Hasburgh said. “And I think about this a lot: if I would have turned right instead of left, we would have never seen her.”
After four years as an AMO air interdiction agent based in Del Rio, Texas, Hasburgh became a National Air Training Center (NATC) helicopter instructor in 2015.
Quintanilla is now an AMO pilot who returns to NATC annually for recurrent pilot training – and reminisces with Hasburgh about that memorable rescue.
AMO is the largest civilian aviation and marine law enforcement organization in the world. It’s the air and marine arm of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) under Homeland Security. The latest CBP annual report from 2016 lists 613 helicopter and fixed-wing AMO pilots, 238 aircraft, 97,183 flight hours and a $910 million AMO budget. So it’s no surprise that AMO pilots need their own training center, especially since all of them undergo refresher training every year as well as special survival training every five years. NATC also tests pilot applicants and trains new pilots, so the eight rotary and two fixed-wing instructors keep plenty busy.
The rotorcraft instructors at the NATC in Oklahoma City use the Airbus AStar and EC-120, the most commonly flown rotorcraft in the field, while the two fixed-wing instructors use the Cessna 206 series. AMO pilots also fly the Bell UH-1H, Bell UH-1N, Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, and Sikorsky S-76.
One of AMO’s major missions is to support other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in the air, so the NATC training encompasses a huge range of skills.
“There’s not another agency in the U.S. where you can do more varied missions,” Hasburgh said. For example, he flew over a wildfire at night so a local fire chief could utilize NVG to search for spot fires, helped find and capture drug smugglers, picked up EPA personnel to survey a train derailment that spilled chemicals, and aided in a search for campers washed downstream by flooding. AMO pilots also assist with arrest warrants, disaster rescues and flight restriction enforcement at events such as the Super Bowl. They even hunt for fugitives such as Richard Matt and David Sweat, who escaped from an Upstate New York prison in 2015. “We’re a big-time support agency,” Hasburgh said, frequently aiding small local agencies that can’t afford aircraft.
His mission at NATC is to help other pilots stay safe by knowing how to deal with all kinds of situations, right down to the worst of emergencies. While AMO pilots also train at home branches, NATC focuses on emergency situational training such as full touchdown autorotations, in which increasing the collective pitch at the right second can make the difference between a safe or crash landing.
“I’d be lying if I said it’s not a stressful thing to do,” Hasburgh related. “I have to let them make mistakes, so they can learn. The trick is how far we let their mistakes go.”
Other maneuvers include landing with malfunctioning tail rotors or governors, landing on top of pinnacles, and using NVG to land in confined areas such as river sandbars, where the sand blows up and reflects the light. “We’re doing touchdown autorotations, run-on landings, stuck pedals and hovering autorotations, so we’re quite hard on the aircraft,” Hasburgh said. It’s no surprise that NATC maintenance workers keep busy, too.
The 10-year-old NATC facility at Will Rogers Airport includes two buildings: one with classrooms, conference rooms, planning rooms, and administrative offices that’s nicknamed “The Castle” for its two turret-like structures; and a 67,500 square-foot hangar housing nine aircraft, maintenance facilities, a multimedia training center and briefing rooms.
NATC conducts checkrides and interviews for AMO applicants, then three-week training for new hires. Annual recurrent three-day helicopter pilot training at NATC includes review and practice of emergency procedures and system limitations. UAS pilots are included in annual training because they must stay current in manned aircraft.
Then every five years, AMO pilots return for Survival Tactics Aircrew Refresher (STAR) training on desert and wilderness survival, first aid, police tactics, pilot certificate inspections, and crash scenarios, including underwater egress at the FAA pool in Oklahoma City. A cage designed like a cockpit is dropped into the water with the pilot strapped in, then it flips just like an actual top-heavy helicopter. Pilots must clear and use their air bottles before unstrapping and swimming to the surface.
Emphasizing AMO’s law enforcement support role, STAR training even includes mass shooting tactics so agents can help local communities in times of dire need.
