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AMO is one of few organizations still seeking pilots – and it's even offering special salary rates

Posted 1 years 174 days ago ago by Admin

On any given day, an Air and Marine Operations pilot with U.S. Customs and Border Protection could be conducting surveillance for narcotics over the waters surrounding Puerto Rico, utilizing an AStar's advanced camera system to help the DEA safely serve a "buy bust" warrant in New Orleans, helping the Border Patrol in Laredo locate people trying to cross the U.S. border illegally, flying over New York City in support of NYPD operations, or patrolling a national security event such as a Super Bowl or U.N. General Assembly gathering.

"We want people that can come in and don't need to be told what to do – you see stuff that needs to be done and you go after it," related Jamie St. Dennis, an Air and Marine Operations (AMO) supervisory Air Interdiction Agent who has been helping with recruiting for about a year now. "And I love that part of the job. You have so much freedom and autonomy here."

In May of 2019, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection AMO received authorization for special salary rates to boost hiring that will accommodate an expanding mission, meet an executive order to hire an extra 500 air and marine agents, counteract increased airline competition for new pilots in recent years, and fill the openings left by an unusually high number of retirees who joined AMO around the time of 9/11 (as law enforcement agents, AMO agents can retire after 20 years). 

With the special salary rate, most new-hire assignments offer Air Interdiction Agent pilots starting salaries over $100,000, increasing to $120,000 the second year and $143,000 the third year. El Paso pays 10 percent less because it's easier to fill jobs there, St. Dennis explained. 

"It appears to be working quite well," St. Dennis said of the new salary rates. Coupled with increased online advertising, attendance at aviation industry events like Heli-Expo and the HeliSuccess Career Development Seminar, and in magazines such as Rotorcraft Pro, AMO is seeing a rise in pilot applications. And AMO is one of the few organizations hiring pilots right now; airlines have furloughed or offered early retirement to thousands due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I'm hearing from (applicants) that they're ready for a lifestyle change," St. Dennis added. "I tell applicants, 'This job is about more than just flying.'" Air Interdiction Agents (pilots) get involved in task forces, work closely with Border Patrol and other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, take on special duties such as firearms training, and serve as instructor pilots.

"There's so much variety other than just the flying portion, and I think that's a big sell," St. Dennis said. 

AMO pilot salaries are now highly competitive in the industry, St. Dennis said. He just met a 22-year-old CFI who was hired on as an Air Interdiction Agent (AIA) at over $100,000. "He got the opportunity of a lifetime," St. Dennis observed – but AMO gained something too. "He's going to bring us a lot of energy and enthusiasm."

With applicants on the rise, it's unclear how long the special salary rates will continue, St. Dennis said, so now is the time to apply.

St. Dennis joined AMO 12 years ago after serving in the military. He tried an EMS job first, but didn't feel like it offered the variety and mission-oriented work he was seeking. He enjoys going home every day, too.

"I'm dual rated, but I have no interest in being an airline pilot," St. Dennis added. "I like the autonomy and the amount of responsibility I’m provided."

St. Dennis has worked the gulf mission out of New Orleans, headquarters in D.C., and the National Air Training Center in Oklahoma City. He especially loves the dynamic challenge of training new pilots one on one, then seeing them again for annual refreshers.

AMO pilots get to train for a lot more than flying if they want, from tactical shooting to defensive and evasive driving, to leadership development  and interviewing and interrogation techniques. 

"Our collateral duties...are normally something you get to pick, and so it's something you're already passionate about," he explained. "They have given me every last thing I've ever asked for. If you can come up with a class and show how it links to your job, odds are it's going to be approved." Someone might choose to be a firearms instructor, oversee secure communications equipment, or be a heavily engaged training officer with demanding administrative duties.

AMO accommodates the "high flyers" who fly 400-500 hours annually, too. "If someone wants to do their entire career as a line pilot, that's perfectly acceptable and completely necessary," St. Dennis said.

AMO and CBP statistics

Air and Marine Operations within U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses air and marine assets to detect, interdict and prevent terrorism and unlawful movement of people, illegal drugs and other contraband toward or across U.S. borders. It is the world's largest civilian aviation and maritime law enforcement organization.

  • AMO budget: $1 billion (FY2020) 

  • AMO utilizes 953 federal agents, 1,655 total employees, 234 aircraft, 315 marine vessels and 9 Predator UAS operating from 74 locations.

  • AMO's diverse fleet of more than 100 helicopters include the EC120, AS350, UH-1, UH-60 and S-76.

  • AMO employs 610 air interdiction agents (pilots), 329 marine interdiction agents and 319 aviation enforcement agents (primary law enforcement agents on aircraft).

  • FY2019 recorded a large increase in CBP encounters with illegal entrants at 977,509 compared to 521,090 in FY2018.

  • COVID-19 impacts on AMO: Flight hours along the Southwest border have increased 15 percent to provide more social distancing between crew members. For example in McAllen, Texas, AMO has added two shifts for an extra 40 hours of weekly flying. Encounters with illegal entrants have dropped, so pilots can focus more on the narcotics trade. Meetings and briefings are often virtual.

