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BATTLE ON THE BORDER - U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s McAllen Air and Marine Branch

Posted 7 years 255 days ago ago by Admin


For several decades now, illegal immigration and security along the Mexican border has been a political hot potato for citizens and legislators alike. Politicians have thrown it back and forth, hoping the potato would cool. Well, thanks to a certain 2016 U.S. presidential candidate turning up the heat, it seems the illegal immigration issue is hotter than ever. The fall of 2015 found Donald J. Trump making statements like, “Not only will we (the U.S.) build a wall on the Mexican border, but Mexico will pay for it.” That, and many other soundbites, turned a political potato into a political fireball, and the issue is once again on the American public’s front burner.

Rotorcraft Pro is not a political platform, but the heat generated by the immigration controversy did spark a desire to learn more about how helicopters are used in protecting the southern border. So our team headed to the Texas/Mexico line and embedded with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s McAllen Air and Marine Branch to learn how aviation and marine assets are intercepting, apprehending, and disrupting threats.

Serving Since 1789


The origins of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency can be traced all the way back to 1789 when it was known as the U.S. Customs Service. Over the next couple of centuries it has filled a variety of roles within the federal government and provided such services as immigration inspection, agricultural inspection, facilitation of international travel, and border patrol.

The terror attack on September 11, 2001, would change everything, including the CBP. Following that terrible event, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was created, and several federal government law enforcement agencies, including CBP, were swallowed up by the new department.

The Mission

With more than 60,000 employees, CBP is one of the world's largest law enforcement agencies and is charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade. According to the agency, their mission is “to safeguard America's borders, thereby protecting the public from dangerous people and materials while enhancing the nation's global economic competitiveness by enabling legitimate trade and travel.”

The McAllen Air and Marine Branch is within the CBP’s Office of Air and Marine (OAM). This branch uses a variety of assets to protect over 300 miles of Texas border that runs along the Rio Grande river, spanning from Brownsville west to Falcon Lake. The geography is challenging along this stretch of water. Since illegals must swim across the river, marine assets are required and work in concert with ground and aviation units. The McAllen branch operates a mixed fleet of 10 interceptor-class boats that range from 33 feet to 38 feet long and reach speeds up to 60 miles per hour. These vessels are crewed by a team of 38 mariners.

People and Air Fleet

McAllen has a very diverse fleet of manned aviation assets at their command to execute their main day-to-day mission of interdiction. A fleet of ten Airbus AS350s do the majority of work from the air, with additional aid coming from three Bell UH-1Ns and two Cessna 206s.

Each aircraft is staffed with a two-person crew that includes a pilot aviation interdiction agent (AIA), and a non-pilot aviation enforcement agent (AEA) who operates the onboard tactical equipment. It takes a total of 30 AIA pilots and 24 AEA non-pilots to staff these aircraft 24/7/365. Night operations are common, so a variety of tools are employed, including night vision goggles and electro-optical infrared (EOIR) camera equipment.

The McAllen branch averages over 100 requests per day for its services. These requests come from both within the CBP, as well as from other local and regional law enforcement agencies. The most common missions performed by the AS350s are interdiction and support of ground and marine units. Attempting to apprehend illegals crossing the border becomes a very tedious “in the weeds” process. People and drugs are always trying to stay hidden from view and much of the river banks are covered with very tall foliage. Helicopters are often the only way to direct ground teams into the denseness to apprehend people or contraband.

The UH-1Ns, which are twin-engine Hueys, can be used for interdiction and support as well, but their main purpose is to go further offshore across larger bodies of water. The aircraft has also become very useful for search and rescue missions, as they are regularly called to locate people who are lost and dying in the desert.

On the maintenance front, aircraft at the McAllen branch are maintained by a team of approximately 40 personnel provided by PAE, a third-party contractor. PAE ensures the readiness of the U.S. government to implement homeland security, defense, and civil government missions. They also support U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and civilian customers as well.

OAM is Hiring Pilots

The Office of Air and Marine is short on pilots. For example, the McAllen branch only has 22 of 30 pilots needed to run operations permanently filled. The remaining eight pilots are borrowed from other locations. Minimum hiring requirements are 1,500 hours flight time, commercial/instrument certification in both rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft, and first-class medical exam certification.

Of the office’s current pilots, 95 percent traditionally come from the ranks of the military. Given that the U.S. Kiowa helicopter program is winding down, one might assume there would be no shortage of pilots applying for positions. Still, according to William Durham, the director of air operations for the McAllen branch, the selection process itself keeps the pool of pilots shallow. “Candidates are put through the gauntlet and the process of getting hired is not an easy one,” Durham says. “Some of the biggest hurdles are the polygraph and psychological exams. It’s an even higher standard than is required by the military.”

Somewhat surprisingly, pilot training is not a large part of the job. Of course, there is training for the newly hired and annual recurrent aircraft training, but that’s about it. Rather than training or sitting around waiting to respond to a call, crews are up in the air doing their job every single day of the year. Durham says, “Once initially trained, we are similar to the military in combat theater.”

