Chasing drug-laden 'bogeys' across the skies

Operating from a building in Corpus Christi, Texas, US Customs and Border Protection flies surveillance planes 24-7. CNET Road Trip 2014 got a ride to see how they catch the bad guys.

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A US Customs and Border Protection P-3 Orion Long-Range Tracker, known as a "Slick," banks hard right after conducting a midair smuggler-tracking exercise over the Gulf of Mexico. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Imagine you're a smuggler, running coke north into South Texas over the Gulf of Mexico in a small Cessna. The sky is empty of law enforcement as far as you can tell. Think again. Right behind you, out of your sight, a US Customs and Border Protection P-3 Orion has you cold.

Blind to the threat to your freedom, you'll likely keep on flying, heading to your destination. As you near the border, the CBP plane peels off, but you're still on the agency's radar. Literally. And when you land, and your compadres meet you and take you and your cargo to their hiding place, you've fallen right into the feds' trap.

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to visit the CBP's National Air Security Operations Center in this southern Texas, bay-front university town of about 300,000 just west of the Gulf of Mexico. From here, in a fenced-off white building located at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, the federal agency works 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, coordinating antismuggling operations that scour the skies and seas for bad guys. In fiscal 2013, Customs and Border Protection's fleet of 14 P-3s helped nabbed $4.6 billion worth of contraband -- mostly 95 percent pure cocaine, the agency says.

One of the keys to the agency's work is being able to discreetly inspect small planes and boats trying to get their wares north from Mexico and countries throughout Central and South America, such as Panama and Costa Rica. Often, that means identifying a vessel that's behaving out of the ordinary, and then getting close enough -- in the air -- to read the tail number.

I've been invited aboard a P-3 Orion to observe a training exercise high above the Gulf of Mexico. Over the course of a couple of hours, agents on my plane will oversee the crew of a CBP P-3 Long-Range Tracker repeatedly locating and sneaking up on a Cessna that's playing the role of drug smuggler.

And just to prove the point, when they're done with that, they've been told to sneak up on us. Unlike the average Cessna, we're equipped with world-class radar that lets us see the plane as it moves into position behind us. But very much like the average Cessna, when it gets there, settling in a little below and behind us, the P-3 LRT is impossible to actually lay eyes on. Until it pulls alongside us, that is, sits there for a minute or two so I can photograph it, and then banks hard and disappears into the clouds.

Radars galore

Though the most visible CBP tools here are its P-3s, the agency also conducts surveillance operations from Corpus Christi with Predator and Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles. And it has several similar operations centers and other aircraft in different parts of the US. But today is about the Corpus Christi P-3s.

The surveillance packages installed on the two planes -- the Orion, sporting a huge dome on top and known as a Dome, and the unadorned LRT, known as a Slick -- are like Radar 101. Here on my plane, three agents, including Senior Detection Enforcement Officer Tom Mason, are manning an APS-145 radar. This is the same early warning system the US military puts on aircraft carrier-based E2-C Hawkeyes. With a million-watt capacity, the APS-145 is a UHF system that can see 250 miles.

This is ideal for managing the skies. Indeed, in addition to conducting regular surveillance and interdiction operations, the P-3 Orions have been used in major national emergencies. Mason recalled flying for days above New Orleans in 2005, helping to coordinate helicopter rescues of trapped Hurricane Katrina victims, as well as conducting airborne air-traffic control over the Gulf after the BP oil spill catastrophe in 2010. But it's drug interdiction that pays the bills.

'If you're ready to play'

For today's exercise, the P-3 LRT is known as "3-1," which is how it appears on radar. The Cessna is known as the "bogey." The director of radar intercept, sitting in the flight deck of Dome, kicked off the exercise by saying over the radio, "If you're ready to play, head [heading] zero-five-zero. Your bogey" is there.

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More adventures from Road Trip 2014

Check out the latest from Daniel's trip to the best tech spots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and more.

    Three-one's goal is to surreptitiously come around the bogey's tail, "trying to follow him wherever he's going," Mason explains, "or see whatever he's doing." If he gets spooked, he may turn around or dump his cargo. That may seem like a net positive in the never-ending US drug war, but CBP is less interested in keeping any particular load of drugs out than it is in following couriers to their higher-ups. Scare off a Cessna, and they lose that chance.

    Deciding which planes to track in a sky full of legitimate aircraft is a bit of an art. A lot of it, Mason explains, has to do with spotting planes that just aren't behaving right. "It's mainly a guy off the air routes, especially over the Caribbean," Mason said. "If he's fitting a certain [suspicious] profile, you're going to investigate him."

    The same goes for boats. While the US Coast Guard has plenty of vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, smugglers can often outrun them with speedboats known as "Go-Fasts" and even custom semisubmersibles that slink along mostly below the surface. "It's pretty ballsy of these guys," Mason said. "They're on [semisubmersibles] for 10 days or two weeks in a little tube."

    While these smugglers' boats can be quite visible to the SeaVue radar mounted below an LRT, a surface-search system that can identify a garbage can floating in water at 50 miles, the CBP planes can't spot everything, not in a search area half the size of the continental United States. "It's kind of like the highway patrolman," Mason said. "He's going to catch some, but not everybody. But he'll stop some people from speeding."

    'We're unemployable'

    Mason and his fellow agents manning the radar aboard the Dome are not on their first careers. The 59-year-old Mason spent eight years in the Navy, and 12 more in the Naval Reserve. Being in the military seems like it must have been more stressful.

    These days, no one's lives are at stake, and the stories he goes home with are exciting to tell. His favorite involved tailing a clueless plane from the Guajira Peninsula in northern South America all the way to Canada's Hudson Bay. CBP worked with Canadian authorities, Mason recalled, and "they found a nice little [drug] camp up there."

    Sitting at his workstation aboard the P-3 Orion, clad like his colleagues in a tan CBP flight suit adorned with agency patches, it's clear Mason enjoys his work chasing bad guys all day, either taking off from just outside his office in the CBP building in Corpus Christi, or on eight-day missions to Panama or Costa Rica. "It's kind of neat to go out and chase guys," Mason said. "We laugh about it, that we're unemployable. We have so much fun that we can't get a job anywhere else."

    Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.

     

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