Common applicant questions

One of the first questions AIA applicants ask is about pay and benefits, St. Dennis said. Besides the highly competitive pay with the special salary rates, agents start out with a minimum of 104 hours of annual sick leave, 104 hours of annual leave, a five percent match on their Thrift Savings Plan (similar to a 401K), and health insurance. A solid retirement plan is also an attractive benefit for AMO agents as well. There are 3 components to the plan which includes the law enforcement retirement plan, the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), along with the Federal Employees Retirement System annuity supplement (FERS). With the 20-year law enforcement retirement plan, a retiring AIA pilot who has reached the $170,000 top salary level, can earn a pension of $58,000 plus TSP and FERS annually for life.

Applicants' next question often relates to equipment, St. Dennis said. Helicopter pilots fly mainly the light-utility AS350s. "The AStar is a fantastic helicopter, and it works quite well for our mission," St. Dennis said. AMO also has a small fleet of UH-60s for heavy-lift missions. Fixed-wing pilots commonly fly the single-engine Cessna 206 or Pilatus PC-12 while maritime missions utilize the twin-turboprop King Air 350s or DHC-8. For the UAS ISR work out of Grand Forks, ND, Sierra Vista, Ariz., and San Angelo, Texas, AMO uses the MQ-9 Predator.

Common applicant misconceptions

One misconception that St. Dennis hears from applicants is that the hiring process takes forever. Thanks to the relatively new Applicant Care Team, "There's always going to be somebody out there to help you," St. Dennis assured. AMO also has a Fast-Track Program for applicants who meet certain criteria such as no previous drug use, no felonies, and no travel outside of the U.S. (which saves time on background investigations).

"Sometimes (applicants) think they'll be stuck in one location or forced to move to a location," St. Dennis added, and that's another misconception. Newly hired dual-rated and helicopter pilots start in Yuma, Ariz., or in Texas at El Paso or Laredo. Those with only fixed-wing experience generally start out in the UAS program in Sierra Vista or San Angelo.

After just 90 days on the job, pilots can use internal announcements to apply to another branch. Areas with the most pilots include Miami and San Diego. Smaller units along the northern border include Spokane, Wash., Great Falls, Mont., Buffalo, N.Y., and Old Town, Maine. Probably the most-requested location is Puerto Rico, especially since it offers a 25-percent bonus. The greatest area of need is the Southwest border, where AMO conducts about half of its 95,000 annual flight hours, St. Dennis said. Temporary duty travel is common to locations from St. Croix to interior metropolitan cities.. Pilots often stay at their first branch three to five years, he said.

The work schedule varies greatly depending on the location. Some branches such as Tucson run 24/7, while other smaller branches operate eight hours a day for five days, depending on the need. Agents at smaller remote units, such as Alpine, Texas with 10 pilots, naturally tend to experience a tighter-knit community, St. Dennis added.

What AMO is seeking

Right now AMO is seeking dual-rated pilots the most, and secondly helicopter pilots, St. Dennis said. Both will likely start out flying helicopters. "That's where the demand is for us right now," he said.

Basic minimum requirements are: 


  • 1500 total flight hours
  • 250 PIC flight hours
  • 75 night flight hours
  • 75 instrument flight hours
  • Military checkride or BFR (biennial flight review) within last two years
  • FAA Class I Medical at time of the flight assessment

Applicants with top secret TS/SCI clearance may be able to waive  the polygraph examination, too.

"The beauty of our process is that you're really only competing against yourself," St. Dennis related. "If you meet the minimum requirements and you get the interview, it's just up to you to pass it."



Pilot training

New hires head to the Air and Marine Operations Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., for five months of training. That includes four months at the academy and one month of Spanish language training, unless they're already fluent and can test out.

The academy focuses on a variety of law enforcement training including defensive tactics, examining forged documents, identifying narcotics, role playing, how to properly board aircraft and vessels, how to conduct surveillance, and training on weapons from guns to batons.

Then it's back to the branch for two-four weeks until the new hire's initial flight course at the National Air Training Center in Oklahoma City, or one of the FlightSafety International training centers in West Palm Beach or Atlanta. That initial training might be in a UAS, followed by at least one year of focus on UAS work, but pilots can get back in the cockpit by the second year, St. Dennis said. Some pilots have an aversion to UAS or fear their flying skills could get rusty, but there should be no such fears in the AMO, he said. 

"You're getting paid to learn something new, and really it's a cool skill to have," St. Dennis said. "I try to tell all applicants, 'Hey, embrace it. Enjoy learning something new and then move on.'"

How to apply

There are three main ways to apply for an AMO pilot job:


  • If you're already enrolled in airlineapps.com, you can send an application with the click of a mouse.
  • Go to the usajobs.gov website, search for Air Interdiction Agent jobs and apply there.
  • Work with any AMO recruiter. Send them your resume and they'll give you an application and help you through the process.

"We have tried to make it so easy to apply," St. Dennis said. If this article has peaked your interest and you want to talk to someone about applying or ask questions, send an email to AMO recruiters at [email protected]

"What we're looking for is enthusiasm, energy, drive, happiness, initiative, and self-starters," St. Dennis summarized.