Unlike the Black Hawk, the AStar generally isn’t fast enough to catch other aircraft, Hasburgh said. So NATC helicopter training doesn’t include training to intercept aircraft, although it does include training on how to position the helicopter to land in a way that gives agents a “position of tactical advantage” if they need to jump out to apprehend other pilots after they land. Lawyers at the CBP academy teach the legality of when AMO agents can demand to see a pilot’s certification papers and conduct inspections.
New AMO pilots come from both the military and civilian worlds, so their training needs are individualized. For example, ex-military pilots are highly skilled in using NVG, while civilian pilots often are novices; civilians generally are more experienced than military pilots in smaller single-engine rotorcraft without copilots.
AMO’s “application assessment brochure” includes a chart showing “tasks failed” to help pilot applicants understand key training areas that lead to AMO jobs. The two highest failure rates occur in the “non-precision approach” (simulated flights in fog wearing “foggles”) and landing in confined areas, both especially tricky in the AStar that has no stability augmentation system. If someone is struggling with a particular concept, the instructors often will switch students since each instructor has their own style. Egos are not part of the ultimate goal to keep everyone safe. “I ask myself, would I let this person give my wife a helicopter flight?” Hasburgh related. If the answer is yes, he’s done his job.
While U.S. Customs has been using aircraft for surveillance and enforcement since 1922, the AMO didn’t exist until 2007 when a reorganization created three agencies under Customs and Border Protection: Air and Marine Operations, Border Patrol, and the Office of Field Operations.
“For a long time, people didn’t really know who we were or what we did, but that’s changing,” Hasburgh said, thanks to increased outreach programs, recruitment efforts and widespread publicity about AMO’s rescue operations during last year’s record-breaking hurricanes across the U.S. “It’s that training you do all the time that you hope you never have to do in real life, but you’re ready to act if something happens,” Hasburgh said.
With a critical worldwide shortage of pilots, AMO is conducting recruiting efforts for the first time in years. A growing number of AMO pilots hired during the boom after 9/11 are now close to retirement age, Hasburgh noted. “The aviation industry is seeing a boom right now like it’s never seen before,” he observed. And experts forecast it’s going to get worse, to the point that airlines might have to cancel flights. The NATC recently advertised for six non-agent instructors, more than ever before. AMO agents must first fly at an operational unit, then instruct at local AMO branches before applying to teach at the NATC.
Alongside the excitement and varied missions, there is another huge reason why pilots join AMO, Hasburgh said. “The continued service to our country is often the reason people join our agency,” he said. Others have a desire to serve for the first time. Hasburgh wanted to serve as a pilot in the military, but at that time the military wouldn’t accept pilot applicants who needed glasses or had laser eye surgery, so he became an Army tank mechanic. Hasburgh used the GI Bill and loans to attend flight school, then flew for the oil and gas industry a couple years before joining AMO.
Quintanilla has a similar story; he wanted to fly in the Army but circumstances didn’t line up, so he served 4 years in the infantry and spent 15 months in Iraq from 2004-2005. A native of McAllen, he then worked at its police department while pursuing a Border Patrol job. He joined the Border Patrol in 2007, got onto an aircrew in 2010, then moved to AMO in 2014. Using the GI Bill and loans, he attended flight school on weekends, accumulated the necessary 1,500 flight hours and landed an AMO pilot job in 2016 right where he grew up.
“It’s a very satisfying job going out there and catching bad guys and rescuing people,” Quintanilla said. “It’s a very dynamic job.”
Other AMO pilots did everything they could to encourage Quintanilla because his drive, desire and skills were clear, Hasburgh said. “He’s one of the great ones,” Hasburgh added.
Sometimes Hasburgh ponders where he’d be today if he was an Army pilot first. “My life might be a whole lot different, but I wouldn’t change it for anything,” he said. “I’ve never worked with a better group of people than the ones at NATC, and this isn’t me just blowing smoke.”
Now Hasburgh is learning something new, training on fixed-wing aircraft with AMO. “In a lot of places, you don’t have that opportunity” with only 200 hours of fixed-wing flight experience, he noted. And he doesn’t have to pay thousands for the training. “The helicopter is a blast. It’s my first love, for sure,” he said. “But now I’m ready for a new challenge.”