Unmanned Eyes in the Sky


OAM  is also responsible for CBP’s unmanned aerial systems. It operates a dozen MQ-9 Predators from four different U.S. locations. With a service ceiling of 50,000 feet, 20-hour endurance, and a top speed of 240 knots, these aircraft can provide persistent surveillance over large swaths of land. They can also be piloted remotely via satellite from many mobile ground control stations (GCS) located around the country.

Additionally, a small fleet of eight Aerostat surveillance balloons are strategically placed along the U.S. border and are controlled by the Border Patrol. The Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) is equipped with high-resolution OEIR cameras and uses helium for deployment to heights as high as 10,000 feet to 12,000 feet.

The high altitude deployment allows long-range radars to overcome line-of-sight constraints caused by the curvature of the earth and other terrain limitations. TARS is used by CBP’s Air and Marine Operations Center located at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California, to provide border monitoring and enforcement of low-level aircraft and small vessels approaching the border.

On the subject of advancing unmanned technology in the CBP mission, Durham says, “It’s inevitable that new technology like UAVs will become more prevalent in some parts of our mission, but I don’t believe it will eliminate the need for manned aviation assets. Personnel on location affords a higher level of situational awareness and decision-making during time-sensitive critical missions.”

Flying Double Time

For the last two years the McAllen branch has averaged nearly 9,000 flight hours per year, yet just three years ago they were averaging half that. So what happened?

An immigration crisis of epic proportions began in 2013 when a surge of unaccompanied children from Central America sought entrance to the U.S. This influx reached crisis proportions in 2014 when tens of thousands of women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras migrated to the U.S.

Most women and children from Central America simply crossed the Rio Grande and turned themselves into the Border Patrol, relying on the partly well-founded belief that U.S. immigration and refugee law made special provisions for children.

The causes of this crisis are still hotly debated. Many conservatives believe it was sparked by President Obama’s 2012 decision not to deport young adults brought to the country illegally as children. The leniency extended to these “DREAMers” (so named from the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) led to more families hoping for similar treatment. In contrast, those with more liberal views say that Central American families were misled by rumors — often spread by profit-seeking “coyotaje” smugglers — that their children would readily be reunited with relatives already in the U.S. No matter the reasons, the result is that McAllen’s sector became ground zero for the crisis and remains a hotspot to this day. Approximately 200,000 people will attempt to illegally cross the border this year alone.

CBP uses many metrics to measure effectiveness, including apprehensions, convictions, and drugs captured. However, OAM prefers not to focus on those metrics as a benchmark because many of them are totally out of their control. Sure, there are tens of thousands of apprehensions of people and captures of narcotics and marijuana, but there’s no way to account, for example, when a group of illegals attempting to cross the border turns back after being deterred. In that case, there were no apprehensions or drugs captured, but the mission was accomplished.

Because air and marine assets go wherever and whenever they are needed, the yardstick used to determine their demand and usage is hours logged each year, and there is certainly a linear correlation between an increase in flight- or boat-hours and an increase in apprehensions and drug seizures. Durham points out that in the case of the McAllen Branch, for every additional flight-hour there is a correlated increase in apprehensions and drugs seized. In other words, the more McAllen flies, the more impact the branch has.

Squeezing the Balloon

Relatively speaking, OAM is a small organization. At 1,800 people, that’s a mere fraction of CBP’s on-the-ground assets. However, to quote Liam Neeson from the movie Taken, what OAM does have is “a very particular set of skills” critical to the success of CBP’s overall mission.

That being said, there are challenges. CBP works extremely hard year-round to secure the border. Yet, Durham says, “There are only so many assets along the border. We operate on the ‘squeeze the balloon’ theory of law enforcement. When you squeeze a balloon, a new bubble pops up somewhere else.” In essence, aviation and marine assets are allocated where there is the most illegal activity and demand from Border Patrol and law enforcement agencies. No matter how hard they squeeze the balloon in those areas, bubbles will continue to pop up in other locations.

It’s a never ending moving target, and rotorcraft crews continue to play an essential role in deterrence, apprehension, and providing humane assistance.

Personal Reflections

Over the two days our Rotorcraft Pro team embedded with the McAllen Air and Marine Branch, there was very little time to do the normal staging of photo shoots. Instead it was nonstop, relentless, actual mission requests. In that short period we witnessed hundreds of people attempting to cross into the U.S., many apprehensions, and large quantities of drugs captured. This all occurring in one very small sector of the border.

Our team walked away with the sense that the problem, in reality, is even worse than what you see on the news. It’s a battleground on the border. It’s total chaos.

Personally, I find myself with mixed emotions; I am intolerant and sympathetic at the same time. I have no tolerance for the coyotajes who coerce, smuggle, and abuse people seeking a better life. Nor do I have sympathy for those caught pushing illegal drugs across the border. Yet, having traveled extensively in Mexico, Central America, and South America, I sympathize with honest, hard-working families desperately seeking a better life.

Above all, I am grateful to have been born in such an amazing country as the USA, and I am thankful to the men and women along the border who put themselves in harm’s way every single day to secure it.


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