SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — From the air, CBP pilot Mark M. has a bird’s eye view of smuggling activities along the ocean and California’s border with Mexico.
- Read the full series: CBP’s Air and Marine Branch busier than ever | How CBP boats work to catch human, drug smugglers off California coast | Patrolling the border and coastline from the air is no easy job, CBP pilot says | Stopping maritime smuggling often starts 10,000 feet above the water | ‘Desperate’ migrants risk life and limb climbing into small boats for journey to U.S.
For security reasons, Border Report can’t reveal his last name.
But he’s been flying for U.S. Customs and Border Protection for many years in support of the agency’s Air and Marine Branch in San Diego.
On this day he is flying an A-Star 350 helicopter providing cover for agents on the ground patrolling the Otay Mountains southeast of San Diego.
Mark has three primary missions: provide support for agents on the ground; conduct surveillance operations from high above; and rescue and provide medical attention to migrants in distress.
“A typical border enforcement mission for an A-star helicopter is flying relatively low to the ground in
the mountainous region,” said Brandon Tucker, Deputy Director for Air and Marine Operations in San Diego. “San Diego is unique in that we got the urban environment where we have the border wall in place in San Diego as well as Otay Mountains into the desert toward El Centro, so we got a pretty diverse border enforcement here in San Diego.”
Tucker said they have several A-Star helicopters at their disposal as well as two Blackhawk helicopters that provide wider capabilities.
“We’re able to airlift Border Patrol BORSTAR agents so they can provide medical services for migrants in distress, we can also provide fast-roping for BORSTAR teams to insert them into rugged locations where vehicles can’t get in. We also have a hoist capability so we can actually perform rescues with distressed migrants that are in bad shape and we need to get them to medical care providers quickly,” Tucker said.
A big focus lately for Tucker, Mark the pilot and others within Air and Marine ops is the increase in maritime smuggling events, in which boats carrying both drugs and/or humans enter the U.S. via the Pacific Ocean.
They are being called out to provide cover for agents who are intercepting smugglers on the water. From the air, they can also give chase to vessels being used by smugglers until agents arrive at scene.
If need be, they can help with rescue operations should migrants go in the water like in May when three people died after the cabin cruiser they were in hit some rocks along the San Diego shoreline.
The boat broke apart sending all of its passengers into the water.
Three migrants died while more than two dozen others were hospitalized.
While flying on a mission with pilot Mark, Border Report witnessed how he hovered over agents and fire personnel who responded to help a migrant who had fallen from the border barrier.
Mark did say there have been times when he has landed his helo to rescue migrants who were in need of water or medical care, people who got in trouble as they entered the country through rugged mountain terrain or the desert.
Air and Marine crew members like Ned Leonard say it’s all part of the job, which has many responsibilities.
“You feel like you’re doing something for your country and maybe save some people, too, from the hazards of the smuggling business. So it’s very satisfying. … Maybe keep some drugs off the streets, out of the schools, I think that’s what motivates everybody here,” Leonard said.
Near the end of his flight, Mark turned his helicopter toward the ocean to take a look out over the water.
He didn’t spot any smuggling activities, but he did see a pod of dolphins playing in the surf off the Imperial Beach, Calif.
“Once in a while you get a treat like this,” he said.